Last season, the Miami Heat played their 40th game of the season on Jan. 12. Right now in this condensed 2011-12 season, they have played 38 games. So while it may seem that we're entering the midpoint of the season, we are actually entering the stretch run of this 66-game campaign. That means we're also rapidly approaching next Wednesday's noon ET deadline for making trades in standard ESPN fantasy hoops leagues.
In the dozens and dozens of fantasy leagues in which I've played over the past decade and a half, I can probably count on one hand the number of teams I've seen win a fantasy league without making any trades. It can happen, but the odds are tiny. So if you have intentions of holding the hardware at season's end, you had better make some moves before the deadline passes.
If you are in a head-to-head league, you should target players who will give you some extra games in the playoffs. The NBA scheduled nearly every team to play 17 or 18 games over the course of the scheduled fantasy semis and finals, but the Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers have 20 games during that stretch, including five games in the first week of the finals and three in the second week, when most teams play one or two. The Memphis Grizzlies have 19 games during the playoffs, including a five-game week in both the semis and finals.
I also recommend targeting injured guys like Andrea Bargnani, Zach Randolph and Danilo Gallinari, because all three have tremendous upside for the stretch run and should come at a discounted price due to their respective injuries. I expect them all to be solid fantasy plays once they get back up to full speed.
There are a number of players I like, but who come with various flaws like fighting for minutes or touches, bad percentages, still learning to play at the pro level, or they aren't going to improve much beyond where they are. This group includes Tristan Thompson, Jerryd Bayless, Ricky Rubio, Paul George, Greg Monroe, MarShon Brooks, Jarrett Jack, Brandon Jennings, Marcin Gortat and Louis Williams. These are guys I'll be targeting, either directly or as a toss-in on a bigger deal. All of them have solid upside despite their risks or flaws.
As for players I think have little risk of failing and carry tremendous and well-rounded fantasy upside for the final weeks of the season, here are my top six trade targets as the deadline approaches:
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards: Hopefully, you bought in on Wall when he was slumping during the first month of the season and his price was as low as it's going to get, because he picked up steam last month and he won't come cheap now. Just because you can't get Wall on the cheap doesn't mean you should ignore him, though. He's been top seven on the Player Rater during the past month and with good reason: Wall averaged 19.2 ppg, 8.6 apg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 spg, 81.6 FT% and 48.0 FG% in February, and 24.0 ppg and 9.5 apg in the four games since the All-Star break. That 48 percent mark from the field in February was by far the highest of his brief career, as the only time he topped 42 percent in a month with double-digit games was 42.1 percent in 12 games last February. There's a legitimate risk that his field goal percentage drops back down to the low-40s, but the rest of his game will carry him through in fantasy terms. Expect big scoring, diming and stealing from the former No. 1 overall pick, because the Wiz have little else in the cupboard to lean on.
Josh Smith, PF/SF, Atlanta Hawks: My man-crush on J-Smoove has gone on since he racked up 29 boards, 9 blocks and 9 steals over a stretch of three games in January of his rookie season. It waned some in recent years as the Hawks got deeper on talent and his role changed, which reduced the epic steals and blocks totals he had posted in the past. However, the door is wide open for Smoove to finish the season in a big way. With Al Horford still out for the foreseeable future and Joe Johnson slowed (and currently out) with a sore knee, the Hawks have no choice but to turn Smith loose on offense. Shaky percentages (44.7 FG%, 56.8 FT%) have kept him down on the Player Rater (39th on the season, 23rd over the past month), so that will help keep his trade value down a bit. While I expect both percentages to rise some during the stretch run, you won't be trading for Smith to bump you in those categories. But if you need scoring, dimes, blocks and steals, Smoove is going to be your man the rest of the way.
Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers: All rookies come with questions about their ability to play at the next level. Irving was somewhat different, though, because the only serious concern coming out of college was whether he could stay healthy. After all, he played just 11 games for Duke due to damaged toe ligaments. However, if you saw him perform in any of those games, you witnessed a kid who had the talent to hang with the big boys of the NBA. So far, Irving has not appeared to be frail and has lived up to the hype of being a No. 1 overall pick. On the season, he's shooting 48.3 percent from the field, a ridiculous number for a first-year point guard. He hit only 42.2 percent of his field goal attempts last month, though, so a realistic expectation as the season winds down might be in the 44-46 percent range. Overall, he's in a terrific situation to light it up as the season winds down. The Cavs are bereft of scorers beyond the aging Antawn Jamison, so while that will limit Irving's dime production, it will keep his scoring up (18.9 ppg in Jan., 19.3 in Feb.). And since he can bomb from 3-point range (1.6 per game in February), rebound (3.8 per in Feb.), dime (5.6 per in Feb.) and hit free throws (95.4 percent in Feb.), Irving's fantasy arc is aiming straight up.
Marcus Thornton, SG, Sacramento Kings: Remember a couple of years ago when Darren Collison, a rookie first-round pick, was doing his best imitation of Chris Paul (who was hurt)? That didn't last once he went to the Indiana Pacers. Do you remember who was running alongside Collison for that stretch with the Hornets, piling up huge offensive numbers? That's right, Thornton, a second-round pick. Unlike Collison, Thornton has proved capable of maintaining that level of production away from New Orleans. He has a secure role with the Kings as a scorer who can steal balls and bang down a ton of 3s. Last month, Thornton averaged 20.4 points, 2.4 3s and 1.5 steals, production I think he'll exceed in the closing weeks of the season.
Ty Lawson, PG/SG, Denver Nuggets: Lawson kind of let the secret out of the bag in the last week, as he tallied at least 11 dimes in each of his past three games, while averaging 20 points over that stretch. He's not going to crank out two-plus 3s per game, but aside from that, you can trade for Lawson with visions of Stephen Curry in mind, because Lawson can score, pass, steal, hit (some) treys and maintain excellent percentages. So long as Lawson is focused, Andre Miller won't limit him, and I expect a stellar finish to the season from the younger point guard.
Nicolas Batum, SF/SG, Portland Trail Blazers: If Batum played for a team that was bereft of scorers, like the Cavs, he'd be a fantasy star. After all, despite coming off the bench for 25 of the Blazers' 36 games this season, he has managed to average 14.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 3s, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks, and shoot 46.3 percent from the field and 83.2 percent from the line. Meanwhile, in eight starts at shooting guard, Batum has averaged 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.4 3s, 1.3 steals, 1.5 blocks, and shot 49.2 and 86.2 percent, respectively. That displays his incredible upside. There's some risk involved in acquiring Batum, because his role could change (specifically, there's always the chance he could head back to the bench behind Wesley Matthews). But I believe that during the final seven weeks of this season we are going to witness Batum securing his rightful place as a reliable stud in fantasyland for years to come.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.