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NBA Skill Set Scarcity: Where Are the Efficient Bigs?

I'm a huge fan of Jrue Holiday. I truly believe he might be the most underrated point guard of our generation in both real life and for many years, in fantasy too. He's an elite defender who has finished better than the 90th percentile in on/off opponents' point per possession numbers in his career, with a 97th percentile finish last season in which Philly allowed 9.6 (!) less points per possession with Jrue on the court than off. In fantasy, he possesses one of the most unique spreads in the game with his out of position field goal % you can't find from a point guard not named Curry or Simmons to go with elite assist and steal marks. I boost Jrue all the time--I think he's a top 20 player this season and was thrilled to have him fall to me at #30 this year in a 12-man snake draft.

Then I went and traded Jrue Holiday down for LaMarcus Aldridge before the season even started.

This is not a negative endorsement of Jrue at all, I think he is a top-20 player and worth a top 20 pick. I think he is pound for pound a better fantasy player than LaMarcus Aldridge in a vacuum, and this is not a trade made off of misguided injury concerns for a guy who's hopefully shed that hastily placed label by now. It's just that I realized that the way my team shaped up during and after this draft, my team got better from trading down - and make no mistake, I traded down - and it's something I've begun to notice in almost all my drafts this year. Efficient big men have become an even more valuable resource than usual, and by skipping out on them in the early rounds, it's really easy to find your team missing exactly what these guys sell.

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What's different this year?

Anyone who's played fantasy football or fantasy baseball this year knows how much of a crap shoot tight end and catcher are in those respective games. Aside from the first 5 or so guys, you can almost throw a dart at a board of tight ends blindfolded and have a better shot at who is going to return TE1 value in a given week. And I've seen fantasy teams literally start nothing in their catcher spot weekly in deeper baseball leagues, since it was almost impossible to find a guy who wouldn't project to kill your ratios in any given week with a meager chance at some counting stats.

The way basketball is structured doesn't lend itself to the same kind of wasteland scenario that those positions present in the other sports. But this year there is a distinct lack of efficient bigs and it's becoming evidently more important to address the issue early, or find yourself scrambling to fix a team that is lacking in what they provide. There are a few reasons why this year has been worse, so let's take a look at them.

Unicorns Can Bleed

One reason we have reached a tipping point on this issue is that two early round bigs who were perfect big pivots for a number of punt builds suffered significant injuries last year, taking them off draft boards for this season. Kristaps Porzingis is one of very few center eligible players who combines elite block rates with a positive FT% contribution, and the ripple effects of his injury can be felt up and down the draft board. Punt FG% builds saw him as a cornerstone for blocks coverage and now have to rely even heavier on guys like Marc Gasol and even look at LaMarcus Aldridge to fill that role. Both those guys don't provide nearly as many blocks as Porzingis did, so teams have to look for coverage elsewhere, and it's leading to a lot more big selections or selections of out of position block contributors like Josh Richardson or Jonathan Isaac later on in the draft to cover that deficiency.

DeMarcus Cousins might not be a beacon of efficiency in real life, but he has percentages that won't absolutely murder you either way and slotted quite nicely as a pivot for a punt in either % stat and was still reasonable if you punted something like steals or assists. With him off the board other than as a late IL stash, that's another missing piece for those builds that's causing some fights later down the draft board. While losing 2 players might not seem like a lot, the domino effect that their absence has caused has created a stronger demand for the guys still standing that reverberates up and down the rankings.

The Burden of Improvement

On the other hand, the very best efficient bigs just got too good. Karl-Anthony Towns has ascended to a top 3 pick, which was expected by this point in his career, but he's now joined by Nikola Jokic as well in the top 8. Joel Embiid has shaken off a lot of his injury concerns last season and is now being taken off the board in the top 12 pretty consistently, and Kevin Love has also now moved into a fairly solid second round valuation in his new starring role as the tank commander in Cleveland.

With the cost of these guys increasing, coverage is becoming increasingly hard to get without changing up your draft boards early on, and it is leading to a lot of teams fighting over guys like Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic, and LaMarcus Aldridge. All 3 of these guys have their flaws, but you need to reach a bit higher than their ADP in most leagues to get them. The same can be said about Deandre Ayton, who has been going as high as the 2nd to 3rd round in a lot of leagues now, further underscoring the demand for this skillset. You can also add guys like John Collins and Jarrett Allen to this list, as they are being taken in the 4th round as well despite a short track record and some question marks surrounding them.

This has had a ripple effect lower down the draft board as guys like Enes Kanter, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Paul Millsap are being snatched up at above ADP despite various risks and deficiencies as anyone who missed out earlier scrambles for that coverage.

Something is Missing

Another cause behind this problem is that the influx of strong bigs in the last few years has delivered some pretty build-specific players. Their lack of flexibility to slot in a multitude of builds has caused them to only be options for a small section of teams in drafts. We all know about Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan, but in recent years we've also added Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Steven Adams to the top 70 as bigs who restrict you to punt FT% or 3s builds.

Most of the players in the middle rounds mentioned in the previous part have their own deficiencies as well that lead to certain team building restrictions and other risk factors. Marc Gasol has seen his FG% drop a lot in recent years since he started taking 3s, and now is a much stronger punt FG% option than any other build. Aldridge has a distinct lack of 3s. Kanter lacks 3s as well as defensive stats. Ayton, Collins and Allen have short track records and are being drafted that highly based on projection. Horford and Millsap have some decline risk due to their age and situations. Brook Lopez has had injury issues and question marks surrounding his fit in a new system.

Also with guys like Pau Gasol and Cody Zeller all but fading from fantasy relevance, there's just not as high of a volume of efficient bigs as usual. Some of the guys who many expected to make bigger strides by now just haven't. Myles Turner took a huge step back last season and there's no guarantee he turns into the mini-KAT people expected him to become this year presenting a pretty big risk as his ADP. Jonas Valanciunas has seen his role ebb and flow over the years and has combined stretches of fantasy brilliance with frustrating slumps where he barely sees the court. Willy Hernangomez got kind of messed around with in New York and hasn't really had a chance to develop much at all. Hopefully he gets that chance in Charlotte, but it's hard to count on that for your team. That's why we're all so high on John Collins and Jarrett Allen this year, and I'm in on taking a chance on them hoping we don't get another Myles Turner situation.


What Does This Mean?

From a strategy point of view, what this means is paying attention to stat coverage early in the draft even if it means reaching a little. As draft boards adjust and people start to realize this effect, it may not be a bad idea to trade "down" in order to round out your team. For anyone who's read Moneyball, the biggest lesson in that book isn't "fat guys that get on base are valuable." It's learning to recognize inefficiencies and adapting to them, using them to your advantage. A lack of efficient bigs is an inefficiency in our game right now, and covering your bases early means you can grab value late while your league-mates scramble. Do a little bit of planning then sit back and enjoy the chaos.

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