A look ahead to fantasy 'silly season'

While the first two segments of our writers' roundtable have focused on what's happened so far this season, this one will focus on the future. More specifically, how will tanking teams and the "silly season" impact fantasy basketball, especially the playoffs? Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, and San Antonio are nowhere near fighting for a play-in tournament spot, so they're likely all-in on improving their odds for the best shot of landing a potential generational talent in Victor Wembanyama, or Scoot Henderson, who's anything but a "consolation prize."

Question: What storyline do you believe will have the greatest impact on the stretch run in fantasy basketball?

Zak Hanshew: This is going to sound like a major cop-out, but tanking is the major storyline for fantasy's home stretch. Specifically, fantasy managers should be most interested in which teams will decide to start tanking. Charlotte, Detroit, San Antonio, and Houston are well out of the playoff hunt, so plenty of “silly season” darlings will emerge from those squads. What about the teams who are fighting for a spot in the play-in tournament and not in title contention?

Despite the Western Conference's wide-open field, the teams from seeds 7-13 can finish the season strong or lose some additional games and secure a higher draft pick. Those teams are the Pels, Wolves, Warriors, Thunder, Jazz, Trail Blazers, and Lakers. New Orleans remains in contention and will keep pushing while key team members try to get healthy. The same goes for the Wolves and Warriors. The Lakers and Blazers will likely keep pushing, but if either team starts losing too many games, will any players be shut down? Utah emerged as a top seed in the West to open the season, but things have gone downhill in a hurry. Will the Jazz try to stay competitive or lean into the tank everyone was expecting?

In the East, there are four teams to watch: Toronto, Washington, Chicago, and Indiana. The Raptors are 10th, and if they're not competing for a championship, would it be surprising if Masai Ujiri directed the team to lose some games and go for a better draft selection? The same is true of the Wizards, Bulls, and Pacers. All three teams could make the play-in tournament, but none of these squads are going to make any noise in the playoffs. The Bulls owe their first-rounder to the Magic through the Nikola Vučević trade, and the Lakers owe their first-rounder to the Pelicans through the Anthony Davis trade. Neither team should be incentivized to lose, but would players like Davis, LeBron James, or DeMar DeRozan be shut down in order to recover and look ahead to next season?

Raphielle Johnson: Tanking is the obvious answer, with Houston, San Antonio, Detroit, and Charlotte well off the pace for a play-in tournament spot. Removing those four, at least one more team will be forced to recalibrate its plans before we reach fantasy playoff time. Indiana enters the post-break portion of its schedule three games out of 10th place in the East in the loss column, and the team they're chasing (Toronto) made its intentions clear by acquiring Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline. Myles Turner has already signed his extension; the Pacers know what they have there.

But the same can't be said for Isaiah Jackson, who was mentioned multiple times as a potential "stash" target while Turner was the focus of trade rumors. There are some "forgiving" matchups within Indiana's first ten post-break games (one against San Antonio and Houston and two against Detroit), but they also have the Celtics, Mavericks, and 76ers to deal with. I don't think the Pacers would shift into a full tank, but adjusting the playing time of a few of their established pros in order to get their younger players more run would not come as a surprise if the team fell out of contention.

Utah is in an interesting spot, as they moved a few rotation players at the deadline and are being chased by two teams (Portland and the LA Lakers) that cannot afford to miss the postseason, given their rosters and/or lack of draft assets. A Walker Kessler or Collin Sexton should be safe, as the former is a rookie, and the latter needs to show he can effectively run a team. But what happens with someone like Lauri Markkanen if Utah slips further down the standings? Does he continue to play 34 minutes per game? We'll see. The point is that there will be a team or two beyond the Rockets, Spurs, Pistons, and Hornets that decide they'd rather play for draft lottery odds than hold onto the faint hope of landing a play-in berth.

Noah Rubin: Who shifts to a tank?

Coming into the season, many predicted that there would be a lot more teams involved in the tank race than usual. Multiple teams would be rolling out lineups like the Thunder and Blazers did at the end of last season in order to have a better chance at Victor Wembanyama. However, that hasn't been the case at all. Four teams are in contention for the best odds (Spurs, Rockets, Hornets, Pistons), but none of those teams have made any effort to help their odds. In fact, they've all dealt with major injuries, as Devin Vassell, LaMelo Ball, and Cade Cunningham have all missed a large chunk of games, along with plenty of other guys. Teams expected to tank (OKC, Orlando, Utah, Indiana) have been in contention for spots in the play-in tournament. Even at the trade deadline, there weren't any significant sellers. However, with a player like Wemby (and an elite consolation prize in Scoot Henderson), teams will have a tough decision to make soon.

Among teams that wouldn't play postseason basketball if the season ended today, only the Bulls and Lakers don't have their own first-round pick. The Lakers made significant improvements at the deadline, while Chicago stood pat (for some reason). At some point, teams will have to decide between the value of experiencing a play-in game and the value of Wembanyama. Could a team like Toronto or Washington push to get away from the middle of the pack and improve their lottery odds? Will the Thunder choose postseason experience for their young team or realize they could dominate the league for a decade with a frontcourt of Chet Holmgren and Wemby? How early could fantasy superstars like Tyrese Haliburton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and LaMelo Ball be shut down if their teams shift to a tank? It's not a question that can be answered at this time, but for Portland and OKC, it started in late March last season. Hopefully, the chances at a generational prospect don't result in that starting earlier.

