<
>

Fantasy basketball: Why small forward is the most important position in 2021

Jaylen Brown is in the midst of a breakout season with the Celtics. Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

As promised during this attenuated preseason, I am paying newfound special attention to our revised points-based system.

One area that has required some adjustment of my traditional roto-based approach? Scarcity. The notion of accruing additional value in area where value is in short supply.

Here's a quick breakdown of scarcity.

In your league, you and your fellow managers are competing for a finite amount of available production. Production that's made up of rebounds, points scored, assists, turnovers, etc. Scarcity looks at ways that production is bunched up together and accrued.

Traditionally, fantasy managers consider two subdivisions of scarcity: categorical and positional.

But in a points-based mindset? Positional scarcity becomes more important.

Which positions are offering more production? Which are offering less? This is key because the positions that offer less production are the ones that bear closer attention. Because that's where the scarcity lies. And the more players you roster at those positions, the more of edge you gain in your league. Because you're cornering a market.

This preseason, I told you how positional scarcity has shifted. That it has executed a complete 180 from where it was twenty years ago.

Back then, centers were king. (When this is all over, we will sit by the fire and I will sing you "The Ballad of Raef LaFrentz.") But at present? I am all about small forwards. I was in preseason, and now that the games have started? My prediction is proving absolutely true. (Just like my bold Myles Turner prediction.)

There was a time when small forward production piled up to the skies. That small forward was the exclusive domain of broad-based categorical production. Points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, 3s. Twenty years ago, there was only one position you could get all of that in one package: small forward. And the market overflowed.

But as positions flattened? The dynamics shifted. Now you have centers that dish like point guards. Point guards that rebound and block shots. Now, you can find broad-based production at any position.

At the same time, positional qualifications have relaxed. And while ESPN.com's standards are still more regimented (and way better) than some other websites I could mention, rostering a productive center is just easier.

(At lot of it is due to one simple fact: most leagues only require you to start one center. In your average-sized league, you are fine with a couple of PF/Cs.)

What does this all boil down to? Roughly speaking, centers are 15% less valuable than how they appear on the Player Rater. And small forwards are 15% more valuable.

When you look at the Player Rater, and gauge the value of a center in a trade, or a small forward? Make the same calculation you make for a gratuity, then add or subtract. (I tip 20%, so I carry that over into this equation, just for emphasis.)

Let's take a look at the current, inflated small forward market.

(I'm breaking it down by tier. And I'm listing players by their value to date. I'm also factoring in points-league valuation. So, some of your expectations will be scrambled but I'm doing it on purpose to draw your attention to where the ground is shifting. Like I said, things are tumultuous right now.)

TIER ONE

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

These names are the ones you'd expect at or near the top of the Player Rater rankings at small forward. Right now? None of these names are near the top of the Player Rater. LeBron is closest at No. 5 overall. Giannis is 12th. But I'm keeping this tier intact for two reasons. One: when you evaluate per our new points system, these names still rise towards the top. Two: I don't want you overreacting and dealing your top SF based on a couple of mediocre weeks.

Brown and Leonard are both outperforming their ADPs. Brown by about three full rounds, and Leonard by a round. Both are benefiting from the new valuation emphasis placed on steals and blocks. Brown's early surge looks sustainable. One of the best bellwethers: he's averaging an elite-level 19.0 field goal attempts per game.

TIER TWO

Gordon Hayward, Charlotte Hornets
Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Caris LeVert, Indiana Pacers
Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

The only disappointment to date in this tier: Tatum. He's scoring points in bunches, but his lack of elite defensive counting stats and so-so free throw production is keeping him out of the top tier.

George is producing right about where I pegged him in preseason. Meaning that he was massively undervalued, due to all the negative buzz from the Clippers' postseason flameout.

Three pleasant surprises make up the rest of the tier. LeVert gets a boost in Indiana, where he's out of the shadows of the superstars in Brooklyn and is likely to start. And it's not difficult to see Hayward and Grant retaining the level of value.

Hayward has delivered in the past. Hopefully, relative health, and stable playing time on a lower-expectation team are what he needs for a sustained return to form. Grant is finally getting an extended opportunity and touches. And like Hayward, he benefits from an elevated role on a lower-expectation squad.

TIER THREE

Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Durant, Doncic and Butler... side-by-side with Bridges, Wiggins and Middleton. Welcome to NBA 2021.

Their early season slippage is largely attested to a simple reason: lost playing time. Only a dozen games into the schedule, missing 2-3 contests leaves quite the divot. Durant and Doncic have only played eight games apiece. Butler's only played six. Over the course of the season, relative health will elevate all three back into Tier Two. But at this rate? It may be tough for any of these big three to finish in the top tier at SF.

Mikal Bridges was a personal preseason favorite. His breakout isn't a big surprise. As the season progresses, and his Usage increases, I could see him breaking into Tier Two. But I will admit I'm pleasantly surprised at Middleton... and especially Wiggins.

I shouldn't be that surprised. Last season, Wiggins showed signs of evolving beyond what I call an "Empty Points" player. Turns out, he's landed in an ideal spot to continue that progression towards all-around fantasy producer.

Two seasons ago, the idea of Wiggins eating 2.3 steals + blocks would have read as fan fiction. But that's what Wiggins is doing. If anything, he's continuing to build momentum on defense, especially in blocks (nine blocks in two games earns you this type of incisive analysis).

TIER FOUR

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

You can make a case for DeRozan, Harris and Ingram having slipped a tier based on a lack of games played. I've never been a big-post Clippers fan of Harris' fantasy game. But he impressed me with an early season binge in blocks and (especially) steals.

Keep an eye on Johnson. He's running very hot and very cold. But he showed me something in back-to-back games on Jan. 1 and 3: 48 points, 17 rebounds, five 3s and four steals. He's showing signs of becoming one of those Spurs that will throw down the occasional turkey but deliver in the big picture.

TIER FIVE

Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns
Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
Nicolas Batum, Los Angeles Clippers
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
Danny Green, Philadelphia 76ers
De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic
Kelly Oubre Jr. Golden State Warriors
Royce O'Neale, Utah Jazz
Cedi Osman, Cleveland Cavaliers
Robert Covington, Portland Trail Blazers
Deni Avdija, Washington Wizards

A 13-man tier? I went a little hog-wild here. But the market in small forwards is so important this season, that you have to consider players on this tier. With all the volatility in the NBA's schedule? There's a good chance four-to-five of these names end up as high as tier three.

Aside from Covington, who's in another one of his (fantasy) legendary shooting slumps, most of these players could be qualified as nice surprises. It does my old fantasy heart good to be able to Batum back on any tier. He's in a good situation to reclaim some of his old fantasy value. Remember, back when he was a roto star, he didn't need a ton of touches.

Of the Tier Five group, I'm particularly bullish on Miles Bridges, Hunter and Osman. All three players are getting more minutes than anticipated, which is a huge factor for young, developing, high-upside fantasy producers.