Well, well, well. The stretch run of the 2013-14 campaign is here, and championships will soon be netted, no matter the format. As owners embark upon their final moves in order to secure titles, numerous ailments to star players are mucking up rotations, namely in the western side of the equation in Houston, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Starting with the sole (likely) non-playoff participant, the Lakers' Pau Gasol fended off his bout with vertigo and took the floor Tuesday versus the Blazers, tallying nine points, seven assists, four boards, two blocks, and one steal in a 28-minute appearance. While the outing was encouraging, a severe recurrence of symptoms came to pass Wednesday, resulting in a DNP and general murkiness regarding his status for the season's final two weeks. Fortunately, after the defeat in Sacramento, he was cleared to return home, where the Lakers will play their next five games, including one as a visitor versus fellow Staples Center tenant, the Clippers. With further absences a near certainty in Gasol's future, one would expect Chris Kaman to fill in at center, but he was deemed inactive himself Wednesday due to a strained right calf. The next man up, Jordan Hill, posted a double-double (18 points and 12 rebounds) with four swats in their stead, making him an intriguing addition in the short term, in case Gasol and Kaman are forced to miss further time.
The aforementioned Clippers are contending with injury concerns of their own, and due to their Finals aspirations this season, a cautious approach may be the prudent one to ensure that stalwarts like Blake Griffin
, Jamal Crawford
(calf), and even J.J. Redick
(back) are as healthy as possibly for the postseason. The key to the team's quest, Griffin's last week has been a rollercoaster, with the initial decline a potentially precipitous one. After coming down with back spasms Saturday, which limited him to six minutes on the floor, the expected twists and turns that accompany the ailment were confirmed by coach Doc Rivers, who relayed that caution would be exercised each game day. Unsurprisingly, doubtful status Monday equated to Griffin's first missed game of the season, but with similar availability in hand for Wednesday's contest, he started at the four, supplying 23 points in 34 minutes. It remains to be seen, if his back will be able to handle the second outing of a back-to-back set Thursday versus the Mavericks, but he's seemingly returned to the locked and ready position.
Another championship hopeful, Houston, has entered a third week of complications with Dwight Howard
's left ankle, with no end in sight. During the eight-game stretch, his recovery from the sprain has merely allowed activity in two tilts, interspersed with draining the ankle on two occasions. In his stead, Omer Asik
has been a force on the glass, grabbing 16.3 boards per game in the last three, with modest counting stats – 11 points, one block, and 0.7 steals in 34.3 minutes – on the side. Available in a shocking 44 percent of ESPN leagues, owners shouldn't resist the urge to profit from his continued heavy usage in the Rockets' frontcourt, especially with a pair of outings remaining this week and four on the docket in the ensuing head-to-head term.
To round out our tour of Western Conference big men, Golden State's frontcourt duo of David Lee
and Andrew Bogut
have ongoing, multi-game absences to their names, which has thrust Jermaine O'Neal
, Draymond Green
, and Marreese Speights
into the fantasy spotlight. There is no indication that a return is imminent for Lee from hamstring discomfort, but Bogut stated a desire early in the week to play by Sunday versus the Jazz, if not Friday against the Kings. Clearly, Bogut's therapy on the bone bruise near his pelvis will determine his upcoming availability, but a four-minute appearance aside Wednesday in the back end of a back-to-back, O'Neal otherwise put up sustained production at center – 12.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, one block, and one assist in 32 minutes nightly – in the three preceding tilts. In the meantime, the coinciding DNPs have afforded Green significant run in the last four contests, during which he averaged 8.3 points (on 42.9 percent shooting), 7.3 boards, three assists, 1.8 blocks, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 three-pointers in 34.5 minutes. Considering the likelihood that Bogut achieves active status before Lee, Green represents a terrific speculative add due to his ownership in but three percent of ESPN formats.
Every week, we'll use this space to track players whose fantasy value is improving, declining, or uncertain. We're not particularly concerned with hot or cold streaks – all players toss up a 2-for-10 game every now and then – unless they are extreme or seem to indicate an underlying problem or injury. Instead, we'll be looking at changes in playing time, rotation role, or performance.
Matt Barnes, F, LAC
– The Clippers opened the second half with two consecutive defeats but have equaled that number in the subsequent 19 games. Barnes' steady hand has helped guide them through potential landmines – Jamal Crawford
's lingering calf issue and J.J. Redick
's bulging disc in his back, to name a couple – pushing the team to a tick behind Miami in terms of offensive efficiency (109.5 versus 109.4) on the season. Since the All-Star break, Barnes has recorded 14.4 points (on 49/38/76 splits), five rebounds, 2.4 threes, 2.3 assists, and 1.2 swipes in 32.3 minutes per tilt. The run includes 15 multi-trey performances, an active 10-game steal streak, and two double-doubles, making it difficult to comprehend why he's rostered in just 55 percent of leagues on the Worldwide Leader.
