I enjoy fantasy sports. This isn’t a terribly unique thing to say, fantasy football has played a large part in the NFL’s current ratings invincibility. The quality of the NFL is basically irrelevant at this point and mostly has been for about fifteen years now (if not longer). This is in no small measure due to fantasy football, which is basically an abridged form of gambling for those that shy away from bookies and legalized Vegas sports books. It keeps things interesting in what would be a wholly uninteresting entity for many of its consumers, who might abstain from their product if not for the Fantasy outlet. It gives the league a universal instead of a local appeal.
Let’s say, for instance, you’re a twenty-something Seattlite with expendable income and no dependents, and the Sunday night game is a hypothetical Rams-Titans November match-up. Doesn’t have a lot of commercial appeal, does it? Sam Bradford vs. Jake Locker (or whoever was helming the Titans offense for half the season). Neither team was a playoff threat or contender, and at that point in the season it almost hurts their franchise to win anymore games. And yet, if you have to start Bradford on a bye-week (God help you if you have to start him weekly), or you need Kenny Britt to finally produce like he’s obviously capable of producing, or are hoping either starting running back will return to 2009 form; well, this game gets a whole lot more interesting. It’s no longer a battle between two pedestrian NFL teams you have no vested emotional interest in, but rather a litmus test of your football insight that threatens your chances at a $1,100 payday (or whatever your potential fantasy winnings are).
Point being, fantasy sports provide substance where it’s otherwise non-existent. This point is even more relevant for fantasy basketball than it is for its older NFL brother. There are 82 games a season, most of which feature match-ups between teams that have no post-season hope and others that “might win a couple games and sneak into the second round.” The majority of NBA fans, including denizens of the two competing cities, shrug their shoulders at the outcome of an NBA game pre-March. Fantasy basketball is a fruitful resource for those looking to maintain an interest in the NBA yet struggle to find the justification to do so. And it’s usually a pleasant experience, even if it fails to provide a financial reward.
That’s usually, but the 2012-2013 season is proving to be the exception that proves the rule. Fantasy basketball is a fringe fantasy sport, falling a distant third behind football and baseball. It isn’t a reflection of its popularity, it’s simply that for football it’s far more convenient and less time consuming (generally only one day a week) and baseball has always been stats heavy and obsessed, to the point many think it devalues the enjoyment of the game. When comparing the three leagues, the NBA is a distant second to the NFL in time-consumption, and a distant second to baseball in statistical focus, as a result it’s third in fantasy sports. Which I found odd, because fantasy basketball was always more of a meritocracy, that your moves and lineup decisions carried more weight than that of either football (too luck, freak-occurrence based) and baseball (too much randomization and any one move was far too insignificant).
But this season has turned into some bastardized version of how we (me and the league I’m in) have always perceived fantasy basketball. It’s now some twisted amalgamation of luck and foresight, where in hindsight, the former was all too important at the time of our draft. Employing any sound strategy fell to the wayside of getting Kemba Walker for $2 in your fantasy draft. Just look at the All-Star game for evidence, there were seven new participants in this years contest: Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler and James Harden. Some of these selections were inevitable (Irving), some were overdue (Chandler) and some were the result of roster and/or team changes that opened up available minutes (Lopez, George, Noah, Harden & Holiday). All the same, coming into the season it was essentially a roll of the dice to foresee why some of these guys (and others) would flourish this year and others wouldn’t. That’s why the two people leading my fantasy league this year are also two people who have never won anything in eight years of fantasy football and basketball. And boy, am I livid about this development.
Let’s veer away from the all-star selections for a minute, as that’s somewhat limiting and doesn’t speak to the larger “changing of the guard” that’s at hand. Take for example, the battle for minutes between Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat in Phoenix. Over the last few years Scola has been objectively the better player, producing more on both ends of the court than Gortat, yet Gortat had been playing in Phoenix, has a better grasp of the system and estabished camaraderie with most of his fellow teammates. This would lead one to believe their productivity split would be roughly 50/50. Yet up until about a week or two before the all-star break, this simply wasn’t the case. Much to the delight of Gortat owners everywhere, the giant Pollock was besting the giant Argentinian in minutes, blocks points, rebounds and every other relevant statistical category for post-players. There are countless examples of this: Jeff Teague and Louis Williams, the army of under-sized big men in Utah, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, the random assemblage of guys who play basketball well enough in Orlando, etc.
You can look at this from the opposite perspective as well. Take the current seasons of Brooklynite hopefuls Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, both of whom whose statistical production has almost flatlined compared to the previous five-seven years. There was no accounting for this development. In fact, considering how thin the Nets roster is, if one of these guys started to backslide, conventional wisdom would lead you to believe the other would pick up the slack. That hasn’t been the case. Instead, The Nets will end up as the four or five seed and lose in the first round to either the Knicks, Hawks, Pacers or Bulls.
These two aren’t anamolies. There has been a whole slew of former all-stars and just statistically reliable players to fall by the wayside: Danny Granger, Dirk Nowtizki, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, Andre Iguodala, Manu Ginobli. All of these guys, while still producing solid numbers when healthy, are a noticeable step slower than they were last season.
Combined with the arrivals of various expectancies from players such as Greg Monroe, Klay Thompson, Ryan Anderson, Kemba Walker, Jamal Crawford, DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry, Greivis Vasquez and countless others, there’s been almost a race to the middle in the NBA this year, providing more competitive teams (notably in the West) yet less reliable fantasy players. Of all the guys named in these two paragraphs, it isn’t surprising if they go for over thirty or under ten, which has lead from frustration over guessing wrong in the draft to nightly frustration over guys literally and figuratively taking the night off without reason and/or notice.
Looking at the phenomena league wide, there’s only eleven players this year averaging 20+ PPG, compared with seventeen such players last season; and that’s just a microcosm of what’s happening. The only statistical category with players on the higher end of reliability seems to be rebounds, and that’s just a byproduct of diminished field goal percentages.
There aren’t any repercussions to this other than fantasy basketball feels more luck based than it ever has before, and not like the humble meritocracy it once sort of resembled. You could interpret this article as sour grapes, a prolonged white-whine session propogated by someone whose expectations for life and gambling far exceed any reasonable measure. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But I’d like to think my gripe with this current direction the NBA and fantasy basketball is heading in, is based more on statistics and not anecdotes. Because I’m hardly the first person to acknowledge this trend. You don’t even need to play fantasy basketball to assume it has turned into a back-alley craps game with less transparent odds, but simply watch the NBA. It’s all well and good for the league I suppose, but it makes the slog through the fantasy NBA season all the longer if your team isn’t performing up to snuff.
I’d rather abandon the NBA entirely out of disinterest than sit through this again. When you think about it, investing in something just to keep your interest piqued kind of defeats the purpose of investing in said thing in the first place. I’m not quite that fargone, I still like watching my small market teams: Pacers, Cavs, Blazers, Spurs, etc. But just to be safe, to spare myself the indignity of feeling like an idiot every night I flip on an NBA game, I think next season we’re finding a neighborhood bookie. At least the sting of the loss will wear off after three hours, instead of prodding me for six straight months.