Here are a few Monday morning thoughts from the Hoops Lab, as we prepare for Week 9 of the fantasy basketball season. Keep in mind, the Fantasy Basketball Rest of Season Rankings also update on Mondays, so check those out as your prepare for this week's games. Between the rankings and this article, we'll also help you identify some good Buy Low/Sell high candidates. So, without further ado, let's dig into it.
Pelicans best out West, but what happens to Zion when Ingram returns?
The Golden State Warriors are your defending champions. The Phoenix Suns had the best record in the NBA last season. The Clippers are the great "what if?", the team in waiting unless/until Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can get and stay healthy at the same time for an extended period of time. The Nuggets have the two-time defending NBA MVP. The Grizzlies have the next generation Human Highlight Film Jr. (shout-out to Dominique Wilkins).
But...quiet as kept? The New Orleans Pelicans are playing the best basketball in the West right now...and it's not particularly close.
The Pelicans have won seven straight games and nine of their last 10. In that stretch, they've beaten the Suns twice, the Warriors and the Nuggets. On the sports betting front, it's worth noting that the Pelicans still have the sixth-longest odds to win the Western Conference (+800), despite having the best record in the league about a third of the way into the season.
On the fantasy hoops front, it's important that they're doing all this winning without young All Star Brandon Ingram. Ingram has missed all seven games of their current win streak with a toe injury. In his absence, the Pelicans have run through their other young All Star and centerpiece, Zion Williamson, who is averaging 30.0 PPG (66.9 FG%, 74.6 FT%), 9.1 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1.6 SPG and 1.1 BPG in 36.3 MPG during the streak. While the mega-efficient, high-volume scoring is the attention grabber, don't sleep on the assists. The Pelicans are winning by running their offense through Zion, and letting him decide whether to create for teammates or finish himself, and his fantasy value is through the roof.
But, Ingram will be returning soon...per his coach, the hope is that he returns during the upcoming road trip. This should ultimately be great for the Pelicans, because Ingram is an outstanding player. But, he's also a high-usage player that is third on the team with 15.4 FGA and second on the team with 4.9 APG. Before Ingram's current seven-game absence, Zion was "only" averaging 22.4 PPG and 3.7 APG while sharing the court with Ingram. His other numbers were down as well (6.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.3 BPG), but the offensive ones are the ones it seems most likely that Ingram could impact.
I've suggested in the past that fantasy managers rostering Zion should be cautious of his injury history, and might consider trading him high. If that is your inclination, this is probably your best opportunity to do so. It's hard to imagine Zion producing at this level once Ingram comes back, so this very well may be the best fantasy production you'll see from him this season. And your trade offer should essentially write itself...a guy averaging almost 30/10/5 on almost 70% (!!!!) shooting from the field who's ridiculous dunks lead SportsCenter on a daily basis should be someone you can get good value for.
Westbrook dishing to Davis
I noticed a trend that I wrote about in Sunday's Daily Notes, and made it the centerpiece of my Best Bet for the day. And it played out again, almost exactly, making it now a trend I'll be watching this week. In the last six games, Anthony Davis has played more than eight minutes in four games. This is how Westbrook has performed next to Davis, as opposed to when Davis was out:
Four games w/ Davis: Westbrook averaged 11.0 PPG and 11.5 APG
Two games w/o Davis: Westbrook averaged 16.0 PPG and 3.5 APG
The Lakers seem to have found their strategy, and their level, when Davis is available. Everything is designed for Davis to be the primary finisher, even over LeBron James. Westbrook seems to have bought into this entirely. When Davis is on the court, Westbrook drives to dish to Davis. When Davis is out, Westbrook drives to finish himself. This has clear fantasy, DFS and sports betting implications for what to expect from Westbrook. On Sunday, Westbrook's assists prop was set at 6.5, and he finished with nine assists. Until Vegas catches up, the Westbrook assist prop is worthy of nightly attention.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
Leonard and George have been injured for much of the season, a fact I've lamented here several times. But last week they returned and, outside of the second half of a back-to-back where Kawhi (expectedly) sat, and both are slowly rounding into form.
George played all four games, but in the last two he looked like PG13 with averages of 32.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 6.5 APG, 5.0 3PG, 2.0 SPG and 1.0 BPG. He has the ability to play at this level for long stretches, if he can stay healthy. But, his scoring would be expected to be attenuated if and when his running mate Kawhi finally reaches his level. And...he's not that far away.
In his three games last week, Kawhi averaged 14.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.7 APG and 1.0 3PG in 29.3 MPG. That last stat is the most important: 29.3 MPG. While Kawhi is still minutes capped, the ceiling has increased from his run earlier in the season. If he's able to continue to stay on the court (outside of back-to-backs), the next threshold to watch will be when the minutes limit is completely gone. Those that drafted Leonard have been waiting almost two months to see him play to level. He's not there yet, but for the first time this season it feels like the real Kawhi may be on the horizon. Maybe.
Lillard awakening, Simons channeling McCollum
Damian Lillard had a three-game streak way back in October where he broke out Dame Time, averaging 37.7 PPG in three straight wins. Then, the next game, he strained his calf and hasn't been the same since. He missed 12 games outright, and in the eight games he played he averaged 22.1 PPG on 37.4 FG% while never breaking the 30 point threshold. But, as of this weekend, it's Dame Time again.
In his past two games, Lillard has exploded for 38.0 PPG (47.7 FG%, 100 FT%), 10.0 APG, 6.0 3PG, 3.5 RPG and 2.0 SPG in 39.5 MPG. Lillard starts off this week facing the same Timberwolves defense he just torched on Saturday. I'll be watching to see how long this run of Dame Time can last.
Oh, and by the way...keep an eye on Anfernee Simons. Last season, Simons exploded while Lillard was injured, but he'd never been able to perform to max level while Lillard was on the court. These days, though, Simons is channeling his inner CJ McCollum and thriving even when Lillard is playing well. Simons has scored at least 22 points in six of the last seven games he's played with Lillard, capped by the 31 points and five 3-pointers he dropped against the Timberwolves on Saturday.
Welcome home BG
This last one isn't about men's fantasy basketball. I just have to take a moment to say a huge Welcome Home to Brittney Griner, who was away from her family for much too long. Very thankful to have you home, BG!