It was good while it lasted.
Nene left the Nuggets' game against the Bucks on Sunday after banging knees with Richard Jefferson, perhaps ending a run of good health that we hadn't seen from him since his first two seasons in the league. The previous few seasons, Nene had gone through a run of bad luck, ranging from knee problems to cancer, which made him tough to draft in fantasy leagues even though he's one of the most talented post players in the NBA.
We still aren't sure how serious his injury is, but early reports that he was unable to put any weight on the leg and that it is the knee he had surgery on over the offseason are certainly not good signs. Not only was he one of the major reasons the Nuggets have been so successful this season -- along with the emergence of Carmelo Anthony as a rebounder and facilitator and the arrival of Chauncey Billups on the scene -- but Nene had also proven to be a major fantasy force. Nobody in the league gives you more in terms of field goal percentage, and he provides an almost unheard of combination of blocks, steals and rebounds while being a decent scorer as well. All of that adds up to Nene being a top-20 fantasy player, but that status is sure to fall if and when he starts missing games because of this knee injury.
When you add the possibility of Nene missing time to the other recent injuries -- Al Jefferson, Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Danny Granger and others -- it becomes apparent that big men are at a premium right now. We're going to see names like Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Troy Murphy climbing the ranks quickly if other prominent big men continue to get hurt. Basically, it's a battle of attrition at this point.
But if Nene misses significant time, the more interesting question becomes: Where would you draft him for next season? He spent the past 54 games proving that his level of production was no fluke, then, just when I'm ready to jump on his bandwagon, he suffers a knee injury that makes me rethink the whole situation. What do we do with a top-20 talent we don't believe can remain healthy for a whole season? Similar examples from 2008 fantasy drafts include Dwyane Wade, who was taken at the end of the first round even though fantasy owners know he's an elite fantasy option. Wade proceeded to play like an elite option again. But for every one of those cases, there's an Amare Stoudemire, who lulled us into believing it's a given that he'll play 82 games and be a monster, and then has a lackluster season that ends with a retina injury.
I'm no doctor, of course, but I'm realizing now that it's dumb for me to make decisions based on my whims and opinions about who is going to get injured in the future. Yes, we have trends and precedents upon which we can make assumptions, and there are comparisons available for us to justify our opinions, no matter how poorly conceived they might be. As such, I'm certainly not going to draft Nene in the top two rounds next season because his injury history has to affect his value one way or another. But I also won't be afraid to take him a little later than that. It's like any other risk/reward scenario. If you drafted Nene this season, chances are you already got more production from him in 54 games than you ever imagined you would for the entire season. Of course, that's little consolation now for his owners if he misses significant time.
Going up (ranking based on total stats, ranking based on average stats)
Carmelo Anthony, SF, Nuggets (120, 70): Obviously, his ranking is so low because of all the time he has missed this season, but that's really only part of the story. After shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor last season, he's down to 44 percent this season, and that might not be a fluke, at least for the foreseeable future. Carmelo is shooting just 45 percent in February (though he's scoring more because he's living at the free throw line), and even more disturbing is that, after being a knock-down shooter on 3-pointers for the first half of the season, he's shooting just 26 percent from behind the arc in February. All of that said, there's a lot to like here. As I mentioned above, he has been rebounding more this year, and if Nene misses time, the Nuggets are going to rely on Melo to do even more of the dirty work he is so clearly capable of doing. There's still plenty of value in his putting up 20 and 10 every night, folks, and that's what I think Anthony is going to be doing the rest of this season.
Leandro Barbosa, PG/SG, Suns (71, 84): There's not much to say here because it's pretty obvious: The Suns are running, so Barbosa is playing great. The fact that Stoudemire is out might actually help Barbosa's value; not only will there be more shots, but the Suns likely will have to play at a fast tempo more often. No player on the team benefits more from the shift in style than Barbosa.
Delonte West, PG/SG, Cavaliers (111, 63): Here's another guy whose Player Rater numbers devalue him because he has missed time because of an injury. West was one of the top 50 fantasy players in the league before he suffered his wrist injury, providing a great combination of points, assists, steals, 3-pointers and shooting, both from the floor and the line. The concern when he returned was that the wrist injury would linger, affecting his shooting. But on Sunday, his first game back, he led the Cavs with 25 points and made all five of his 3-point attempts. He's available in almost 80 percent of leagues right now because so many people dropped him while he was out, and he could be one of the most important pickups you could make for the stretch run.
Raymond Felton, PG, Bobcats (58, 78): I thought they'd take a hit with D.J. Augustin coming back from injury, but Felton's numbers actually have looked great in February. Felton is averaging 15.2 points, 6.9 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.4 steals for the month while playing nearly 40 minutes per game. That sounds good, of course, but that last number is a problem. He's playing so many minutes that his value can only go down if they begin to get cut. Also, you have to think coach Larry Brown hates the fact that Felton is taking more shots than anyone else on the team despite the point guard being a woefully inefficient scorer. My guess is Felton starts to lose minutes soon as Brown gets desperate to make a playoff push. The Bobcats are only 4.5 games out of the final spot right now, so they still have a chance to sneak in.
Ben Gordon, SG, Bulls (22, 41): Gordon's overall value is artificially high because he has somehow managed to stay healthy all season. But the primary reason I expect a drop in production is because of the addition of John Salmons. Although I don't see Salmons getting enough minutes to be a meaningful fantasy player, his presence is going to cut into Gordon's minutes just enough to harm Gordon's value. Gordon has been on fire lately, averaging 28.2 points over his past five games, but he's doing that with 38 minutes per game. With a guard rotation of Kirk Hinrich, Derrick Rose, Salmons and himself, there are only so many minutes to go around, especially with Luol Deng firmly entrenched at small forward. I don't think Gordon's value will take a huge hit, but you shouldn't expect him to continue producing like he has.
John Salmons, SG/SF, Bulls (42, 52): Now on to Salmons he has been great all season, and all season I've been telling you to sell him while you can. This might be your last chance. He had a nice little debut for the Bulls on Sunday, scoring an efficient 12 points in 25 minutes. He also had three assists, three rebounds, two blocks and two 3-pointers. Unfortunately, I can't see him playing a ton of minutes on this team. If you can sell some owner on the Bulls playing small on occasion with Deng at the 4 and Salmons at the 3, the fact that Salmons has been a top-50 guy all season might get you something of value. It's worth a shot because there's no way he is going to be able to carve out enough meaningful minutes behind Rose, Gordon and Deng to maintain his production.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.