The NBA trade deadline has passed, and we are officially in the stretch run of the season. Hopefully you drafted well and made a couple of savvy trades along the way so that you're locked in a tight battle down the stretch. But if you have been scratching and clawing all season, now is the time to be realistic. The top teams in your league are evident, and you're one of them or you're not. Never give up, of course, but if you're in a keeper league, now is the time to reload and prepare for next season.
ESPN's draft software has really improved during the past few years, and now it's possible to seamlessly set up auction keeper leagues with your buddies. I'm in one myself with 11 other ESPN analysts, and even though I'm in first place and running away with the league (brag), it's addicting to go through the draft recap and analyze who the best values are for next season and beyond. We keep four players up to six extra seasons, and we just had our first "dump" trade, too: John Cregan acquired Joe Johnson ($30) in exchange for Rudy Gay ($15). And if you're not one of the top two or three teams in your keeper league, you should explore as many possible dump trades of your own as you can.
The general gist is that you trade a short-term stud for a better long-term keeper prospect. And the earlier you can spot a cheap, young player who should be gold in the seasons to come (think of whoever owns Andray Blatche now), the bigger return on your investment. Some guys are too good and too cheap to reasonably acquire -- chances are the likes of Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans are values too good to pry away from their owners. But if you've had a rough season and can afford to gamble on a spot or two on a very cheap keeper who could blow up as soon as next season, or have an elite but expensive player you can afford to trade for a potentially undervalued young stud, here are a handful of names to target:
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder: Harden has quietly had a very solid rookie season off the bench for the Thunder, proving he has the versatility for a fantasy-friendly game when he gets more playing time. He's a knock-down shooter from long range, and although his sub-40 percent mark from the field may turn you off, there's reason to expect improvement. Thanks to hoopdata.com, we can see he's shooting 43.6 percent at the rim against a league average of 60.7 percent. Considering how athletic he is (listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he has a true NBA body), that probably can be chalked up to learning on the fly. In just 23 minutes per game, he's averaging more than three free throw attempts per contest, so getting into the lane isn't a problem, nor is dishing to find the open man (2.1 assists). Toss in a solid steals rate (1.0) and the fact that only Thabo Sefolosha is standing in his way as a starter, a cheap investment in Harden now should pay off big-time for next season and beyond.
Joakim Noah, PF/C, Chicago Bulls: This one may be a little too obvious -- he won't come cheap -- but I have a sneaky suspicion Noah could be undervalued in keeper leagues because people may underestimate just how good he is. He's a dominant rebounder and averages close to two blocks per game, a number that could easily improve considering he's two days from turning 26. He doesn't hurt you at the foul line, either, and could even help down the road. His free throw percentage has increased every month this season, and he showed great gains in his free throw accuracy throughout last season, too. And because he doesn't need the ball to be effective, he should put up seasons like this for years to come, no matter whom the Bulls acquire in the offseason. A player like Russell Westbrook gets more buzz, but Noah could be just as valuable in the next handful of seasons.
Danilo Gallinari, SF/PF, New York Knicks: One-trick ponies often can be underrated in fantasy leagues, and Gallinari is a favorite of mine because he does just enough in the other categories to make his plethora of 3-pointers more than worth it. Others may not see that, however; they may see a one-category wonder, a replaceable commodity who could get phased out, depending on the Knicks' offseason acquisitions. But although the Knicks will have enough salary-cap space to acquire two max free agents, they would be left with little depth, so the team has no choice but to build with him. He also could be in line for a big improvement in the next few years; he's just 21, yet already has demonstrated the ability to get to the line and defend. Like Noah, his floor is a top-50 talent for the foreseeable future, with room for much more if things break right.
Lou Williams, PG/SG, Philadelphia 76ers: The acquisition of Allen Iverson has ruined Williams' fantasy potential, but the path to fantasy stardom should be clear for Williams next season. Iverson is on a one-year deal, and there would be little reason to bring him back; Williams is under contract for three more seasons. With a unique combination of points, assists, steals, 3-pointers and free throw percentage, Williams is a true all-around talent who should finally have his true breakout next season.
Carl Landry, PF, Sacramento Kings: Players who excel in the percentages (field goal and free throw) tend to be undervalued, which is odd considering how hard it is to find a player who can excel in both at the same time. Landry is one of the few who can, and now that he has been traded to the Kings, he's been thrust into a much better situation for his fantasy value. In his first two games as a King, he's averaged nearly 37 minutes per game, with the Kings deciding to play Jason Thompson at center and essentially squashing any potential value of Spencer Hawes. Although it may result in Landry becoming a bit less efficient, the trade-off is more than worth it. His name tends to fly under the radar, yet with more playing time he would approach, if not surpass, top-50 value. Get him while the getting's good.
Serge Ibaka, C, Thunder: If you're in a hard-core keeper league in which you can lock up youngsters at a cheap price for years to come, make sure to target Ibaka. To put it simply, Ibaka has the tools to be a fantasy star. Blessed with tremendous physical tools and a nonstop motor, he definitely looks like the long-term answer at center for the Thunder. His per-minute numbers are already off the charts for a 21-year-old, astonishing considering how raw Ibaka was expected to be. In the new NBA, where centers are getting smaller and faster, Ibaka fits in perfectly and has only the likes of Nenad Krstic in his way.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. Have any last-second trade proposals to weigh? Send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.