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Question: Who are two players you believe can significantly impact during "silly season?"

Hanshew: There are so many great choices here, but I'll narrow it down to two: Malaki Branham, Josh Okogie

Honorable mention: James Wiseman, Josh Richardson, Gabe Vincent, Talen Horton-Tucker, Jaylin Williams

Branham ranks just outside the top 100 over the last two weeks behind averages of 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds. 2.6 dimes, 0.9 steals, and 2.3 triples on 49.5% shooting. The rookie out of OSU has logged 32.6 minutes per contest across his last seven, and he's remained a steady and reliable producer in San Antonio's starting five. Devin Vassell has been out since January 2, and it wouldn't be surprising if he got shut down for the rest of the season, even if Gregg Popovich expressed optimism that he could be back shortly after the All-Star break. Tre Jones and Romeo Langford have also been banged up, and the Spurs are doing themselves no favors in the Victor Wenbanyama sweepstakes by trying to compete in games. Tanking even harder should mean consistent playing time for Branham down the stretch.

In addition to sporting a dope facemask (a la Rip Hamilton), Okogie has been huge for fantasy managers as of late. He ranks 17th in per-game fantasy value over his last four games, averaging 21.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.3 steals, and 3.8 triples while shooting 55.4% from the floor and logging 37.0 minutes per contest. Okogie isn't going to stay this hot forever, and Kevin Durant's eventual return will cut down his workload, but there are encouraging signs of a productive rest-of-season player. A decline in scoring and triples won't be catastrophic to his fantasy value if he can keep producing steals at an elite level. Okogie averages 1.7 steals per-36-minutes in his career. With Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson shipped to Brooklyn and key reserves injured, the Suns have a gaping hole in the middle of their lineup. Okogie could be the fifth starter alongside Durant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton once Durant is finally healthy. In the meantime, he'll continue to see plenty of minutes and sustain valuable production.

Johnson: I'll go with Josh Green and KJ Martin.

Green's in an interesting spot in Dallas. While the Mavericks did land Kyrie Irving before the trade deadline, that deal sent the team's best defender (Dorian Finney-Smith) to Brooklyn. While the eventual return of Maxi Kleber (hamstring) will help Dallas on the defensive end of the floor, he isn't a perimeter guy. That has made Green a player of greater importance to the Mavericks, and he's played well since moving into the starting lineup on February 4. In seven games, Green accounted for 15.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, and 1.9 3-pointers in 35.7 minutes, shooting 50.6% from the field and 70.0% from the foul line. He did produce two offensive duds in Dallas' final two games before the All-Star break, but that was on the heels of a six-game run in which he scored 12 points or more in each. Due to the presence of Irving and Luka Dončić, Green's usage will remain low, but getting 30 minutes (or more) per night will give him a shot at fantasy relevance.

As for Martin, he's been in the Rockets' starting lineup since mid-January. And with Kevin Porter Jr. (foot) without a timeline for return and Jalen Green (groin) also sidelined, Martin's highly unlikely to be moved back to the bench anytime soon. He entered the All-Star break rostered in 48% of Yahoo leagues and provided 10th-round, per-game value in 9-cat formats over the last month. Tari Eason should be the answer here, but it appears he's no lock to get the 25+ minutes per night that would make him a "silly season" prospect. Martin's played nearly 32 minutes per game over the last month, so he may be the safer choice of the two Rockets.

Rubin: Isaiah Jackson and Charles Bassey.

As surprising as the Pacers have been this season, it's time to face the reality of their situation. Despite their efforts, they sit 2.5 games out of a spot in the play-in tournament. While they could still make a push, they'll have to make a hard decision. Tyrese Haliburton's extended absence derailed their season, but it should give them hope for the future. They should be in the middle of the playoff race next season, but they need to pull the plug soon. Myles Turner should be the first player they shut down. He's incredibly valuable to their team, but he's dealt with his fair share of injuries over the past few seasons. They've made every effort to avoid playing Isaiah Jackson when Turner is out, but it's hard to make a case to start Daniel Theis over Jackson if they're prioritizing development at the end of the season. Jackson has averaged 10.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game in five starts this season. He had some big games down the stretch last season and will look to repeat those performances.

The Spurs have lost 14 games in a row, traded Jakob Poeltl at the deadline, and sit a half-game ahead of the Rockets for the worst record in the league. They should prioritize their young guys down the stretch, but since their entire starting unit is young, they may not completely shut down everyone. However, with Zach Collins' injury history, he's certainly a shutdown candidate. Bassey is the team's only young center and should slide into the starting unit in this scenario. Bassey had 11 rebounds and two blocks in just 14 minutes in their last game before the All-Star break. He has delivered plenty of swats and boards when he's gotten the chance this season. With their eyes set on Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio will likely give him plenty of opportunities to stuff the stat sheet.

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