There are two mostly separate halves of operating a fantasy basketball team. The first is player evaluation, which is your version of the scouting department. Anybody can take a quick look at stats and player rankings in order to figure out who they want on their team, but it takes a bit of savvy to look at those and say “I disagree”. While a tendency to throw a bit too much trust in your gut will generally hurt you more than it helps, there really is no better feeling in fantasy sports than taking a gamble on an unpopular player and having it pay off.

The second major component to running a fantasy team is the transactional aspect, which is your version of the player operations department. It is great if you know which players will be the best this season, but there is no bigger game-breaker than knowing exactly how to finagle your way into a brilliant trade or a perfectly timed waiver acquisition.

Obviously, you benefit from being able to excel in both of these areas. However, I find that most owners tend to lean towards one or the other. Not everybody can be a fantasy savant, but everybody can figure out their own strengths and play to them.

We are at a point in the NBA season where many owners start to flex their muscles in the player operations department. While the scouting-centric owners are still feeling out which early-season breakouts are for real and which are statistical flukes, the trade maestros are looking to trade their hot tickets for more proven commodities. You’ve heard of this strategy: buy low, sell high. It’s a classic.

The big risk of this strategy comes around when you sell high on a player that stays high. While it is usually a good idea, this strategy does not work every time. The trick is knowing at what point it is worthwhile to simply sit on a player and see what they can do moving forward.

In one of the most surprising developments of the early season, the Orlando Magic are the top team in the Eastern Conference as of this writing. Even more surprising, they have actually looked good. Like, really good. This hasn’t been a case of a team that catches a couple of lucky nights, they have genuinely played good basketball. Obviously, they will regress as the season moves along, but it has been something worth keeping an eye on in a conference that doesn’t always offer much inspiration.

The reason I suddenly bring up the Magic is because they have three of the top 15 fantasy players to start the year, none of whom finished last season in the top 40. Nikola Vucevic currently sits at seventh after finishing 43rd last year, Evan Fournier is ranked eighth after finishing last season at 125, and Aaron Gordon is at 13 after finishing last season 132nd.

The question to ask at this point is: what is going on? Why are these players suddenly performing at such insane levels, and what can we expect from them moving forward? Most importantly, what should their fantasy owners be looking for in trades?

A quick disclaimer: all statistics and ranking included in this article do not include games from Sunday, October 29th.

Nikola Vucevic

Of Orlando’s overperforming trio, Vucevic is the one with the biggest precedent for success. He has been a fantasy-relevant player for several years now and tends to provide reliable numbers. However, he has never finished a season with the kind of numbers that he is putting up right now.

The most surprising thing about Vucevic’s hot start has not been his suddenly electric three-point shot (more on that in a bit), but the fact that none of his other stats are unprecedented. Some of his numbers are even down a bit from what you might expect. Let’s compare his line this season to his career-bests leading up to this season.

Minutes – FG% – 3PM – FT% – REB – AST – STL – BLK – TOV – PTS

2017-18: 30.0 – 60.5% – 2.0 – 80.0% – 8.6 – 2.6 – 0.6 – 2.0 – 1.8 – 22.0

Career High: 34.2 – 52.3% – 0.3 – 76.6% – 11.9 – 2.8 – 1.1 – 1.1 – 0.6 – 19.3

Vucevic has obviously never performed at this level in his career, but there are only two or three categories where he is doing things you couldn’t have seen coming. He probably won’t continue to shoot 45.5 percent from three-point range on the season, which means his three-pointers made could go down to something more like 1.5 per game if he continues to shoot at his current volume. However, it does not really matter how much he regresses because everything he gives you in that category is gravy.

The two areas where it is fair to expect significant regression: field goal percentage and blocks. Vucevic is known for scoring with solid volume, and he is definitely not known for stellar defense. It would not be surprising at all to see his blocks cut in half relatively soon, which the field goal percentage will probably go down by at least 5 percent moving forward. On the flip side, it is totally fair to think that the rebounds could actually go up, so some of the expected regression is accounted for.

Even if Vucevic sees mild regression across his entire stat line, he was a top 40 player last season, except he gives you three-pointers from your center slot this year. I am totally fine with his owners treating him like a top 25 talent moving forward. If you are going to trade him, my recommendation would be to target second-to-third tier point guards like Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard. While their owners may not be willing to get rid of such big names for a guy like Vucevic, but with the depth at point guard this season there is likely to be an owner out there with expendable guards.

Will Vucevic actually finish in the top 25? Probably not, but it is entirely possible. Thing is, there probably won’t be any time of the year that he looks more like a top 25 player than right now, so you might as well try to get that kind of value for him. To be honest, what is doing is almost sustainable, so you should not feel pressured to move him just because he is playing well. He may come down to earth, but you can expect to get production from him all year long. Unless you are hankering for a trade, try to avoid any trades that you don’t feel excellent about.

Evan Fournier

The Magic had a reputation last season as a team that was almost an exact counter to the NBA’s current small-ball trend. They would frequently toss out big lineups with very little shooting. To a large extent, those lineups are the same this season except everybody has started shooting the ball well.

The major exception from the get go has been Fournier, who has always been a solid shooter as a wing. He has not been able to give his fantasy owners much up to this point in his career because of the lack of versatility in his box scores, but owners looking for threes have known him as a reliable bench option for a couple of seasons now.

