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Hoops Lab: Preparing for the Stretch

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Start preparing for the stretch

I was all set to lead this week with the ramifications of the blockbuster deal(s) that shook the trade deadline. We've been prepping for this deadline day for more than a month now, speculating on how the obvious deals like Paul Millsap out of Utah or Josh Smith out of Atlanta would shake the fantasy landscape. But then a funny thing happened … nothing. For the first time since 2007, no All-Stars were traded on deadline day. In fact, there wasn't a single trade in which the new player would even start for their new team. Kind of takes the steam out of a column that was planning on looking at the new landscape, so instead let's go in a different direction and check out a Tweet I received last week from @Steven_626 (follow me @ProfessorDrz and hit me up with your own questions):

ProfessorDrz Hi Prof. Would you trade Harden for Carmelo? Playoff week 21-23. 1st place winner of regular season wins half. 14 h2h 9c. Thx!

On the surface, this question was relatively straight forward. For the record, I responded that as good as Carmelo Anthony is, I believe James Harden to be slightly better pretty much across the board and thus a better roto prospect. And this is true in general terms. But the sneaky part of the tweet was when he pointed out that his playoffs are in weeks 21-23. This is key information because, in head-to-head leagues that score by totals, having more games than your opponent is often as important (if not more-so) than having a better team.

And if we head over to the RotoWire upcoming games tool and look up the schedule for weeks 21-23 (starting March 18, ending April 7), we find that the Knicks play 12 games over that period while Houston only has 10. The Knicks have four games for each week of the playoffs, while the Rockets play only three games in both of the first weeks of the playoffs. Might having your best player with a four games to three games advantage over your opponent's best player be enough to swing a playoff matchup in your favor? Actually, yes, it very well might be. I think I'd still rather have Harden than Anthony overall because I think Harden is just enough better for it to matter, but this does make it a closer comparison. Also, this obviously matters more to teams that are sure that they'll be in the playoffs as opposed to those still trying to fight their way in, but we're reaching the time in the year where this is worth paying attention to. So, let's go back to that schedule.

For weeks 21-23, there are eight teams that have 12 games: Hawks, Celtics, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Knicks, Trail Blazers, Jazz, and Wizards. At the far opposite extreme, there are two teams that only play nine games: Warriors and Lakers. As I said, don't get carried away with this and completely reshape your team with lesser talent to get more games. But if all things are equal, I would definitely use information like this as a tie-breaker. It does make a clearer separation between Anthony and, say, Kobe Bryant. Similarly, Josh Smith now looks like a more attractive trade candidate than Stephen Curry if I want to make noise in the postseason. And it works for lesser players too. For example, if I'm taking a chance that an injured superstar returns in time to help my team, it behooves me to take that chance on a riskier return like Kevin Love as opposed to Pau Gasol. And you can look at combos too. Mike Conley/Andrei Kirilenko for David Lee/Jeremy Lin potentially gives you five more playoff games of production. That really could swing some fantasy championships.

For those in rotisserie leagues as opposed to head-to-head, I've got another late season thought for you: it's too late in the year to do small trades. In my biggest roto league I'm in third place, and since it's a keeper league, a lot of teams have been coming to me with trade offers to push my squad over the top in exchange for future considerations. My team has clear strengths and weaknesses. Really, the only thing separating my squad from the two teams ahead of me is that all of my centers have struggled with injury this year (Andrew Bynum, Anthony Davis, and Nene) which has me behind in rebounds and blocks. So, people have been sending me offers where I get a reasonable center like Pekovic from Minnesota or Vucevic from Orlando. While those are nice, productive rot centers they just don't really interest me. Why? Because with less than 1/3 of the season left, one "nice and productive" player just isn't going to affect my categories enough to move the needle.

Suppose that Pekovic gives me 9.1 boards per game in place of my current starter Nene's 6.8. About two rebounds per game, over 30 games, only gives me about 60 more boards for the rest of the season. That's not affecting my bottom line in any way. For a deal to be worth it at this point, I need blockbusters. Trading for league leaders like Serge Ibaka in blocks, or for combos of bigs like Joakim Noah and Tim Duncan, is what would be required to actually change my team's fortunes. My natural inclination as a GM is to make moderate moves that keep my prospects balanced. But as you get to the end of the roto season, balanced and incremental often just won't cut it and you either have to go big or stay home.

Bottom line: whether you are in a H2H or a roto league, a points-based or a categories league, a keeper league or a one-off, every league right now has its own angles that you should pay attention to as the season enters its final phase. Moves that may have made sense early in the season no longer work, and you have to start considering new things as well that just weren't important on draft day. I mentioned a couple of them here, but there are obviously more to consider. Finding and exploiting these tricks and angles could be enough to put you over the top in your league this spring.

Around the League

Post trade deadline thoughts: While there weren't any big deadline deals, there are post trade deadline ramifications. Players whose values we expected to change with a big move, suddenly find themselves in a stable role. Likewise, some of the lottery tickets that we thought might gain value through a trade of a teammate are suddenly much less interesting. Since the All-Star break limited the number of games over the last week, this Around the League section will focus on a lot of these post deadline storylines.

Smith's value moving forward: Josh Smith was the single most likely trade in the NBA this season, as no one expects that the Hawks can keep him beyond this year. But instead of taking 20 cents on the dollar for him, the Hawks decided to stand pat and hold onto their high flying forward. So, what does that mean for Smith going forward? Well, he now becomes the most high profile clearly-playing-for-his-next-contract player in the NBA. I'm expecting him to try his best to put up numbers down the stretch to make the case that he should get a max contract from someone this offseason. This is actually a best case scenario for Smith owners. He's staying in an environment where he's proven that he can thrive, and he has a lot of motivation to do that thriving down the stretch.

