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Hoops Lab: Life in New York?

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.

Is there life in New York?

It's good to be back! For those of you that don't know, the Midwest got slammed by back-to-back winter storms early in the New Year. First there was about 18 inches of snow, followed by a deep freeze with temperatures absurdly below zero. If you're from Alaska or one of the Dakotas, that might be business as usual for you, but for us, that was a crazy storm. One of the results of the storm was that a pipe burst in my wall, flooding my living room. Another result was that our internet and cable went down last weekend. Yet a third result was a sickness that ran through my house. The ultimate result was that the Hoops Lab was on hiatus last week, so it's been a couple of weeks since we've had the chance to talk.

Over those couple of weeks, I've noticed this interesting trend in New York…both teams seemed to remember that they weren't supposed to be terrible. As of the last day of 2013, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets were a combined 19-42…both squads deep into the lottery, even in the moribund Eastern Conference. But since New Year's Day, the Knicks and Nets have gone a combined 12-5 with the Nets moving up to the 7-seed in the playoffs "race" and the Knicks currently 1.5 games out. These two teams play on Monday in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day game, and the question going in is: is this recent hot streak real? Is there NBA life in New York this year after all?

The Knicks' situation seems a bit easier to explain: they just seem to have found their level after a horrid start. They began the year 3-13 with a nine-game losing streak that spanned from mid-November to December 1, but since then, they've been a slightly over .500 team in games Carmelo Anthony has played in. They went 6-5 in December from the time their losing streak ended until Melo sprained his ankle and have gone 6-4 in January since Melo returned. I think that their combined 12-9 record over the last almost two months with Melo is just more representative of who they are as a team than the 3-16 tragedy of what they were to start the season, combined with the games that Melo missed in December. The Knicks are, in general, a slightly above average team and should continue to be that moving forward.

But how do you explain the Nets? Like the Knicks, the Nets also got off to a horrid start to the season (5-14 through December 5). The Nets seemed to be a perfect storm of major injuries with a combined 88 missed games from among their projected starters and key bench players Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry. A decent hypothesis about their improved play of late, then, would be that they played poorly due to injuries and that health is why they're playing better. The problem with that hypothesis, of course, is that it doesn't fit the data. Their recent 6-1 streak has come with presumed best players Brook Lopez (foot) and Deron Williams (ankle) out of the lineup. When Lopez went down for the year, the Nets were supposed to be DONE. So what gives with the recent success?

Well, my explanation would require a couple of brief flashbacks. Lopez went down for the season after the December 20 game. In the December 23rd Hoops Lab I predicted that the Lopez injury wouldn't result in an increase in minutes for Garnett, but instead would result in him finding his level and establishing his personal stamp on the team. Then, a day later I Tweeted:

To which one of my followers responded:

It took a few games for the Nets to find their levels, then the hot streak began. While the Nets are 6-1 in 2014, they're actually 6-0 in the games that Garnett has played. They lost the game he sat to rest on a back-to-back after an overtime game. And five of their six wins came against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. They won in Oklahoma City, snapped the Warriors' 10-game winning streak, and collected a victory over the defending champion Heat.

But why does Garnett get so much credit for the turnaround? He's still only averaging 9.0 points per game in 25 minutes per game in 2014, while teammates Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce have stepped up to average 19.0 and 15.9 points respectively in 2014. Well, David Aldridge of pointed out that in their first five victories of 2014 (which corresponded to Garnett's move to center) the Nets (who have given up 109 pts/100 possessions on the season, good for 28th in the NBA) have suddenly exhibited a stingy defense with only 90.8 ppg allowed on 42.7 percent shooting. With Garnett in the middle and Kirilenko back in the rotation, the team's identity has shifted. And the early results suggest that this identity will allow the Nets to be the strong team that most expected to see before the season began.

Now, everything that I wrote above could still prove to be wrong. Maybe the wins in New York are just a short-term fluke. The Knicks have actually lost three straight, and there is no telling how the Nets will respond to the return of Deron Williams to action (which could happen as soon as Monday). But after the horror that was the Eastern Conference to start the season, it would be really nice if the New York teams really have found their levels to at least make things interesting moving forward.

Around the League

Rondo is back: Rajon Rondo (knee) returned to the court for the Celtics on Friday night, playing a solid 19 minutes against the Lakers. His return changed the Celtics even before he stepped on the court, as it helped facilitate the Jordan Crawford-to-Golden State deal earlier in the week. With Rondo back, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green should continue to be scoring focal points and may see their efficiency go up. It will be interesting to watch how things settle out in the frontcourt. While Brandon Bass and, more recently, Kris Humphries have looked solid, I have to feel that sophomore Jared Sullinger and rookie Kelly Olynyk are more likely to grab playing time moving forward. With Rondo back, the Celtics have a real opportunity to see what they have in their young team with everyone playing their perceived optimal roles next to Rondo. Rondo was just named the 15th team captain in Celtics history, so he seems cemented as their franchise cornerstone. It's now up to the young guys to fit in around him.

Durant still insane: In the last Hoops Lab two weeks ago, I had a bullet point titled "Durant is going nuts", and I talked about how his play had gone through the roof to rotisserie perfection since Russell Westbrook's latest injury. In the intervening weeks, these have been Durant's scoring totals: 48, 21, 48, 30, 33, 37, 36, and 54. He's AVERAGING 38.4 points over the last two weeks to go with his ho-hum across-the-board averages of 6.0 asts, 5.9 reb, 2.1 treys, 1.8 steals, 48.4% FG, and 88.9% FT (on 14.6! attempts a game). Nothing to really add here, just want to make sure folks are paying attention to the NBA history Durant is making right now.

