On Saturday I watched the Celtics sleep-walk through a game against the Wizards, apathetically blowing a 16-point lead and losing to a much-inferior team. That same night the Spurs got beat by 24 points, the Mavericks edged the 12-win Nets by one, and the Jazz got stomped by the well-below-.500 76ers. A day before that, Lakers legend Jerry West weighed in on the Lakers' recent difficulties in hanging on to leads by suggesting that the team must be too old to play strong defense anymore.
Yup, it's the dog days of the season.
The NBA season is looooong. Much too long for players to realistically give 100 percent effort night-in and night-out with any hopes of remaining healthy and having anything left for the postseason. As fans and fantasy owners we can decry the occasional stinkers and lack of consistent intensity as a sign of the decline in the modern athlete, or we can recognize it for what it is and make use of it.
Generally speaking, most players seem to push hard for the first couple of months of the season, and those with incentive (more to come on that) tend to push hard for the last couple of months. In the two middle months... namely January and February until the All Star Break, we have this period of dog days when the early season buzz has faded, the playoffs are still a long way away, wear-and-tear has started to build up, and among the veteran players the tendency is to try to stay healthy more-so than trying to go balls-out in most games.
So, what does that mean for you as a fantasy owner? First of all, it means that your slumping super-stars are probably not going to still be slumping in March outside of injury. That means that Kobe Bryant (#65 by average in Y! ranking for last month), Dirk Nowitzki (#107), Josh Smith (#63) and Carmelo Anthony (#86) will likely be back to their top-25 rankings by the time your postseason rolls around so you might not want to trade them low. In fact, if you can sell your local Kobe owner on him aging or ceding control to his talented teammates you might consider this a good time to send a slightly low-ball offer to see if he bites.
Second, along those same lines, it means that it's time to start sculpting your team for the home stretch. Veterans on terrible teams (I'm looking at you Antawn Jamison, and even cutting my eye at Steve Nash as well) and guys with poor injury histories/situations on teams that may not be in the postseason (hello Tyreke Evans, Danny Granger, Brandon Roy, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut) are generally not great bets to rely on for the fantasy late season push. On the other hand, in addition to the slumping vets I mention above you might consider going after young guys with something to prove no matter how bad their teams are. If they're healthy, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and John Wall will still be trying to establish themselves as superstars even if their teams are in the deep lottery by March. DeMar DeRozan will still be trying to prove that Toronto is his team now that Chris Bosh is gone, and Zach Randolph will still be in a contract year. As such, those are the types of players that I either hold onto or trade for, knowing that they are likely to be going all-out down the stretch.
Trend recognition, injury response, and team positioning are some of the keys to winning your league this year. Well, those and luck, but in this space we only talk about things we can control. And how you navigate through the dog days can go a long way towards you making your own luck down the stretch.
Around the League
• Curry's ankle (yet again): Stop us if you've heard this one before... Stephen Curry has rolled his right ankle and is questionable to play. This is the fifth time this season that Curry has injured the same ankle, but thankfully this one seems minor. He has been walking around in sneakers since the injury, instead of a walking boot as was the case with his previous injuries. Warriors coach Keith Smart also says that he will probably play on Wednesday, though if he can't go Reggie Williams is likely to get the spot start and increase his short-term fantasy value.
• Wade's head, Bosh's ankle and Miller's thumb: Already dealing with a lingering knee injury, Wade sat out Saturday's game with a migraine headache. The Heat had five days between games, though, and Wade is considered probable to play on Thursday. Meanwhile Chris Bosh, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, is expected to miss one to two more weeks with what is now being called a high ankle sprain. Bosh isn't doing any full speed or side-to-side work with contact, so don't look for him back anytime soon. Finally, Mike Miller (thumb) took advantage of his teammates' absences on Saturday with a huge 32-point, 10-rebound game with six treys and three assists. Miller has been told by doctors that the damaged ligaments in his thumb likely won't heal until after the season, and of course he won't get that many shots on a regular basis, but the fact that he had that game in him is a good sign that he is physically ready to be the shooting threat one would expect next to his superstar teammates.
• Duncan knee scare: Tim Duncan went down with a left knee injury in the second quarter of Monday's game, but returned to the game in the third quarter. The injury, initially classified as a "hyper-flexed" knee, is not expected to be serious but is worth keeping an eye on. With Duncan's years of wear-and-tear, the Spurs comfortably on top of the West, and Coach Greg Popovic's tendency to rest his stars in season this could be something that limits Duncan's minutes in upcoming games.