Darren Collison, G, LAC
– Likewise with Collison, who is receiving even less love (45.5 percent owned) than his wingmate, in spite of 40-plus minutes in three straight outings. Granted, the recent bump in work was precipitated by an aggravation of Crawford's calf concern, but Collison has nonetheless racked up double-digit points in each of his past 16 appearances, averaging 15.9 points, 4.2 assists, 1.7 three-pointers, and 1.6 steals in 33.8 minutes. Downing shots at a ridiculous rate – 49.7 percent from the field, 46.6 from beyond the arc, and 82.4 percent from the line – in that span, Collison doesn't afflict fantasy rosters like innumerable other shoot-first guards, yet his production doesn't fit his lack of relevance to the powers that be.
Gorgui Dieng, C, MIN
– Since emerging from the hinterlands due to Nikola Pekovic
's ailing right ankle, Dieng's output has been a revelation, as he seems a more fitting complement to Kevin Love
in the Timberwolves' frontcourt. Following his first career nod on Mar. 16, Dieng hasn't looked back, contributing five double-doubles across 10 contests on his way to 11.7 points (on 64.7 percent shooting), 11.7 boards, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and one block in 29 minutes per outing. This despite another failure to launch by Pekovic, who aggravated the ailment Monday during his third game back in the lineup. Although he favors suiting up again before the season concludes, two failed attempts to maintain his health all but assure Dieng substantial minutes down low for the foreseeable future.
Spencer Hawes, C, CLE
– After posting 20 points, eight rebounds, and five assists in 34 minutes Wednesday, Hawes holds renewed relevance due to the sprained AC joint suffered by Anderson Varejao
in the Cavaliers' previous contest Sunday. When Hawes landed in Cleveland at the trade deadline, he immediately slotted into a frontcourt devoid of Varejao, who was enduring a sore back. Even when Varejao returned to action on Mar. 8, Hawes logged 30 or more minutes in the next six tilts, before inexplicably experiencing a reduction to the 17-to-22 minute range. In any case, Hawes notched double-digit points in 13 of his initial 14 games with the Cavs, averaging 15.9 points (on 47.2 percent shooting), 8.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, two threes, and one block in 33.4 minutes. Considering he's garnered 33 and 34 minutes in the last two, similar production should be expected as long as Varejao is sidelined, though the latter may in fact return Friday in Atlanta.
Kyrie Irving, G, CLE
– Meanwhile, Cleveland regained the services of their dynamic point guard Wednesday after an eight-game absence due to a strained left biceps, which didn't disturb his shooting touch in the least. In the abbreviated appearance, he poured in 17 points (7-8 FG, 0-1 3Pt, 3-4 FT), eight dimes, six rebounds, and one steal in 28 minutes. Coach Mike Brown hasn't explicitly articulated that Irving will have his workload capped, but consider Wednesday's run a reliable barometer of what to expect in the Cavaliers' final six outings.
Reggie Jackson, G, OKC
– Diagnosed with a mid-back sprain late last week, Jackson has donned street clothes in the Thunder's past two outings, but after he took part in practice Wednesday, the guard is playing in Thursday's showdown against the Spurs. Because Oklahoma City has a back-to-back set on tap – also, Friday in Houston – Russell Westbrook
's knee maintenance program comes into play. In the end, Brooks has both players at his disposal Thursday, with Westbrook taking a seat Friday. Consequently, Jackson is a must-play in all formats during the latter outing, especially due to his matchup with the defensive sieve that is Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin, G, HOU
– Lin is the Rockets' unquestioned starting point man following the torn meniscus sustained by Patrick Beverley
last Thursday. A glimmer of hope, albeit small, exists for Beverley to make an appearance before the regular season draws to a close, but Lin is slated to handle most of the ballhandling outside of James Harden
. In three contests since assuming the gig, Lin has supplied 14 points, 3.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.7 three-pointers, and one steal in 34.7 minutes per night. While the line is helpful, he's unlikely to be a consistent source of dimes, as evidenced by Harden's average of 5.7 during the (admittedly) small sample size. Additionally, Lin has knocked down less than 45 percent of his field goals in five of the last six tilts, ringing in at a subpar 35.8 percent, but he'll likely revert to the mean, or 44.4 percent, from the current campaign during Houston's last eight games.
