When fantasy gets real
No one’s talking to each other, but I’m still winning
BY TRAVIS MORAN
A couple weeks ago, our fantasy league’s group chat went dark.
A little context: for weeks, I’ve been warning everyone to watch out for Chucktown Champion. Over the past six weeks, Chucktown has leapt seven spots in the standings and now sits a game back of my first-place Hustle. Throw in Windy City Ninjas and my brother’s Triangle squad, and just two-and-a-half games separate the league’s top four.
In the first weeks of this season, Chucktown traded Kevin Durant, Pascal Siakam, and RJ Barrett to my nephew’s team—Slim Reaper Mafia—for Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tobias Harris. At the time of the trade, Chucktown’s record was 27-35-1 (category wins-losses-ties); since then, his team has gone 58-29-1, winning six of nine matchups. But Chucktown’s surge also opened the door for pointed trash talk.
NINJAS: This was the worst trade in league history by the way. Chucktown shouldn’t even be relevant. My LeBron-for-Rudy Gobert trade last year is a close second, but this is definitely the worst.
To make matters worse, the team that got LeBron won the title by defeating my brother’s team. Ninjas has been eating a chef’s selection of shit-talk sashimi on a near-daily basis ever since.
This feels like a bit of a replay. Chucktown, once a speck in the rearview, is now a “Maximum Overdrive” Mack truck kissing my bumper.
My brother took Ninjas’ jab personally. He had no plans of allowing Ninjas off the whipping post, and there was no way in hell his son would take his place.
TRIANGLE: Disagree wholeheartedly. Durant is a risk but maybe the greatest offensive weapon ever created. Definitely a fantasy gamble, but nowhere remotely as stupid as your dumbass trade. You traded a walking 30-point triple-double for blocks and a few boards. Imagine being so awful at this that your best defense is the work of a 14-year-old. You’re a complete fucking idiot.
NINJAS: It is what it is. Not taking any shots. I have made plenty of dumb trades, but if you don’t think this is an awful trade, then you’re the idiot. It’s a trade, man. Relax. You win some and you lose some. I’ve definitely lost my fair share, and last year’s [trade] was one of them.
TRIANGLE: You traded one of the three greatest players ever for a shot-blocker. I think it has turned out shitty for [Slim Reaper Mafia], no doubt. But because you’re a fucking idiot, you can’t see that [James] Harden was a non-factor at the time and a complete question mark. Tobias [Harris] is a role player like RJ [Barrett]. Embiid misses 30 games a year.
PROCESS: So, maybe my [Desmond] Bane-for-Trigga Trey [Murphy III] trade has a chance to swing my way?
Triangle is mostly right about Harris and Barrett. Harris has been the more dependable player on a game-by-game basis with roughly the same production before and after the trade. The same can be said for Barrett, but unlike Harris, he falls well outside the FPV Top 100 and gets fewer wins with the Raptors.
By a longshot, Embiid has dominated the FPV landscape all season; Durant was and is a clear top-10 fantasy asset. But since the trade, Embiid has been playing at the one-man-show level of 51.86. By comparison, Durant has registered a 37.75 FPV since the trade—phenomenal but light years behind. Either way, the Durant-Embiid coin could still flip either way, especially with Embiid heading temporarily to the shelf.
Thus, I blame James Harden for brewing this kerfuffle. When the Mafia made that trade, Harden had played just six games with the Clippers, who’d gone 1-5. Pundits were calling it a horrible fit. Harden’s fantasy production value (FPV) over that time was 26.09, solid but outside the top 50. However, since the Chucktown-Mafia trade, the Clippers are 27-8 overall. Harden has been amazing, producing at a 37.16 clip—or about the same level as Durant. Siakam, Harden’s offset in the swap, has been great, but his jump to 29.71 hardly covers The Beard’s jump in production.
NINJAS: I can handle criticism. You need to relax. This is fantasy.
TRIANGLE: Just can’t figure on waking up in the morning and feeling that I need to take shots at an 8th grader to feel better about myself.
NINJAS: No one is taking shots. My god.
TRIANGLE: Enough said already. You’ve gone unchecked for too long. See ya soon.
NINJAS: Well, that got out of hand quickly. You should have some good content here, Travis.
TRIANGLE: I’ll explain something very quick for those who don’t understand: I will talk shit with you to the bitter end. Anytime. The minute you attack my son, playfully or not, you attack his integrity. He’s not allowed to speak for himself here, so we all know you just want to piss me off. So you’ve accomplished that: You’ve attacked the very fabric of my family time and time again. I guess that’s where my skin gets thinnest. I know you’re really just indirectly attacking me, but your little fucking brain is always reaching for ways to dig at me—and I feel I must oblige.
[TRIANGLE HAS LEFT THE GROUP CHAT.]
[PROCESS HAS LEFT THE GROUP CHAT.]
And just like that: no more whipping post, no more barb trading, no more group chat. The league itself could be in jeopardy. That’s a shame as this season has been the most competitive on record.
Now if I want to brag about holding down first place for weeks on end, I’m sending texts into a vacuum. Calling someone to tell them they suck? Sounds exhausting.
A way to rate managerial performance?
