Mining for fantasy gold on tanking NBA teams

Bad NBA teams create great fantasy opportunities not just for young stars like Devin Booker, but also for lesser-known teammates. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When I was 11, I shook hands with Wes Unseld in the Capital Centre parking lot. I'll never forget the way his superhuman hand enveloped my entire arm.

In a way, that moment remains the peak of my real-life NBA fandom. Such is the lot of a lifelong Bullets/Wizards fan. Following the Bullets/Wizards prepared me to encounter life with a sense of grim, gritty realism.

And as you may have heard, this year's edition of the Washington Wizards has been particularly -- almost spectacularly -- painful to follow.

The silver lining? Rooting for a perennial also-ran franchise keeps me focused on fantasy basketball.

Rooting for a moribund NBA team helps you in fantasy in three ways.

One: You learn to pay more attention to the league as a whole.

Two: You learn to create your own basketball success stories.

Three: You learn that bad NBA teams beget in-season fantasy opportunity.

In fantasy, it always pays to focus on the lower rungs of the NBA standings.

I think of the universe of fantasy basketball as a miniature stock market. Players present portfolios of statistics that rise and fall. If you acquire the services of enough players who outproduce what it took to acquire them (be it auction money or a draft pick), you put yourself in a position to win.

On draft night, we look to build around sure things: stable investments we can count on. That equals star players from successful franchises.

Successful NBA teams mint players who tend to set the market and provide statistical stability.

Think Durant and Curry in Golden State. Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. These players hail from the Boardwalks and Park Places of fantasy hoops. They're pricey to roster but yield a dependable return on your imaginary investment.

Good teams run rock-solid rotations. Their players enter the season with clearly defined roles. By the time the NBA season gets good and underway, say a quarter of the way in (where we are now), a good team's fantasy production is locked in (barring injury, of course).

How do we improve once the good teams get rolling? We can try to make a one-sided trade. Or we can look at teams cosigned to collect ping-pong balls for the upcoming lottery.

Where good teams take a measured, analytical approach, bad teams apply proverbial tourniquets. Bad teams run rotations that are in constant flux. Bad teams present chaos. Disorder. They desperately search for more productive lineups. Or look to some system tweak to right the ship. They make trades that open up their benches. They give less-heralded players enough minutes to become fantasy-worthy.

Better yet? For fantasy purposes?

They start to tank.

Aside from injuries, tanking teams are the leading provider of in-season fluctuations in the NBA fantasy market, because bad teams tend to be bad for multiple seasons, which means they have high draft picks, which equals rostering young upside. When a tanking team gives its young upside minutes, fantasy opportunity is created.

Think of teams that have turned tanking into an art form. Think of the peak Process Sixers of a couple years ago -- look to artificially inflate the value of their players. They do this by doing things like playing at a high pace, which gooses offensive numbers at the peril of things such as team defense. Tanking teams have salary-cap room to give away in short-sighted trades. Such is the situation where fantasy impact can be mined.

Don't discount the hype factor.

Outside their given markets, tanking teams attract less attention. Players from teams that are talked about less can be had at a discount via trade ... or even off the waiver wire. (Heck, I still remember adding a second-round pick named Gilbert Arenas right after All-Star weekend in 2002. He started running the point for the last-place Warriors and flourished down the stretch, winning yours truly a fake championship.)

A quarter of the way into 2018-19, we should be getting a bead on next year's lottery. But this year's NBA is packed with a shocking amount of parity in both conferences. Even my dented Wizards are only a couple of games out of an eighth seed.

Right now, we can safely lock only four teams in to tanking territory. But we can start to look to these four teams for upcoming fantasy producers.

Let's take a quick run through their rosters.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Kevin Love, PF

Out until at least late January. It hurts, but if you roster him (like me), you just have to bite the bullet and hang on ... and hope he doesn't get traded to a better team. A healthy Love on a tanking team should yield top-25 production.

Collin Sexton, PG

Benefiting from George Hill's extended absence. Slowly but surely, Sexton is starting to hold down the role of a No. 1 offensive option. For the week, he's posting 21.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. More assists and steals would help push him up the Player Rater. But holes in his stat sheet equal a higher fantasy ceiling. Sexton is already a solid buy-low opportunity.

Cedi Osman, F

The most direct beneficiary of Love and JR Smith's subtraction from the Cavs' lineup. Osman is a poster child for bad team fantasy opportunity. He just put up one of his better stat lines of the season: 14 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 3-pointers. Only logging a 48.9 TS% to date, but as with Sexton, it just means there's more ceiling with Osman than meets the eye.

George Hill, PG

Long one of fantasy's more underrated point guards, Hill may be resigned to a bench role once he returns from a shoulder strain.

Rodney Hood, SG

Hood is rounding into a nice cheap source of points and 3s in medium-to-deep leagues.

Jordan Clarkson, SG

Clarkson is also coming off his best game of the season: 25 points and 4 3-pointers. But he's lingering right below 25.0 MPG and needs another 3-5 minutes to claw his way out of plug-and-play territory.

Tristan Thompson, C

Over his past five games, Thompson has offered his version of peak production: 13.6 points,12.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

Larry Nance Jr., PF/C

Has had a tough time cohabitating with Thompson but has produced in back-to back starts. Capable of a double-double, 1.5 steals and a block per game. Has also started launching the occasional 3-pointer.

Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker, SG

Booker is a prime example of how a great fantasy asset can remain underrated due to his team situation: His 33.1 ADP was the most criminal fantasy draft slide this season.

Deandre Ayton, C

Averaging a double-double with 16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. But if you're rostering Ayton, you've been waiting for a surge in blocks. That surge may have finally arrived: Ayton has seven blocks over his past three games.

T.J. Warren, PF

Proved he could score last season. Now providing top-50 production thanks to his 3-point development. Warren is averaging a career-high 1.8 3s on a 45.0 3FG%.

Elie Okobo, PG

In line for expanded minutes after the release of Isaiah Canaan. Got 32 minutes Wednesday against the Clippers and delivered: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals and 3 3-pointers.

Jamal Crawford, PG/SG

Still don't know why the Suns signed him. Hampering the fantasy potential of Phoenix's young upside.

Trevor Ariza, SF

See: Crawford, Jamal.

Josh Jackson, SF

Starting to register signs of fantasy life. He's logged 22.0 MPG over his past three games, averaging 11.0 points and 1.3 steals. Most important, he's been newly efficient from the field, shooting over 50 percent.

Mikal Bridges, SG

Has been getting minutes but is giving little fantasy production in return. Still, Bridges has shown that when he gets hot from 3-point territory, he can be an asset. He's flashed elite steals potential, averaging 1.3 across just 21.1 MPG. Keep an eye on Bridges.

Richaun Holmes, C

Holmes has turned into a solid source of deep-league blocks in a limited role. Has also gone for double figures in five of his past six games.

Atlanta Hawks

John Collins, PF

Has been back for nearly two weeks. Collins' blocks rate has been late to arrive. He's blocked only three shots across seven games. He's only shooting 15.4 percent (2-of-13) from deep, but there's top-40 potential here. Collins will improve as he shakes off the rust. Buy low.

Trae Young, PG

Is only shooting 25.4 percent from deep for the season ... but has hit 9-of-24 3s over his past three games. The efficiency will come. The good news: The volume is already there. Buy low.

Taurean Prince, SF

Prince has been solid (15.1 PPG, 2.4 3PG, 1.1 SPG), but he still has room to grow in fantasy. I was expecting another couple of points per game. His 3-point shot hasn't been falling like last season. Is benefiting from Collins' return. There's more ceiling to mine here. Again ... buy low.

Jeremy Lin, PG

Maintaining streaming value in a backup role.

Kent Bazemore, SF

Bazemore's scoring has been all over the map, but he brings something to the roto table every night with solid overall value. His game last night was a prime example: 0-of-10 from the field, but 8-of-10 from the line, with three blocks and a steal. Bazemore provides what I call 1+1+1 value: the rare player capable of averaging a steal, block and 3-pointer per game.

Dewayne Dedmon, C

Mired in a timeshare with Alex Len. I had been mildly salivating over Dedmon's stretch-5, tanking team potential before Len's arrival.

Alex Len, C

Mired in a timeshare with Dewayne Dedmon. Also has flashed stretch-5 potential. Dealing with back issues after a solid start. Still, Len is capable of building some tanking-team momentum.

DeAndre' Bembry, SG/SF

Think poor man's Kent Bazemore. Mired in a timeshare with the actual Kent Bazemore. Has the first-round pedigree, which means he could be in line for expanded minutes. Keep an eye on Bembry.

Kevin Huerter, SG

Think poor man's DeAndre' Bembry. Also possesses the first-round pedigree, which means he could get a chance. Posted 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 3s last night. Keep an eye on Huerter.

Chicago Bulls

Justin Holiday, SG/SF

One of the more underrated players of the 2018-19 season to date. Has been going low-grade nuts over his past seven games. Is averaging a low-grade gaudy 35.7 minutes, 12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 3s, 2.5 assists and 1.6 steals. Still, in a weird way, Holiday could be a sell-high candidate, as Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis are all about to return from injury.

Jabari Parker, PF

Averaging 23.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 3s and 1.3 steals over the past week. A great example of how a struggling player with high upside can resurrect his fantasy fortunes in a tank situation. His minutes are also in for a hit with Markkanen's return. Another offbeat sell-high candidate.

Zach LaVine, SG

Putting up top-30 value for the season. Also in line for a hit in minutes and touches. I know it's hard, but if you're rostering LaVine, you have to at least consider his trade value.

Ryan Arcidiacono, PG

Check out last night's line against Milwaukee: 22 points, 4 assists, 5 3s and 5 steals. I sense a timeshare coming with Dunn.

Kris Dunn, PG

One of my sleeper picks for this 2018-19, Dunn has been shelved for most of the season with an MCL sprain. And if Arcidiacono keeps up his crazy-efficient play ... like I said, I sense a soul-crushing timeshare.

Lauri Markkanen, PF

Should be back in a week or so. Could also promptly enter into a soul-crushing timeshare (with Parker, and this next guy).

Bobby Portis, PF

Should be back in a week or so ... and you know the rest. Ugh. Maybe the Bulls can split into two tanking franchises.

Wendell Carter Jr., C

Averaging .75 blocks and 4.5 fouls over his last four games. A five-to-one fouls to blocks ratio tends to hamper one's fantasy potential.

Robin Lopez, C

Still blocking enough shots to hold the deepest of deep-league value.