Power forward scarcity

11/20/2013 - NBA

I get excited when a new trend begins to develop in the fantasy basketball statistical market. I get excited at the mysteries of a spreadsheet, especially when the results buck a previously assembled version of my own assembled conventional wisdom.

This new trend has to do with positional scarcity, a topic we grazed in last week's column on categorical scarcity.

Positional scarcity simply asks us to pay attention to the positions on the floor where there is more and less available value.

But it also asks us to consider how that value is distributed across the position. Is it a top-heavy position, where only five or six top producers generate a disproportionate amount of value? Or is it flatter, where the production follows a nice, gradual downward slope?

"Nice" is probably the wrong word to use. Because we don't want a nice, downward slope.

We want clearly defined tiers of value, areas where there's a noticeable drop-off in value from one player to the next. We want cliffs, because cliffs show clusters of consolidated, top-heavy value in that position.

We want that because that means it's a position where, by grabbing one of a few elites, you've cornered a large part of the market in terms of available value.

When I first began my fantasy basketball career 12 or so years ago, the conventional wisdom was to go big. Center was the scarcest position in fantasy. For years, targeting centers and point guards was a winning strategy.

Then the market changed. It changed because of two reasons: 1) the liberalization of center eligibility (look at all the PF/Cs out there), and 2) the onslaught of our current golden age of the point guard.

The trend swung to emphasize all backcourt players. Shooting guard, for all its sociopathic statistical tendencies, has become a scarce position over recent seasons. Why? Because of the drop-off from James Harden/Stephen Curry/Kobe Bryant/Paul George to everybody else.

This season, fantasy basketball production as a whole is down across the board. In 2012-13, Kevin Durant posted a league-high Player Rater score of 22.11. Right now, Anthony Davis leads the league with a comparatively paltry 15.22.

For instance, take a look at the contrast in available value measured across point guards last season and so far in 2013-14. We do this by graphing Player Rater values across the top 40 players at the position.

The distribution of value is similar (look at the shape of the lines), but the amount of total production has dropped by over 25 percent. You'll also see how there's a steep drop that creates a definitive top tier (thanks to Chris Paul and Curry).

Now, it's still early. There will be a bounce back. But even within these depressed surroundings, there is one small group of players at a certain position who are outperforming last season's averages.

In past seasons, the most pedestrian position in fantasy basketball has been power forward.

Power forward historically offers the flattest distribution of production. Not a lot of wild variations from your top 4s on down, from Kevin Love to DeJuan Blair. The drop-off from your elites to waiver-wire flotsam is a bunny slope.

Traditionally, you don't bend yourself out of shape consolidating value at power forward. But this is 2013, and things are changing.

This season, power forward has 1) the highest amount of available production across the five positions, and 2) the most top-heavy, most-consolidated distribution of value. When contrasted versus past seasons, it's pretty dramatic.

The next graph looks at power forward production, using the same coordinates as the above point guard graph: Player Rater value across the top 40 players at the position.

Take a look at the difference in the shape of the lines. Across the top five players, the value for 2014 is demonstrably higher. Then after Ryan Anderson or so, production dips beneath 2013 levels. But you can clearly see that there is a new, uberproductive ruling class at the 4. After that top tier, there's a sharply defined second tier that is still steeper than anything in the 2013 graph.

A Chad Ford-style tier system at power forward would break down like this:

Tier 1
Anthony Davis
Kevin Love
LeBron James
Ryan Anderson

Tier 2
Al Horford
Carmelo Anthony
Dirk Nowitzki
Nikola Vucevic
Blake Griffin

Tier 3
DeMarcus Cousins
Josh Smith
Serge Ibaka
Andre Drummond

Tier 4
LaMarcus Aldridge
Chris Bosh
Markieff Morris
Shawn Marion
Paul Millsap
Carlos Boozer
David Lee
Derrick Favors
David West

Tier 5
Zach Randolph
Greg Monroe
Andrea Bargnani
Dwight Howard

Tier 6
Everyone else

Now remember, it's early. Some of these players logging early disappointments in their box scores will rise to previous production. Others will fall off.

But there's an emerging elite group at power forward that's forcing us to reconsider traditional positional scarcity. A top-10 or, even better, top-four power forward is becoming a prized commodity. The number of PF/Cs has diluted scarcity at C, but not at PF.

Overall, it looks like the market could swivel back to where it was five years ago, where it made sense to build around power forwards and centers. There are so many very good to great players at point guard that it's watered down the market after Paul and Curry (and probably Russell Westbrook).

This is why I preached about not reaching for a point guard in this year's drafts. If you could get Paul or Curry (and probably Westbrook)? Great. Build around that.

But if you don't get one of those superelites, the trend is swinging back toward big men. There's just too much value across the board at point guard, from Eric Bledsoe to Brandon Jennings.

Next season, it might make more sense to go for volume at point guard in the middle rounds and stock up on other positions early.

I'll be tracking this trend throughout the season with bated breath. That last sentence was written without a hint of irony. This is my kind of excitement.