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Hoops Lab: The Leastern Conference

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.

Parity in the East-West disparity

On Thursday night the Nets and the Knicks faced off in an epic battle to see which team would be the King of New York. By winning, the Knicks placed themselves in a prime position to win their division and ultimately to make noise in the playoffs. In a mega market like New York, it's battles like this that define the sport and make mere men into legends. The only problem?

The Knicks and Nets are currently on pace to win 38 games. Combined.

But you want to know the REALLY funny part? That last sentence in no way negates the previous paragraph. That's right, by defeating the on-pace-to-win-23-games Nets, the on-pace-to-win-15-games Knicks PUT THEMSELVES ON PACE TO CHALLENGE FOR THEIR DIVISION LEAD! (I had to go all caps there. The absurdity makes me want to shout.)

Despite their putrid starts, the Nets and Knicks entered Thursday's game only two and three games out of first place in the Atlantic Division behind the first-place Celtics who rested comfortably with a dominant 8-12 record.

The NBA is going absolutely crazy this year! The disparity between the Western and (L)Eastern conferences has never been more stark than it is this year. As Tom Haberstroh tweeted on Thursday morning:

So, the East is winning only three out of every 10 games against the West, but even that is misleading. The Pacers and Heat are a combined 31-6, leaving the other 13 Eastern Conference teams a combined 87-149! That is mind-boggling! Outside of the top two teams, the average Eastern Conference record pace at the quarter-mark of the season is 30-52.

OK, so what does that mean to fantasy owners? Well, one interesting tidbit is that absolutely any team could make the playoffs in the East. It's literally impossible to be so bad in the East that you aren't in contention to be in the playoff race at the quarter pole. Even the Bucks, with their 3-15 start, are only 4.5 games out of a playoff spot. That 76ers squad that everyone expected to be Riggin-for-Wiggins is only a game out of the eighth seed. The Celtics that touched off a major rebuild by trading away their franchise vets this offseason would actually be the fourth seed if the playoffs started today.

Let's take it further. The 2014 draft is shaping up to be one of those generational drafts where a huge wave of talent enters the NBA all at one time. Everyone knows about Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, but when you start factoring in the Joel Emblid, Marcus Smart and Julius Randle types, you can make the argument that any of five or six different players might end up being the class of the draft. Even teams drafting in the middle or late part of the draft could reasonably expect to draft a starter with good upside in this draft.

This dynamic throws some of our most basic fantasy strategy guidelines into question. Usually I track rookies and young players on bad teams, even if they aren't getting much playing time early on, because I expect them to start getting major run once their team is completely out of the running. Also, there's normally no impetus for a team with no upside to squeak into the playoffs and get drubbed, thereby missing out on the chance to draft an impact player from the lottery. And finally, the vets on a basement team are usually prime trade fodder because they serve no purpose on a sinking ship, and the team can ship them out to extract a bit of value, get some cap relief, and ensure that the squad is sufficiently bad to ensure a high number of ping pong balls in the lottery.

But this year?

Suppose 35 wins is enough to win the Atlantic Division. Isn't it then in, say, the Celtics' best interest to actually try to make the playoffs? There was talk that they might complete the razing they started this summer by trading Rajon Rondo, as well as their other vets like Brandon Bass or Gerald Wallace. But if Rondo comes back and helps improve the team enough that they hold onto the division lead, they could not only MAKE the playoffs, they'd have a legitimate chance to win a series as their first round opponent projects to be another .500 team. They'd also still have the chance to draft a solid starter with their pick (actually multiple solid starters, as they already own the Nets' first round pick as well).

On the flip side, no matter how bad the Nets or Knicks get, they have no choice but to keep swinging for the fences to make the playoffs. The Nets are tied to a bunch of older players with the highest luxury tax bill in NBA history looming, and the Knicks are fighting to keep their franchise player and they have to know that a trip to the lottery increases the chance that Carmelo Anthony skips town this summer. Could we see some basement teams actually trading for talented vets at the deadline, instead of shipping them out?

So, at least in the East, the "bad team rules" in fantasy strategy could be turned on their ears. I still think that this disparity parity will sort itself out a bit, that some of these moribund franchises will wake up and start to put some space between themselves and their lottery brethren, that a 30-win team won't REALLY make the playoffs, that some level of sanity might return by the end of the season. But in the meantime, this whole dynamic has me absolutely fascinated. It's like watching a train wreck in super slow motion.

[Editor's note: The soundtrack to this video is pretty much perfect.]

Around the League

Davis' fractured hand and Anderson's ascension: Two weeks ago, I declared Anthony Davis the reigning Sho-Nuff, also known as the best rotisserie producer in the NBA, but three weeks ago on the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today show I had stated that my only hesitance in anointing Davis was questions on if he could stay healthy. It turns out that I should have listened to my own words, as Davis fractured his left hand this week and is out for the next 4-to-6 weeks. At least it was not a lower-body injury, nor was it soft-tissue damage, which means he should be himself again early in 2014. Nevertheless, his absence will obviously burn in fantasy.

In the meantime, Ryan Anderson moved into Davis' spot in the starting lineup and went nuts, averaging 28.3 points, 8.3 boards and 5.0 made treys in the three games since Davis went down. This isn't a fluke, as Anderson has been a borderline elite roto threat as a stretch four over the last few years. For the next month, until Davis returns, Anderson very well might challenge for Davis' vacant throne as the top impact roto producer.