LeBron's Instagram to Wade: LeBron James set the Twitterverse on fire with his Instagram to Dwyane Wade on Friday. In the message LeBron wishes Wade a happy birthday, posts a bunch of pictures of them together, and told him that "No matter what happens in the future we stuck together like brothers for life." The message has fueled the long-held speculation that LeBron, who has the option to become a free agent this summer, might be playing his last season in Miami. Considering that LeBron knows exactly what type of attention his gesture would generate, this certainly seems like it could indicate that LeBron is testing the waters of public reaction to a potential departure. The Heat have already played this season like incumbents, willing to over-rest players and even lose games if necessary to be fresh for the postseason. I think that this fits right into that thought…the Heat want to win one more championship with the crew together, because there's a good chance that this is the last run for them.

Deng's impact on the Cavs: The most talked about potential new location for LeBron is his old home in Cleveland, but Cleveland just traded for their own All-Star small forward in Luol Deng. Whether Deng's presence changes the odds of a LeBron return are unknown, but in the short term it certainly changes how the Cavs play. With Deng in the fold, the Cavs now have a clear second scoring option behind Kyrie Irving. This pushes Dion Waiters and the recently surging C.J. Miles more to the background, as there just aren't as many shots or minutes to go around on the perimeter. It is also a strong signal that the Cavs fully intend to compete for the playoffs this season, which makes it even more unlikely that No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett will get any significant playing time any time soon.

Hold or sell on Varejao?: Speaking of Cleveland, big man Anderson Varejao has played himself right up to his usual level since Andrew Bynum was suspended (and eventually traded). Varejao has averaged 12.8 rebounds over the past month with more than a steal and a block per game. Varejao has shown in the past that he has this ability. The only problem is that history has also taught us that Varejao's health is often, like a Sting song, Fragile. If I had Varejao on my team, I would certainly be thinking that now is a great time to sell high. He is a very valuable roto commodity, and there are no signals that his health is anything but good right now. For me, I'd want to get out while the getting's good.

Williams' return: Deron Williams is expected to return to the Nets within the next week, perhaps as soon as Monday against the Knicks. The Nets' recent run of hot play has come without him in the lineup, in part because of a big/small starting lineup featuring 6-7 point guard Shaun Livingston next to 6-6 Alan Anderson in the backcourt but Paul Pierce at power forward. They've essentially been starting Garnett and four wings, allowing them to switch on everything. Williams' return will change that dynamic, but whether it will be good or bad for the team is undetermined. On the fantasy front, though, Williams is the best roto option on the Nets when he's healthy. His return may spell the end of Joe Johnson's recent resurgence, though, as he has been the number one option on offense in Williams' absence.

Injured Knicks' bigs: The Knicks have lost Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin for up to two weeks each with ankle injuries. Stoudemire's loss actually registers on the fantasy meter, as he had played himself back onto several rosters with averages of 12.0 points and 5.3 rebounds over the last month-and-a-half. These injuries mean more power forward minutes for Carmelo Anthony, which could be good for his individual numbers as he creates offensive mismatches.

New Additions

Terrence Jones (57% owned in Yahoo! leagues): I had Jones in this space in my last article, but in the two weeks since he's only gone from 45% owned to 57% owned. From watching the Rockets, Jones is threatening to move beyond Dwight Howard to become the primary interior presence on the team. He's averaging 18.0 points on 54% shooting from the field, 12.5 boards, 3.3 blocks, and 1.5 steals over the last four games and should be owned in every league.

Randy Foye (53% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Foye is a hot-and-cold contributor, and thus far in the new year he has been hot. He has moved back into the starting shooting guard role for the Nuggets and has averaged 17.0 points on 50% shooting with 3.8 boards, 3.2 assists, and 3.2 treys thus far in nine January games.

D.J. Augustin (23% owned): Augustin tweaked his ankle in the fourth quarter on Friday, so keep an eye out to make sure that he isn't about to miss any time. But if he's healthy, he has played himself back onto the fantasy radar. He's splitting time with Kirk Hinrich in Chicago, with Hinrich getting more minutes, but Augustin is a lot younger, has more upside, and Hinrich has had a lot of injury issues in recent years. Augustin has averaged 12.5 points, 6.4 assists, and 1.8 treys in 28 mpg in eight January games. His minutes have gone down recently with Hinrich's return, but he's still producing enough to warrant a roster spot in many leagues, and he has nice upside if he starts getting more run.

Wesley Johnson (23% owned): Johnson is the most recent Lakers perimeter player to take advantage of the increased opportunity that injuries have provided. Johnson has averaged 16.7 points, 7.0 boards, 2.0 treys, and 3.0 combined steals/blocks over the last week. I don't see great upside here, but he could be worth a short-term add while he's hot.

James Johnson (19% owned): Johnson is another player that was in this space a couple of weeks ago, but his percent-owned stats have barely changed (from 18% to 19%). He is an absolute no-brainer starter in daily fantasy leagues, as he produces like a low-end roto starter for end-of-the-bench prices. In standard leagues his defensive potential makes him valuable, as he has averaged 2.0 steals and 3.0 blocks over the past four games and is averaging a healthy 1.4 steals with 1.8 blocks in only 23 mpg on the season.

Professor's Podcast
I co-hosted Celtics Live, an hour-long podcast on CLNS radio on Saturday. The subject matter is tilted towards the Celtics, but we also interviewed an Orlando Magic insider and had an around-the-league discussion as well. You can check it out here.

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.