How LeBron, Durant, other NBA stars affect fantasy basketball

Kevin Durant is expected to take the court for the Phoenix Suns tonight. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

What do the returning superstars mean for their teams' fantasy and betting outlooks?

Kevin Durant is expected to make his return to the lineup for the Suns on Wednesday night. This caps a week in which several Western Conference playoffs contenders have gotten injured/absent franchise players back. A fifth superstar return is also potentially on the horizon in Zion Williamson, but for now, let's look at the four that are back now, and what their returns mean for the fantasy and betting outlooks for their teams moving forward.

LeBron James:

When LeBron is healthy, he is the primary ballhandler and creator on the Lakers. When he missed extended time earlier this season, Russell Westbrook took on more of the offense creation and Anthony Davis stepped up his production as a finisher to MVP-level. I'd wondered, then, whether the new dynamic would carry over into LeBron's return, but it really didn't. Davis continued to play well and even remained the primary scorer after LeBron returned, but his scoring volume did dip some, and LeBron clearly resumed his role as primary offense creator with Westbrook's fantasy value sliding the most.

This time through, it's a different Lakers team after their series of deadline trades. Instead of one other premier (if aging) offense creator in Westbrook with little other shooting, the new Lakers have several talented shooters across positions but perhaps lacked another offensive engine. At least, that was the theory. Instead, both D'Angelo Russell and (somewhat shockingly) Austin Reaves stepped up in a major way on that front with LeBron out. In the 10 games before LeBron's return, Reaves averaged 18.9 PPG, 6.4 APG, 3.8 RPG and 1.2 3PG on 35.3 3P% to put himself firmly on the fantasy streamer/DFS/daily prop bet radar.

LeBron's return to prominence seems destined to lower Reaves' scoring and assist volume the most, with some hits in those areas to Russell and Davis as well. On the flip side, LeBron's presence should get everyone easier looks, particularly the shooters, because defenses will have no choice but to collapse onto him. And all three are strong shooters that can help maintain some of their non-LeBron value by increasing their scoring efficiency. Reaves was a 37.7% shooter from 3-point range before February 26 (when LeBron went down), and his breakout without LeBron should continue to afford him increased minutes and responsibility, so he could maintain a fantasy streamer role as a shooter/scorer.

LeBron's return could also pay dividends for Malik Beasley, who lost his starting role to Reaves in LeBron's absence. Beasley is almost solely a 3-point shooter, and he's been ice cold (10.4 PPG, 35.8 FG%, 31.3 3P%) since February 26th without LeBron. But, in the three games before the 26th Beasley had averaged 18.3 PPG, 48.8 FG% and 50.0 3P% (one game off bench, two starts) and he bounced back to 18 points on 6-for-14 FG (all 3-pointers) in LeBron's return.

And of course, LeBron's return completely changes the upside for the Lakers. While they can be scrappy and competitive built around AD in LeBron's absence, with LeBron they have the upside to defeat any team in the West. On the season, LeBron is still fourth in the NBA in impact as estimated by Real Plus Minus. The Lakers are an estimated 7.5 points better per 100 possessions with LeBron on the court, a mark that trails only Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum and Nikola Jokic for best RPM in the NBA. LeBron's return improves the Lakers' chances to make the playoffs (Lakers Playoffs 'yes' is -138 on FanDuel), and makes them a viable longshot of interest to win the Western Conference (+1600, sixth best odds per FanDuel; +1500 per Caesars Sportsbook).

Kevin Durant:

The Suns didn't necessarily have a consistent fantasy hoops streamer step up in Durant's absence, but Durant's return changes the dynamic of the Suns' offense in an interesting way. Devin Booker is by-far the highest volume scorer on the Suns outside of Durant, with Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul as secondary and tertiary scorers. As we saw in the three games Durant played with the Suns, though, Durant's presence didn't in any way attenuate Booker's offensive volume... it actually accentuated it. Here is what Booker did in three games next to Durant:

  • 37 points (15-for-26 FG), 7 assists

  • 35 points (12-for-24 FG), 6 assists

  • 36 points (15-for-25 FG), 10 assists

Booker is averaging an elite 28.1 PPG (49.9 FG%) with 5.4 APG on the season, but when opposing defenses had to focus on Durant as well, Booker got to operate against imbalanced/lighter defensive coverage and both his scoring and assist volume blossomed. This is worth keeping in mind for both DFS and daily prop bets moving forward.

