The All-Star break is officially over, and you know what that means: It's time to get back to work. We are coming up on the home stretch, where every decision could make or break your fantasy season. But there still is plenty of basketball to be played, and there still are plenty of fantasy leagues to be won. With that in mind, I have put together a second-half preview to help guide you through the rest of the season.
Since the NBA, like most professional sports leagues, rewards poor play with high draft picks, it only makes sense for struggling teams to employ the good ol' youth movement toward the end of the season. If you are not going to be in the playoff hunt, why not evaluate the younger players on your team before deciding which direction to go during the offseason? At the same time, with youth and inexperience on the court, the team likely will strengthen its draft position as the losses pile up. Some might call this "tanking," but I call it strategy, one that works on two fronts. It means more minutes and more opportunity for some high-upside youngsters, which in turn can seriously affect the fantasy landscape. With that in mind, here are my top five breakout candidates for the second half:
5. Beno Udrih, PG, Kings: If the Mike Bibby deal was any indication, the Kings already are looking forward to next season. Udrih proved to be more than just a capable fill-in while Bibby was out of action, and at 25 years of age, he just might be the Kings' point guard of the future. He averaged a very fantasy friendly 14.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 3-pointers in 31 starts earlier in the season, although it should be mentioned that Kevin Martin also was missing in action during that time. I think Udrih will not be quite as valuable with Martin around, but he still should post 12-13 points with 3-4 rebounds, 4-5 assists and slightly more than a steal and 3-pointer per game for the remainder of the season.
4. Al Thornton, SF, Clippers: Thornton's rookie season reminds me a lot of Randy Foye's rookie campaign a year ago. Everybody knows the 17-33 Clippers should be giving this kid minutes, but for one reason or another, coach Mike Dunleavy has yet to fully commit to him. Here is the good news: Foye was big-time in the month of April last season, and I'm expecting a similar breakout from Thornton once the Clippers finally give in. Thornton has turned it up a notch lately, averaging 16.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 0.6 3-pointers in the month of February. I think he can do better, especially in steals and blocks, where he has the potential to put up 0.5-1.0 per game in future seasons.
3. Randy Foye, PG/SG, Timberwolves: Speaking of Foye, he is starting to gain strength in his injured left knee and is slowly but surely starting to earn more minutes for the 10-41 Timberwolves. Look, Foye hasn't played well since his return, but a little rust was to be expected. The good news is the rust is starting to wear off -- he put up 18 points with three boards, three assists, a steal and four 3-pointers in his final game before the break -- and he should return to form sooner rather than later. Everyone knows about Foye's upside, and most remember his averages of 15.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.9 3-pointers in the month of April last season. Provided there are no setbacks with his knee, I think we can and should expect similar numbers this year.
2. Dorell Wright, SG/SF, Heat: Word spreads fast when you have an ultra-athletic 22-year-old who is averaging 13.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 0.6 blocks and a steal in the month of February. Wright still is available in a few leagues, but he shouldn't be, not when he also is shooting 51 percent from the floor and 88 percent from the line during that span. The new Heat lineup is better suited for an up-tempo game, which is a style that fits Wright's skills perfectly. There is some debate as to how he will respond once Udonis Haslem returns to the lineup, but I have a hard time figuring out why the team with the NBA's worst record wouldn't get Wright on the court for 30-plus minutes the rest of the way.
1. Thaddeus Young, SF/PF, 76ers: The Sixers still are in the playoff hunt, but Young already has cracked the starting lineup and is only going to get better from here. The rookie out of Georgia Tech still is raw, and at just 19 years of age, he is going to have some inconsistent performances. But that doesn't change the fact that the kid has major upside and is progressing very nicely in his first professional season. He is only going to get more minutes from here on out, and his averages of 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and a steal per game are very promising for a young kid just getting his feet wet. With his talent and upside, I wouldn't be surprised if we are looking at a player who is averaging 13-15 points, 7-8 rebounds and 1.1-1.3 steals by the time April rolls around.
5. Rajon Rondo, PG, Celtics: It's hard to rag on a guy who is playing his best basketball of the season, but Rondo is starting to look like a perfect sell-high candidate. Averaging 15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.7 steals in February, Rondo clearly has become more of a playmaker due to Kevin Garnett's injury. Once KG returns, look for Rondo to return to his season averages of 10.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. There also is the possibility Danny Ainge will trade for a veteran point guard presence for the stretch run, which might take away a few minutes, although I do not think anyone who comes in will supplant Rondo as the starter.
