By Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
In the fantasy basketball world, the term “bust” takes on a different meaning than it does in baseball or football. Rarely does an NBA player truly bust in the sense that, in the absence of major injuries, his production falls drastically short of the prevailing expectation. Sure, he might not be as efficient as expected, or he might slip in a category or two, but for the most part, NBA players’ production tends to be fairly consistent every year.
When we’re trying to identify busts in the preseason, what we’re really doing is looking for players who are overrated relative to their draft position. At the right price, every player on the list below should be drafted, but the goal is to ensure you’re not paying too much for what could be an overpriced asset.
With that in mind, here are some players to consider approaching with caution as draft season approaches.
Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Of all of the superstars in the NBA, Leonard’s box-score stats are probably the least reflective of his real-life value. Calling him the best player in the league isn’t a stretch. He’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time Finals MVP. But he ranked just 14th in usage rate last season, despite being the Raptors’ clear-cut best player. He’s not really a volume scorer (25.4 PPG over the last three seasons), and he’s not exactly a playmaker, either (3.4 APG to 2.0 TPG over that stretch).
Make no mistake: Leonard is incredibly efficient (60.5 TS%), and his defensive numbers are gaudy (career 2.5 blocks/steals per game). But it’s not enough to warrant any type of consideration in the top five of a fantasy draft. In fact, it’s not difficult to argue he should be taken outside of the top-10 in most formats. Leonard’s best-ever fantasy finish was eighth overall, but that was when he played in 74 games for the Spurs three years ago. It was also the highest-usage season of his career. Considering his load management regimen and the quality of talent around him in LA, we shouldn’t expect Leonard to have that kind of season again any time soon. Maybe he can do better than his rank of 22 overall last season while playing in just 60 games, but selecting him in the first round is a risky proposition.
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
Chances are, Conley will be selected in the mid-30s of your fantasy draft. Based on historical context, that makes sense. He’s finished as a top-35 player four times in his career, and he’s finished top-50 seven times. There’s been constant clamoring for nearly a decade that Conley is an All-Star-caliber player, and it’s hard to disagree. He’s a solid shooter, good defender, and he takes care of the basketball as well as any floor general in the league.
But this Jazz team is shaping up to be one of the best rosters Conley has ever been a part of. Utah’s over/under is 54.5 wins, and Conley has played on just two 54-plus-win teams in his career. And on both of those teams, Conley was the only player trusted to handle the ball and distribute — unless we’re counting Jerryd Bayless or Beno Udrih.
Now 32 years old, Conley will be able to cede some playmaking responsibilities to Donovan Mitchell (4.2 APG last season) and Joe Ingles (5.7 APG). He probably won’t need to take 16.0 shots per game, either. Maybe the improved surroundings result in an efficiency boost and more catch-and-shoot threes, but more factors are weighing against Conley than for him, from a fantasy perspective.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
Based on some early drafts, it appears fantasy owners are still clinging to Oladipo’s breakout campaign in 2017-18 when he averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while also leading the league in steals. He deserves recognition for that, as he was the 10th-best fantasy player on a per-game basis. But that was three years ago, and he’s coming off a serious injury.
Last year, before getting hurt, Oladipo was just the 50th-ranked fantasy player in the NBA. This season, what are the chances he comes back before January, plays in every game possible, and puts up the same numbers as 2018-19? In short, they’re not great.
In all likelihood, Oladipo will be eased back into action and take games off, and it’ll likely take several weeks for him to look like his old self after such an extensive layoff. Plus, the Pacers added Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb in the offseason, so Oladipo’s nightly workload won’t be what it was when he was at his peak.
All in all, drafting Oladipo in the top-100 carries significant risk. At some point, that risk becomes worth the reward, but it’s probably worth exploring other options.
Marcus Morris, New York Knicks
Morris had a minor fantasy resurgence last season in Boston, helping provide the Celtics with some stability on the wing amid Gordon Hayward’s struggles. He saw 27.9 minutes per game, averaging career highs in threes (1.9 per game), rebounds (6.1), field goal percentage (44.7) and free throw percentage (84.4). Still, it was only enough to earn him a one-year deal with the Knicks, who have an extremely complicated forward rotation on their hands. In addition to Morris, all of Kevin Knox, Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, RJ Barrett, Damyean Dotson, and Reggie Bullock will be in the mix. Rookie second-rounder Ignas Brazdeikis also impressed in summer league.
The Knicks (probably) didn’t hand Morris $15 million to sit on the bench, so he figures to be in line for around 20 minutes on most nights. But given the wealth of other options surrounding him, Morris has a pretty low ceiling as a fantasy asset. He’s being drafted as early as the mid-70s, which is far, far too high — concerningly high. Even at his peak, Morris never finished inside the top-110 on a per-game basis, and his best total finish was 83rd back in 2015-16 when he saw nearly 36 minutes per game and appeared in 80 contests.
Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan, Brooklyn Nets
In what was arguably a poor use of resources, Brooklyn inked Jordan to a four-year, $40 million contract in July, despite the presence of another young center on the roster. The money suggests Jordan will be the starter, and while it was easy to see he was disinterested last season playing for the Mavericks and the Knicks, he still finished as the 59th-best fantasy asset on a per-game basis — the fourth-best finish of his career. That was largely tied to a meaningful increase in his free-throw percentage (70.5) and increased assist numbers (2.3 APG).
Meanwhile, Allen ranked 98th on a per-game basis last season, seeing a relatively modest 26.2 minutes per night as the full-time starter. And while it’s reasonable to expect skill improvement from the 21 year old, the addition of Jordan will make it difficult for Allen’s role to increase. In early drafts, Allen is often being drafted ahead of Jordan — something I personally can’t endorse — but the reality of the situation is that they’re both risky. It’s possible, if not inevitable, that they split minutes almost evenly. Unless you’re getting excellent value, it’s probably best to avoid the situation entirely. Gambling on one or the other in the middle rounds of a draft could set you back.
Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant, Denver Nuggets
It’s fair to speculate whether or not the Nuggets would have opted into Millsap’s player option had the organization known Grant would become available. While having both gives Denver one of the deepest frontcourts in the league, it complicates each player’s fantasy value.
Even before adding Grant, Millsap’s value was on the decline. His workload has dropped in each of the past three seasons, and he sunk to 27.1 MPG last year. Plus, injuries have limited Millsap to an average of 59 games in that span.
Grant, meanwhile, is coming off of a mini-breakout in Oklahoma City, but he played nearly 33 minutes per game — a mark that would be nearly impossible to reach this season. He’s a low-usage player (15.4% USG), so he needs all the minutes he can get to be fantasy relevant. At the end of the day, this is like the power forward equivalent of the dilemma in Brooklyn. Both players can still be rosterable, but their respective ceilings are lower than they were a year ago.