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As we approach next week's All-Star Game, I just want to take a moment to recognize two forwards that are both in the midst of remarkable seasons. When it comes to fantasy production this season, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have placed a gap between themselves and the rest of the field. A big gap. One year after they met in the NBA Finals, LeBron and Durant are now using the season to go head-on in a two-man MVP race. But when it comes to fantasy hoops, which has been more valuable on the season?
Durant is the current leader in the clubhouse, holding down the top spot in both the Yahoo! player rater as well as in the RotoWire Cheat Sheet. He's on top because he has upped his already ridiculous numbers across the board. He's flirting with 30 points per game, is the best free throw impact player in the league (shooting over 90% on more than nine FTA per game), and is shooting almost 52% from the field on more than 18 attempts. Durant is solid on the glass, with almost eight boards per, but has really fleshed out his assist contributions with 4.4 per game. And Durant also makes major contributions in all of the hard-to-fill categories, knocking down 1.9 treys to go with 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks. His roto resume' is almost flawless. So why isn't he a complete runaway for the top spot?
Because as good as Durant has been, LeBron has been right there with him. LeBron sees Durant's ridiculous free throw impact, and responds by shooting 56% from the field on almost 19 shots per game. He comes up only 0.2 blocks shy of joining Durant in the "at least one trey, block and steal club," but he has upped his long-range shooting to 1.3 made treys on 41% shooting from downtown to decrease Durant's traditional advantages from behind the arc. When you add in that LeBron is leading all NBA forwards in assists (by a lot), and that he's doing it with power forward eligibility, one could make the argument that his position versatility and unheard of contributions from a big man make him more unique than and arguably as valuable as Durant. LeBron's one weakness is the free-throw line, where he is shooting 74% on 6.5 FTA. It's not a stat killer, but it's enough to keep him behind Durant in the rankings.
Outside of just the per game numbers, another aspect to consider is how likely each is to stay on the court. Where Durant and LeBron distance themselves from Chris Paul, ranked third by average in Yahoo! rankings, is that they are both relative iron men that tend to stay in the line-up. However, even here, Durant's history and situation suggest that he has an edge against King James. Over the three seasons preceding this one LeBron has only missed an average of about four games per year…but over that same stretch, Durant has only missed four games TOTAL. Durant has a low-impact game that takes advantage of his length and shooting ability more-so than brute strength and contact in the post, thus he doesn't take many big hits. And he's able to play through ouchy injuries like the bruised ribs he suffered last weekend, which didn't even slow him down. LeBron is a tank, but as Dwight Howard is currently showing us, even a tank can take damage if it takes too many hits. His much more physical playing style therefore opens LeBron up to more health risks than Durant.
Even the team dynamics argue in Durant's favor. The Heat are the defending champions, which has already relieved the stifling expectations of years past and given them confidence that they can win when called upon. The Thunder came up just short last season, making them the team with something to prove this year. The Heat are currently on top of the Eastern Conference and seem unlikely to be overtaken, while the Thunder are trailing the Spurs and will have to therefore push harder for longer if they want to ensure home court advantage throughout the Western playoffs. And while LeBron still has to share his offensive duties with two other offensive-minded All Stars, the Thunder shipped their third offensive stud in James Harden to the Rockets before the season started. Thus, LeBron still has to do more to manage personalities and may have to sacrifice at times, whereas Durant is only sharing the offensive load with Russell Westbrook, and he's more finisher than distributor which allows him to shoot with no conscious.
All told, despite the fact that in real life LeBron is still the best in the world, when it comes to the fantasy MVP race he finds himself looking up at his old flag football buddy. And as it stands, it doesn't seem likely that the King will be able to bridge that gap this season.
Around the League
Paul watch continues: For the third week in a row, Chris Paul has a spot in this space due to his nagging knee injury. Paul has missed nine straight games during his most recent absence, but there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. He practiced fully on Thursday, which opens the door for him returning to game action as soon as Friday. No official announcement has been made, but it seems to be moving in the right direction … for now. You know my stance on him at this point … it's hard when your best player is a major injury risk, so if he can play a healthy stretch over the next few weeks I'd certainly advocate selling high on him if the opportunity presents itself. In other Clipper news, Chauncey Billups also appears set to return to the court after a two-month absence. He is a game-time decision for Friday, but like Paul seems likely to be on the court again sooner rather than later.
Duncan's knee/ankle: Tim Duncan's renaissance season has been on hold temporarily due to a sprained right ankle and sprained left knee. The knee injury looked particularly scary, but there was no structural damage so he is just sitting out to rest the injury. Duncan will be 37 years old in two months, his team is currently on top of the West, and his coach has been strategically resting him to keep him fresh for most of the last decade. As such, a) don't expect Duncan to be back on the court in the short term, but b) expect that when he does come back, he is fully recovered as coach Gregg Popovich just doesn't take chances with him.
Noah's plantar fasciitis: Joakim Noah returned to the court on Thursday night against the Nuggets after having missed the previous three games with plantar fasciitis, but he didn't look like himself at all with only two points (1-for-5 FG) and five boards in 23 minutes. Foot injury + 7-footer = scary. This prompted a question from one of my Twitter followers (follow me @ProfessorDrz), professordrz. "I'm currently third in my league, behind by four games. Would you take on the risk of Noah's foot at this point of the season?" I answered yes tentatively because the Bulls as a team are hoping to make a run once Derrick Rose returns, which suggests to me that Noah will be on the court if at all possible. But that said … again, foot injury + 7 footer = scary, so proceed with caution on the Bulls' big man.
