Every year at this time, I project the box score stats for every rotation player in the NBA in preparation for the upcoming season. I then use those projections as the basis for my preseason fantasy basketball player rankings.
The positive of this quantitative approach is that it separates my analysis from traditional name-value recognition, and instead looks more towards team situation and expected values in making my initial rankings.
When taking this approach, however, there are often results that might not fit with preconceived expectations. That's why we're here today.
In this space, I'm going to list some of the biggest names in the NBA and fantasy basketball -- players that we're used to seeing on SportsCenter and drafting in the first round of our fantasy leagues -- who are ranked much lower this season . But, for various reasons, I project their overall numbers to be a bit lower than their norm this season. Let's dig into it.
Durant got traded to the Suns last season and formed a potent 1-2 with star Devin Booker. Interestingly, it was Booker that was the primary scoring and playmaking option while Durant settled in as an elite option 1B.
Then, this offseason the Suns traded for another high-volume perimeter scorer in Bradley Beal to form a big three that further nibbles into Durant's expected numbers. Even so, I still project Durant to be one of the best sources of fantasy production in the NBA on a per-game basis. He ranks 10th in my per game rankings, which would still mark him as a first round talent in fantasy basketball leagues on a per game basis.
But fantasy hoops isn't about just one game, it's about the entire season. And the old cliché holds true; when it comes to fantasy points, the best ability is availability.
Unfortunately, Durant has not been available as much as I'm sure he would have liked to be in recent years. In the last four seasons, Durant has played a total of 137 games. That would translate to an average of only 34.3 games played per season. Even if you exclude the 2019-20 season that he missed while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, he has still only averaged 45.7 games played in the last three seasons with a high of 55 games.
Durant will be 35 years old when this NBA season begins, entering year 17 in the league, and even though his game doesn't rely on the type of explosive leaping or cutting ability that falls off over time, the increased risk of injury with age has become a significant factor when it comes to drafting Durant to your fantasy hoops squad.
I initially projected Durant for 62 games played this season, which would be his highest game total since the 2018-19 season. But, with 62 games played, Durant would end up 31st in my player rankings. I upped his projection to 66 games, but he still settles in at 23rd in my rankings.
Practically speaking, Durant is still extremely likely to go in the first couple rounds of your fantasy leagues, perhaps even in the first round of some leagues. So, the takeaway here is that anyone drafting him that early is doing so at their own risk.
Yes, KD is still probably the purest scorer in the NBA. On a Suns team with a lot of firepower, his scoring efficiency should be through the roof and he should have plenty of energy to play defense and crash the boards. When he's on the court, he likely remains one of the top-10 sources of fantasy hoops production in the NBA.
Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated and Durant has a multi-year track record of being at higher risk for injury. I hope that Durant plays 70-something games this season and accomplishes all his goals on the court. But, as you are preparing for your fantasy hoops drafts, just keep in mind... the last time Durant played that many games in a season was three teams ago, when he was playing with Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
Towns has battled for the top spot in my fantasy hoops player rankings several times in recent years, and at only 27 years old he should be right at the peak of his prime NBA years. Towns has battled injury in recent years, playing 50 or fewer games in three of the last four seasons including a career-low 29 games last season, and this obviously affects his ranking. This isn't necessarily the biggest factor in Towns' slide in this season's rankings, however.
Instead, Towns' estimated production is diminished on a per-game basis because of two of his teammates. The Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert last season, moving Towns from center to power forward and further away from the rim. Where this impacted Towns' numbers most is on defense, where he turned in career-lows in rebounds, blocked shots and even steals per game.
At the other end of the court, Towns is taking a backseat to the rise of 22-year-old Anthony Edwards into an NBA superstar. Last season, Towns took his fewest field goal attempts per game and scored his fewest points since his rookie year. This season, Edwards likely takes another step forward and further relegates Towns to a second option.
With Edwards and Gobert squeezing his production at both ends of the court, Towns just isn't one of the elite fantasy producers in the NBA going into this season.
Other stars who slid in the rankings
Damian Lillard and James Harden: Both in standoffs with their current teams about what team they will play for this season. Lillard has requested a trade from the Trail Blazers, specifically to the Miami Heat, while Harden has said he would never play again on a team associated with Daryl Morey... and the 76ers have shown no inclination to fire Morey.
Both Harden and Lillard have lived at the top of fantasy rankings for years, but the uncertainty as to their immediate futures makes it difficult to project them anywhere near their typical values.
In Lillard's case, the Trail Blazers have seemingly moved full-bore into a youth movement/rebuild that Lillard has expressed no interest in being part of at this point in his career. They also are poised to hand over the keys to the franchise to talented rookie point guard Scoot Henderson, whose game wouldn't really fit next to Lillard's.
If Lillard were traded to the Heat, he would likely have to cede some of the shots he's used to taking to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but at least if that trade were made we could project his likely output with more confidence. What if, instead, he gets traded to a different contending team?
Harden just led the NBA in assists last season, but he was a much lower volume shooter playing off MVP Joel Embiid. He has the same type of questions regarding which team he might play for, and therefore what role he might be asked to play.
For both players, the uncertainty led to lower projections at this time, and they are both therefore lower in the rankings this season than they normally would be.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George: All five have a well-established history of missing games, primarily for injury, that slides them further down my season-long rankings.
LeBron, AD and Zion are all in the top-10 of my per game rankings; Kyrie and Kawhi are top-20, and PG13 is top-40 as well.