By Nick Whalen and Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The Conference Finals got underway Tuesday night, kicking off the home stretch of the longest season in NBA history. By the time the Finals wrap up next month, the 2019-20 season will have spanned almost an entire calendar year, falling short by just a handful of days.
While we’re still not sure how much time the league will have to catch its collective breath, the countdown to the 2020-21 — or, maybe just 2021?— season will begin in earnest. The NBA still needs to find time for the draft, free agency, and some semblance of a true offseason, but with the league calendar perhaps operating on an accelerated timeline, there’s no better time to begin preparing for next season’s fantasy drafts.
And there’s no better place to begin preparing than right at the top. The league is as top-heavy with elite talent as any moment in recent memory, so locking in on a first-round pick won’t be an easy task.
While James Harden remains the likely 1.1 in most leagues, a handful of other players have forced their way into that discussion. And outside of the top two or three picks, an even greater number of players will be in consideration, particularly in the back-end of the first round, when it becomes more difficult to weigh upside versus stability.
To help parse through the excess of talent, we’ve sectioned off 22 of the league’s top fantasy players into four tiers. Within each tier, players are ordered by projected value, but there’s typically not a massive gulf between players in the same tier. Of course, plenty can change between now and whenever next season begins, but these tiers are intended to serve as a guide for early draft and salary-cap league preparations.
Tier 1: Possible No. 1 Overall Picks
James Harden, Rockets
While it was marred by another postseason flame-out, Harden completed his fourth consecutive No. 1 overall season in eight-category leagues (per-game value) in 2019-20. He’s won the last three scoring titles, while also leading the league in made threes in each of those seasons. Harden is on a six-year run of leading the league in made free throws, and he even led the NBA in total steals in 2019-20. The NBA’s most durable superstar, Harden should go No. 1 overall in most eight-category leagues, even as the Rockets transition to a new coaching staff and, perhaps, some roster changes.
Anthony Davis, Lakers
There’s no question as to who’s the face of the Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s Davis who’s been the better fantasy player. Davis is coming off of a third straight season of finishing second overall in per-game value in eight-category leagues. He sunk to 16th in total value, but Davis missed only nine games and continues to dispel the durability concerns that plagued him early in his career. The NBA’s leader in combined blocks and steals last season, Davis is a monster on the defensive end who also provided fantasy managers with 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and a career-best 1.2 made threes per game. Davis also demonstrated tangible improvement at the free-throw line (career-best 84.6% FT), but most importantly, his fit alongside another ball-dominant player in LeBron James has been seamless. Assuming Davis returns to the Lakers, expect the big man to be similarly dominant next season.
Lillard’s fourth overall finish in 2019-20 was the best of his career. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. The league’s leader in minutes per game, Lillard reached his statistical apex, crossing the 30-point-per-game line for the first time in his career, while adding a career-best 8.0 assists per game. He’s a decent rebounder for his position who’s usually good for just over a steal per game, but Lillard’s true value lies in his high-volume/high-efficiency three-point shooting. The five-time All-Star has long been among the league’s most lethal shooters, but he extended his range to new lengths last season, taking 10.2 threes per game and hitting at a career-best 40.1 percent clip. Lillard had a league-high 10 games with at least eight three-pointers and two games with 11 makes. When he’s locked in and forced to carry an offense, Lillard is capable of being the best offensive player in the league.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
The 2019-20 season was the first time Towns played fewer than 77 games. He appeared in only 35 games due to knee and wrist injuries. As a result of playing so few games, the Timberwolves being a bad team, and the complexity of the season due to COVID-19, it becomes easy to forget how dominant Towns was as a fantasy asset. The center ranked third on a per-game basis, which was his fourth consecutive season ranking within the top eight. Towns averaged 26.5 points on 51/41/80 shooting splits, plus 10.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 3.3 threes, and 2.1 combined blocks-plus-steals. The Timberwolves adding D’Angelo Russell should also help take some defensive pressure off of Towns. And considering there aren’t other reliable offensive options on the team, the two-man game between them should be prolific. Towns’ defense leaves something to be desired, but he’s one of the most all-around efficient offensive forces we have at the center position.
