Fantasy basketball: Big-name stars to trade for now

Nikola Jokic was the consensus No. 1 pick in virtually every fantasy format this season. Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

This Newtonian edict may have made the young, dateless me sleepy in eighth-grade science. But whenever I pass the quarter pole of a fantasy NBA campaign, Sir Issac reanimates and rattles my frontal lobe with perspective-setting regularity.

The dude under the apple tree wants to remind me that for every hot start, there is an equally chilly start. For every Lauri Markkanen (12th on the Player Rater) there is a Damian Lillard (125th).

One should visualize the player pool (roughly, the top 150 names on the Player Rater) as a self-contained market. A market offering a finite amount of fantasy value. The player pool, on average, hovers around 2000 Player Rater points.

It is an additive and subtractive pool of value. When one player registers an unexpected rise, another player falls. In a fantasy basketball season, equal and opposite reactions to valuation are constantly transpiring.

Barring NBA Commissioner Adam Silver adding a 4-point shot as a President's Day promotion, there isn't going to be a sudden unexpected influx of added production to the player pool. The ABA isn't walking through that door.

The finite value precept holds when considering a season-altering trade.

It's baked into our trade vernacular: we aspire to add players at their lowest fantasy value, trade them away at their highest, and avoid the opposite side of that dynamic at all costs. We want to win our trades; actually, we need to. We need to boost our team, knowing we are taking value from other teams.

But at the same time, remember there is a difference between needing to win a trade versus needing everyone in your league to know you won a trade. That is how you get labeled a "shark." (And no one likes to do business with a loud-and-proud shark. Beware managers who fail to conceal their dorsal fin.)

You may know a manager or two who's known for only making one-sided deals in their favor. I always wonder why managers continue to deal with the well-known historical sharks in their league. One-sided deals are bad for the league as a whole. They blunt vigorous free-market dork competition.

Because those types of one-sided deals invariably kneecap a league's trade market. Because that one-sided deal set an impossible standard for rational actors in the trade market to follow.

And for every shark, there is a mark. The permanently befuddled manager sharks circle when they must purloin some added production. The manager that chases hot takes. The manager that always trades for players at their highest value and deals them away at their lowest value. Always. ALWAYS.

If you're feeling a little befuddled after all that Thanksgiving tryptophan? Have no fear. The author is here to help you find the best fantasy values among the big-name stars.

Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

It's probably a game too late to firmly affix the "slow-starter" sticker to The Joker's jersey. But based on upside? Jokic is technically the top candidate in any league.

Still, a little obvious. But I'm starting here to elucidate a couple of points.

First: failure is relative. Relative to the expectations for the player, but also relative to time.

Jokic is currently No. 7 overall on the Player Rater for the season. Not bad, but for a player who steamrolled all preseason rankings as the universally-anointed top pick in fantasy? Yeah... kind of a "fail" so far. When a player with No. 1 overall expectations is seventh? By definition, Jokic is atop this list.

Relative to time is the key consideration in this type of trade. Because timing in a trade is everything. A less-experienced manager may only look at production for the season as a whole. Or even worse; as per-game production.

In loading up an offer, you need to look at windows of time. Statistical snapshots.

The last 7 days. The last 15 days. Even a month. Because the manager who controls that player is being affected by recent events; even if they don't realize it. Managerial panic in fantasy basketball isn't as identifiable as panic in fantasy football, but it is there.

And the fear of getting value back in return for a struggling player... before they conceivably bottom out? That fear is what creates said panic. And that, as much as it hurts to type it, is what you need to capitalize on.

A Jokic manager has made a huge investment for Jokic's services. Jokic's ROI, to date, is disappointing. Look for moments where it seemingly all falls apart for a player, then pounce.

Two weeks ago? That's how the one-week window looked for Jokic. An oddly unsatisfying 8-point, 14-assist night... then three games off due to COVID. Oh man, I am burning karma points to tell you this, but those are the windows of trade opportunity.

Because... (eyes closing, blurting in one whisper) short-term injury or illness is the perfect time to pitch a trade.

CJ McCollum, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans

So by now, you should be able to recognize the dynamics. McCollum was in the middle of a Marianas-Trench deep shooting slump. Then he was out due to illness. Then he went into the COVID protocols. That's a cornucopia of subtractive reaction... a short-term window where McCollum was hemorrhaging value.

But here's another metric to assess in an offer: usage rate. And here's the key: even he couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with his jumper, McCollum's usage rate was climbing. Over the years, McCollum has subtly diversified his fantasy portfolio in a way that now means his value doesn't live or die with his shot.

And when McCollum was traded to New Orleans? He kinda went full-blown Dejounte Murray. Meaning: he's leading by statistical example. Showing teammates, coaches -- and non-panicky fantasy managers -- he will find a way to produce, regardless of field goal percentage.

Dejounte Murray, PG/SG, Atlanta Hawks

In points leagues? Murray is a moderate disappointment. Performing two rounds or so below his ADP value. But Murray's efficiency is holding... just in less-obvious ways. He's only about a round below ADP in roto formats.

Which portends an opportunity for savvy managers to make a trade.

Volume comes and goes. Shooters can be streaky. But proven efficiency mavens like Murray know how to feed their PER even when their shot is off. Over the past 15 days, Murray's down to a 41.3 FG%. In the 15-game snapshot, Murray's "only" averaged 18.7 PTS, 4.3 AST, 4.9 REB, 2.4 3PG and 1.6 STL. Even when Murray's shot is off, he's subtly weathering the storm. Because of his rebounding, his defense, and the fact that a plurality of his shot attempts are from downtown.

When assessing this type of player, look at their shot selection. How many of their field goal attempts are 3s? If they are taking the right kinds of shots, but they just aren't falling in a short window of games? It's a sign there's a prime opportunity to make a trade offer.