As the Lakers Turn: The drama in LA LA land is so ubiquitous that we may as well go ahead and give them a permanent spot in this section. This week in the soap opera, Pau Gasol rode the roller coaster. He started the week chained to the bench, having lost his starting job and venting his unhappiness in every interview. Then, Dwight Howard started missing games and Gasol moved back into the starting center spot and suddenly, Gasol looked like … himself. He started throwing up 20/10 games, dominating the middle, and displaying the game that made him so valuable a couple of years ago. When I started my notes for this week's lab this weekend, I intended to do a blurb on Gasol entitled, "Gasol without Howard = star". Unfortunately for him, I now have to title his blurb, "Gasol out 6–8 weeks with torn plantar fascia." Gasol went down with the very painful looking injury this weekend, and appears to be out for (at least) the majority of the regular season. Considering he is 7-feet tall and putting a lot of stress on his feet in general, and then add in that the Lakers are currently several games out of the last playoff spot in the West and experiencing other drama (see below) … we could feasibly have seen the last of Pau on the court this season.
The second major story in LA this week is the newest salvo in the Kobe Bryant vs. Howard friction. In a sequence of back-and-forth comments in interviews, Kobe appeared to call out Howard for not playing through his shoulder injury, followed by Howard saying that "Kobe's not a doctor" and saying that he had to look out for himself, followed by Kobe somewhat backing off those comments and saying that they never should have been made a big deal of. I'm not in that locker room so I have no idea of how their relationship is behind closed doors, but if you watch Howard's interview he just seemed … not happy. Howard's public persona his whole career has been as a happy-go-lucky giant, but there has been none of that joviality on display of late. From the outside it looks like a toxic situation, and with all of the on-court struggles for the team it just doesn't look good for the Lakers right now.
The Rumor Mill: The Bulls and Raptors have reportedly entered exploratory trade talks on a Carlos Boozer for Andrea Bargnani swap. Nothing is official or even imminent, but it has enough support to warrant discussion. Bargnani would slot in as a stretch 4 in Chicago, which a) would give him a definite needed role on the Bulls, b) should really improve his field goal percentage once Derrick Rose returns, and c) would be a strong indication that the Bulls must be confident in the health of Noah's foot. The real star of the swap would be Boozer, though, as the Raptors have a definite hole in the middle and he would be freed up for a major role on the glass and scoring in the paint.
The other trade rumor this week involves the Celtics trading Kevin Garnett to pretty much anywhere. He was linked to the Clippers in rumors over the weekend, then to the Nuggets once the week began. The theory is that the Celtics' season is over without Rajon Rondo, and thus they may as well trade Garnett and Paul Pierce for young pieces. Of course, in the lead to last week's Lab strongly suggested that the Celtics are likely to be just fine without Rondo and in the week since, the team has raised their winning streak sans Rondo to a season best-matching six games. If the Celtics keep winning, it lowers the probability that GM Danny Ainge blows it up. But you never know. What I will say is that Garnett, who on Thursday became the 16th player in NBA history with 25,000 points, is likely much more valuable as a fantasy producer in Boston than he would be if traded to an already established contender. Plus, Garnett has a no-trade clause and has expressed an interest in retiring in Boston. All told, a trade seems unlikely at this point and for Garnett owners the hope is that such a trade doesn't happen.
Nate Robinson (49% owned in Yahoo! leagues): I hesitated to put Robinson in this space last week because of the feeling that Derrick Rose will be coming back soon. But after Robinson played well enough to bring home Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors last week, he's earned his spot here. Robinson may still be a short-term prospect, but with Rose and Kirk Hinrich sidelined Robinson is running the show. Over his last eight outings, four of which were starts, Robinson averaged 18.1 points and 2.3 3-pointers per game. In those four starts he has upped his assists (8.5 apg) and steals (1.8 spg) as well.
Danny Green (47% owned): Green has been a strong contributor in 3-pointers all season (2.1 treys/game), but with Tim Duncan out he has taken a larger role in the scoring department. He has three straight games of at least 17 points and two made 3-pointers, culminating with a 28-point/eight 3-pointer effort on Wednesday against the Timberwolves.
Samuel Dalembert (40% owned): Dalembert is on this list purely to address his 35-point/12-rebound double-double the other night. While Dalembert has added value while Larry Sanders is out, a) Sanders is day-to-day and will be back soon and b) the 35/12 was a fluke on multiple levels. The first thing I said when I saw that stat line is, "Hmmm. He must be getting showcased for trades." Thus, I laughed the next day when I saw the headline that the Bucks had Dalembert on the trade block. I like Dalembert as a roto producer when he gets minutes, but unless he gets traded to a team badly in need of size I just don't know where he's going to get those minutes once Sanders returns.
Tiago Splitter (42% owned): Splitter stays on the radar because he's a big man with talent, but he's inconsistent when Tim Duncan is healthy and producing. Duncan is currently out with a sore knee, in addition to his advanced age and his coach's tendency to rest him…thus, Splitter seems a good bet to be a consistent double-double threat for at least the short term.
Byron Mullens (36% owned): Mullens has returned from his ankle injury, and has returned to the same stretch big man role that made him a valuable add earlier in the year. A 7-footer that can score double-figures every night and knock down a couple of treys most nights is always valuable in roto leagues.
Maurice Speights (24% owned): Speights has stepped into a much larger role since being traded to Cleveland, and has been a consistent double-double guy with 20-point potential even in his role off the bench. Speights is still only 25 years old, and has good upside on the depleted Cavs frontline.
Jeff Green (18% owned): Green has taken on a larger role for the Celtics in the wake of injuries to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. He has more freedom in the offense, and is getting more minutes as the back-up power forward. He is responding well to that increase, averaging 15 points in almost 30 mpg over the last week. He also is contributing 1.5 blocks and a trey over that stretch, giving him some unique contributions in addition to the scoring.
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.