Tier 2: High-Floor Stars
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
While Antetokounmpo — the soon-to-be-reigning-two-time-MVP — heading up Tier 2 seems counterintuitive, any discussion about his fantasy value has to start with his free-throw shooting. Antetokounmpo was the biggest free-throw drag in the league this season, taking 10.0 per game but hitting just 63.3 percent. If you’re playing in a league in which punting categories makes sense, go ahead and punt free throws and take Giannis first or second overall. But if you’re playing in a roto league where everything counts, you should have some pause before drafting him in the top five. The Greek Freak ranked just 13th this season on a per-game basis due in large part to the free-throw shooting, not to mention a lighter workload and some declining defensive numbers. If he progresses at the charity stripe, that’s great, but it’s not something I’m comfortable banking on, especially after he shot just 58.0% in the playoffs.
Trae Young, Hawks
After a better-than-anticipated rookie season, Young exceeded expectations again as a sophomore. He ranked seventh in per-game value, above LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a few other MVP candidates. Young was entrusted with the fourth-highest usage rate (34.9%) in the league and constantly produced insane stat lines on his way to an All-Star selection. His 12 performances with at least 35 points and 10 assists were the most in the league, doubling James Harden’s six. Young also had 20 games with at least five made threes, ranking fifth in the league. Heading into next season, fantasy managers should be confident that Young will easily be worth a top-10 selection, if not top-5, given his upward trajectory and sky-high usage rate.
LeBron James, Lakers
Those who bet big on James bouncing back from a disappointing and injury-marred first season in Los Angeles were rewarded in 2019-20. Not only did James lead the league in assists (10.2 APG) while adding his usual scoring (25.3 PPG), rebounding (7.8 RPG) and defensive contributions, he played in all but four regular-season games. The history of humankind strongly suggests that at some point James will slow down, but based on what he showed in his 17th season, James should remain a first-round value for at least another year. Set to turn 36 in December, James is no longer in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick, however. Due in large part to a persistently pedestrian free throw percentage, James has not been a top-three overall player since his final season in Miami (2013-14).
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
After a slow start, Jokic began to find his stride in December and never looked back, finishing eighth in per-game value and third overall in total value for the best fantasy season of his career. Jokic scored in single-digits seven times in the Nuggets’ first 19 games — something he did just twice over their next 53. Throwing out those first 19 contests, he averaged 22.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. As he demonstrated in the playoffs, Jokic still has another level he can reach as a shooter (2.8 3PM/G; 46.3% 3PT). Tapping into that more frequently would put him in the conversation for a top-three pick, especially given his track record of durability. Through five NBA seasons, Jokic has missed just 20 total games, and none of those came in 2019-20.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
Coming into his second NBA season, Doncic had an ADP of 18th overall. After one of the better sophomore campaigns in recent memory, it’s safe to bank on that number climbing in 2020-21. The 21-year-old improved in virtually every statistical category, including leaps of 7.6 points and 2.2 assists per game. Doncic’s three-point percentage (31.6%) feels like it should be about 10 points higher, but he takes a high volume of difficult looks. If that number improves even marginally, Doncic could be a 30-point-per-game scorer in 2020-21. In terms of his fantasy profile, the major knock is Doncic’s free throw percentage. He hiked it up to 75.8 percent last season — up from 71.3 percent as a rookie — but that’s still a damaging figure for a player who finished fourth in the league in free-throw attempts (9.2 FTA/G). Removing that category from the equation, Doncic would’ve finished seventh in per-game fantasy value in 2019-20.
