Fantasy basketball: Players who can make or break your draft

Fantasy basketball in today's world of load management and missed games is always an adventure and never easy to navigate.

Add in some traditional drama, a few big-name injury risks and several aging stars, and there are some very interesting storylines for fantasy managers to work through heading into the new NBA season.

Let's sift through it all and go over the biggest risk/reward players of 2023-24. If things break right, these are names who can carry your roster to a fantasy championship. Things go wrong, and these players could tank your squad.

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers

Harden threw down the gauntlet this summer when he said of the Philadelphia 76ers' GM: "Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he's a part of." Add in the fact that Morey initially said he's not going to trade Harden and that Harden didn't show up for Sixers media day Monday, and this is a full-blown disaster.

In case you were worried about Harden not checking every single one of the risk vs. reward boxes, he's also 34 years old and has missed a ton of games due to injury over the past three seasons. Morey does appear to be ready to deal the future Hall of Famer if he can find a way to get it done, although talks with the Clippers have broken down. The bottom line is we simply don't know if or when Harden will play this season, or where.

Harden is still a very relevant fantasy player and was worth a second-round fantasy pick on a per-game basis last season. But based on the above words that included "liar" and "never," Harden might be prepared to sit all season if necessary, while Morey might just let him sit all year if he can't find a deal that clearly helps the Sixers. Harden is currently going around 20th in fantasy drafts, and that's just too high for a guy with no return date in sight.

It could make sense to take him in Round 4 or 5 if he were still sitting there, but that's a big risk. The longer he sits, the higher the chances that he misses extended time and, based on recent history, in less-than-ideal shape physically.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Williamson has now played a grand total of 114 of a possible 328 games in his four seasons, although all reports are suggesting that he's going to come into the new one healthy and ready to roll.

"Zion is obviously in good condition," executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said Monday. "This was the first summer where we've seen Zion take his profession seriously like that and invest in it off the court on his own in a way I think is meaningful."

Those are strong words from the man running the show and it's clear the Pelicans are sick and tired of injury woes. They've replaced their head athletic trainer and revamped the entire medical staff, giving them what Griffin is calling a "three-headed monster" in their medical area, in addition to Scott Montgomery, the team's orthopedic surgeon, who will also play a bigger role this season.

Will Zion play in 70 games this season? For many people, they'll believe it when they see it. Williamson's ADP comes in around 50 thus far and while some fantasy managers are steering clear of him entirely this season, getting Zion in Round 5 sounds a lot better than taking him in Rounds 2, 3 or 4, as we have in the past. Given that he's not a shot-blocker and is a very shaky 3-point and free throw shooter, Zion is much better in points leagues than category leagues, but he's certainly one of the season's biggest risks regardless.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Davis will be 31 in March and hasn't played in more than 62 games in any of his past five seasons. In fact, he has only hit the 70-games-played plateau twice in his 11-year career. And after vowing to play in all 82 games last season, he made it through just 56 of them.

The Lakers' big man will likely cost you a late first-round fantasy pick and if he plays in 60 games his fantasy managers should be celebrating. He has averaged exactly 60 games played per season over his career and the Lakers would rather have him healthy for the playoffs than the regular season ... and once the NBA playoffs roll around, it would be too late as your fantasy season is already over.

When Davis plays, his production is historically phenomenal, but it's tough to win a fantasy league when your first-round pick only plays in 40 or 50 games. And given where Davis is in his career, it's hard to see him suddenly becoming a 65-game player. Fantasy managers have been waiting for that for a long time.

Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

The NBA is trying to crack down on load management this season and has created new rules to try to ensure that stars will play in nationally televised games, but Kawhi's not having it.

"No league policy is helping me to play in more games," he said during Monday's media day. He has suffered two right knee injuries in the past three seasons, including a torn ACL in the 2021 Western Conference finals and a torn meniscus in last year's playoffs. He missed the entire 2021-22 season and has not played in more than 60 games since the 2016-17 season.

Leonard is now 32 years old, and while he was worthy of a top-15 fantasy pick on a per-game basis last season, that number drops considerably when you add in all the missed games. Given his comments Monday, it's unclear whether he'll ever be a 70-game player again in his career. Leonard should continue to be a statistical star when he's on the court, but his ADP is currently just inside the top 40 and he's going to miss a ton of games.

Ben Simmons, Brooklyn Nets

Simmons, 27, has played 42, 0, 58 and 57 games in each of his past four NBA seasons. He has dealt with his mental health along with physical issues over the years and it's still unclear how invested he'll be in rebuilding his career and reputation going forward. If he is ready to play a full season, there's room for him to have some real success as the Nets would likely look to start him over Dorian Finney-Smith at power forward.

The best news about Simmons is that his ADP shows him being drafted around pick No. 110 in drafts. And that's the key, as the potential reward easily outweighs the risk associated with taking him that late. That said, he doesn't hit 3-pointers, doesn't block shots, can't make a free throw and is still one of the biggest question marks in the league.

So who is likely to take a chance on Simmons this season? Just a guess, but fantasy managers who have never dealt with Simmons before may be the ones taking a chance. Still, even the saltiest fantasy manager might be talked into burning a 10th-round pick on Simmons just in case this is the season we see him return to the form that landed him the 2018 Rookie of the Year award.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

Ingram is another reason the Pelicans are going all-in on a medical staff this season (see Zion Williamson's entry above). He's still just 26 years old but made it through just 45 games last season.

In fact, after playing in 79 games in his rookie season with the Lakers in 2016-17, he hasn't appeared in more than 62 games in any of his six seasons since. The news that the Pelicans are focusing on the health of its players is encouraging, but Ingram's missed-games history is almost too much to overlook.

His ADP clocks in around the mid-50s, which eliminates some of the risk, but it's still hard to see him suddenly staying on the court for long stretches during the season.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Morant is an interesting case study because he's one of the more electrifying players in the league, yet his fantasy production is always lower than one would expect because of mediocre free throw shooting and a lack of steals and blocks, not to mention his high turnovers.

We know that he's going to miss the first 25 games of the season because of a suspension but he could come back with a vengeance when he returns. He can score at will, could average eight-plus assists and is a solid rebounder. If he can improve his free throw shooting, steals, blocks and 3-point shooting, he could take a big step forward over the second half of the season.

Even if he's the same old Morant, he's going to provide a huge boost in the other categories when the suspension is over. His current ADP is around 65, and while it will take a patient manager to sit on him for a third of the season, Morant could pay big dividends when he's back on Dec. 23. The good news is that he'll be able to travel and practice with the team during his suspension and could very easily hit the ground running right before Christmas.

Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks

Irving is oddly paired with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the team simply doesn't have the firepower to win it all. Irving was still a top-10 fantasy player on a per-game basis last season and actually played in 60 games, which was a big number for him, but he will be 32 by the end of the season.

More than that, he hasn't proven to be able to stay on the court in recent years. He's played in just 60, 29, 54 and 20 games in each of his past four seasons, although a lot of those misses were related to things other than injuries. With that in mind, there's a decent chance that he plays in 70 games this season and his ADP checks in around 20. That's still a bit risky, but if he does play in 70 games -- a real possibility -- he could end up being a fantasy steal late in Round 2 or sometime in Round 3.

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Butler was a top-10 player in fantasy last season on a per-game basis, but he misses a lot of regular season games and is now 34 years old. He played in 64 games last season but didn't play in more than 58 games in his previous three campaigns.

He might have had the most interesting media day of anyone Monday, showing up with a new haircut and an emo look, including nail polish and plenty of piercings, and saying he's now in touch with his "emotional state." Butler is still a baller, but the constant missed games are an issue. If you're good with your third-round pick only playing in 55 games or so, Butler still works despite his advanced age.