The end is near, and in a little more than a month, we'll be looking back on the 2008-09 fantasy season wondering where the heck it went. Last week, we discussed the importance of risk-taking for owners who need to make up ground quickly. It's officially panic time for those of you who are on the outside looking in, and risk-taking is a must. But for those of you who are looking to hold onto a lead, or preparing for the head-to-head playoffs, a different type of panic is beginning to set in.
Who could forget last season when Dwyane Wade shut it down with 21 games remaining in the season? Or how about when Doc Rivers decided to limit Kevin Garnett (25.7 minutes), Paul Pierce (27.4 minutes) and Ray Allen (29.0 minutes) to fewer than 30 minutes per game with a seven-game lead in the month of April? These shutdowns and partial shutdowns are the types of situations that terrify fantasy owners at this point in the season. It happens every year. Players we've relied on all season take a back seat in the month of April as teams either prepare for their playoff run (like the Celtics) or prepare for the future (like Wade). This year will be no different, and with that in mind, let's take a look at some players who run the risk of being limited down the stretch, and more importantly, who stands to benefit from a potential shutdown.
Shaquille O'Neal/Steve Nash, Suns: The Suns are now 5 ½ games out of the final playoff spot and are quickly falling out of the playoff picture in the West. They're still going all out right now, but it's hard to imagine they'll keep up the pace once it becomes clear that they have no shot at unseating Portland, Denver or Dallas for the final playoff spot. Shaq (21.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks in March) and Nash (25.4 points, 11.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 3-pointers in March) are playing at a very high level right now, but they're also playing more minutes than they're accustomed to, and both have had nagging injuries all season long. With that said, there's a good possibility that both Nash and Shaq will take some time to rest in April when all hope is lost on the season.
Potential beneficiaries: Leandro Barbosa and Louis Amundson would benefit most if Nash and Shaq sit out down the stretch. We all know what Barbosa can do with Nash out, but Amundson could be a sneaky sleeper pickup candidate for rebounds and blocks for the final two weeks of the season.
Marcus Camby/Baron Davis/Zach Randolph, Clippers: Do I really need to lay out all of the reasons why the 15-49 Clippers might decide to rest any of the above-mentioned players? It's pretty self explanatory, no? Camby is the most likely to shut it down as he's been struggling with migraines and equilibrium issues lately, and he actually may end up calling it quits sooner rather than later. Davis has had some hamstring problems and has a lengthy history of taking time off when his team is struggling. Randolph is the best bet of the three to stay on the court for the remainder of the season, but be careful of his minutes if the Clippers want to get a better look at rookie DeAndre Jordan in April. Teams that are out of contention (like the Clips) tend to give their youngsters more run in the final month of the season and Randolph's minutes could suffer as a result.
Potential beneficiaries: Eric Gordon has been brilliant since joining the starting lineup; he's averaging 18.5 points, 1.1 steals and 1.9 3-pointers in 47 starts this season. There's no way the Clippers will limit his minutes down the stretch, so get ready for a huge final month for the rookie regardless of whether or not Davis shuts it down. Al Thornton has turned his game up a notch and is averaging 20.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and a steal in the month of March. He has the potential to remain hot, particularly if the Clips give him more run. Jordan is one of my favorite sleeper pickup candidates for the stretch run as the Clippers figure to give the rookie a chance to shine in the final month of the season.
Jose Calderon/Chris Bosh, Raptors: At 23-42, the Raptors are in a similar spot as the Clippers. With nothing left to play for, one has to wonder if they'll continue to run Bosh (who has had some knee issues) and Calderon (who has had a variety of nagging injuries) out on the court every night. Calderon appears to be a bigger risk than Bosh, but I wouldn't be surprised if both take more than just a few games to rest at the end of the year.
Potential beneficiaries: There is little to complain about in Andrea Bargnani's game these days, and he'd have an absolute field day if Bosh misses any time. Joey Graham has shown some ability to get after it on the offensive end, but will mostly be a specialist for points if he sees more time. Anthony Parker's assists have skyrocketed whenever Calderon has been missing in action this season. Don't go crazy thinking about backup point guard Roko Ukic, but do file his name away just in case he can get it done if Calderon is out.
Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison, Wizards: Noticing a theme here? The Wizards are a woeful 15-50 and have already started their youth movement with Andray Blatche and Dominic McGuire earning steady minutes lately. Butler owners have to be worried about the hamstring injury that has given him problems this season. Even the slightest tweak could put him down for an extended period of time as there is little incentive for him to risk serious injury by pushing himself. Jamison is a much safer bet, but we can't know for sure what the Wizards will do in April. It's entirely possible that they'll cut Jamison's minutes in order to see what they have in players like Blatche, McGuire, Nick Young and JaVale McGee.
Potential beneficiaries: I'm already expecting big things from Blatche and McGuire down the stretch as their minutes increase. McGuire won't score much, but is a nice sleeper candidate for steals and blocks, while Blatche is a freakish athlete with big-time upside. Javaris Crittenton may see more run at the point, but he seems to be a few years away from contributing on a consistent basis. Also, don't be surprised if Young gets the call and lights it up on the offensive end if Butler goes down.
Other potential shutdown candidates:
• Danny Granger's knee injury is worrisome, but he'll probably make the push to get back with the Pacers still in the running for the final playoff spot. Be careful, though. If Indiana falls out of contention, Granger could easily sit things out. Marquis Daniels and Jarrett Jack would be the obvious candidates to pick up the slack.
• Manu Ginobili is making his way back from an ankle injury and should be back in time to help owners during the final few weeks of the season. Don't expect any miracles, though. Gregg Popovich will likely limit Manu's minutes to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
• Things are so tight at the top of the Eastern Conference that we'll probably luck out and not see any of the top teams resting their stars down the stretch. The Cavs are currently two games ahead of the Celtics and 3 ½ ahead of the Magic. As long as they don't pull away, all three teams should continue to fight to earn the extra edge of home-court advantage in the playoffs.
• The same can be said for the bottom half of the East. With six teams (Milwaukee, New Jersey, Chicago, Charlotte, Indiana and New York) having a realistic shot at the final playoff spot, no one will ease up until they are mathematically eliminated. That bodes well for someone like Vince Carter, who would be much riskier if it weren't for the playoff battle.
• After beating the Spurs on Thursday, the Lakers now hold an 8 ½-game lead in the Western Conference. Like Doc Rivers last season, Phil Jackson may opt to rest some of his stars down the stretch. With such a big lead, I'm convinced that Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will see a drop of about five minutes per game as the Lakers prepare for their playoff run.
There are a ton of players that have been mentioned in previous weeks still hanging around on the wire. Check to see if any of the below players are still available and be ready to pounce if they fit a need on your team:
Ryan Gomes, SF/PF, Timberwolves (29.4 percent owned)
Rodney Stuckey, PG/SG, Pistons (44.2 percent owned)
Mike Conley, PG, Grizzlies (19.8 percent owned)
Larry Hughes, SG, Knicks (18.6 percent owned)
Delonte West, PG/SG, Cavaliers (35.3 percent owned)
Tyrus Thomas, PF, Bulls (31.7 percent owned)
Matt Barnes, SF, Suns (10.0 percent owned)
J.R. Smith, SG, Nuggets (40.9 percent owned)
Rasual Butler, SG/SF, Hornets (11.4 percent owned)
Spencer Hawes, PF/C, Kings (42.3 percent owned)
Thabo Sefolosha, SG/SF, Thunder (2.8 percent owned)
Rashad McCants, SG, Kings (14.0 percent owned)
Aaron Brooks, PG, Rockets (8.2 percent owned)
Antonio McDyess, PF, Pistons (14.5 percent owned)
Ronald Murray, SG, Hawks (thanks to Marvin Williams' injury) (2.0 percent owned)
Renaldo Balkman, SF, Nuggets (0.3 percent owned)
Chris Kaman, C, Clippers (68.2 percent owned)
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.