The segment after the NBA All-Star break is often mistakenly deemed the "second half" of the season when really, there's just 30 percent of the campaign left to play. The playoffs in some head-to-head formats begin as early as next week, while even managers in rotisserie formats will begin to feel the squeeze of these final weeks of the season. Immediacy proves crucial in these pivotal last weeks of the season, such as seizing on any of the key overlooked difference-makers floating in free agency or via the waiver wire.
Vague and enduring long-term injuries can cause top talents to slip into free agency at this point of the season, with Minnesota's Robert Covington as a prime example. Covington hasn't played since suffering a bruised knee on New Year's Eve in New Orleans and is currently rostered in just of half of ESPN fantasy basketball leagues.
Rumblings from the beat and his own Twitter feed, however, suggest "Glovington" (a moniker earned by an elite steal rate) is nearing a return to action. I'd rush to make room for this stellar 3-and-D asset in all formats, even if it means waiting a few weeks for his return -- he's capable of single-handedly shifting results in 3-pointers, steals and blocks. Let's remember Covington has averaged 2.4 3-pointers, 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game this season between work with the 76ers and Wolves. For some context, he is the only NBA player averaging a least two steals, two 3-pointers and one block this season and would be the only player on record ever to do so if he sustained these rates for a full season. So, yes, he's quite special.
The All-Star break often allows some of these vague injury scenarios to quickly clarify, creating windows for value we can target. Below, I detail some other significant injury-related topics in addition to previewing some of the key statistical narratives ahead of Thursday's anticipated six-game slate.
All-Star break takeaways
Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis 89-55 after trailing by 20 in the third quarter of this past Sunday's surprisingly competitive All-Star game. Team LeBron had only a 3.2 percent chance to win down 118-99 in the third quarter, but James' squad went full Space Jam, with a dash of NBA Jam, and made 35 of 90 3-pointers in the comeback win, both All-Star records.
Kevin Durant produced 31 points on 10-15 FG to win his second All-Star Game MVP (won with the Thunder in 2012). Durant became the first Warriors player to win All-Star MVP since Rick Barry in 1967 and the first to shoot free throws overhand in the contest. Durant became just the sixth player with multiple All-Star Game MVPs and Finals MVPs. It seemed like if Dirk Nowitzki had more time (or a time machine) he'd have matched Durant, as the German legend hit all three of his 3-point attempts.
Giannis Antetokounmpo did all he could for Team Giannis, fittingly, scoring a game-high 38 points, the most by a foreign-born player in All-Star Game history, per the Elias Sports Bureau.
ESPN Stats & Info compiled a fun list of notable NBA milestones to watch for in the coming games. For instance, Atlanta's Vince Carter is just 66 points away from passing Reggie Miller for 20th on the all-time scoring list, while LeBron is 19 assists away from passing Andre Miller for 10th on the all-time dimes list. James Harden is just nine 3-pointers away from passing J.R. Smith for 12th on the all-time 3-point FG list and teammate Chris Paul is just seven steals away from passing Karl Malone for 10th on the all-time steals list. Houston's visit to Los Angeles tonight to face James is discussed in greater detail below.
The biggest winner in a fantasy sense over the break might have been 3-point contest champion Joe Harris from Brooklyn. The Nets' sharpshooter is hitting on an awesome 47.1 percent of his attempts from beyond this season and is now rostered in 42.3 percent of ESPN leagues, thanks to impressing the national audience in dueling with Stephen Curry this past Saturday night. Referencing the list of most added and dropped players can be a helpful resource for identifying productive potential free agents, such as Harris being the second-most added player of the past week in ESPN leagues. The top addition is Orlando's Jonathan Isaac, who is now finally gaining steam as a potential league-winning defensive weapon in the mold of Covington.
Injuries of note
Speaking of dynamic defensive players available in most leagues for the price of a roster spot, let's talk about the Spurs' Derrick White and his impending return from injury. Because of his injury, White is rostered in fewer than 30 percent of leagues and yet presents strong value as a combo guard who averaged 15.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 1.1 3PG, and 30.7 MPG in his previous 16 starts before getting injured against the Pelicans at the end of January.
Miami's Goran Dragic is another player due to return after a long absence. The team has preached patience in reintegrating Dragic back into a featured playmaking role, but you should acquire him now that he's still floating in free agency in a third of ESPN leagues. It will take a few games, but we should keep an eye on the fantasy fallout of Dragic's return to a key distribution role, which could considerably change Justise Winslow's value and what is already a somewhat busy backcourt and wing rotation.
Joel Embiid will miss at least a week of action in what appears to be a precautionary measure with the "Process" dealing with a sore knee. An MRI revealed no structural damage, so this could be an extended "Kawhi" break for Embiid ahead of a somewhat friendly schedule the next week. Looking into on/off data with the Sixers, it can honestly read as a bit noisy, given the roster has already experienced two major blockbuster trades. It's likely worth considering Jimmy Butler as a DFS value tonight and in the games ahead, given he experiences a team-high eight percent leap in usage rate with Embiid off the floor and subsequently a team-high spike in DFS points per 36 minutes in such scenarios. JJ Redick also rises in both key categories with Embiid off the floor, adding to his streaming candidacy in shallow redraft formats.
Analytics advantage for Thursday
The Warriors host the Kings tonight in a game with an awesome opening point total of 239, which signals that game has some fun stacking angles to consider, given the likelihood for lots of offense. That said, the Warriors are sizable favorites nearing a spread of a dozen points across most books, thus there is some blowout potential to consider (which can hurt statistical ceilings).
While a battle of potential playoff foes (Sacramento is one game shy of the eighth seed in the West) in Oakland is intriguing, I'm loading up on shares of the Rockets visiting the Lakers in a game with a healthy opening total of 233. Clint Capela is probable for tonight's matchup with the Lakers and is in a great spot facing a defense that has allowed 118.1 points per 100 possessions to opponents (26th in the league) while also ranking 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage the past 10 games.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Harden has outscored LeBron in six consecutive head-to-head meetings, making him one of only three players to ever outscore James in as many as six straight head-to-head meetings along with Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady. Pierce's and McGrady's streak came within James' first three seasons in the NBA. If Harden outscores James on Thursday, he'll be the only player to outscore him in seven straight meetings. Harden has scored at least 30 points in 31 straight games, tied for the second-longest streak in NBA history. Only Wilt Chamberlain has a longer streak at 65 games.
While the Rockets have found success riding Harden's one-man show the past six weeks, the same cannot be said of the Lakers. Los Angeles entered the All-Star Break with 28-29 record, the latest into a season a team with James rostered sat below .500 since the end of his rookie season in 2003-04. James will need to assume a Harden-like usage rate with similarly strong efficiency to exceed value in DFS terms at his lofty cost tonight, thus I'm pivoting to shares of Kyle Kuzma instead, who comes in at roughly half the price of his superstar teammate on DraftKings tonight.
Top players to watch tonight
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA at the All-Star break for the second time in franchise history (1970-71) and face the Celtics at home as healthy favorites. The Bucks are the only team to rank in the top five of offensive and defensive efficiency this season.
Of the 163 players with at least 150 drives this season, Kyrie Irving (1.15) ranks first in the NBA in points per chance on drives, while Bucks teammates Antetokounmpo (1.14) and Eric Bledsoe (1.14) are tied for second, per Second Spectrum.
Bledsoe and Khris Middleton stand out as the top values in this game from a DFS perspective, with Boston's Marcus Morris also intriguing, given his blend of a stable floor and modest pricing. More than anything, I'm interested to see how the Celtics, a team with very strong offensive statistics with Irving on the floor, play tonight against an elite defensive opponent.