When you read the phrase 'shut-down risk', who comes to mind? Typically, it's veterans on bad teams such as this season's shut-down odds-leader Kevin Love. And if you're looking for 'late-season upside', what does that mean and who might you target? It's almost always young players on bad teams. Perhaps Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura will be unleashed in March, or Eric Paschall (a young player on a bad team) will thrive whenever Golden State decides to shut down Draymond Green (a veteran on a bad team).
I've shown before that the average age of top-150 fantasy players trends down (aka younger) as the season progresses. It's time to revisit this phenomenon and turn it to our advantage. Here is a chart showing player ages during different segments of the season for the past 12 years:
(Note: the 2018-19 season was surprisingly 'old' across the board, but that was an outlier and still saw the average age drop as the season progressed)
With that chart in mind, it's obvious why we stash players we hope will erupt during fantasy playoffs or attempt to trade older players we fear will miss games in March and April. Over the past few years, these trends have only intensified. Tanking, battles for playoff seeding, player development, DNP-Rest – it's all part of the complex narrative web that fantasy owners navigate week to week.
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To cut through some of the subjective noise, this week's column proposes a numbers-based method to discuss players who might gain or lose value as the season winds down. The two variables I'm using are age and team records. I'm making this up as I go along, but here's a nuanced view of my logic, supported by the chart above:
Before you read this column or view the lists below, please note the following. This has nothing to do with existing fantasy values, and I'm not projecting fantasy values. I'm just trying to facilitate a discussion and highlight the type of players who might gain or lose value due to circumstances. The fact that Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum are near the bottom of this list obviously doesn't mean they'll struggle – it simply means that as very young players on good teams, their fantasy 'ceiling' doesn't register. This is a simple analysis attempting to quantify fluid fantasy phenomena that can't truly be pinned down. Read between the lines.
The cutoff for games played is a mere five games, though I bent the rules to include Zion Williamson and Steph Curry – two sides of the coin in a discussion like this. For playing time, I set the bar at 15 minutes just to trim the population size. We started with nearly 500 players, and after these two modest culls we're still looking at 307 players. Typically, I'd trim that further by using only the top-200 players in 8-cat leagues, for example, but that's not the purpose of this column.
Indeed, a large part of this exercise is identifying marginal players who are nevertheless young enough to possess upside, in the form of potentially boundless playing time in late March and April. As such, I should at least point out some guys who didn't make the cut but benefited from this analysis. Potentially beneficial young players on bad teams, who are currently playing under 15 minutes, include: Dante Exum, Garrison Mathews, Frank Jackson, Cody Martin, Naz Reid and Alen Smailagic. We also lost Kevon Looney in the analysis, but I've given up hope for him, since he's been injured all year and the Warriors are already sold on the 24-year-old's upside.
Rather than list 307 players (you can find the full list here on Google Sheets, to view and/or download), I'll break things down into a few lists. First, we'll look at players who could benefit the most from a combination of their age (young) and team record (bad). Notice that just because a guy is young, doesn't mean they'll benefit. Let's take two examples.
Sekou Doumbouya is the youngest player in the league, just barely 19 years old. That puts his age 29.3% below the average for the top-200 players (27.0). He's also been a key rotation player for an awful team recently, with the Pistons sitting 10th in the East with a 17-31 record. I listed Detroit's 'Win % Weight' as -14.7%, eighth-worst in the league, so Doumbouya's age ratio (negative) multiplied by Detroit's 'Win % Weight' ratio (negative) gives him a strong boost looking ahead – a positive 4.303.
However, a similarly youthful player like Tyler Herro, who just turned 20 years old on Jan. 20, doesn't get quite the same statistical bump. The Heat are vying for second-place in the East, currently 0.5 games behind the Raptors. Granted, that seems somewhat tenuous with a ridiculous 8-0 record in overtime bumping them up, plus a stellar home record (21-2) covering up their mediocrity on the road (11-12). In any case, Herro's youth isn't rewarded by being on a bad team. The Heat are rife with young talent, at least, with Herro joined by guys like Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, so I do expect him to maintain his current trajectory. Just don't expect the type of late-season boost you might get from 20-year-olds on bad teams, like Darius Garland, Cam Reddish or Troy Brown.