Stephen Curry, Warriors
Considering Curry played in only five games last season, tanking a fantasy roster or two along the way, there’s an argument that he belongs in Tier 3. Even before last season, Curry had missed more time than you’d think in recent years — 44 combined games in 2017-18 and 2018-19 — but he’s been so good when healthy that the risk is worth the reward. In 2018-19, when Curry missed 13 games, he still finished as the ninth-best player in fantasy basketball. Despite missing 31 games the previous season, Curry managed to return second-round value. Coming back refreshed with a healthy Klay Thompson by his side, Curry will quickly look to remind the world that, at age 32, he can still be the league’s most dangerous offensive weapon.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
Games played will always be an important factor with Leonard, but on a per-game basis, he posted his best fantasy rank (fourth overall) of his career in 2019-20. He set career marks in points (27.1), assists (4.9), threes (2.2), and free-throw percentage (88.6). Even with rest days and potential injury looming over, Leonard will undoubtedly be drafted in the first round next season given his debut showing as a Clipper. It’s his team, and everything revolves around him when he’s on the court. Leonard ranked seventh in the league in usage rate (33.0%), and that shouldn’t decrease, as Paul George appears plenty content with settling in as the legitimate No. 2 option.
Tier 3: High-Upside Risks
Kevin Durant, Nets
By the time next season begins, Durant will be a 32-year-old coming off of a torn Achilles. Historically, that’s not a fantastic combination, but Durant will likely have close to 20 months between his final game with the Warriors and his first game as a Brooklyn Net. Even if you remain (understandably) skeptical of Durant’s health, his track record should give him the benefit of the doubt. Since his rookie season, Durant has never dipped below eighth in per-game value, and he has nine top-five finishes in that span. A four-time scoring champ, Durant will be asked to shoulder more of the offensive load than he did in Golden State. And even if he comes back at 85 percent of his peak ability, that’s still a player who gives you roughly 25 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and two blocks/steals per game on all-world-level efficiency.
Kyrie Irving, Nets
Irving’s inability to stay healthy remains a problem, and that’s not something that usually goes away as a player inches closer to 30 years old. He appeared in just 20 games this season, and prior to 2019-20, he was averaging only 63.5 games played per year. Irving has provided top-10 value on a per-game basis three times in his career but has only hit that mark once in terms of total production. Drafting him in the first round is undoubtedly risky, and it would be an outlier if he was healthy and productive enough to be worth the selection.
Russell Westbrook, Rockets
Westbrook isn’t the top-5 player he used to be, but he’s still provided top-15 value on a per-game basis across the past three seasons, despite declining shooting efficiency from three and the charity stripe. He drastically reduced his three-point volume this season, allowing him to hit a career-high 47.2 percent from the field. That was in addition to his usual, well-balanced averages of 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.6 steals in 35.9 minutes. Despite sharing the court with James Harden, Westbrook remains a high-floor fantasy player given his stat-stuffing ability. Taking into account his style of play and age (he turns 32 in November), there are rightful concerns about whether he can stay healthy, but Westbrook hasn’t missed more than 10 games in a season since 2014-15.
Tier 4: Other First-Round Candidates
Bradley Beal, Wizards
Beal was the No. 2 fantasy player from Feb. 1 onward, and the No. 6 player from Jan. 1 through the end of the season, ultimately settling in at 11th overall. Playing without John Wall by his side, Beal had the sixth-highest usage rate (34.4%) in the league, averaging 30.5 points, 6.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game. That alone is enough reason to take him in the first round, but it seems more likely that Beal will regress — that he’s hit his statistical peak — rather than continuing this upward trajectory. He should remain the No. 1 option for the Wizards, but Wall’s return will mean that Beal is no longer the lone playmaker on the roster. That reduces his night-to-night upside, and big games won’t be as likely. On the other hand, maybe Wall’s return helps Beal become a more efficient scorer and that keeps his fantasy value stagnant. Either way, the end of the first round is the appropriate place to grab Beal after what he showed this season.
Paul George, Clippers
George’s first season as Kawhi Leonard’s sidekick has been a difficult evaluation. After missing the first 11 games of the season, George never fully settled in before missing another stretch in January. While George’s highs were high, the Clippers were ultra-careful with his workload, which dipped all the way down to 29.6 minutes per game, 7.0 fewer than a year ago, when he finished as the No. 2 overall player in total value. On a per-game basis, George has returned first-round value four times in his career, and 2019-20 was the first time he finished lower than 16th overall. Some progression should come naturally as George’s minutes increase, but playing alongside another ball-dominant player puts a cap on his ultimate upside. Even so, George makes sense as a late-first-round target. He may even be available at a slight draft discount after a down year in addition to a massively underwhelming performance in the playoffs.
