The Second Season
People tend to think of the All-Star break as the halfway point of the season, but in the NBA, this isn't accurate. Most teams have played right around 52 games, which only leaves 30 remaining. So while the season as a whole is similar to a marathon, the two months after the All-Star Game are more akin to a long sprint. As such, quite a bit should be different from here on in.
For one thing, the trade deadline is this week. Though there haven't been a lot of big names mentioned in trade rumors thus far, the deadline is still a time when anything can happen. And since it's coming up so quickly, it will help set the tone for the second season. Obviously, if any big names are moved, it causes ripples in fantasy value for every player on the team. But a non-deal can also have an effect, as some players that are often rumored to be traded let that affect their games. Just recently, Evan Turner reportedly vented about how he's having a career year but is still hearing his name in trade rumors. Enes Kanter is another player who seemingly has had trouble in recent years when he was the center of trade talks. On the flip side, though, Kyle Lowry has been having a career year in the midst of his trade rumors, so perhaps the talk has been spurring him to greatness. Whatever the case, the trade deadline is a significant milestone and will cause the second half to start with a bang.
Another thing to take note of is the reality of the bad team swoon. The Bucks, 76ers, Magic, Kings, Lakers, and Jazz have no shot for a playoff berth. The Eastern Conference is so bad that the 19-35 Celtics are actually close enough to make a run, but I don't get the feeling that the rebuilding squad especially wants to make the postseason this year. This group represents almost a quarter of the league that really has nothing to play for. And while Adam Silver may have said during the break that there's no evidence that any team has ever lost on purpose, there is plenty of evidence that young and/or really bad squads with nothing to play for down the stretch have a tendency to lose a lot. More importantly for us, they tend to play their young and questionable players, while chaining their non-producing vets to the bench. Also, players on these teams with something to prove (most often free agents-to-be, those trying out for a bigger role, and youngsters) tend to play both hard and individualistically to put up the best stats possible.
The flip side to that coin are the teams that are fighting for either a playoff spot or positioning. The Cavs, Knicks, Pistons and Grizzlies are all just on the outside of the postseason at the moment and seemingly fighting to get in. The Cavs traded for an impact starter in Luol Deng, the Knicks HAVE to make it in order to have a chance at keeping Carmelo Anthony this offseason, the Pistons just fired their coach for not winning enough, and the Grizzlies have become a perennial playoff threat out West and want to see that continue. Similarly, the Wizards, Bobcats, Mavericks, Suns and Warriors are holding onto those last spots and fighting not to give them up. In addition, teams like the Rockets, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Raptors and Bulls are all firmly in the postseason but battling each other for seeding. As such, these are the teams most likely to ride their vets and hot hands for heavy minutes, while depending less on development of rookies.
All in all, there will likely be a lot more action and volatility over these last two months than there was over the first four months of the NBA campaign. The teams all know who they are and what their goals are, the dog days of January have passed, and every game moving forward has some kind of impact on either playoff or lottery positioning. As I've said before, volatility leads to opportunity for owners. This is the time when you want to work those last deals in your league, then really start scouring the waiver wire for the hot players that can help carry your team down the stretch. The Second Season has begun!
Around the League
Westbrook on Thursday? Russell Westbrook's knee will be evaluated Tuesday, but the Thunder are optimistic that he could return to the court Thursday against the Heat. Kevin Durant has already proclaimed publicly that Westbrook will play in that game. This is obviously great news for Westbrook owners, who have already endured two long absences from him this season. The really interesting dynamic will be how Westbrook fits in with the erstwhile superman Durant. When Westbrook went down, Durant exploded with one of the best scoring stretches that the NBA has seen in years. Durant averaged almost four more shots per game with Westbrook out, the Thunder are firmly ensconced as the No. 1 seed in the West, and Durant is a strong MVP favorite. Will Westbrook be able to return to his normal offensive role, or will he have to be more subordinate now to Durant? Is the transition smooth, or will there be friction? These questions will help determine both players' value moving forward.
It says here that Westbrook does return to most, if not all, of his regular production and that Durant's numbers decline slightly, but Serge Ibaka is the player whose scoring volume will be most affected by Westbrook's reinsertion into the lineup.
Conley is back in Tuesday: While not quite as big of a name as Westbrook, Mike Conley Jr. is also expected to return to the court this week. Conley was in the midst of an outstanding season before he injured his ankle, and on Tuesday, he's expected to pick back up where he left off. He spent his sole year of college in the shadow of Greg Oden and his professional career in the shadows of bigger named teammates like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but this season, Conley has stepped up as likely the best player on his team.
