Piloting a successful fantasy basketball team often begins with the simplest of exercises: reading the roster and scoring settings. This rings especially true in points leagues that convert on-court production into a simplified single number, since value is predicated by how the scoring logarithm is weighted.
In an ESPN standard points league, as you can see below, statistical contributions are afforded a single point, while turnovers and shot attempts, whether from the field or the stripe, deduct a single point from a player's total.
Part of the appeal of a points league is how concise the competition portion becomes, since the team with more points each week wins the matchup.
ESPN standard scoring for points leagues:
Point scored = +1
Field goal attempt = -1
Field goal made = +1
Free throw attempt = -1
Free throw made = +1
Rebound = +1
Assist = +1
Steal = +1
Block = +1
Turnover = -1
This scoring key is agnostic to categorical scarcity in that a block is no more valuable than a made free throw. This proves much different than a rotisserie league which demands statistical balance in order to contend across eight or nine categories. When pricing out the player pool in a roto or head-to-head categories format, you should care about who can help your roster with 3-point production or which defensive specialists can carry you in blocks or steals, and so on. A player with a dynamic and diverse skill set, especially with rare defensive potential, can prove immensely valuable in such leagues.
I've tried to outsmart this points-scoring format before and have been humbled. It's wise to follow the scoring rules in this case. In a points-driven competition, let's instead covet volume over specialization or diversity of production.
Join me as I break down draft tiers for the looming season, position by position, in order to offer an overhead view of the marketplace in points leagues.
Throughout this offseason, the fantasy hoops staff at ESPN has been discussing the historic combination of depth and quality in the first round this season; you can net league-shifting superstars at the turn with regularity. You might be surprised to see so many centers mixed into the same tier as elite gravity guards like Stephen Curry and James Harden and preeminent play-making wings such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
As I explained when anointing Karl-Anthony Towns my top pick in points leagues this season, it's all about the valuable volume the emergent star delivers --Towns was sixth in boards, fifth in minutes and 12th in points per game in just his second season.
For some added context for this center-centric top tier, consider that six players averaged at least 12 boards last season and a dozen players cleared at least 10 per game. There were 24 players with at least eight rebounds per game last season. Only six players averaged at least eight assists last season, while just three topped 10 assists per game. Even if the real NBA doesn't value centers in the small-ball spacing climate, you should covet them in points formats.
Including John Wall and Chris Paul in the same tier with Curry and Russell Westbrook might appear aggressive, but Wall's incredible workload provides a high floor in this format -- he tied Westbrook in time of possession (8.9 minutes per game) and was fourth in touches per game (88.3). As for Paul, I'm admittedly bullish on him in what is likely the friendliest offense for fantasy purposes in the league -- and likely ever. I'll go ahead and predict Paul sets career highs in 3-point production and tops 10 dimes per night on what might be a six-seconds-or-less offense.
Harden, meanwhile, could very well lead the NBA in scoring, offsetting potential distribution losses he might encounter off-ball with Paul. I've deemed Harden the Mike Trout of fantasy basketball before, but it might be more apt to consider him a healthy Rob Gronkowski in that his eligibility atop such a top-heavy and shallow shooting guard market makes it worth considering him with the third or fourth pick overall.
In ESPN points leagues, there is a very solid argument for taking Hassan Whiteside in the first round -- amazing rebounding and efficient offense is the recipe for dominance. If rebounds or points come in greater frequency and with superior predictability than say 3-point efficiency or steals -- and they do -- then doesn't it make sense to take the easier path to positive production when possible?
To that point, you'll notice my continued affinity for big men in these top positional tiers. I fade Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and generally most free-throw anchors in roto and weekly category leagues, but I will chase shares of these high-floor double-double machine in points leagues, where their greatest inefficiencies aren't taxed nearly as heavily. Sure, you'll net some ugly nights at the line from Drummond, but Detroit's glass cleaner will more than make up for that in rebounding volume; he was third in the NBA last season with 21.6 rebounding chances per game.
