On April 9, the San Antonio Spurs traveled to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Jazz. While the Spurs were riding an 11-game winning streak, they were playing for the fifth time in seven days. You surely know which of these facts mattered to coach Gregg Popovich. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili didn't make the trip -- healthy scratches all.
Expect this scenario to repeat itself, with some variations, over the final 11 days of the NBA regular season. Like it or not, Pop's Spurs are the marquee team of fantasy hoops' championship week.
Fantasy owners know that Parker, Duncan and Ginobili will receive more time off before season's end, especially since the Spurs play a staggering eight times from April 16-26. Only five other NBA teams have as many as seven games in that span: the Charlotte Bobcats, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers.
Of course, we don't know when the Spurs' big three will sit again. If only that were all we didn't know. It's perversely appropriate that in this, the season of, oh, let's just call it the smushed schedule, even the good news is kind of a problem. For instance, Lester Hudson and/or Kevin Seraphin: Are they saving your season? It might not last.Nene took part in Washington Wizards practice Thursday and is targeting early next week for his return. Seraphin will still play, but you have to figure his fantasy value will take a hit. As for Kyrie Irving, the news is a bit murkier, but it's possible he's back on the court by the end of this weekend (more on Irving and the Cavs in a bit).
The NBA Fantasy Forecaster, as always, is written primarily with owners in head-to-head leagues in mind. Certainly for the 11-day period ahead, which is the championship "week" in ESPN.com head-to-head leagues, we'll stick with that focus. However, next week's final installment of the Forecaster will guide roto league owners on the final four days of the season.
If you're looking at the last week-plus from a roto perspective, though, I'll mention this for any owners who are in leagues with daily lineup changes and unlimited transactions. On three of these 11 days, the NBA has a busy schedule: Monday, April 16 (11 games), Wednesday, April 18 (14 games) and Thursday, April 26 (13 games). On all the other days, there are no more than nine and as few as five games. So if you're looking at fill-in free agents, start with the teams that have games concentrated on April 17 and April 19-25. The Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns all have four games among these more open dates. The same is true for the teams that follow.
Championship Week: Key Teams
Charlotte Bobcats (NO, CHI, MEM, SAC, @WAS, @ORL, NY): D.J. Augustin owners are somewhat relieved that their guy is back for this final stretch. I say "somewhat," because Augustin is shooting just 38.1 percent from the field this season. Still, if you need assists, Augustin can be had in about 30 percent of ESPN.com leagues. If it's me, though, the only Bobcat I'd consider adding is Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo has had hip and ankle problems, and he is averaging only 6.4 points a game and is a 48.2 percent foul shooter as a starter. Even so, he's a tempting play for owners in need of blocks. Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets and Grizzlies opponents are all in the top eight in rejections.
Cleveland Cavaliers (@DET, PHI, NY, @SA, @MEM, WAS, @CHI): I get it. Tenacious guys such as Hudson, who emerged from the D-League ether, make fantasy hoops even more awesome. But if Irving plays, it's hard to imagine Hudson seeing more than 20 to 22 minutes as the first guard off the bench. So watch for updates on Irving and, for that matter, Anderson Varejao. The other thing about Hudson: Even though he's not shy about taking 3-pointers, perhaps he should be. Hudson buried six treys against the hapless New Jersey Nets on Sunday, but in his other seven games with the Cavs, he's just 5-of-34 from downtown. Bulls, Sixers and Pistons opponents are all in the bottom eight in 3s. With Grizzlies, Pistons and Bulls opponents in the top 12 in blocks, this set of games should break slightly better for Tristan Thompson, who's available in more than 80 percent of ESPN.com leagues. But Thompson could lose some time to a returning Varejao.
Golden State Warriors (@SA, LAL, @DAL, @HOU, @MIN, NO, SA): Even though he's technically backing up Charles Jenkins, Nate Robinson (12.5 points, 5.5 assists, 2.0 3s over his past eight) remains the Warriors' best bet as a fantasy free agent. Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves opponents are second and third, respectively, in assists. In addition, it wouldn't be surprising to see some of the top Spurs rested for either or both of their games with Golden State, making those matchups potentially attractive as well. Robinson is available in more than 70 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Miami Heat (@NJ, TOR, CHI, WAS, HOU, @BOS, @WAS): Not a lot fantasy owners can do to take advantage of this schedule. The key players are all universally rostered with the exception of Mario Chalmers, and he's available in just 39 percent of ESPN.com leagues. On paper, the Nets (42 3s allowed in their past five) are a glorious matchup, but most of Chalmers' significant statistical performances come with either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James out of the lineup.
Philadelphia 76ers (@ORL, IND, @CLE, @IND, @NJ, @MIL, @DET): Yes, the Sixers have just one home game in their final seven, and it's stuck in the middle of back-to-back-to-back games. Given his minimal productivity since the first month or so of the season, I've written far too much about Spencer Hawes, but I'm going out of this season the way I came in. I don't care that he's coming off the bench now. I absolutely love Hawes for this schedule. The Cavs without Varejao and the Nets without Brook Lopez have been overwhelmed by bigs, Pacers opponents are fourth in blocks, and the Magic might not have Dwight Howard when they host the Sixers on Monday. Hawes is available in about 55 percent of ESPN.com leagues, and he's a must-add if you need rejections.
San Antonio Spurs (GS, @LAL, @SAC, LAL, CLE, POR, @PHO, @GS): The Spurs' closing schedule is nuts. They not only play on the three "busy" nights, they also have five more games in what I'll call those "filler dates" of April 17 and April 19-25. No other team plays on more than four of those dates. For leagues of at least 12 teams, Daniel Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter will likely have their moments down the stretch, and to me, Splitter offers the most fantasy value. He's bound to get 25-plus minutes replacing Duncan in at least a couple of these games, and even on nights where he plays only 15 minutes, he manages to get a few points and boards and the occasional block.
"R" matchup ratings are based on a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup) and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 10 games' statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played and their opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H) and lists the overall rating from 1-10 for that week's matchups.
Players to Watch
I'll leave you with some other potential free-agent adds for championship week: Shannon Brown, Anthony Randolph, Jason Smith, Ekpe Udoh and Brandan Wright. Brown is available in more than 80 percent of ESPN.com leagues, and the others are available in more than 90 percent of leagues. Randolph's fantasy worthiness is dependent on Kevin Love's condition, but it's possible that the Timberwolves shut their star down. Given that we've been here before, I'd take the plunge with Randolph in any format I had a player to drop. He could be a fantasy title-maker again this season.
Opponent Performance, Past 10 Games
All statistics are for teams' past 10 games played and are defensive numbers. PPGA: Points per game allowed. FG%A: Field goal percentage allowed. 3PT%A: 3-point percentage allowed. RPG diff.: Rebounds per game differential. SPGA: Steals per game allowed. BPGA: Blocks per game allowed.