By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Moving into December, the fantasy landscape continues to crystallize, as the majority of the league nears the quarter-mark in terms of games played. Entering Tuesday, every team has logged at least 17 games, while the Hornets and Warriors lead the way with 22 games played.
It’s still early-ish — we’re less than a month-and-a-half into the season — but player trajectories are beginning to take shape, as are the hierarchies in both conferences. Out West, the standings look mostly like we expected, with the Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers, Rockets, Mavericks, and Jazz representing the top six. Maybe that’s not the order most predicted, but at least five of those teams were widely expected to contend for home-court in Round 1.
Meanwhile, the Warriors (4-18) are already eyeing the lottery, while the Trail Blazers (8-12), Spurs (7-14) and Pelicans (6-14) are each off to disappointing starts of their own. If for some reason the season ended today, the Timberwolves and Suns — the PHOENIX SUNS — would occupy the final two playoff spots.
In the East, things are even more chalky. There might be some variation at the bottom of the playoff race, but for the most part, the top eight teams are the ones we thought would be there. Currently riding a 12-game winning streak, Milwaukee has again separated itself as the class of the East — if not the whole league — while Toronto, Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia make up a deeper-than-expected Tier 2. The Pacers, the Nets and, somehow, the Magic, currently cling to the six, seven and eight spots, respectively.
Given the overall depth of the conference and the impact of some major injuries, the final two or three spots in the West likely won’t be settled until April. But in the East, it will be interesting to see whether Brooklyn and Orlando can create some separation between themselves and teams like Charlotte, Detroit, and Chicago. Despite sputtering to a 7-14 start and looking like they want to be coached by literally anyone other than Jim Boylen, the Bulls are just two games out of the eighth seed.
As we head into Week 7 of the fantasy basketball season, here are the storylines to keep an eye on:
The Spurs and fantasy managers alike had high expectations for Dejounte Murray ...
... in his return from a torn ACL. Those expectations did not include the 22-year-old being moved to the bench 14 games into the season. The Spurs benched Murray in favor of Derrick White beginning on Nov. 23, and he’s remained in a reserve role for the last four games.
The good news is the decision hasn’t really impacted Murray’s workload. The bad news, however, is that Murray continues to have his minutes capped in the low-20s on most nights. Since moving to the bench, Murray is averaging just 5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting just 32 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three (1-8 3PT).
For the season, Murray barely cracks the top-120 in Yahoo leagues. To his credit, his steal, rebound and assist rates are right in line with what most expected, but Murray’s complete lack of three-point shooting is a massive liability for a team constructed around a pair of non-shooters in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Kings announced Monday that De’Aaron Fox will miss ...
... at least another two-to-three weeks as he continues to work back from what’s apparently a severely sprained left ankle. Fox suffered the injury during practice back on Nov. 11. He’s hanging back in Sacramento while the team heads out on a four-game road trip, and the plan is for Fox to be re-evaluated around the middle of the month. At this rate, though, it wouldn’t be surprising if the point guard remains on the shelf until around Christmas.
Without Fox, the Kings have handed a starting spot and 31.4 minutes per game to Cory Joseph, who — as evidenced by his 4% rostership in Yahoo leagues — hasn’t done much. He did throw up 14 assists in a win over Phoenix on Nov. 19, but Joseph is posting just 4.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists, while shooting 30% from the field since taking over.
As far as Marvin Bagley goes, the Kings haven’t provided many details, but he’s set to be re-evaluated at the end of the week, which will mark roughly six weeks since he fractured his right thumb. If all goes well, Bagley could be back on the floor as soon as Sunday in Dallas or Monday in Houston. If Sacramento opts to wait until after the four-game road trip, Bagley could return Wednesday (vs. OKC) or Friday (vs. NYK).
After rolling over the Knicks at home Monday night, the Milwaukee Bucks ...
... carry a 12-game winning streak into Wednesday’s game in Detroit. The Bucks were without Khris Middleton for seven of those games, but the All-Star made his return last week against Atlanta and came off the bench for three games before moving back in the starting five Monday night. Middleton scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds in just 18 minutes of a game Milwaukee won by 44 points.
Of course, the engine behind the Bucks’ steamrolling ways is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s averaging 32.1 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, and 1.8 threes during the streak. The reigning MVP is playing just 31.2 minutes per game in that span, and his season-long minutes load is down to 31.9 per game — nearly a full minute lower than last season.
Two consecutive blowouts are partially to blame, as Giannis has played a total of just 42 minutes in wins over New York (by 44) and Charlotte (by 41). But as Frank Madden of Locked On Bucks pointed out, it hasn’t hindered his production. Over the last two games, Giannis has 55 points, 24 rebounds, and seven assists.
Thanks to increasingly shaky free-throw shooting (58.4% as of Tuesday) Giannis ranks behind James Harden, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and a few others in terms of average fantasy production, but the relatively light workload is also a factor. Consider that on a per-game basis, Giannis trails Harden by more than eight points per game, 38.9 to 30.8. But if you prorate both players’ stats to per-36-minute averages, Giannis’ production becomes even more staggering, while Harden’s takes a slight dip:
Giannis per-36 — 34.8 PPG, 15.2 RPG, 6.5 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.7 3PM
Harden per-36 — 38.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 7.7 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 4.8 3PM
With the way the Bucks are obliterating their Eastern Conference foes, chances are Giannis won’t approach the same workload as most of his superstar peers. But as Mike Budenholzer continues to manage the strain on his MVP, it’s hard not to wonder what a fully unleashed, 38-minute-a-night Giannis would look like.
