All struggling fantasy franchises should be asking two questions.
1) What should it take to get Nikola Jokic?
2) What would it take to get Jokic?
A middling manager should be asking those questions for a simple reason: in theory, rolling the dice on post-New Year Jokic dominance is a sound high-risk/high-upside move.
But the gap between the answers to those two questions illustrates the chief danger of drafting a clear-cut preseason #1 overall pick: if said player struggles, it’s very difficult to have a rational trade discussion around said player.
Why? Because No. 1 overall players carry understandably sky-high baggage of expectations. So, the internal pressure to not “lose” a high-wattage trade like this suffocates any semblance of balance and reason.
And a trade discussion around a No. 1 overall player invariably means the #1 is at low ebb. Meaning: on the shelf, slumping, playing through a low-grade injury, or in the COVID protocol.
The manager seeking to acquire the No. 1 overall player will often open with three-for-one offers that exist somewhere between “lowball” and “sociopathic.”
I call this trade tactic “clumping”: when a manager clumps together a rough equivalency of Player Rater value in an attempt to deceive via aggregated value. (Example: Jimmy Butler + Buddy Hield + and Larry Nance Jr. for Jokic. One sign you’re being clumped… when you know one of the names you’re being offered opened the season on your league’s waiver wire.)
On the other hand, the manager rostering a struggling No. 1 overall pick wants his or her money back… plus some. Or to be specific: his or her draft capital back … plus some. If a manager paid $80 in an auction for Jokic, that manager will want $80 in value in return… plus some. Like, an unreasonable amount of “some.”
And dealing Jokic (or for Jokic) is an especially dicey proposition. Because the reasons behind his early-season statistical narcolepsy are difficult to diagnose.
Is he ramping up slowly in an attempt to preserve his peak production for the postseason? Was he gassed after EuroBasket? Is he deferring shots and touches to help Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. recover their groove before the playoffs?
In a way, the exact answer doesn’t matter. Not as long as Jokic isn’t concealing a nagging/chronic injury. (Historically, Jokic is a low-risk bet on the injury front; merely place a bookmark in your brain that Jokic will miss about 10 games.)
Because a deeper look at the season-long evolution of Jokic’s splits reveals the profile of a superstar who’s merely pacing himself. A player purposely playing at a B+/90 percent, who can turn it back on any time he wants or needs to be at A+/100 percent.
Want proof? Look at the split in Jokic’s averages coming off zero rest vs. one day of rest.
On one day of rest, Jokic’s key stats align with his (disappointing) averages for the season: 31.3 MPG, 22.6 PTS, 9.9 REB, 8.8 AST, 59.7 FG% and most importantly, just 5.5 free throw attempts per game. (And yes, historically, Jokic doesn’t get to line that often, but just stick with me here.)
Now, look at the two games Jokic has played on zero days of rest. You’ll spot the proof that Jokic is only guilty of engaging in some good, old-fashioned rope-a-dope.
Because on the tail end of a back-to-back, a superstar will often elevate his play to take up the slack for his tired teammates. When his team needs a boost, a top-shelf superstar will increase his usage, volume and, incredibly, his efficiency.
Peak Dirk Nowitzki was the player who taught me this phenomenon. And this season? Jokic’s been doing a Dirk.
Jokic stats in his two games on zero days rest this season are inflated to Peak-Joker levels: 41 MPG, 29.0 PTS, 13.0 REB, 11.0 AST, 68.0 FG% and most importantly, 13.5 free throw attempts per game. Meaning: this is not the passive Jokic currently languishing at sixth on the Player Rater. This is Jokic proving he’s capable of activating his best and taking over anytime he chooses.
If you require further proof that Jokic has been playing possum? That’s he’s just fine? That he’s quietly, strategically, and incrementally building back to full statistical speed? Look at Jokic’s steady climb in usage rate.
Jokic’s at just 27.6 for the year. But in November, he climbed to 28.7. Over his last two weeks: 30.7. Last week: 33.9. In usage terms, that’s full superstar cruising altitude.
And if you need one more little nudge into rationality? Look at the split in Jokic’s fantasy value.
The fact that Jokic is borderline top-5 in roto formats, but not even in the top-10 in points formats underscores Jokic is still Superman. Still as efficient and across-the-board amazing as ever. He’s just been doing a little bit of Clark Kent cosplay to start the season.
I’ll close by answering my opening two questions, having established that we should expect Jokic to deliver a top-2 production by mid-January and likely resume levels of full No. 1 overall production by Valentine’s Day.
In roto leagues, where Jokic’s value is already higher, I’d solicit one-for-ones for Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid. Those are the two players currently overperforming closer to a No. 1 overall level. Maybe Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but probably not. (And I don’t trust Shai Gilgeous-Alexander because of his franchise’s historical penchant for pingpong-ball-accruing tankery.)
In points leagues, where Jokic isn’t even top-10 for the season? You can allow for more creativity. I’d consider one-for-ones involving Durant, Davis, Curry or Embiid.
But the only player capable of returning total equal points value for a fully activated Jokic is Luka Doncic. Given Jokic’s (disappointing) ramping-up approach, I’d expect to overpay for Doncic. Something in the range of Jokic + Tyrese Haliburton.
Conversely, in points leagues, I’d be more willing to accept a two-for-one for Jokic. But only a package with a second-rounder performing as expected plus a certified overachiever. Something in the range of Ja Morant + Anfernee Simons.
If all of this seems overpondered and overly considered? You are correct. But such are the dictates of operating with Roto Honor.
A gross overpay or underpay for a player as impactful as Jokic can screw up a league for an entire season. Managers have an obligation to their fellow managers not to throw caution to the wind here and do a deal for the sake of doing one.
This isn’t real life. This is fantasy basketball.
And while, yes, real life often isn’t fair, why not take care to at least make fantasy fairer than reality?
Is it time to trade Nikola Jokic?