The NBA is back! The All-Star break was timely and well-needed, with players getting the chance to rest and refresh after a marathon first four months of the season. With games starting back up on Thursday, the league enters a downhill sprint to the finish line in the last two months. Fantasy-wise, here are some of the trends of interest as we enter the stretch run.
The Eastern Conference is stratified. There are three teams with a legitimate chance to win the conference -- the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers -- then six teams within five games of each other for the final five playoff spots. That group includes the Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons. Only the Charlotte Hornets, 5.5 games behind the currently eighth-place Heat, have even an outside shot of joining that group. The remaining Eastern teams are all clearly lottery-bound.
The West has a similar stratification pattern, with two teams with a chance at winning the conference -- the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. A good eight teams are within five games of each other for the last six playoff spots: the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, LA Clippers and Utah Jazz. The remaining five teams are clearly on the lottery train.
Generally speaking, the conference contenders are the most likely to rest veteran players strategically down the stretch, but are also unlikely to give rookies/young players much more playing time outside of those spot-starts when those veterans do sit. The battling-for-playoffs crew are the least likely to rest their veterans as much (except for the Spurs) and, as such, not going to be in the habit of giving rookies/young players much playing time. The lottery-bound crew are very likely to scale back veteran playing time in favor of giving rookies/young players more playing time.
A few other notes to consider:
The NBA trade deadline has passed. Thus, the values of veterans on poor teams such as Zach Randolph (Kings), Tyson Chandler (Suns), Brook Lopez (Lakers), or Robin Lopez (Bulls) seem likely to go down moving forward as their teams will have less incentive to play them and more impetus to see what their younger players have to offer.
With the expectation that the main guys might get spot rests down the stretch for contenders (including the Cavaliers and adding the Spurs), elite players on those teams might have slightly less fantasy value than their counterparts on teams in a "fighting for the playoffs" mode -- especially in head-to-head leagues, where games played matter greatly in the fantasy postseason. Thus, Russell Westbrook, Karl-Anthony Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo might get slight boosts when compared to guys like James Harden, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Youngsters on lottery teams should get their shots to shine. Thus, guys such as Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, De'Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr., Josh Jackson and Justin Jackson could see larger improvements in their output -- relative to their averages for the season thus far -- than rookies/young players on playoff-bound teams.
These are all things to keep in mind as you load up for your own stretch run. Remember that as the time remaining in the season gets shorter, the more likely it is that any given injury becomes one of a season-ending nature. Thus, bench guys and handcuffs have a reasonable chance to end up becoming impact starters down the stretch, especially on teams out of the playoff hunt.
Injuries of note
On Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made the statement that he would be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns to the team this season. He didn't rule him out completely, but it was reported that, while Leonard was cleared by the team to return, he was choosing to remain out to seek further medical opinions about his best options. (Check out my interview with Stephania Bell, where she discussed many current injuries, including this one.) Leonard's ability to return is based on his ability to manage pain, but it also has to balance with the known risk of rupture --similar to what teammate Tony Parker faced last season -- and the seriousness of any damage in the knee area to the long-term careers of players. So, while it is not definite that Leonard is done for the season, if you're looking at making roster decisions right now, Popovich's comment should factor in greatly.
Paul Millsap was a full participant in practice on Wednesday. He doesn't have a specific timetable for return, with Nuggets coach Michael Malone saying it "could be two weeks or four weeks," which would put the expected return between the first and third week of March. Keep in mind that Milsap might come off the bench for a time to work his way back into the lineup.
Analytics advantage for Thursday
The Chicago Bulls have allowed the second-most rebounds to opposing teams (46.3 RPG) and the seventh-highest field goal percentage on two-point shots (52.4 2P%), resulting in struggles against opposing big men. They've allowed the fifth-most fantasy points to centers and the eighth-most fantasy points to power forwards. On Thursday, they face a Philadelphia 76ers squad featuring several very talented big men, including Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric.
Top players to watch tonight
LeBron James entered the break on a high note, with the Cavaliers on a winning streak following their deadline deals. James will presumably look to start the stretch run on that same high, and is primed for a big day on Thursday at home against the Wizards.
D'Angelo Russell gradually increased both his minutes and output off the bench in the weeks leading up to the break, peaking with an average of almost 30 MPG over his last three games. He may well be back in the starting lineup for Brooklyn on Thursday, and it's worth watching to see if he is fully back to normal.
Tim Hardaway Jr. had been in an awful slump, then broke out in a massive way with 37 points in his last game. Can he come out of the break as the focal point player for the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks?
Speaking of the Knicks, I've been touting Emmanuel Mudiay as their potential point guard of the future and hoping he will blossom down the stretch this season. The team has announced he'll have a bigger role after the break, so I'll be paying attention to his performance against a Magic defense that struggles against opposing point guards.