Two teams. Two NBA extremes.
Two fantasy-boosting categorical combinations.
Team one: shepherded by a GOAT-discussion coach, and has been in the playoffs 21 years in a row. Team two: has stumbled through myriad coaches, and has loitered in the lottery for nine years in a row.
Team one: the San Antonio Spurs.
Team two: the Phoenix Suns.
Two ends of the NBA spectrum. Yet, each team offers its own special pattern of fantasy-boosting stats.
Why are patterns important in fantasy basketball? Because, it's not enough to focus on categories as separate entities. The longer you stare at stats, the more patterns start to emerge and the more you realize how categories relate to one another -- how they feed into one another.
If you have a player who's dominating from the field, that plus can be cancelled out by a poor performance at the line. Or if you have a big man who's just offering replacement-level block rates (say, 1.0 per game), look to see if he's padding it with some positive steals activity.
For the purposes of this discussion, let's settle in on two of the most impactful fantasy categorical combinations: Field Goal Percentage + Free Throw Percentage, and Steals + Blocks.
FG%+FT% is one of fantasy's most underrated collisions. It leans into true shooting percentage, which gets my vote for most underrated fantasy supporting statistic.
Adding the two categories together puts a premium on overall shooting efficiency. It chucks out the big men that are high FG%/low FT% types, and guards that are low FG%/high FT% types.
By treating shooting performance globally, and not just siphoning it out by category, we get a truer picture of which players are helping and hurting you from the floor.
But we can't just go off of simple FG%+FT%.
We have to account for 3-pointers, and the extra point generated per successful attempt. If we simply gravitated toward leaders in FG%, we managers would be terminally kneecapping our teams in 3-pointers (and points scored). We have to fold in 3-point production when adding up FG%+FT%.
Then there's another wrinkle: shot volume.
It's not enough to just add up a player's FG% and FT%. It's not enough to just go off of pure TS%. To gauge a player's actual shooting impact, we have to mix in the volume of said player's field goal and free throw attempts. It's better to have a player with a 60.0% TS% that takes 20 combined FGA+FTA per game than a player with a 70.0% TS% that only takes 10 combined attempts per game.
If you take a look at the top-10 players who offer the best combination of FG%, FT%, and volume of FG/FT attempts on the season, you'll see a compendium of many of fantasy's best. (Keep in mind the league average TS% tends to hover in the vicinity of 55.0%)
Kevin Durant: 62.2 TS%, 26.3 FGA+FTA per game
Stephen Curry: 66.9 TS%, 24.5 FGA+FTA per game
Kawhi Leonard: 61.5 TS%, 27.0 FGA+FTA per game
Anthony Davis: 59.5 TS%, 29.7 FGA+FTA per game
Nikola Jokic: 59.2 TS%, 19.5 FGA+FTA per game
Conclusion: efficient, high volume-driven shooting is a top indicator of elite fantasy performance.
But if you look at who is leading the league in this combination over the past month, the Spurs angle starts to come into focus.
LaMarcus Aldridge: 63.5 TS%, 22.9 FGA+FTA per game
And if you dig deeper into past month performance, you get a bead on some lesser-known players who are setting themselves up for a big post-All-Star fantasy performance.
John Collins: 70.9 TS%, 16.8 FGA+FTA per game
Malcolm Brogdon: 64.3 TS%, 15.3 FGA+FTA per game
Ivica Zubac: 67.9 TS%, 10.6 FGA+FTA per game
Al Horford: 65.5 TS%, 10.4 FGA+FTA per game
Thomas Bryant: 70.9 TS%, 9.5 FGA+FTA per game
Julius Randle: 64.7 TS%, 19.3 FGA+FTA per game
So how does San Antonio feed into this dynamic? Because thanks to the Spurs' system, they roster a number of underrated players who bubble up toward the top of this pattern (again, this is from the past month).
And take a look at what this player has done over the past week.
Davis Bertans: 76.7 TS%, 13.0 FGA+FTA per game
The lesson? Efficient systems coached to perfection lead to unexpected conflagrations of fantasy production. Since the Spurs preach spacing, and shooting from certain high-impact areas of the floor? They're an ideal breeding ground for players who excel in FG%+FT%.
Let's move onto combination two. Steals + blocks.
Many a great NBA mind has stated that generating steals and blocks actually have little to do with a player's true defensive impact. That shutdown defenders don't need to gamble on turnovers.
Conversely, less confident defenders gamble more. They aim for the possession-changing turnover. Gamblers may surrender more points than a classical lockdown defender, but they tend to do better in steals and blocks.
Younger, more inexperienced players tend to average more steals and blocks, because they're forced into taking said risks. (Fact: players tend to peak in block production early in their careers.)
Guess what type of defender fantasy prefers? Gamblers.
Younger, less disciplined teams might play a more sieve-like form of defense, but they generate more turnovers. And in fantasy, we shouldn't prize classical lockdown defense. Franchises that practice tough team defense tend to lag in fantasy-boosting metrics like pace and offensive efficiency (since they're expending so much energy on one side of the floor).
Cases in point: the Jazz, Celtics and Heat. Teams that may be in the top tier defensively, but suffer offensively (and in fantasy).
The steals+blocks paradigm is easier to comprehend than FG%+FT%. We're going off of pure volume. We don't have a lot of other factors to dial in. We can judge based on pure production.
But the truly underrated in steals+blocks can be difficult to pinpoint, since the combination is dominated by Superproducers in blocks. Here is a quick list of the dominators in this combination:
No surprises here. Looking a little lower, many of the remaining obvious, big-name elite names is stocked by Superproducers in steals:
So, what are we looking for here when trolling for value? When plumbing for patterns of defensive value, we're looking for two factors: out-of-of position production and statistical balance.
Robert Covington is the perfect blend of both factors. A wing, Covington is second in the NBA in the steals+blocks. He does it with elite steals (2.1 per game) and out-of-position blocks (1.3 per game).
When looking for underrated second-half risers in steals+blocks, remember to look for players with unexpected positional weight in one half of the combination. That means bigs that get steals, or guards that get blocks.
Here are some examples of gettable players trending up over the past month that present out-of-position defensive production, and some defensive balance.
PJ Tucker: 2.9 STL+BLK
Jerami Grant: 2.7 STL+BLK
De'Anthony Melton: 2.7 STL+BLK
Kris Dunn: 2.5 STL+BLK
Richaun Holmes: 2.3 STL+BLK
Mikal Bridges: 2.2 STL+BLK
Kelly Oubre Jr.: 2.2 STL+BLK
Otto Porter Jr.: 2.1 STL+BLK
Deandre Ayton: 2.0 STL+BLK
If you detected a surplus of Suns on the above list, you've been paying attention. The Suns are the embodiment of the type of team that tends to do well in unexpected steals+blocks production. The Suns are gamblers.