Fantasy Basketball: Top storylines as the NBA season winds down

By Nick Whalen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Welcome to Week 22 of the fantasy basketball season. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re either battling for a spot in the Finals of your head-to-head league or still alive for a top-three finish in a category league. By this point in the calendar, much of the focus around the NBA at large has shifted to the postseason, but for fantasy managers, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Entering Tuesday night’s four-game slate, all 30 teams have crossed the 70-game threshold. In a few hours, the Clippers will play their league-leading 74th game of the season. While some franchises have clearly shifted toward focusing on the future — looking at you, unnamed team giving Kris Dunn 25 minutes per game — the playoff picture in both conferences is far from settled, so we should see plenty of meaningful basketball over the next two-plus weeks.

In the East, the Heat maintain a 2.5-game lead for the top seed, but the Bucks, 76ers and Celtics are separated only by win percentage for the 2-through-4 spots. Only 2.5 games separate the five-seed Bulls from the seven-seed Raptors.

Out West, meanwhile, the Suns will likely clinch the No. 1 seed in the next few days, but there will be plenty of jockeying for 2-through-7 spots. The Warriors are currently 1.5 games ahead of Utah for the No. 3 spot, but with Stephen Curry likely done for the regular season, can the Warriors hold on?

With plenty of consequential games ahead in Week 23, let’s take a look at the top storylines fantasy managers should be locked in on:

Weekly Kyrie Irving update

Kyrie Irving was ineligible for Monday night’s win over the Jazz, which marked his third consecutive absence as the Nets finished out a homestand. Irving will be able to play in the Nets’ next two games — Wednesday at Memphis; Saturday at Miami — but he’ll return to inactive status for Sunday’s home matchup against the Hornets. That contest kicks off another three-game homestand for Brooklyn, which plays six of its final eight games at the Barclays Center.

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One of those two road games comes against the Knicks, so — barring a sudden change to New York City’s vaccination mandate — Irving will only be eligible for one of the Nets’ final eight contests. With that in mind, fantasy managers fighting for a league championship will likely want to drop Irving in favor of any decent three- or four-game option following Saturday night’s game in Miami.

Chris Paul ahead of schedule?

Entering Tuesday night, the Suns lead the West by 9.0 games and have barely missed a beat since Chris Paul went down just before the All-Star break. Phoenix is 10-4 sans Paul and still holds the third-best NET rating in the league without the star point guard, who was initially given a 6-to-8-week timetable to return from a torn ligament in his thumb.

But according to a report from The Athletic’s Sam Amick on Monday, Paul is believed to be well ahead of schedule in his recovery, and it’s possible he could make his return as soon as Wednesday’s game against Minnesota. The Suns are yet to offer any comment on Paul’s progress, so the veteran playing Wednesday does seem a bit far-fetched, but either way, the 36-year-old looks to be on track to play in at least a handful of games before the postseason begins.

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns is a fantasy baseball star
Chris Paul could return to fantasy basketball rosters sooner than expected. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Obviously, fantasy managers should closely monitor this situation over the next 24 hours as the Suns prepare for a Wednesday/Thursday back-to-back set that also includes a stop in Denver. If Paul were to miss both of those games, he would conceivably have a very good chance to come back for Sunday’s home matchup against Philadelphia.

As far as fantasy championship week is concerned, Paul could be a full-go for Phoenix’s three-game week packing road games at Golden State (Wednesday), Memphis (Friday) and Oklahoma City (Saturday).

  • One of the reasons the Suns have continued rolling without Paul is the improved all-around play of Devin Booker, who ranks as the third-best fantasy asset (8-cat, per-game) over the last month. Since the All-Star break, Booker is averaging 28.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.9 steals and shooting 52.5 percent from the field (41.1% 3Pt, 93.0% FT). The assists, in particular, are notable, as Booker is up 2.5 per game compared to his pre-All-Star-break average.