Ayton, on the other hand, saw his scoring drop dramatically in the three games Durant played. From season averages of 18.2 PPG on 58.8 FG%, Ayton dipped to 10.7 PPG on 65.0 FG% next to Durant. He was even more efficient than usual, but he only got 6.7 FGA in those three games with both Booker and Durant dropping 30+ a night.

And of course, Durant's return improves the Suns' chances to come out of a Western Conference with a lot of parity. In this case, though, I don't necessarily recommend betting them now, because the sports books perhaps overcompensated for Durant's return. The Suns have the shortest odds to win the West at +320 according to Caesars Sportsbook, when I'm not fully convinced they should be favorites. If they were longshots like the Lakers, I might consider them, but as outright favorites I'm fading them to win the West even with Durant back.

Ja Morant:

On the fantasy hoops front, Morant's return to full-time starting status will obviously spell an end to the impact viability of Tyus Jones, who is a daily fantasy streamer and workable DFS/daily betting target when Morant is out. Morant's presence can have mixed results for Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., who each are better suited offensively as off-ball shooter/scorer/finishers but have to take on more creation responsibilities in Morant's absence. With Morant leading the way, Bane and JJJ are more efficient scorers that can put up big scoring nights on any given night, but with three volume scorers in the fold its inevitable that they also put up more poor scoring performances than they do with only two.

The Grizzlies' odds to win the West are obviously much improved with Morant back, particularly because it wasn't clear before whether he would be returning this season or not. I'd say that their current odds to win the West (+700, fourth-best in West) are still reasonable value because the argument can be made that they have as good a chance to win as any team with Morant present. The Grizz are the hottest team in the West right now, winners of seven straight even with only three partial games from Morant, and they showed last postseason that they aren't intimidated by any of their Western Conference opponents. I'm not racing out to bet them at 7-1, but I think those odds are still long enough to contain some value.

Karl-Anthony Towns:

When the Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert last offseason, I was an outspoken advocate for the team's upside potential. It was clear that adding an All Star center in Gobert to a team that already had an All Star center in Towns would require some growing pains, particularly in an NBA that can require creativity to get maximum impact out of even one center. But, it was also clear to me that the Timberwolves' ceiling after the trade was viable contender, whereas before the deal their best case scenario was plucky playoffs team.

The Timberwolves were still working through their initial growing pains when Towns went down to injury in November, and he missed essentially the entirety of the season. On the one hand, this capped the Timberwolves' regular season viability to the borderline playoffs/play-in level that they've been all season. On the other hand, in Towns' absence, the other Timberwolves have learned how to play and thrive together. Anthony Edwards has gotten another full season in as a star-caliber player, and he continues to grow into the role. Gobert has learned to play with his other teammates, and they've learned to play with him. The trade from mercurial shooter/scoring lead guard D'Angelo Russell to veteran floor general Mike Conley Jr. shouldn't be understated, particularly for the potentially positive impact it has on a team playing with two centers and a star wing that all need to be set up in position to score for the team to thrive. Young players Jaden McDaniels and Jaylen Nowell have been able to grow into viable nightly producers. And veteran Kyle Anderson, always a glue guy, became a nightly triple-double threat for awhile that the Timberwolves have come to rely on further.

The fantasy hoops bottom line of KAT's return is that he and Edwards likely go back to a notch below elite fantasy production having to share the ball with one another, and the fantasy streaming options like Anderson, McDaniels and Nowell are a bit less likely to produce on any given night. But, on the betting side, the Timberwolves are interesting to me at +4200 to win the Western Conference. Let me be clear that I don't expect them to necessarily win, but I do think that they have a solid chance of making the second round and, in a conference with so much parity, do have the ceiling to compete if everything breaks right. And, at 42-1, I might see enough value there to take some lottery fliers on them.