• Griffin's elbow scare: Brendan Haywood made fantasy owners and highlight-reel makers everywhere extremely nervous on Tuesday when he snatched high-flying rookie phenom Blake Griffin out of the air en route to one of his trademark dunks. Griffin earned a contusion in his left elbow from the incident, but was able to return to the game and is expected to stay in the line-up moving forward. Be sure to check his status right before his next game on Wednesday, though, because the back-to-back games doesn't give him much time to recover if the elbow is sore or swollen.
• KG and Dirk post-injury declines worth worrying about? Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett both returned from injury absences last week, but as yet neither have returned to full speed. Nowitzki is averaging 19.2 points on 38% field goal shooting in his six January games so far, a far-cry from the 24.1 points on 55% FG he was averaging prior to the injury. Likewise, Garnett has averaged only 5.2 boards per game since his comeback, about half of the almost 10 he was pulling down pre-injury. Both Garnett and Nowitzki are veteran players with a lot of miles on them, and Garnett in particular has seen his last two seasons diminished due to injury. As yet there are no reported complications with either player so look for their numbers to improve, but if they continue to under-produce in coming weeks it could be worth a bit of worry and/or preventative measures (i.e. trades) for their owners.
• Gordon's wrist: Eric Gordon has a sprained right wrist and a small bone chip fracture, and is expected to miss 3-to-4 weeks. He didn't tear any ligaments, which is good, but he is likely out until after the All Star Break. It is a shame because Gordon was on a tear, averaging more than 25 points on 49% shooting in January before the injury. In his absence Randy Foye got the start and scored 15 points in 28 minutes.
• Aldridge's hip: LaMarcus Aldridge had scored double-figures in 25 straight games entering Monday, including over 20 points in 12-of-his-last-13... so it was noticeable when he registered only nine points on 4-for-14 shooting against a lax Kings defense on Monday. After the game he had an MRI on a sore hip, which helps explain the down game. The results of the MRI were negative (a first for a Trail Blazers player in this injury-riddled season), which indicates that though he's currently day-to-day Aldridge shouldn't miss much if any time with this injury.
• Cavs are target practice: I watched the Celtics-Cavaliers game on Tuesday, and it was pitiful. Boston seemed to treat it almost like a practice game, sitting their starters early and often and even taking the opportunity to work Kendrick Perkins back in from a long injury layoff. The game was a blowout early, and was never really contested after the second quarter. This has become a trend for the Cavs, who have lost 28 of their last 29 games including 18 in a row. The problem for fantasy owners is that they aren't just losing, they're getting dusted, losing by an average of more than 16 points in those 28 games. Weirdly, you may actually have to consider whether to play some veterans on good teams against the Cavs because they may not get enough minutes to put up their regular numbers.
• Thomas' knee: Tyrus Thomas is expected to miss the next couple of months with a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee. I liked Thomas as a potential sleeper this season after he finished last year strong, but he never was able to earn starter's minutes and with this injury isn't worth a roster spot in most leagues right now.
• Camby's 3-week prognosis: When Marcus Camby first went down with a knee injury last week, the prognosis was that he was expected to miss about a month. That estimate has since been lowered to three weeks. This is significant because Camby was dropped in several leagues (including two that I'm playing in) after the injury, and since it has already been a week since the injury he could be back on the court in only two more weeks.
• Mike Miller (41% owned): As mentioned above, Miller was expected to be the fourth "Heatle" before his injury and was healthy enough to knock down six treys in his last game. I don't expect big scoring numbers out of him, but if healthy he should be a solid source of 3-pointers with reasonable all-around production.
• Marcus Thornton (29% owned): Thornton is a streaky scorer that has been battling with Marco Belinelli for minutes all season. Recently Thornton has been getting more run and is scoring more, with four straight double-digit scoring efforts and nine total treys over those games. He proved last season that he could be instant offense when called upon.
• Marcin Gortat (27% owned): I was high on Gortat immediately after his trade to the Suns, but recently had soured a bit on him after it became clear he was splitting time with Robin Lopez. Gortat put out a string on three straight double-doubles last week, though, once again showing flashes of what could be his nightly potential if he can ever earn a consistent 30 minutes per game for the Suns.
• Chuck Hayes (22% owned): Hayes is a role player in both real life and fantasy, but he is a double-double threat every night that can give you good defensive category numbers. He's worth a look in deeper leagues, as he is also center eligible in Yahoo! games.
• Mario Chalmers (18% owned): Chalmers has been named the starting point guard for the Heat, which means that if nothing else he should have the opportunity to knock down some open threes.
• Randy Foye (5% owned): Foye makes a decent short-term add with Eric Gordon expected to be down for the next month with a wrist injury. Foye started on Tuesday and produced 15 points with four assists and two treys, which could be about what to expect out of him in the starting line-up.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio every Friday afternoon at 12:30 PM EST on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 147, Sirius 211.