Williams expected back next week & Pierce's hand: Deron Williams (ankle) hopes to return to the Nets' lineup as soon as next Tuesday, in a game against the Celtics. He has missed eight of the last nine games with the injury, and even before that was playing hobbled as the ankle has bothered him since the preseason. As a Williams owner, my hope is that he sits until he is fully healthy so that I can finally get the player that I drafted in the second round. And if he does show himself to be that player, I have to at least consider trying to trade him immediately because of the recent tendency for ankle injuries to linger and re-occur (see Curry, Stephen 2012).

Meanwhile, Paul Pierce has joined the injured Nets brigade with a fractured hand that likely keeps him out until early 2014. Pierce, like every Net thus far, has had a disappointing year to date. With his level of production so low, it is justifiable to cut him loose if you don't have room to stash him on the bench.

MCW's knee: Michael Carter-Williams did not travel with the team for Friday's game due to knee soreness. The injury isn't expected to be serious, nor his absence prolonged, but any knee soreness that is bad enough to keep someone out of action for even a game is worth paying attention to. MCW has been a revelation this year, so hopefully, it really is just a minor ouch.

Wade continues to sporadically miss time: My friend Cole absolutely refuses to draft a player in any sport, no matter how good they are, once he loses trust that they can stay healthy. In weekly lineup leagues, it's pure poison to own a player that you can't trust to play all of their allotted games in a given week. Dwyane Wade missed Thursday night's game with an illness, after missing his previous game with knee soreness. Every couple of weeks he has been missing a game or two for the sake of long-term freshness. While this is good for his long-term prognosis in the postseason, it makes it extremely difficult to rely on Wade during the regular season. Despite his obvious upside, in this case I'd take my friend Cole's advice if possible and see if you can get reasonable value for Wade in a trade.

Iguodala traveling with team: Andre Iguodala (hamstring) traveled with the team for their three-game road trip that began Friday. This is an encouraging sign, as last week he didn't travel with the team since they knew he couldn't play. Iguodala hasn't been able to practice yet, so his return wouldn't seem to be imminent, but the fact that he's traveling is at least a step in the right direction.

Cousins' ankle: DeMarcus Cousins has had a busy week. He sprained his ankle, missed a game, found the time throw a quick jab at Derrick Rose, and was back on the court for Friday's game. Whether you love Cousins' personality or not, you have to be loving his outstanding production this year if he's on your team, so it's good news that his absence was temporary.

Parson's back is sore: Chandler Parsons has missed two games this week due to a sore back before returning to action Friday. The good news is that the injury is considered minor enough that the team is treating this as a day-to-day matter. The bad news is that any back issue is dangerous, as it can both linger and blow up with little notice. Keep your eye on this. In the meantime, Francisco Garcia started in his absence, giving you an idea of who to plug and play if Parsons misses time in the future.

Redick's hand: J.J. Redick is another player in the broken hand brigade this week. His injury is probably the most serious as it also comes with torn ligaments in his wrist. He is expected to miss 6-to-8 weeks with the injury, though he won't have to have surgery in the meantime. Considering that Redick's value is tied purely into his ability to shoot, the injury to his shooting hand could have longer-term consequences to his ability to shoot even when he returns this year.

Kobe's impending return and suture shoes: Kobe Bryant (Achilles tendon) will make his season debut Sunday. He has been practicing without limits this week, sporting his new shoes that feature stitching that mimics sutures on the back. Bryant's return will be one of the more anticipated events of the season thus far, and it will be good to see what he looks like after such a major injury.

Kidd-Gilchrist's hand: Wrapping up the week of the fractured hand, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will also be out for the next 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured left hand. MKG has never lived up to the expectations of a No. 2 overall pick and is safe to drop while he is out.

New Additions

Taj Gibson (35% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Gibson has been on fire of late, averaging 21.5 points, 8.0 boards and 1.8 blocks over his last four games despite the fact that there hasn't been that much of a change in his minutes (still about 25 minutes per game). He has the talent to start in the NBA and has long been a solid per-minute play. Gibson's run of production is unsustainable in only 25 mpg, but you might as well ride it while it's going, and he'll still be at least a reasonable bench player when he reverts to his usual production level.

Randy Foye (34 % owned): Foye is a 3-point role player. That's it. But that can be a worthwhile commodity if your team needs treys. He's made at least two treys in four of the last five games and can help you out in that category.

Kosta Koufos (32% owned): Koufos has been very solid since Marc Gasol went down, grabbing double-digit boards in four straight games before "settling" for a 17-point/nine-rebound effort on Thursday. Gasol is still expected to be out for several weeks, making Koufos a starting caliber roto center at least until then.

Al-Farouq Aminu (16 % owned): While Ryan Anderson is understandably drawing the headlines with his scoring explosion, Aminu has also stepped up his production in extended minutes since Anthony Davis went down. Aminu followed up a 14-point, nine-rebound, three-steal effort with a 16-point, 21-rebound, 3-steal outing this week. Last season, Aminu also earned his value, especially on the glass, when Davis had to miss action, so his increased value isn't a fluke.

Timofey Mozgov (12% owned): Mozgov is in this space on the strength of a couple of massive games earlier this week in which he went for 16 points, 15 boards and four steals/blocks in one game and then followed that up with 17 points, 20 boards and three steals/blocks, playin 31 minutes per game in each contest. However, that has to be tempered by the fact that in the four games surrounding those two, he averaged only 3.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 16 minutes per game. Mozgov comes off the bench and will be inconsistent for as long as he does, but that kind of upside is worth at least noting if not taking a flyer on in deep leagues.

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.