Looking ahead, Milwaukee’s upcoming schedule is relatively soft save for a home date with the Clippers on Friday night. If the Bucks take care of Detroit on Wednesday, a win over the Clippers would run the streak up to 14 games with matchups against the sub-.500 Magic, Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Cavaliers arriving next.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said Tuesday that Kyrie Irving will miss ...
... at least two more games as he recovers from a right shoulder injury. This isn’t particularly surprising since Irving is yet to return to any contact work, but now the earliest he could come back would be Sunday’s home matchup against the Nuggets.
Without Irving, the Nets are 6-3, though they’ve been able to take advantage of a soft schedule. Unsurprisingly, Spencer Dinwiddie has been the primary fantasy beneficiary without Irving (and Caris LeVert) in the lineup, posting averages of 25.0 points, 7.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 2.4 threes over the last nine games. For the season, Dinwiddie (125.7 ADP) is a top-65 player in terms of per-game fantasy production.
Third-year big man Jarrett Allen has also stepped up for the Nets, shaking off a slow start to the season to become a top-40 player in Yahoo leagues over the last two weeks. While he’s still splitting time with DeAndre Jordan, Allen has grabbed a firm hold of the starting spot, putting up 14.6 points, 12.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.8 combined steals/blocks over his last 10 games. He’s scored in double-figures in nine of those contests, headlined by a 22-point, 21-rebound, three-assist, two-steal, two-block effort in a win over Cleveland on Nov. 25.
I am professionally and legally obligated to mention Carmelo Anthony ...
... who on Monday claimed his 19th career Player of the Week award — his first since January of 2014. Did Anthony deserve the honor? Almost certainly not. But these awards mean very little, and Anthony did play well in three wins over Chicago, Oklahoma City and Chicago (again), putting 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists with 57/46/89 shooting splits. The 35 year old will continue to have his ups and downs, but at this point, he’s absolutely worth an add if he’s still available, which is the case in nearly a third of Yahoo leagues.
After scoring 14 points in Sunday’s win over Golden State, Markelle Fultz ...
... has reached double-digits in each of his last eight games. He still has a major flaw in his fantasy profile (22% 3PT on 1.9 3PA/G), but on the whole, the Fultz reclamation project is going about as well as it can go, given the circumstances. Over that eight-game span, Fultz is averaging 14.6 points, 4.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals while hitting 53% of his field goals. That places him just outside the top-100 in Yahoo leagues — well ahead of his 142.1 preseason ADP.
While the revamped jumper is still a bit hitchy, it’s extremely encouraging that Fultz is hitting 80% of his free throws on the season, up from 57% (21-37) last year and 48% (10-21) the year before. Hopefully, that foreshadows an eventual increase in his three-point efficiency, but at the very least it looks as though he’s shored up one of the other major holes in his game.
Speaking of free throws, Lonzo Ball returned from injury ...
... for the Pelicans on Sunday. He hit four threes and finished with 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds in a loss to the Pelicans. That’s all well and good. What is not all well and good is that Ball is somehow getting to the free throw line even less this season than in his first two years with the Lakers.
Sure, the sample size is still small for a player who’s missed eight games, but Ball has generated just 10 free throw attempts in 330 minutes thus far. His free throw rate — free throw attempts per field goal attempt — is down to .077, an unfathomably low number for a starting point guard. The vast majority of players with free throw rates that low tend to be three-point specialists (think Danny Green, J.R. Smith, Terrence Ross) who rarely enter the paint. According to Basketball-Reference, Ball is on course to become the only player in the last 40 years to attempt at least 10 field goals per game and post a free throw rate below .080.
Waiver Wire Names to Watch
Josh Hart, New Orleans Pelicans (47 percent rostered)
A seven-game injury absence led to Hart being dropped in several leagues, but he’s back to averaging just a shade under 30 minutes in three games since returning. Hart’s upside isn’t sky-high on a deep yet somehow bad Pelicans roster, but as long as the workload is there, he can be a steady source of points, steals, threes and, especially, rebounds. Plus, he’s both guard- and forward-eligible in Yahoo leagues.
Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder (41 percent)
Finding roster space for a backup center isn’t always easy, but Noel has solidified himself as a top-100 player who is significantly more valuable than Steven Adams. Over his last nine games, Noel is averaging 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.9 blocks in just 21.4 minutes. For now, his workload will remain capped in the low-20s, but that’s all he needs to be a viable starting option most weeks.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks (41%)
The starting shooting guard spot in Dallas looks like it’ll belong to Hardaway for the foreseeable future, and he’s been a top-40 player since taking over on Nov. 20. In his last six games, Hardaway is averaging 18.2 points, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 3.3 made threes, with 55/50/90 shooting splits. Will Hardaway keep this up and be the founding member of the 55/50/90 club? It’s possible, but probably not. Either way, his volume three-point shooting alone warrants an add in most leagues.
In Week 7, only the Celtics and Spurs are at a major disadvantage, with just two games on the schedule. Obviously, that decreases the appeal of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeMar DeRozan, among others, in weekly leagues. But the schedule should also inform your decisions on the waiver wire.
Looking ahead to Week 8, the Spurs once again find themselves mired in a two-game week, along with the Mavericks, Trail Blazers, and Wizards. If there’s a player you really like as a long-term add on any of those teams, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger. But if you’re looking for weekly streamers, be sure to be aware of the upcoming slate. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to look two weeks ahead and start tallying game numbers for free agents who could stick on your roster.
For Weeks 8 and 9, the Hornets, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Bucks are the only four teams with eight combined games.