Here are the weights I'm using for each team:
And here's a list of players near the top: the oldest players on the best teams, the youngest players on the worst teams.
I didn't say this was a perfect metric. The cluster of Bucks near the top (Kyle Korver is in the stratosphere, George Hill, Wes Matthews, Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez) is a culmination of two factors – Milwaukee is destroying teams with a league-best 40-6 record, and they have a ton of veterans. This reminds me of looking at Defensive Rating stats and finding five players from the same team within the top-10 – it's simply a team dynamic that carries them to the top.
This also highlights one caveat I wanted to mention anyway, which is that Milwaukee (exclusively) is almost so good that their veterans could suffer. Rather than finishing the year as a playoff team reliant on veterans, they could pivot earlier than most toward player development and resting key veterans, all without jeopardizing their homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. It's a unique situation, but one worth mentioning.
After the cluster of Bucks, though, we find LeBron James (35) and Dwight Howard (34) as likely beneficiaries of the Lakers' push for the top seed in the West. The analysis quickly gets interesting because old guys on good teams (those already mentioned) are joined by young guys on bad teams, including Jordan Poole, Kevin Porter Jr., Cam Reddish, Kevin Knox and Kevin Huerter. The youngest guys on the worst teams. I was intrigued to notice that fourth-year PF/C Marquese Chriss is only a few weeks older than second-year big man Omari Spellman. Chriss was waived earlier this year but quickly signed a two-way deal with the Warriors, so the clock is ticking on his days in the NBA this season. If I'm looking for rest-of-season upside, I'm going with Spellman (guaranteed $1.9 million next year, team option in 2021-22).
Lower-end veterans like Marc Gasol, Danny Green and Goran Dragic stand to gain from their situations on playoff-bound teams. And if you own an under-achieving young player like Mitchell Robinson, De'Andre Hunter and Jarrett Culver, this list is a reminder to keep the faith. Let's move on to the other end of the spectrum:
As with the previous list of players who might benefit due to age/team record, the bottom of the list is a mix of young and old players, good and bad teams. The standout might be Stephen Curry, which makes sense – he'll be 32 years old by the time he's cleared to play, and why would Golden State push him at all in a lost season? Yes, I expect him to play out of pride, if nothing else, and for all I know his hot stretch could come exactly when fantasy owners need it in late March. Add him, by all means. There's a far less compelling case to be made for Steph's teammate Draymond Green, or other bad-team veterans like Jeff Teague, Marcus Morris and Kevin Love.
This list also has numerous Bucks including Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donte DiVincenzo. To reiterate my earlier point, the Bucks are so good they might reverse the equation – if their 8.0-game lead in the East gets much bigger, the incentive to rest veterans will intensify after the All-Star break. As I've said throughout, this isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, just a way to think about player values down the stretch.
Isaiah Thomas has been a bust for fantasy owners this season, and I don't see that changing in the season's final months. Derrick Rose and Reggie Jackson both show up near the bottom of the pack in this analysis, and their fantasy values are beset by danger. Detroit is almost certain to be active at the trade deadline, and a full-blown rebuild could be triggered in the next few weeks. Rose won't find as favorable a role as he's enjoyed in Detroit this season, and Jackson's value hinges on whether or not the Pistons bring in another young guard. Don't forget that Jackson is in the final year of his contract – if Detroit doesn't view him as the future of the PG position (they don't), they may not have incentive to play him as the season winds down. It's one reason I've yet to add R-Jax in any leagues, though I don't mind him as a streaming play.
That's all the time I have for this week's edition of the Numbers Game! Again, if you want to peruse the full list you can do so on Google Sheets at your leisure. If you have any questions or insights, you can always find me on Twitter @Knaus_RW.