Here are a few Monday thoughts from the Hoops Lab, as we prepare for Week 22 of the fantasy basketball season -- for many of you, that means the start of the fantasy playoffs, so good luck.
Let's jump right into my five things for the week ahead.
Nuggets swoon = good for Jokic?
On the Bet show last week, they asked me if I was still willing to play Nikola Jokic in daily props since the Nuggets had such a clear grip on the Western Conference. The implication of the question was that, since the Nuggets had such a big lead, might they consider starting to limit Jokic's minutes to make sure he's rested for the postseason.
On the show, I said that I was hesitant to keep playing him for props, and that as soon as the Nuggets mathematically clinched I was likely to stop. Of course, if he's on your fantasy hoops team, there's no way to avoid playing any of your megastars at this point, so you'd just have to hope that he kept getting enough minutes to contribute.
That was last week.
Since then, the Nuggets have lost three straight games, while both the Kings (three games in a row) and the Grizzlies (two games in a row) have put together small winning streaks of their own. As a result, though the Nuggets still have a solid lead atop the West, they are only four games ahead of both of those teams in the loss column with 16 games to play.
That is a much different feel than seven games ahead with 19 to play, and is a much better look for fantasy hoops, DFS and daily betters that are interested in big production from Jokic (and the other veterans on the Nuggets like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.).
If the Nuggets are still competing for that top spot, they are more likely to keep playing their guys, which means that Jokic remains the top fantasy hoops option unless or until they are able to clinch.
Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be on the exact opposite side of the coin as Jokic, right now. Even though the Bucks only have a 1.5 game lead atop the Eastern Conference, they have shown themselves more than willing to sit their superstar players if they aren't exactly where they need to be physically as the season winds to a close.
Giannis has missed three straight games with a sore left hand, and is questionable heading into the back-to-back games that start this week. The Bucks and their players have stated all season that they aren't concerned with postseason seeding and their deployment of their key players supports that fact. The Bucks won the NBA Championship in 2021, and were arguably a Khris Middleton injury away from having the chance to repeat in 2022.
This season, they've brought Middleton along slowly in a year-long recovery plan that has him still ramping up his production with only a month left; they've willingly sat both Giannis and Jrue Holiday for injuries that they may have played them through in the playoffs. The Bucks are at least two-deep with quality starting options at every position, and they seem totally comfortable relying on that depth if it means keeping their superstars postseason ready.
This is excellent for the Bucks' playoffs potential, but it is nightmarish for anyone relying on Giannis for their fantasy hoops playoffs. But, just like I said above for Jokic...at this point, you're pot committed to your mega stars. So, you have to hope that Giannis starts seeing the court very soon, as soon as Monday. His availability is one of the biggest stories I'll be watching this week, and moving forward.
One fantasy superstar that I'm confident is truly battling through a debilitating injury is Jalen Brunson. Not only are Brunson's Knicks embroiled in a big battle for playoffs seeding in the competitive Eastern Conference, but we saw Brunson try to give it a go on Thursday and, after scoring 19 points in 19 minutes in the first half, have to sit out the entire second half.
Including that game, Brunson has sat out nine of the last 10 halves that the Knicks have played, and he's doubtful to make his return on Tuesday.
The Knicks only have two scheduled games this week (more on this below), so if Brunson is likely to sit at least one of the two, fantasy managers in week-long transaction leagues almost have no choice but to sit him. That is a very unfortunate situation for a player whose excellence this season has helped propel both the Knicks and many fantasy hoops rosters into postseason contention.
The secondary question of interest, is...do fantasy managers consider streaming Immanuel Quickley (available in 66.8% of leagues) this week? Again, the Knicks only have two games. But, in Brunson's absence, Quickley is a borderline impact starter. In his last eight games, going back to before Brunson's injury, Quickley has averaged 19.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 3.0 3PG and 1.1 SPG.
In the four games Brunson has sat in their entirety, he's averaged 23.3 PPG. Even with the shortened schedule, Quickley may be worth considering as a streamer this week.
Number of games this week, streamers
This week, the Hornets and Jazz join the Knicks as teams with only two games scheduled. This is poor timing for fantasy managers that rely on players from any of these teams, because two-game weeks can be season-enders in the fantasy playoffs. If you roster players from any of these teams, it's incumbent on you to do some math to decide whether to play your impact guys with two games or go with a bench and/or streaming option that may have up to four games.
Guys like Lauri Markkanen or Julius Randle may average more than 40 fantasy points per game, but over two games the high-end of expected value would give them a total of 90 points. If you've got a 30 FP/Game player on either your bench on your league's free agency wire, and those players have four games this week, their expected total value of around 120 points for the week could make them better fantasy hoops starters this week than the stars, if you can't change your lineup once its set.
Hard math, but it's the kind of thing that might help separate the second round survivors from the one-and-done fantasy hoops managers this season.
Injuries on playoffs vs non-playoffs teams
We've reached the point in the season where any injury to a veteran player on a team that isn't actively contending could be season-ending. While we can rest assured that Luka Doncic (out, thigh) and Kyrie Irving (questionable, foot) will return to action as soon as possible since the Mavericks are still just in a game in either direction from being in the playoffs at one extreme or being out of the play-in tournament at the other.
On the other hand, Damian Lillard sitting out Sunday with calf tightness is terrifying to fantasy hoops managers considering the Trail Blazers have fallen to 13th in the West, a full two games and two teams behind the last play-in slot.
There's been no word that Lillard is shutting it down, and the team was on the last game of a grueling six-game road trip, so until I hear otherwise I'm expecting Lillard to suit back up again for their next game. But, it's definitely worth keeping an eye on.
And for other veterans on less competitive teams, such as Bojan Bogdanovic (Achilles tendinitis) on the Pistons, it wouldn't be surprising at all to hear that he may be shut down for the season at any moment.