Through five games this year, he has absolutely blown up. A generally inefficient shooter throughout his career, he is converting 54.1 percent of his field goals. Always a sharpshooter beyond the arc, he is currently shooting a preposterous 56.0 percent from beyond the arc. His scoring average has leaped up to 22.2 points per game. Even his rebounds have jumped up in a big way (nobody can complain about getting 4.8 rebounds from their shooting guard).

So, here’s the thing. There is no way that Fournier keeps up any of his current percentages. His three-point percentage and free throw percentage are preposterous, but even his field goal percentage represents too significant of an uptick to really believe in. He could be in for a career year, but it is worth noting that scoring efficiency tends to be one of the streakier parts of basketball. It is totally normal for players to shoot incredibly one week and terribly the next.

Fournier could very well be in for a career year. He just turned 25, he has an established place in the NBA, and his team might actually even be good for once. But the word “breakout” means something different for a player that finished ranked 125th in the NBA last season. It would resemble a massive shift for him to enter the top 50. Even playing as a top 75 type of guy would mean a major breakout. For a player that has been relying on a hot shooting streak for the majority of his early season value, it feels like that is just about his ceiling for the year.

If you can get any top 50ish player for him, you need to do it. If you can get somebody around the top 75, you need to do it unless you just really love Fournier. Anything worse and you can probably hold on to Fournier and see where exactly he is going to end up this year. Fournier is a fun player to trade because people tend to overprioritize scoring averages, which happens to be one of only two statistics in which Fournier is consistently useful. Now that he is covering up his biggest weakness for you by shooting efficiently and performing way above what he can maintain throughout the year, it is a great opportunity to try to moving him.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon stands out on this list because of how much everybody wants him to succeed. He was a high draft pick and remains one of the freakiest athletes in the NBA. Those are the two qualities that are most often associated with superstar potential, and so even as the early part of his career has been tumultuous, Gordon has a big contingent of faithfuls (participating in the most exciting dunk contest of the last decade certainly didn’t hurt his profile in the NBA hype machine).

That is why so many people had Gordon pegged to be this year’s breakout star even before his hot start. Though he has missed two games, he has been impressive enough to ring up big time excitement. It makes sense, too; his stats look really good.

He has almost doubled his scoring average from last season while raising his efficiency by almost 15 percent (thanks mostly to a massive 41-ppoint outing). He looks like he has finally gotten his three-point shot working after letting it plague his game for the first three years of his career. He has almost doubled his rebounding average from last season, is receiving a career-high in minutes, and has even been solid from the free throw line while drawing more fouls than ever. It has been a small sample size, but he has been playing.

Let’s just get down to business before I get you too excited about him. There is no freaking way that Gordon average 23.7 points per game this season, or even 20. If he can get up over 15, it will be a step in the right direction for him. He is also quite obviously not going to make 72.7 percent of his three-point shots. Again, a modest 35 percent would be a big step up for him. It is almost inconceivable that he continues to shoot 59.5 percent from the field throughout the season.

Okay, now that I have effectively hyped you up about Gordon and then hyped you down (unhyped you?), let’s talk about what it is actually fair to expect from him. His big upside and lack of consistency in former years leads to a much wider range of possibilities for Gordon than exists for Vucevic or Fournier, which is why I want to first emphasize that you should think of Gordon as a gamble.

There is a lot more randomness in sports than people like to admit, and that permeates into the fantasy game. While skill and processes will always be the best indicators of success, luck and probability play a role. A guy like Gordon is going to have a bunch of people that say he isn’t ready to perform at a high level, and then he will have a big crowd of people saying that he is a soon-to-be star. In the end, half of these people will be right and half will be wrong. Over time, most people are right about as often as they are wrong when it comes to making predictions regarding volatile players like Gordon. That is why it is important to understand basic concepts of probability when evaluating him.

The first thing we’ll want to establish is his expected value. That is the valuation we will use for estimating fair trades. Last season, Gordon was the 132nd best fantasy player. We expect him to be quite a bit better this year, though obviously not a top 15 player like he has been so far. It is probably fair to expect him to get 16 points per game on 50% shooting, 1.5 threes, hit 75% of his free throws, get 7.5 rebounds, one steal and one block per game. That would roughly place him between 80th and 100th this season. If you can get a top 60 or better player for him, you need to do it.

Next, his ceiling and his floor. His floor is easy, as it is probably what he did last year. His ceiling is a bit trickier to estimate. He has never done anything that great, but he is obviously bursting with potential. At his absolute best, I think he could enter the top 50 this season. I would be surprised if he ended the year in the top 40.

The question of whether to trade Gordon comes down to how much risk you are willing to take on. If you trade him for a player that you expect to finish around 80th this season, that is a fair value. However, there is a really good chance that you end up winning or losing that trade by a lot. In general, every owner should have one or two risky players on their roster. It gives your team some upside. However, if you find yourself with a roster full of rookies and breakout candidates, you will probably be best off securing a ground floor for your team.

Establishing the kind of team you want starts with understanding what kind of team you want. Do you want to play it safe in the hopes of reliably cruising to the playoffs, or do you want to go all in on the chance to be a top contender, with the tradeoff of possibly missing the playoffs altogether? Once you know what you want to do with your team, you will more easily be able to evaluate if Gordon and similarly risky players are worth holding on to.

Posted in Strategy