Varejao's back has him out Tuesday: Anderson Varejao, who has missed the last two games with "general soreness" and back issues, didn't travel with the Cavs for their game in Philadelphia on Tuesday. He's made a history of huge rebound explosions for part of a season, which are almost always followed by extended injury absences. If you didn't trade Varejao when his value peaked a few weeks ago, it will likely be difficult to move him before the trade deadline, as his value is going to suffer unless/until he returns to the court with some consistency. At this point, all you can do is hope that the soreness doesn't spiral into something that keeps him out for a long period of time.
Sanders' face (bad): Larry Sanders fractured an orbital bone in his face when he was elbowed by James Harden last week. The injury required surgery and is expected to keep him out for a minimum of six weeks. By my math, that puts him out until at least April, which means the best case scenario is a return for the last week or two of the season. This just hasn't been the year for Sanders, and for owners that patiently waited through his last injury, I think it's finally time to cut him loose.
Smith's face (not as bad): J.R. Smith also fractured his face last week when his cheek lost a battle with Kevin Durant's knee, but as detailed by RotoWire's Jeff Stotts, Smith's fracture was to a much better place. It will require that he wear a mask but did not call for surgery nor any missed time. Expect Smith to be on the court and launching long shots as usual Tuesday.
Rumor Mill - Point guards in the Atlantic: The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, but so far, the rumor mills have been pretty quiet on the whole. There hasn't been a lot of smoke so far, but the names most often mentioned in public chatter have all been point guards to or from the Atlantic Division. Kyle Lowry has been in trade rumors since November, but with the Raptors in first place in the Atlantic, it seems unlikely to me that they move arguably their best player. That said, rumors continue to fly that the Knicks want Lowry -- though they seemingly have nothing to offer for him -- that the Raptors may have interest in acquiring Jeff Teague from the Hawks, or even that the Raptors might be in the market for Rajon Rondo.
Speaking of Rondo, the Celtics have publicly maintained all year that he isn't on the block. This would seem to be supported by being named the 13th team captain in Celtics history, a pretty big honor on that franchise that would seemingly belie a potential trade. That said, recently "a source" is rumored to have Rondo on the block for two unprotected first-round picks. Do I believe it? No. But it's something for Rondo's owners to chew on for the next couple of days until the deadline passes.
Perhaps the most realistic rumor that I've been hearing about Atlantic point guards is that the Nets may be interested in acquiring Jarrett Jack from the Cavs. He has two years left on his deal at solid money, which the Cavs may want to remove from their books. The fantasy angle for such a deal, though, is that it could signal the death knell to any potential Deron Williams recovery in value down the stretch. Williams has been injured and largely ineffective this season, but there was always the chance that he could get healthy. However, with the resurgent Shaun Livingston already in the starting lineup, the addition of Jack would ensure that Williams is always on the court with another point guard. The potential development would guarantee that his usage continues to be less than his norm, and if he's playing off the ball, his number of assists will predictably tumble. The Jack talk is still a rumor, but if it comes to fruition, I think that Williams is the biggest loser.
Alec Burks (23% owned in Yahoo! Leagues): Burks has quietly taken on a larger scoring role in Utah, posting 20 or more points in four of his last seven games. He drew attention by averaging 25 points over the two games leading into the All-Star break, including a whopping 20 made free throws in 25 attempts. Realistically, that level of production isn't sustainable, as he only averaged 26 minutes and 10.5 field goal attempts in those two outings. Burks is still behind several of his teammates in the offensive pecking order as well. That said, he's a young player that seems to be finding his niche and could provide solid scoring and peripheral numbers moving forward.
Patrick Beverley (20% owned): Beverley had an abdominal strain right before All-Star weekend but is expected to be fine coming out of the break. Before that, he had been showing his value as a backcourt garbageman. In his last 10 games, he had 21 treys, 16 steals, a 10-rebound performance, two eight-assist outings, and five double-digit scoring efforts.
Brian Roberts (17% owned): There is still no official word on how long Jrue Holiday (leg) will be out with his stress fracture. In his absence, Roberts seems to have finally found his level in recent outings. Over the last two weeks, he's averaging 16.4 points, 4.6 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.8 treys, and 1.8 steals in 31 minutes.
P.J. Tucker (16% owned): Tucker has been surprisingly productive and under the radar for a good chunk of the season, though he's streaky and a garbageman, rarely posting eye-popping stats. However, during the last two weeks, he's averaging 12 points, 9.3 boards, 1.3 treys, 1.0 steals, and 0.5 blocks, while shooting well from the field (48.6 percent) and the line (77.8). Although the rebounds are slightly higher than the norm, his other numbers are sustainable, for the most part, and he makes a reasonable bench option/spot starter in most formats.
Nate Wolters (4% owned): Wolters has been earning more minutes of late, taking advantage of injuries and the ineffectiveness of Luke Ridnour to carve out a larger role. The Bucks are going absolutely nowhere this year, and he's a rookie, meaning it's conceivable that he continues to play a large role moving forward, as the team tries to figure out what they have in him for the future.
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 on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.