John Collins, Hawks
While he doesn’t get the recognition that Trae Young does, Collins is a huge part of the Hawks’ gameplan, and he’s quietly become one of the better young bigs in the league. He finished this season ranked 12th in per-game fantasy value. He was playing even better (top 7 overall) over his final 18 games, averaging 24.9 points on 62/49/79 shooting splits, 10.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 2.1 combined blocks-plus-steals in 36.8 minutes during that span. The main concern for Collins is the addition of Clint Capela, which will likely force Collins to become more perimeter-oriented. That could negatively affect his field-goal percentage, rebounding, and block numbers. Still, Collins is on an upward trajectory as he enters his fourth season, and there’s only so much Atlanta can reduce the workload of such a young and promising player.
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Embiid took a step back as a fantasy asset in 2019-20. He played fewer than 30 minutes per game, resulting in drops in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and threes per game. Overall, he ranked 16th on a per-game basis, a significant drop from his 2018-19 rank of 7. There’s a possibility that a new coach will help put Embiid in more positions to succeed, and that he improves his overall fitness, but at some point, Embiid needs to take matters into his own hands. There are flashes where he looks like the best player in the NBA. If he turns those flashes into consistent production, he should be able to return first-round value. However, Embiid remains one of the riskiest elite players in the league, largely due to rest nights and some lingering injury concerns.
Ben Simmons, 76ers
Simmons is coming off the best per-game fantasy season of his career, ranking 19th overall with averages of 16.4 points, 8.0 assists, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.7 combined steals-plus-blocks. It’s well-documented that Simmons hasn’t been shooting threes, and fantasy managers shouldn’t expect that to change next season. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging that his field goal and free throw percentages have increased each season. Still, it’s fair to wonder where Simmons makes improvements. He’s already a fantastic passer, he’s great in transition and around the basket, and he’s an elite, multi-positional defender. Simmons’ share of shots probably won’t increase given Joel Embiid’s presence, not to mention another high-volume scorer in Tobias Harris. Subtle improvements and hope for no missed games will be the argument to take Simmons in the first round.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Tatum finished as the 21st overall player this season, but he had first-round value from February onward. During that span, he averaged 27.1 points on shooting splits of 47/46/78, plus 7.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.4 combined steals-plus-blocks. Tatum clearly took his game up another level, and we’re seeing him continue that throughout the playoffs. While Brad Stevens’ offense is reliant on sharing the ball, Tatum’s scoring ability from anywhere on the court means he could easily eclipse 25 points per game. He’s also a strong rebounder, is improving as a passer, and can rack up both blocks and steals. Next season could be lining up as Tatum’s entrance into the elite group of fantasy wings.
Devin Booker, Suns
Booker had his best season yet in 2019-20, making his first All-Star game and averaging 26.6 points on 49/35/92 shooting splits, plus 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds. Considering he has yet to turn 24 years old, Booker still has plenty of room to grow as a player. His ceiling may be capped given that he’s not a great defender, but Booker’s floor is high, as he had the 15th-highest usage rate (30.0%) in the league this season. If he can continue making small strides, a first-round finish next season isn’t out of the question.
Hassan Whiteside, Trail Blazers
Filling in for the injured Jusuf Nurkic until bubble play, Whiteside finished the 2019-20 fantasy season with a per-game rank of seven, the best of his career. No one doubted Whiteside’s ability to put up monster stats when given the minutes, but his role dissipated massively once Nurkic returned. What Whiteside is capable of next season will depend entirely on where the unrestricted free agent signs. If he’s in line for 30-plus minutes again, drafting him at the tail end of the first round makes some sense. But if there are any questions whatsoever about his workload, Whiteside won’t be worth the risk.