Ramon Sessions, G, MIL
– In the initial outing sans Nate Wolters
(broken hand), the Bucks were utterly annihilated in Sacramento, keeping each players' workload and, ultimately, output in check. However, Sessions has garnered at least 40 minutes in five consecutive contests, averaging a robust 20.8 points (on 50 percent shooting), 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.2 threes in 43.2 minutes. Because fellow backcourt mate, Brandon Knight
, is handling 40 minutes nightly himself during that stretch, coach Larry Drew
has settled on a duo that he trusts, or at least one whose conditioning is up to par (not O.J. Mayo
) and minus a rookie (Giannis Antetokounmpo
Alec Burks, G, UTA
– Burks' four-game stay on the sideline due to a sprained ankle came to a close Sunday, when he put up 12 points in 21 minutes as a reserve. During the Jazz's subsequent contest Tuesday, though, he contributed across the board with 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two three-pointers, and one swipe in 34 minutes. Considering he's unlikely to pilfer a starting gig from Trey Burke
or Gordon Hayward
, let alone receive more court time than either baller most evenings, Burks should settle somewhere in the middle, or just shy of standard-league relevance, if he's handed his typical 27.7 minutes per tilt.
Jarrett Jack, G, CLE
– Jack's stock is angling downward, but only slightly, after the return of Kyrie Irving
to the lineup Wednesday from an eight-game recovery from a left biceps strain. With Irving out of commission, Jack regularly earned 37.1 minutes per night, but Irving's presence didn't stop Jack from compiling 13 points (5-9 FG, 1-3 3Pt, 2-2 FT), four assists, four rebounds, and one steal in 30 minutes (versus the All-Star's 28). Certain counting stats, such as points and dimes, likely won't be available to a certain extent, but coach Mike Brown has to consider him the primary backup to both members, Irving and Dion Waiters
, of the starting backcourt. If one notices that Jack landed on waivers of late, scoop him up in exchange for a less-reliable option.
Amir Johnson, F/C, TOR
– Removed from Wednesday's contest after three minutes due to discomfort in his right ankle, Johnson's status is muddled entering Friday's tilt versus the Pacers. Because so little is understood about the injury, the rotational breakdown at power forward is in question, with Patrick Patterson
poised to prosper, if Johnson requires a few days off. However, Patterson is only two games past a three-week absence due to a sprained UCL in his right elbow, which has hampered his shot so far (4-11 FG, 1-5 3Pt, 1-3 FT in 34 total minutes). Keep tabs on the situation, as the fantasy playoffs creep ever closer to completion.
Jared Sullinger, F/C, BOS
– On any given evening, Sullinger's output can swing wildly. Take, for example, his last six games, during which his scoring ranged from two to 26 points, his boards from four to 10, and his three-pointers from nil to four. In composite, his line – 14.7 points (on 43.3 percent shooting), 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 treys, and 0.7 steals in 28.5 minutes per outing – is appetizing in some regards, but even as the most-used frontcourt option among his teammates since the break (27.4 minutes nightly), he still must contend with the likes of Brandon Bass
, Kris Humphries
, and Kelly Olynyk
for work. Unless one of the preceding suffers an injury, Sullinger's role is likely to remain the same.
Patrick Beverley, G, HOU
– Beverley is merely a week removed from suffering a partially torn meniscus in his right knee but won't require surgery to repair the ailment. Moreover, there's a possibility that he'll return this season, with a stated timetable ranging from as little as 10-to-14 days out to four weeks. Two weeks are left on the NBA calendar, though, making a regular season appearance highly unlikely. In the interim, expect the Rockets to trust in Jeremy Lin
at point guard, as mentioned above.
Eric Gordon, G, NOP
– No ruling has been imparted regarding Gordon's return to the court, and other than coach Monty Williams' recent statement that the Pelicans don't intend to shut him down for the season, nothing else is known. As of Thursday, Gordon's residence on the pine sits at seven contests in a row due to what was initially termed a "flare-up" of tendinitis in his left knee, which has allowed Tyreke Evans
consistent run at two-guard. While deep-league owners can hold out hope that Gordon provides points and treys at some point during the final two weeks, the time is right for most to cut bait and tab a player that's producing on a game-by-game basis.
Nikola Pekovic, C, MIN
– Pekovic's dalliance with surpassing his soft minutes limit has resulted in a twice-aggravated right ankle, which initially forced more than a month on the sideline and appearances in 10 of 17 contests upon his return to action on Mar. 1. Despite his contention that he'd like to play again this season, his overzealousness may have led to both setbacks in the last month and could prompt a similar outcome, if he's surprisingly cleared to take the floor. Nevertheless, you all know by now who to snag – Gorgui Dieng
– if you're in one of the 40 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's lingering.