That brings us back to Chucktown Champion, whom I faced in Weeks 3 and 14. We ended up splitting our two matchups, 11-11, with me smartly winning our first matchup 6-5. Chucktown returned the favor last week by craftily sacrificing his two remaining games to lock in his superior shooting percentages.
After trading for Embiid, Harden, and Harris in Week 7, Chucktown got a spike in his team’s composite FPV performance and rattled off four straight wins. Though both of our teams have regressed of late, our overall composite for the season is nearly identical: 27.60 for Chucktown, 27.70 for the Hustle.
The question is: Has Chucktown been ascending due to his trade haul—as Ninjas asserted—or has he been winning due to competent fantasy management? I did a little digging to find out and evaluate my own chops as a manager this season as well.
There are two ways to look at this. One on hand, you have team construction, meaning your draft strategy (or luck of the draw, for some) resulted in a roster that requires few, if any, changes. On the other hand, you have matchup management, encompassing everything from savvy wire pickups to choosing the right guys to fill your games-played caps.
But what does it mean when your team outperforms your opponent metrically, yet still loses? In most cases, I’d argue that—top-flight injuries aside—you probably got out-managed.
Chucktown has a stellar managerial record this season, with his only possible blemishes coming in Week 2 versus Trust The Process and in Week 3 against my Uptown Hustle. He had narrow losses in Weeks 5 and 7, got whooped in Week 6, and got shaved in Week 12. His 6-5 win over the Hustle in Week 14 was validated both in FPV terms and in his slick Sunday strategy..
Though I’m creating the subjective lens, I could argue I’ve won six matchups based on better category-minded chess moves. Taking a look at my team’s performance, you can see that I got stomped in Weeks 2 and 12, and nearly equaled my brother’s metric production in Week 9 (though he did register a definitive 7-4 win). But here’s the thing: even though I played three fewer games in Week 1 and got dominated metrically, I won 10-1.
Of course, the wild card in Excalibur League is the Team Wins category, which doesn’t show up in the analytics. Though Chucktown outplayed me in Week 3, I won 6-5 because I edged him in team wins. In Week 13, Ninjas fucked up and left a Luka Dončić triple-double on the injured reserve, but I ended up losing points, rebounds, and assists anyway. I won the matchup because I played the right guys and topped him 15-14 in team wins.
Credit also goes where credit is due: In Week 5, I got outclassed by Trust The Process, who coincidentally has been doing more this year with less than any team in Excalibur League. By this measure, all but one of Process’ wins have come from out-managing his opponents. Yet, securing team wins helped Process win Week 5 even though his team’s composite FPV was five points lower than mine.
Tracking the composite performance can provide a sense of a team’s floor and ceiling as well. Of our three teams, it’s clear that Process has the lowest floor. My team so far has reached the highest peak, but Chucktown has come close. His ceiling should be higher if Embiid comes back healthy and Harden continues to play with ridiculous efficiency.
This tracking may also explain why my team has held onto pole position despite so many good teams and wily managers: I drafted with a clear lens, and I backed up my key players with guys who on any night can be just as productive.
There are several successful builds in our league, but the only other team built that way—albeit through trades—is Chucktown Champion. And since Week 8, he’s had the best squad in the league, whether he’s out-managing us or not.
Can’t knock the Hustle
Despite a recent dip in overall performance, the Hustle still sits atop the standings. As a reward, I even got a hell-freezes-over moment from my brother, who conceded that, in drafting with my scoring-plus-defense FPV lens, I’d probably figured something out. Although he did add the caveat “for the fantasy regular season,” which makes sense because science stops working when the playoffs begin.
At any rate, with everything this tight, getting a first-round bye in the playoffs will be both a major hurdle and a huge accomplishment. I somehow weathered a Week 12 loss to Action Brunson, but everyone made up ground last week, including Chucktown Champion.
More importantly, some Hustlers are cause for concern. After charging out of the gates early on, De’Aaron Fox logged a subpar 26.56 FPV in January. Desmond Bane’s injury has forced me to use more Anfernee Simons, a high-risk volume shooter who can make or break your weekly matchup. (On some nights, Simons inexplicably takes just seven or eight shots in a game.) I was hoping he’d be the perfect backup for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Fox, but he’s woefully inconsistent and plays for a horrible team.
Inconsistency has also plagued Myles Turner, who seems to figure into the Pacers’ offense less now with the arrival of Siakam and the emergence of Aaron Nesmith, who is shooting 47 percent from deep since the beginning of December. Nesmith turned in a signature performance earlier this week against the Celtics, going 4-of-7 from 3 to finish with 26 points, 12 boards, seven dimes, a block, and zero turnovers. Luckily for my opponent, though, he was on my bench. Turner, whom I did play, had 17 points, but went 7-for-18 from the field and 2-for-7 from 3.
That kind of gaffe doesn’t show up in fantasy analytics but can lose you a matchup. With three teams breathing down my neck, and Gambino Goons playing much better, every mistake risks the top seed. And securing first place with this system affords me, at the very least, “fantasy regular season” bragging rights.
Either way, this fantasy season just got real. As much as I want to hang on to first place, my greater hope is that we can reopen the lines of communication and get back to having fun.
Maybe all we need is another bad trade.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop!
Fantasy coverage from the 2023-2024 season:
The 2022-2023 Hustle saga: