SleepersSeptember 20, 2009

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Sleeper Watch - 2 comments

By Phil Londen

No two potential sleepers are ever alike, which means that unfortunately there is no simple means of consistently identifying them. Sometimes, a player’s development allows them to take the proverbial leap. Other times, minutes are opened up for a player due to a trade or injury to someone that was previously ahead of them on the depth chart. No matter what, the anatomy of a sleeper is always dependent upon each players’ unique team and individual situation.

Identifying and drafting potential sleepers is one of the key factors in winning fantasy leagues. The more competitive the league, the more important it is to find sleepers at all stages of the draft, which means you often have to dig deeper and go beyond the standard sleepers being hyped everywhere (Anthony Randolph).

And the more visible a sleeper, the more you have to reach in order to get these sleepers on your team. Reaching for a sleeper is fine, as long as the player actually turns the expected production into production. But when you screw up and draft a player who falls significantly below expectations, you passed up on solid production during the draft for potential production that didn’t materialize. Realizing there is a real cost for missing on sleepers is important because it reinforces how important it is to identify sleepers and to do it correctly. This cost is amplified the more you reach to obtain a sleeper that disappoints.

When discussing sleepers theoretically, it helps to divide potential sleepers into categories based upon their specific sleeper situation. Different types of sleeper situations have different clues to look for when identifying which player will benefit from a certain chain of events.

Development Sleepers
The development sleepers are sleepers in their purest form. Development sleepers are guys who improve based upon their own skills, athleticism and acclimation to professional basketball. Generally, development sleepers make the leap from below-average to above-average in their first three seasons in the league, although there are outliers who make the leap much later (Hedo Turkoglu for example).

Possible development sleepers are around every season and this season is no exception. Guys like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert are all possible development sleepers for next season. These guys are all being drafted higher than their production from the 2008-09 season would warrant. This is largely based on expectations that these players have will take steps forward in their fantasy production next season.

Rookie Sleepers
Each season a rookie or two takes the fantasy community by storm, posting solid value and being roster-worthy in all formats. Last season, that rookie was clearly Brook Lopez and the trend continues as he is being targeted heavily as a development sleeper to take productive steps forward in New Jersey. Drafting rookies is usually a mistake, as all but the most talented rookies will have a difficult time breaking in to the rotation and staying on the floor. The problem with rookie sleepers is that they are extremely difficult to predict and often times rookies that are drafted in fantasy severely under-perform relative to expectations and relative to talent passed up in the draft.

Next season, there are a couple of rookies that have potential sleeper status. Blake Griffin, Johnny Flynn, James Harden and Tyreke Evans seem like possible candidates and have teams that are committed to youth (or losing, depending upon your perspective). Terrence Williams, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Earl Clark are all possible dark horse candidates for rookie sleeper status as well.

Injury Sleepers I
Injury sleepers are when an injury occurs to a starter ahead of the potential injury sleeper (bench player) on the depth chart. Thus, the player moves ahead and experiences a sudden and protracted boost in minutes, often resulting in a surge for that player’s fantasy value as well. As we all know, the allocation of minutes is a strong factor in determining fantasy value. Last season, Paul Millsap was a perfect example of an injury sleeper, as he gained fantasy value when Carlos Boozer went down with a knee injury. The other thing to note is that, unlike development sleepers, an injury sleeper is often a temporary sleeper. When the injured player returns to the court, the injury sleeper usually returns to his bench role with reduced minutes and reduced fantasy production.

The thing about injury sleepers is that they are more or less random, meaning they can’t be predicted in advance. However, that doesn’t mean that a cunning manager can’t plan for and reduce their exposure to potential losses due to injury. The way to do this is through effective use of handcuffing. Using last season’s example, if a manager that drafted Boozer in the third round had also selected Millsap in the last round, they would have hedged their team against injury by owning the player who stands to gain the most from Boozer’s injury.

A subset of the first type of injury sleepers can be labeled suspension sleepers. When players are handed suspensions at the start of the season, it creates a small-scale version of the injury sleeper. However, the main difference is that it is for a set period of time and it is known in advance so you can plan for it. Rashard Lewis will miss ten games next season, opening up increased minutes early on for either Brandon Bass or Ryan Anderson. J.R. Smith is slated to miss seven games, which should give newly-acquired Nugget Aaron Afflalo an opportunity to carve out a serious role in Coach Karl’s rotation. Jason Richardson is due to miss the first two games of the season, which means Leandro Barbosa will probably log heavy minutes at the start of the season.

The other thing to note is that sometimes these suspension sleepers can play so well during the suspended players’ absence that they become entrenched in the rotation. This can cause permanent rearrangement of the allocation of minutes based on what was supposed to be only a temporary change. Securing these players often pays huge dividends as you gain a valuable piece for cheap or nothing (pulled off the waiver wire).

Injury Sleepers II
The second group on injury sleepers has to do with players coming back from major injuries. These players are often treated as if they have a scarlet letter and can be had at a great discount in fantasy drafts. Thus, these players are not sleepers in their traditional sense but are sleepers in that they can be expected to greatly outperform their draft position. However, it is often very difficult to determine which players will bounce back without complication and which player will struggle to resume their pre-injury form and production. Anyone who drafted Elton Brand or Gilbert Arenas last season knows all about being disappointed by this second type of injury sleeper.

This season, there are plenty of players trying to return from major injury. Some of these players will have phenomenal seasons and some will have disappointing seasons. The managers that correctly identify which players will please and which will disappoint will be greatly rewarded. However, identifying these types of sleepers is akin to playing Russian roulette with your fantasy season. You’ve been forewarned. Possible injury sleepers are Amare Stoudemire, Al Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand, Mike Dunleavy, Tracy McGrady, Monta Ellis, Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng and Chris Kaman.

Trade Sleepers I
Trades open up the possibility for two kinds of sleepers; the first of which involves the player being traded. Being traded to another team can mean that a player relocates to a much more fantasy friendly situation. Also, it should be noted that free agent signings can have similar effects and are thus grouped in with the trade sleepers despite the technical difference between the two groups. That could be through less competition for minutes at a player’s position or moving to a team that is known to be fantasy friendly, such as the Phoenix Suns or Indiana Pacers. While you can’t predict in-season trades, you can identify potential trade sleepers based upon offseason moves.

This season has certainly been an active offseason for blockbuster trades and big signings. As a result, lots of players’ fantasy value has been impacted and some potential trade sleepers have emerged. Charlie Villanueva’s arrival in Detroit might also signal the first time in his career he receives over thirty minutes per game. Other potential trade sleepers include Ben Gordon, Courtney Lee and Shawn Marion.

Trade Sleepers II
Related to the first type of trade sleepers, any trade or free agent acquisition in the NBA reorganizes the distribution of minutes (and thus fantasy production). When a player departs a team via trade, it often leaves a minutes vacuum at their position at the old team, which must be filled by someone. Identifying who stands to benefit is critical to identifying potential trade sleepers. The best tools to use here are a depth chart, positional information from and your knowledge of players and team situations.

Using the Ben Gordon signing as an example, Gordon’s departure opens up 36.6 minutes per game primarily at the shooting guard position. Perusing the Bulls’ depth chart, other players to potentially pick up the slack would be John Salmons, Kirk Hinrich and Jannero Pargo. Determining which of these players will benefit the most is the difficult part. Since Salmons is already playing nearly 38 minutes a game, it is hard to imagine him getting many more minutes. Both Hinrich and Pargo should see a boost in minutes then and the case could be made that either one is a potential trade sleeper in the making.

Deep Sleepers
The final category of sleeper is often the most rewarding in terms of both fantasy value and bragging rights. The deep sleepers can mean the difference between winning it all and going home empty handed in extremely competitive leagues. Every season there are a couple of guys that skyrocket from the depths of obscurity to fantasy fame. These guys are what are commonly referred to as “late round fliers” to denote the fact that you usually wouldn’t waste a mid-level draft pick on them and that the chances of hitting a home run are very slim indeed.

Most fantasy managers keep their deep sleepers close to the cuff, as they can often pay extremely nice dividends relative to their draft position. Next season, there are a few deep sleepers showing promise. David Andersen joins the Houston Rockets as the only player that has the height of a traditional center. With Yao Ming out for most or all of the season, someone has to man the paint and body up the Dwight Howards of the league. Another potential deep sleeper is Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova has been turning heads in his Euroleague performances and should be much more prepared for his second stint in the NBA. These players can be had in the last rounds of all but the deepest of leagues.

In the end, classifying potential sleepers according to categories is not important at all. What matters is identifying breakout candidates and getting them on to your team through the draft, trade or waiver wire additions. And in doing so, the end goal is paying as little as possible for the most fantasy production. Managers that can do so will be richly rewarded in the upcoming season.

<i>Phil Londen is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. He also writes for Basketball Free For All, covering all things basketball. You can catch up with Phil in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of</i> plonden.
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• Other articles by Phil Londen
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2 Responses to “The Anatomy of a Sleeper”

  1. User avatar radarbinder says:

    Can I add a category? Coaching Change sleepers. When a new coach comes to town, often rotations and philosophies change. Scott Skiles moves to Milwaukee, D’Antoni takes over the Knicks, etc. Big changes happen. Coaching changes can also involve a coach who is in place putting in a new system. Thus the input of outside analysts has convinced Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle to give Drew Gooden a shot at starting center this season, going small ball against most teams and pressing the break with Jason Kidd.

    With Skiles settled in at Milwaukee, look for Luc Mbah Ah Moute to be given every opportunity to start. Skiles always wants defense and he wants his offense being run. He often picks out a pet veteran or two who come in to help settle the group down, thus dampening the production of his top bench guys. Knowing this helps you decide where to draft Milwaukee guys.

    With Vinny Del Negro settled in Chicago, young players will be given more rope and less emphasis on defense ensues. His simplified offense involved Derrick Rose doing a lot of drives and kickouts. Overall this season Chicago will be more fantasy friendly. So often a new coach does not get things going his way until season two. But when a new coach comes to town, if you know his offense and his tendencies (does he play rookies, does he push the pace, is he an Anthony Johnson – style control freak?) it helps you know whether a player has new value.

    Classic example? Leandro Barbosa. Barbosa was a bench guard but an excellent fantasy producer under Coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni leaves Phoenix and Barbosa’s value plummets. Coach Porter slows things down and the team suffers. Then Coach Gentry is hired and yet the presence of Shaq still has a dampening effect on some players. This year, with Shaq gone and Gentry in charge, Steve Nash can push the pace to his liking. Betcha Barbosa goes up in value.

  2. plonden says:

    Radar, very good point and a category of sleepers that I totally overlooked. In general, I think coaching is one of the under-studied and under-discussed aspects of fantasy basketball. And with sleepers it is no exception. And for the record, I definitely agree about Barbosa. He should be back to his old ways next season with the Porter-era/Shaq-era officially in the rearview mirror.


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