We're nearing the end of the line, heading for the long and dreary fantasy offseason, when stats become nothing more than pure speculation. What we sometimes forget in assessing which players are poised to make big leaps the following season is how important minutes are to any sort of fantasy relevance.
As with most things in life, it's all about opportunity. If Coach doesn't let you play enough minutes, chances are you won't accumulate enough material to be worth owning in fantasy basketball.
Yet playing more minutes doesn't always equate to better play. Many players who put up big numbers in limited action do so against second-tier opponents. It's one thing to put up 25 points in 40 minutes with Ron Artest hanging all over you for most of the night; it's entirely another thing to put up 10 points in 10 minutes against the Sacramento Kings' second unit.
What we want at the end of the season, especially if we're out of contention in our leagues, is a chance to evaluate how certain players can handle big minutes. A chance to see whether the guys we believe are about to succeed can actually hack it facing the first team, or whether they'll be forever relegated to mop-up duty.
What follows is a collection of players who are making the most of their current situation and are making a final push up the Player Rater rankings.
Note: Overall ranking, ranking based on averages and ranking in the past 30 days are represented in parentheses.
Mike Conley, PG, Grizzlies (99, 131, 10): As you can see from his recent ranking, Conley has played well lately. During the Grizzlies' recent four-game win streak, Conley has been a catalyst, averaging 21.3 points, 6.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 3.8 3-pointers. He has been shooting the ball extremely well during that stretch, which might be unsustainable, but the combination of assists, rebounds and steals is totally realistic. If he can keep it up, his fantasy potential makes him look like Rajon Rondo with a jump shot. Conley has been playing major minutes in Memphis for about three months and is definitely making the most of it. He'll finish this season in the top 100 on the Player Rater and definitely will push the top 50 next season.
J.R. Smith, SG, Nuggets (72, 105, 12): Smith, as those of us who follow this stuff are well aware, is a streaky player. He'll have nights when he can't miss and others when he'll shoot his team right out of a game. Still, the potential is undeniable. Going into next season, he'll have much baggage for fantasy owners. Many of us had high hopes for him this season, and it really wasn't until the past month or so when he started to make good on all that promise. On talent, though, Smith is one of those rare players who is entirely capable of putting up 30 or more points on any given night. It's not a fluke when it happens, it's a moment of clarity. For all his streakiness, though, his best stretches of play have come when he's consistently playing about 30 minutes per game. When that number dips below 25, we start to see more of what I like to call "Bad J.R." I think we will continue to see his best the rest of the way this season, but for next season, well, your guess is as good as mine.
Francisco Garcia, SG/SF, Kings (102, 73, 25): For the past two months, Garcia has been one of the best all-around contributors in fantasy, and most people are starting to pick up on that. Just about every night, he gives you at least one 3-pointer, one steal and one block, and he usually puts up multiples in one or two of those categories. When he started playing major minutes, his shooting percentage went up and he became much more comfortable on the floor. He's turning the ball over more, too, but that's part of the learning curve that comes when your role on the team increases. I love Garcia as a sleeper for next season. It's easy to talk yourself out of his losing minutes behind Kevin Martin in Sacramento, but Garcia will play and be as productive as he is now.
Boris Diaw, SF/PF, Bobcats (50, 82, 35): Diaw's production has improved throughout most of the season. As soon as he was traded to the Bobcats, his minutes skyrocketed, his role in the offense increased and he became, once again, one of the best all-around contributors in fantasy. In the past few months, he has even increased his shooting percentage to far better than 50 percent. All things considered, he's probably one of the top 10 or 15 power forward options in the league in terms of fantasy (and most likely in terms of real basketball, as well). Few other big men in the league will put up similar assists totals, which is what will give Diaw most of his value going forward.
Kendrick Perkins, C, Celtics (82, 111, 39): With all the injuries in Boston during the past couple of months, Perk has seen his minutes rise a bit, averaging more than 30 per game for all of March into April. Lately, he has made the most of it. He doesn't miss many shots, and in his past five games, he has averaged 10.0 rebounds and 3.4 blocks. Those numbers are good enough to make him almost worthy of the top-40 ranking he has been swinging in the past month. On a team with a healthy Kevin Garnett, Leon Powe and Glen Davis, it's hard to see Perkins getting any more than 30 minutes per game, but his slow and steady improvement in the past few years has already turned him into a fantasy player who's worth having in your lineup every night. Considering he's owned in just 36 percent of ESPN.com leagues, that makes him a pretty valuable commodity if you can pick him up.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.