Every year after the trade deadline, we start to see certain players begin to distinguish themselves, given the new look of rosters and new opportunities for playing time. What follows are a few players who have already begun to do just that, so let's sidestep the usual preamble and skip to the real matter at hand.
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder: With Jeff Green out of town, and tiny Nate Robinson the only perimeter player brought in to replace him, Harden is going to (finally) be asked to carry more of the load on both ends of the floor for the Thunder. Interestingly, he had already begun to put up better numbers before the deadline; he's currently on just his second streak of five or more games with double-figure scoring this season (after three such streaks last season).
I found myself particularly impressed with Harden's performance in the Thunder's recent loss to the Lakers; lacking any depth at all on the front line, the Thunder relied on Harden to cover Kobe Bryant for long stretches and also to drive and finish in the paint on the offensive end. He rose to the occasion on both accounts, and that has been evidenced in the statistics as well; according to hoopdata.com, Harden is finishing 59 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 47 percent as a rookie. It all adds up to increased opportunity for a guy with a high-lottery pedigree, and he should be a good source of points, 3s, and free throw percentage (and a decent source of steals and assists) for the rest of the season.
Chase Budinger, SF, Houston Rockets: In his past three games, he's looked great twice and decidedly mediocre once, but I'm going to chalk up the bad performance to a tough matchup against a Hornets team that defends perimeter players extremely well. Budinger, given the opportunity, is a willing and able scorer who can get to the line and make free throws. That's a valuable commodity in the fantasy world, especially when you consider the fact that he's a decent rebounder, too. His size and leaping ability should mean that he'll be able to continue to improve as a shooter from long range, but he's already good enough, given the 30 minutes per game he's likely to see now that he's in the starting lineup, to be on your fantasy roster for the rest of this season.
Al Jefferson, C/PF, Utah Jazz: As a lifelong Celtics fan with a long memory, I will always have a special fondness for Big Al, who was the only bright spot on the C's for a pretty dark period in their history. So I'm always rooting for him to do well, and recently, he has. Besides a 2-for-14 anomaly against the Suns, Jefferson scored more than 20 points in every game during February, averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the floor for the month. That's the Al Jefferson I thought the Jazz were getting when they managed to pick him up as a replacement for Carlos Boozer last summer.
The fact that he's playing well is important, too, because the Jazz no longer have Deron Williams to create good shots for his teammates. Jefferson is the rare (in this day and age) big man who commands a double-team on the block, and he's an improving free throw shooter who is up to a career-high 78 percent this season. He's substantially improved his midrange game as well, and it could be the case that he's just now finally getting all the way back to the form that had him averaging better than 20 points and 10 boards for two straight seasons in Minnesota. It's worth noting that his 1.9 blocks per game this season are a career high as well; he's been above two blocks per game for three months now, which is yet another sign that he's healthier than ever.
J.R. Smith, SG/SF, Denver Nuggets: Obviously, it goes without saying at this point that Smith is volatile. With a player like Smith, though, it's important to look at his stats in the aggregate so that you don't miss out on value by making too much of his bad games. In his four games since Carmelo Anthony was shipped out of town, Smith is averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 2.3 3-pointers and shooting 47 percent from the floor. Individually, he had one great game, two decent games and one terrible game, but if you played him all four nights, you got some phenomenal production based on the averages.
Keep in mind that Smith is now the Nuggets player most able to create a decent shot out of nothing, even if the ability to do that is often exactly what makes him so frustrating at times. He's far more needed in Denver without Anthony than he was before, and the Nuggets are going to have to use him a lot heading down the stretch in order to stay in the playoffs in the West. Some nights you'll wish you hadn't played him, but it's important to keep him in your lineup anyway, so you don't miss the occasional explosion.
Samuel Dalembert, C, Sacramento Kings: I've said many times in the past that Dalembert is great because he needs only 25 minutes or so per game to contribute enough fantasy goodness to be a top-50 fantasy guy. That's amazing, and it's because of a few things. For one, he's a fantastic rebounder on a per-minute basis. For another thing, he's tall and athletic and great at blocking shots. Finally, he doesn't destroy you at the foul line, hardly getting there and making better than 70 percent when he does.
So, after averaging fewer than 22 minutes per game for the season, Dalembert has been playing more of late now that Carl Landry is out of town and the Kings' big-man rotation has been shortened. Despite going through a bit of a dry spell blocking shots, Dalembert is averaging 13.8 points and 10.0 rebounds in 27.4 minutes in his past five games, and since it's looking like the Kings aren't going to buy him out, it's possible he manages to put up double-doubles for the rest of the season. If he does, he's going to win some fantasy leagues for people, considering he's still available in nearly half of all ESPN.com fantasy leagues.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.