By Jeff Erickson, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The holidays are over, and with them the bowl schedule. In its stead is a slew of NBA games, with 16 teams playing four times and the Denver Nuggets playing five games. For the Nuggets, the timing works out well in terms of getting their injured players back — a factor we’ll delve into deeper after giving you the full listing of games.
Five Games: DEN
Four Games: ATL, BOS, CLE, DAL, DET, HOU, LAL, MIL, NYK, ORL, PHI, POR, SAC, SAS, UTA, WAS
Three Games: BKN, CHA, CHI, GSW, IND, LAC, MEM, MIA, MIN, NOR, OKC, PHO, TOR
We mentioned a couple of weeks ago how light the Nuggets’ schedule was in December, as they had just one four-game week in a six-week stretch from Week 7 to Week 12, and two-game weeks twice in that same span. With all of their injuries, the timing worked out well. They were able to weather the storm and currently sit in first place in the Western Conference with a 26-11 record. They’ve played fewer games than anyone in the West, tied with the Heat and Pistons overall.
The good news for the Nuggets is that they once again have the services of Gary Harris and Paul Millsap after extended absences for both. Their respective returns have cut the minutes for Juancho Hernangomez, Monte Morris and Trey Lyles.
Even in a five-game week, it’s hard to start these three so long as everyone is back. They could also get Will Barton back — he’s missed all but two games this season, but is now on a game-by-game basis.
The other layer of complication is that the Nuggets’ travel schedule is brutal for this stretch of games. They played Saturday night at home in their win over the Hornets, and begin this upcoming week Monday on the road at Houston in a huge conference matchup against the Rockets.
The following night they have to travel to Miami for a game, and fly all the way back to Denver for one game at home against the Clippers on Thursday. Then they go back on the road at Phoenix for Saturday’s game, followed by another trip back home for Sunday’s game against Portland.
Let’s take a look at the non-Nuggets portion of the schedule for this week. Last week we highlighted a few players that could help you in steals. I’ll try to find a few gems that could help you in assists among our selections.
Elfrid Payton, Pelicans
Payton returned from a broken finger last week after a 22-game absence and has played at least 24 minutes in all three games back, including a 34-minute stint on Wednesday against the Celtics.
He’s back in the starting lineup, taking minutes away from Tim Frazier and Solomon Hill. Payton should average 6-7 assists per game, and I wouldn’t read too much into his lower numbers and minutes on Saturday after they blew out the Cavs. The Pelicans play three games this week, so it’s possible that Payton might be too marginal to use this week.
The other big factor involving the Pelicans this week is the potential return of Nikola Mirotic from his ankle injury. Mirotic could return as early as Monday’s game against Memphis. This means a steep decline in minutes for Julius Randle, at least when Mirotic is back up to playing full minutes — he might be on a restriction when he first returns.
When Mirotic is in there, Randle plays nearly 10 minutes fewer per game, dropping from 35.3 minutes to 25.9. That drops his average fantasy output from 42.4 Yahoo points to 33.8 per game. Darius Miller gets hurt even more than Randle, though Miller is mostly a depth play that you wouldn’t normally consider in a three-game week.
Derrick White, Spurs
White has made waves lately more for his scoring than his passing, putting up at least 19 points in each of his last three games. Even though he’s starting as the point guard for the Spurs, their offense runs through DeMar DeRozan, capping his assists upside. But the good news is that White chips in with steals and blocks, as at 6’5” he’s taller than the average point guard.
The Spurs play four games this week, with road games against Detroit and Memphis before a home-and-away against the Thunder. Memphis plays at the slowest pace in the NBA, but the Thunder are among the fastest pace teams in the leagues, so overall this could be a pretty good week for White.
Terry Rozier, Celtics
Make sure to check on Kyrie Irving’s status before setting your lineup on Monday. When Irving was out the last two games with an eye injury, Rozier averaged 30 minutes per game and had a huge day Wednesday against the Timberwolves, posting a 16-point, five-assist, five-steal line. The latest on Irving is that he has been moved off the injury list, so the presumption is that he can play. That said, wait until near roster lock to make sure, given that the Celts have four games this week beginning on Monday against the Nets.
Josh Hart & Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lakers
When injuries strike, it creates opportunities for others to step up, and that has been the case with Hart and Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers are hurting with LeBron James out for at least another week with his groin injury. He’s scheduled to be re-evaluated Friday.
Rajon Rondo is out another month with a hand injury and Kyle Kuzma has missed the last two games plus most of a third with a back injury. Caldwell-Pope has been the direct beneficiary, posting 30+ Yahoo points in his last three games. He’s also the more volatile player, failing to top 20 Yahoo points in five of the six games prior to his recent hot streak.
Hart has similarly been strong, though his strong stretch encompasses five games. The Lakers play the second of a road back-to-back Monday night, playing at Minnesota on Sunday followed by a trip to Dallas Monday night. They alternate home-and-road games the rest of the week.
Austin Rivers, Rockets
Rivers found a new home quickly following his release from the Suns after the Trevor Ariza trade, thanks to Chris Paul’s injury. Since then he’s averaging a whopping 38 minutes per game, including 40+ minutes each of the last three games.
Compounding matters for the Rockets is Eric Gordon’s knee injury, which has kept him out three games and is likely to do the same Monday. Much like Derrick White and the Spurs, Rivers’ assist upside is capped thanks to everything running through James Harden — in fact, even more so. Still, Rivers and even to a lesser extent Gerald Green should get significant minutes in the Rockets’ four-game week.
Kris Dunn, Bulls
In the Bulls’ first game after the Justin Holiday trade, Dunn had a monster 16-point, 17-assist, five-rebound effort in an overtime loss to the Pacers. We’re still waiting to see how Holiday’s 34 minutes per game will be dispersed, but a lot of the load of course will be shouldered by Dunn and Zach LaVine.
Wayne Selden came over as part of the deal, but he doesn’t figure to be more than a role player. Selden was playing around five minutes per game at the time of the trade after being part of the Grizzlies’ rotation earlier. One possibility is that Bobby Portis could return from an ankle injury, though he’s expected to have a restriction of 20 minutes in his first few games back.
Bismack Biyombo, Hornets
This one is for deeper leagues only, but Biyombo is coming off of a start over Willy Hernangomez, and he responded by posting a 16-10-2-2 line in 30 minutes. Biyombo could just fade away quickly after one good start, or he could take advantage of the opportunity created by Cody Zeller’s hand injury, which will keep him out 4-to-6 weeks. Making matters trickier, the Hornets have just three games this week, so if your league allows for it, you’re better off picking him up as a bench stash.