Utah kept their bigs: The lack of a Jazz trade really surprised me, or as my Twitter follower Travis tweeted, "Still in a state of shock the Jazz remained passive during the NBA trade deadline." As I detailed last month, the Jazz have three (perhaps four) eminently startable big men. Because their highest upside big, Derrick Favors, has shown plenty of promise in his limited minutes, he made a nice potential lottery ticket if either Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson were traded. With Jefferson and Millsap still on the roster, though, and the Jazz still in the playoff hunt, you have to figure that Favors' fantasy potential will continue to go unmet until he can someday get his starting role.

Pierce and Garnett - valuable old men: Rumors continue to swirl that there actually was a trade on the table that would have sent Kevin Garnett to the Clippers but that Garnett exercised his no-trade clause and killed the deal. And Garnett stated that he wouldn't leave Pierce alone on the roster, so a Garnett trade would have meant that Pierce was heading out of town as well. Whether the rumors are true or not, the bottom line is that it is much better news for their fantasy owners that Pierce and Garnett remain in Celtics green. On a different contending roster, Garnett and Pierce would have had to accept new, smaller roles to fit in with an already established pecking order. As is, they get to continue to drive the ship for the Celtics. Pierce continues to have a green light to shoot as well as rack up assists as the de facto point forward, and Garnett continues to be the main offensive finisher with increased assist potential as well. The only downside, for Garnett more so than Pierce, is that the Celtics are more apt to rest him for a game or two down the stretch (he rested on Friday night) which makes him a bit more unpredictable.

Lakers turning a corner?: The Lakers came out of the All Star break with the terrible news that team owner Jerry Buss had passed away. On Wednesday, they used the added rest and tragic loss as motivation to come out and dismantle the Celtics. The most striking part of the performance was the energy displayed by Dwight Howard on defense and on the offensive boards, and the way that the hierarchy seemed to naturally flow with Howard making himself a nuisance off the ball. This opened things up for Kobe Bryant to seek his normal shots, with Steve Nash and Ron Artest taking advantage of the wide open looks created by Kobe's and Howard's pressure. That was the first dominant performance from the Lakers that I've seen this season that actually looked sustainable, if everyone continues to play their role. One game isn't enough for anything definitive, but I could imagine looking back in a month and saying that this was the point that turned around the Lakers' season.

Granger's impending return: Danny Granger is expected to return to action for the Pacers in the very near future, as he has been medically cleared to play. The Pacers aren't going to rush him out there, but it's coming. How will the return of the erstwhile leading scorer affect the chemistry and balance of the Pacers moving forward? The good news is that, as leading scorers go, Granger isn't a heavily ball dominant player. He tends to play off the ball, and even last year, he only averaged 15 field goal attempts per game. Thus, his return shouldn't create the kind of havoc among his teammates that, say, a Derrick Rose return would for the Bulls. The best case scenario would have Granger, new stud Paul George, and now-fully-healthy David West splitting the primary scoring role equally which could lead to easier shots and higher percentages to be had by all. But George and Granger do have some overlap to their skill sets, and both George and West have gotten used to taking 15 shots per game themselves, so there is the potential for diminishing returns. Once the dust settles, I think that George will still be the fantasy stud on the team, and that, if anything, Granger may fall into a 2nd/3rd option as the team has just been playing too well for him to rock the boat too much.

New Additions

Entire Magic team: The Orlando Magic are poised to start using rotations of players that you have never heard of before. With Glen Davis (foot), Jameer Nelson (knee), and Hedo Turkoglu (suspension) already out, the Magic have now traded J.J. Redick, Ish Smith, Gustavo Ayon, and Josh McRoberts and will bring in Tobias Harris, Doron Lamb, and Beno Udrih. On Friday, with the new players not there yet, the Magic trotted out a starting lineup of Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, E'Twaun Moore, and Arron Afflalo. Outside of Vucevic grabbing boards, there is very little certainty about what anyone else can do on this team. On the other hand, when you see a situation like this with a bunch of young, hungry players getting the minutes, there is a lot of potential for a "nobody" to make a fantasy name for himself down the stretch. Keep an eye on this squad, as there is definite "Ramon Sessions garbage time explosion" potential on this roster.

Jordan Crawford (43% owned in Yahoo! leagues): In the first six games after Rajon Rondo's injury, but before he tore his own ACL, Leandro Barbosa averaged 24 minutes per game off the bench in an instant offense role. This is the role that Crawford was brought in to fill for the Celtics. Crawford had a month this season when he averaged 24 minutes per game, and he notched 13.2 points, 3.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.1 treys over that month while in Washington. If he can replicate that production in Boston, he could be worth a look in deep leagues.

Thomas Robinson (37% owned): On the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today show on Thursday, host Chris Liss asked me if Robinson was now an immediate ‘add' after the trade. I said no, because Robinson is still so raw and the Rockets really are trying for the playoffs this year. But Liss, who covers the Rockets, pointed out that by trading Patterson and Marcus Morris the Rockets had effectively depleted their power forward depth and could thus open up an opportunity for Robinson. I still think that the Robinson acquisition was more of a future move than a now move for the Rockets, and that he'll still have to earn his playing time this year. But with that said, he was a top-five pick in this year's draft, and if he does fall into an increased role, he could be worth taking an upside flyer on.

Patrick Patterson (24% owned): Patterson flirted with a featured role for the Rockets, and it is unlikely that he will see his role increase dramatically with the Kings. On the other hand, he's a young player on a team with absolutely no playoff aspirations, and many credit his relationship with former Kentucky Wildcats teammate DeMarcus Cousins as part of his appeal for the Kings. If he establishes synergy with the mercurial Cousins, there's the chance he could get more run than expected.

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.