  • In addition to Booker, Cameron Payne has provided a nice spark as Paul’s de facto replacement. A top-65 fantasy option post-All-Star break (8-cat, per-game), Payne is putting up 14.2 points, 9.5 assists, 4.0 boards, 1.8 threes and 1.2 steals over his last 10 appearances. Payne ranks eighth in the league in total assists (95) and fourth in assists per game since the break.

  • Meanwhile, Monty Williams has emerged as the heavy favorite to take home Coach of the Year honors. At BetMGM, Williams is listed at -1000, well ahead of other worthy candidates Erik Spoelstra (+700), Taylor Jenkins (+900) and JB Bickerstaff (+900). A season ago, Williams was narrowly edged out by Tom Thibodeau, despite receiving a higher number of first-place votes.

Zion officially done for the season

From the department of breaking news that’s not exactly breaking news: Zion Williamson has been ruled out for the remainder of the season, per a report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania on Monday.

This officially marks the end of a season-long cat-and-mouse game between Williamson and fantasy managers — many of whom spent a third- or fourth-round pick on the 2019 No. 1 overall pick. Williamson, of course, did not play in a single game this season after undergoing offseason foot surgery and dealing with multiple setbacks in his rehab.

Coming off of a monster sophomore season in which he appeared in 61 of a possible 72 games, expectations were justifiably high for Williamson, who averaged 27.0 points per game on nearly 70 percent shooting in 2020-21. In early drafts, he was going as high as the second round, but his Yahoo ADP eventually slipped to 47.5 following the revelation that he’d undergone surgery.

In salary cap leagues, Williamson went for an average of $29.2 — more than Chris Paul ($26.8), Khris Middleton ($26.0), Jaylen Brown ($25.1), Brandon Ingram ($24.9) and well ahead of Ja Morant ($22.4).

In a season when several high-profile players missed a ton of time due to injuries, Williamson may have been the biggest disappointment of them all. By mid-November, it was evident that the foot issue would be more than an early season bump in the road. And by the time the All-Star Game had passed and Williamson was yet to be cleared for any weight-bearing exercises, it became clear that his chances to make any fantasy impact were essentially over. Even so, a good chunk of managers held out hope throughout the season. As of Tuesday, Williamson is still rostered in 65 percent of Yahoo leagues.

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Looking ahead, all indications are that Williamson will be back at full strength for the 2022-23 campaign, but how will he be handled in fantasy leagues? Now three seasons into his career, Williamson has appeared in only 85 total games, so he’ll almost certainly come at an appreciable draft discount next fall. But those 85 games were so tantalizing that it’s easy to imagine managers once again talking themselves into pulling the trigger using a third- or fourth-round pick.

With the memories of 2021-22 still fresh in the mind, Williamson could end up being a relative bargain next season, provided he’s able to play even 75 percent of the season. Health is easily the biggest concern, but Williamson will also have to sort out his relationship with the Pelicans organization, which remains clouded following a decidedly bizarre season in which we barely saw or heard from the 21-year-old or his camp.

Quick hits

- Per that same report from Shams Charania, the Trail Blazers have ruled out Damian Lillard for the remainder of the season. This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s watched even a minute of Blazers basketball since the All-Star break. Since dealing Robert Covington, Norman Powell and CJ McCollum at the deadline, Portland has emerged as the new face of tanking in the NBA. Since the break, Portland’s minutes leaders are Trendon Watford (367), Brandon Williams (346), Drew Eubanks (329) and CJ Elleby (325).

- Drew Eubanks’ last six games: 15.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 66.1% FG, 93.8% FT, 31.2 MPG. He’s still available in more than half of Yahoo leagues.

- Trendon Watford’s last 10 games: 15.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 blocks, 0.8 steals, 48.3% FG, 81.0% FT, 32.4 MPG. He’s only rostered in 57 percent of leagues, so double-check the wire if you’re still alive in your leagues.

- It will go down as a lost season for Lillard, who played his final game on Dec. 31 before electing to undergo surgery to address a lingering abdominal issue. Historically one of the most dependable superstars in fantasy basketball, Lillard had never missed more than nine games in any of his previous nine NBA seasons. Managers who spent a first-round pick on Lillard (Yahoo ADP: 7.0) likely struggled to recoup that value, though those who took Paul George (13.2 ADP) or Bradley Beal (13.5) found themselves in similar situations.

