As evidence you can never truly predict this wild league we love, the Sacramento Kings, winner of four straight after a victory in Orlando last night, are currently the eighth seed in the Western Conference while riding a four-game winning streak. The Rockets, meanwhile, are enduring a four-game slide and jockeying with the Suns for the worst record in the conference.
Focusing on this royal run from Sacramento, is there any actionable fantasy information we can glean from their unexpected early-season competence?
Surging stretch forward Nemanja Bjelica earned a casual endorsement in yesterday's edition of this column, but I likely undersold just how prolific his production has proven for the Kings and progressive fantasy investors. As of Wednesday morning, Bjelica is somehow still available in nearly 70 percent of ESPN leagues. Consider the following set of statistical milestones; Bjelica is averaging 15.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.3 3PG, 1.4 SPG and 0.9 BPG in 27.5 MPG in eight games, all starts, for Sacramento.
The players averaging as many points, rebounds and 3-pointers as Bjelica this season: Blake Griffin, Nikola Mirotic, Paul George, James Harden and Luka Doncic. Bjelica leads this group in win shares, mind you.
The players averaging as many points, rebounds, 3-pointers, steals as Bjelica; Harden and George. The list dwindles to just Bjelica when accounting for his block rate. These are somewhat arbitrary statistical endpoints that cater to Bjelica's performance, but they speak to this surprising, but seemingly legitimate, breakout from a 30-year-old stretch forward who was headed to play ball in Europe before the Kings offered a sizable multi-year pact.
The sample is still small enough that Bjelica could fade back into fantasy obscurity within the next month, but based on my crude math, the small sample thus far reveals top-20 fantasy production through 10 percent of the season.
In addition to Bjelica, Bahamian sharpshooter Buddy Hield delivered 25 points and a career-high 11 rebounds in the win over the Magic on Tuesday night. Hield has compiled four straight games with at least 20 points, tied for the longest such streak of his career, and is now averaging 18.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 2.1 3PG.
Following precedent, just Danilo Gallinari, Griffin, Mirotic, George, Harden and Doncic are averaging as many points, boards and 3-pointers as the Kings' shooting guard. Hield, meanwhile, is available in more than half of ESPN leagues.
We don't get to choose which players break out each season. We do get to choose when to buy into an emergent player's upward swing. With an eye on meaningful fantasy performances and relevant statistical trends, let's dive into the night that was in the NBA.
Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder: 32 points (9-18 FG), 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 4 TO
Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings: 25 points (9-15 FG), 11 rebounds, 3 assist, 2 TO
Robert Covington is also somehow being dismissed by the fantasy marketplace despite an awesome start to the season. A somewhat polarizing player among factions of Philly's fervently opinionated fan base, Covington is the only NBA player currently averaging at least two steals, three 3-pointers and 1.8 blocks. Some Philly fans can't stomach Covington's variant shooting stretches, even though beyond his streaky ways he led the NBA in catch-and-shoot 3-point makes last season. There is absolutely no reason Covington should be available in 75 percent of ESPN leagues, but a low preseason ranking and thus poor ADP (average draft position) has created this unique window of value that you should exploit immediately.
Speaking of fun defensive values, Serge Ibaka is averaging 2.1 combined steals and blocks while also producing a career-high scoring clip. What I like about Ibaka's scoring surge is that it's been fueled by getting to the line at a career clip and not aberrational shooting (in fact, a positive correction is coming from beyond the arc). Ibaka is consuming a career-high usage rate with more touches per game than last season, signaling this could be a sustainable late-career improvement.
Another renaissance is underway with Gallinari looking great for the Clippers thus far; the gifted scorer tallied 27 points on Tuesday night and is now up to career highs in scoring (20 PPG), usage rate (25 percent), rebounding percentage (11 percent) and offensive rating (126). As long as he's healthy, Gallinari can provide clean scoring rates with an atypically low turnover rate for a player with such a strong usage profile. "Galli" is available in roughly 30 percent of ESPN leagues despite producing top-40 fantasy rates.
If the fantasy market has ignored Sacramento this season, the same can be said of Cleveland. In the wake of Kevin Love's injury, we can still find some value on the wayward Cavs. For instance, Tristan Thompson is 11th in the NBA with 18.3 rebounding chances per game -- defined as being within 3.5 feet of available rebound. This raw opportunity rate should serve Thompson's actual rebounding rate well; he's currently 24th in rebounds per game in the NBA, while this rate should jump with Love off the floor.
We also find Rodney Hood enjoying some of the offensive void left by Love, confirmed by his season-high 26 points on just 13 shots last night. For those in need of boards or shooting volume, respectively, the Cavs have some widely available options to consider. In truly deep leagues, it's worth noting Sam Dekker played 29 minutes in Love's role as the stretch power forward for Cleveland.
It was great to see Boston's Kyrie Irving net a season-high 31 points on Tuesday after a sluggish start to the season. The performance marked his first game with at least 30 points, five points and five assists since late February last season.
Injuries of note
The Pelicans' Elfrid Payton has been ruled out (ankle) ahead of their game against the Warriors. The key question is whether Anthony Davis will suit up after missing two games with an elbow ailment. Davis is listed as questionable, with reports suggesting his status will be determined after Wednesday's team shootaround.
Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins has missed three straight with a quad contusion and is considered day-to-day ahead of tonight's game against the visiting Utah Jazz. Derrick Rose could see a bump in usage if Wiggins remains sidelined.
Analytics advantage for Wednesday
If "The Brow" is indeed active for tonight's game in Oakland, the game likely screams stacking in DFS terms (which means playing multiple players from a given team or game).
I'm guessing the projected point total for the game will top 240 points when posted after Davis' injury update is released. The Warriors are first in the NBA in offensive rating with 120 points per 100 possessions, while the Pelicans are fourth with 114.3. New Orleans is third in pace (106.75 possessions per 48 minutes) and Golden State is 11th (103.75). This should be a fast, furious and fantasy-friendly climate.
Top players to watch tonight
I was far too conservative on projecting Doncic this season, as he's already in lofty statistical company, as discussed above. LeBron James, meanwhile, surely realizes his Lakers will be jockeying with the likes of the Clippers, Thunder, Mavericks and even Rockets for the final few playoff berths in the conference, making even a Halloween showdown with Dallas a crucial contest. With the bright lights on, even as Luka and LeBron are unlikely to directly face off on too many possessions tonight, the sheer magnetism of the matchup is fun to consider.