Blake Griffin's lofty ranking will require an atypically healthy campaign, but there is upside for a top-10 overall campaign in points leagues, given the Clippers' offense will now funnel through him.
I'm all aboard the Kyrie Irving train this year. Isaiah Thomas finished second in the NBA in usage rate -- a measure of team plays consumed by a given player -- in two of his three seasons (the first being abbreviated). Already one of the most efficient guards at the rim and with special range from beyond the arc, Irving can mimic the ridiculous offensive volume Thomas produced in green last season. Gordon Hayward is simply a safe option, especially as he leaves one of the slowest offenses in the league for the speedy, space-fueled scheme in Boston.
This is a busy tier everywhere save for small forward, where we find Khris Middleton in a position to consume tons of minutes and touches as the complementary playmaker to Antetokounmpo. I'm guessing four names stick out most in addition to Milwaukee's wing: Dennis Schroder, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Vucevic.
Do these players merit association with the likes of proven fantasy stars such as McCollum and Millsap? Schroder was ninth in usage rate last season while the team was still approaching competence and could prove Westbrookian this season on a depleted Atlanta offense.
Aldridge has gone from coveted to boring pretty quickly, but he was one of just 15 players to average at least 17 points and seven boards last season. Porzingis is now the centerpiece in the Garden and could be this season's Antetokounmpo -- the player who vaults into the superstar tier in regards to statistical dynamism.
Vucevic has produced at least 14 points and 10 boards per night in four of the past five seasons.
Starting to believe me about the center thing? Joel Embiid's ceiling is as impressive as his social media traffic, but there is clearly great injury and availability risk present.
This is the format where Dwight Howard is still special, especially now that he's in a familiar scheme that could inspire a revival campaign.
The name that really demands exposition from this tier is Julius Randle. A legitimate breakout candidate now that Brook Lopez will finally afford him some floor spacing, Randle was 17th in the NBA last season with 15.6 rebounding chances per game and ninth among forwards in points created from assists.
Arguably the most balanced tier, I think this is an important area for shooting guard and small forward. Given the aforementioned scarcity the position represents, I want one of these top-11 shooting guards, ending with Gary Harris in this tier. Both Avery Bradley and Victor Oladipo represent great values with what should be surges in minutes and offensive opportunity rates for each on their respective new teams.
It's fun to be daring at this stage of the draft (think the fifth round and beyond), and few players offer more potential for differentiation than Ben Simmons. There is real risk, given it's his first foray into the league, but his usage rate and rebounding potential could drive some awesome box scores.
As a key beneficiary of Paul's presence in Houston, Clint Capela could enjoy a rewarding spike in offensive efficiency and opportunity as the rim-runner in the Lob City mold.
If the last section is distinguished in an important shift in shooting guard value, this one represents an important investment tier for small and power forwards. The offensive potential at small forward really dips after this tier, so there is increased risk in fading the position past this point.
Aaron Gordon leads an intriguing collective of fours, particularly since his lack of 3-point production goes essentially unpunished in this scoring system.
I'm optimistic on Derrick Favors. If he can even approximate his production from two seasons ago, there is a ton of profit potential in his profile.
This tier is also dually deep at point guard and center. I think the Tier 7 point guards come with decidedly lower floors than this group, as even the rookies in this section should enjoy the keys to their respective offenses right away.
This likely reads as too low on Jamal Murray, but I think his value as a potential volume shooter with intriguing assist potential doesn't translate well in points leagues, given he's unlikely to enjoy any sizable surges in rebounding or defensive metrics.
My favorite value from this tier is Nikola Mirotic, a player who could feast as the rudderless roster supplies him with bountiful opportunity rates.
Sticking with Atlanta, Kent Bazemore is much more interesting this year than last now that he costs nearly nothing in drafts and could complement Schroder on a needy Atlanta offense.