- Unlike Williamson, at least Lillard was able to play in 29 games. But the 31-year-old was clearly hampered by the abdominal injury, which led to his lowest scoring average (24.0 PPG) since 2014-15 and by far the least-efficient shooting season (40.2% FG, 32.4% 3Pt) of his entire career.

- Both James Harden and Joel Embiid were held out of Monday night’s game against the Heat, but the shorthanded Sixers were able to pull out a 113-106 victory on the road. Tyrese Maxey posted 28 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Shake Milton added 20 points, six assists and five boards off the bench. Philly shot 15-of-37 from three as a team. Since joining the Sixers, Harden has missed two games — both against Miami, which looms as a possible Eastern Conference Semifinals opponent.

- With a win over the Thunder on Monday, the Celtics improved to 22-4 over their last 26 games. During that stretch, Jayson Tatum ranks as the fourth-best fantasy player in 8-cat leagues (total value) behind 29.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 3.7 threes, 0.9 steals and strong percentages (49.7% FG; 87.8% FT).

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0)
Jayson Tatum has been on fire. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

- Patrick Williams made his long-awaited return to action for the Bulls during Monday night’s 113-99 victory over Toronto. Williams, who last played on Oct. 28, finished with seven points (3-8 FG, 1-3 3Pt), two rebounds and a steal in 19 minutes off the bench. Before the game, coach Billy Donovan said Williams was cleared to play as many as 25 minutes, so conditioning does not appear to be a major hurdle.

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- In less-positive Bulls news, the team announced Monday night that Lonzo Ball hit a snag in his rehab from a torn meniscus. Ball will be shut down from running for the next 10 days and instead focus on strengthening his left knee, on which he underwent surgery back in late January. At this stage, it’s rather unlikely that Ball can return for more than a game or two before the postseason.

- Elsewhere in the Central Division, Brook Lopez now has three games under his belt since returning from a lengthy injury absence of his own. The big man suffered a back injury on Opening Night and missed the next 67 games before returning for last Monday’s game at Utah. Lopez also played Wednesday in Sacramento and Saturday in Minnesota, where he made his return to the starting five. In 20 minutes of action Saturday, Lopez posted 15 points, four rebounds, one assist and two blocks.

- A few weeks ago, we weren’t sure if we’d even see Kristaps Porzingis suit up for the Wizards this season, but he’s now progressed to playing both halves of back-to-backs. Porzingis played in all three of the Wizards’ matchups during a recent three-games-in-four-nights stretch, which concluded Monday at Houston. He finished that game with 22 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, five blocks and a steal in 32 minutes — his most since Jan. 20.

- Rookie first-round pick Corey Kispert has quietly supplied 2.7 threes per game over his last nine contests. Kispert has hit at least three three-pointers in six of those nine games.

- The Warriors will play their second game Tuesday night since losing Stephen Curry to a foot injury. Curry maintains that he’ll be back in the mix for the playoffs, but it has to be a concern that the Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green trio will likely play fewer than two full games together prior to the postseason.

- Domantas Sabonis was diagnosed Monday with a bruised left knee and will miss at least the next five games as the Kings depart for a road trip. De’Aaron Fox has missed two straight games and is questionable for Wednesday’s contest at Indiana due to a hand injury.

- The Lakers are desperately clinging to the final play-in spot out West, but LeBron James continued his masterful individual season Monday in Cleveland, scoring 38 points on 17-of-29 shooting to go with 12 assists, 11 rebounds and perhaps his best dunk of the year. Since the break, James leads the league in total points (426) and made field goals (160) while ranking fourth in minutes played (495).

- After posting 20 points and 11 assists with just one turnover Monday night, Russell Westbrook has strung together five consecutive non-disastrous performances. During that stretch, he’s posting 18.6 points, 7.6 assists, 6.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.8 turnovers while shooting 49.3 percent from the field (9-21 3Pt).