4. Manu Ginobili, SG, Spurs: Ginobili is in the midst of his best statistical season in the NBA, and he is doing it in just 31.1 minutes per game. Imagine what this guy would do if he saw upwards of 35 or 40 minutes per game, like the rest of the league's stars. That, however, doesn't change the fact that Gregg Popovich has a history of limiting Manu's minutes, especially in the second half, in an effort to keep him healthy for the playoffs. Expect his stats to suffer a slight decline as Pop curtails his minutes during the final two months. And let's not forget that Tony Parker also will cut into Manu's production when he returns.
3. Paul Pierce, SG/SF, Celtics: How much will Doc Rivers rest the big three down the stretch? That's the big question, isn't it? It's possible Rivers will pull a Tom Coughlin and go all out for the rest of the season, but somehow, I think he will ease up on their minutes once it looks like Boston has home-court advantage all locked up. Don't get me wrong, Pierce still is going to be huge, but his owners should start looking into moving him for a player of similar talent in order to minimize risk.
2. Andre Miller, PG, 76ers: Although the Sixers still are alive in the playoff race in the East, there is a chance they will move Miller before the trade deadline. If this happens, it's hard to imagine him having any more value than he has right now. He is as hot as can be, averaging 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 9.3 assists and a steal per game in February, but put him on a team that has more talent, and you will see the points and rebounds drop with a minor increase in assists. The Sixers also are a team that could go with the youth movement in the second half, so Miller owners will have to worry about the presence of Louis Williams.
1. Dwyane Wade, SG, Heat: This is purely speculation, but I'm starting to get a bad feeling that the Heat are going to shut down Wade at some point in the second half. Although he still is putting up some nice numbers, it would be irresponsible for the 9-40 Heat to leave the banged up Wade on the court, especially if he can do further damage to his shoulder. If you are a D-Wade owner, you might want to play it safe and see what else is out there, since there's nothing worse than heading into the last few weeks of the season without your best player.
Only the most astute owners take into consideration schedules when it comes to evaluating fantasy value. Thing is, it doesn't make a huge difference, but it is the little things that matter when you are in a dogfight for one or two categories at the end of the season. Think about it: Dwight Howard's 14.6 rebounds per game might look better than Chris Kaman's 13.6, but when you take into account the fact that the Clippers have 32 games remaining and the Magic have 28, Kaman beats Howard by 26 total rebounds (435 to 409). Now, that's not to say you definitely should move Howard for Kaman like my colleague Guy Lake did a few weeks ago, but it definitely is something to consider when entering into trade negotiations and considering waiver-wire additions.
2. Atlanta Hawks (32 games): Not only do they have 32 games remaining, but with Mike Bibby now in the fold, the Hawks will be ultra-motivated to earn a playoff spot in the East.
3. Boston Celtics (32 games): I would love to recommend Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce based on their second-half schedule, but I'm anticipating a slight drop in minutes for all three once the Celtics lock up home-court advantage.
4. New Orleans Hornets (31 games): It doesn't get any better than the Hornets if you are in a head-to-head league. Their fantasy playoff schedule is an A-plus, with 14 games in the final three weeks of the season.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves (31 games): The Wolves could end up paying huge dividends in the fantasy playoffs, especially if you earn a first-round bye. Only two other teams (the Hornets and the Bucks) have as many games as the Wolves (10) in the final two weeks of the season.
6. Milwaukee Bucks (29 games): Based on overall games remaining, the Bucks don't belong on this list, but they sure do if you are in a head-to-head league. With max games in the fantasy playoffs (14), owners who are locked into a playoff spot should start thinking about making a move for either Mo Williams or Andrew Bogut.
1. Orlando Magic (28 games): Ouch. The Magic have by far the worst schedule in the second half. And to make matters worse, they have only 10 games in the fantasy playoffs, including a brutal two-game week in the first round.
2. Utah Jazz (29 games): It helps that the Jazz will be going all out in a tight Western Conference playoff race, but that won't make up for their brutal fantasy playoff schedule with just 11 games in the last three weeks of the season.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (30 games): Overall, this schedule isn't horrible, but like the Jazz, the Cavs play only 11 games in the fantasy playoffs. I'd hate to advocate trading LeBron James, but if you are locked into a playoff spot and can get Chris Paul, you will pick up three games during the most important weeks of the season.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Littlemac@TalentedMrRoto.com.