By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The NBA resumes play on Thursday night after nearly a full week off for All-Star Weekend festivities. The time away is a chance for players and teams to reset before the “second half” of the season — though anyone who’s paying attention knows that this isn’t an even split.
Coming out of the break, every team has played between 53 and 57 games — roughly 65 to 70 percent of its overall schedule. So while there’s still plenty at stake over the final two months of the regular season, things are a bit more condensed.
In the fantasy basketball world, the sense of urgency is palpable. With the playoffs set to begin in just over a month in many season-long leagues, fantasy managers looking to make a late climb up the standings have very little room for error. Each game missed due to injury becomes even more damaging, while waiver wire and start/sit decisions are as vital as ever.
As we look ahead to what the future holds, here are nine predictions for the rest of the fantasy basketball season:
Russell Westbrook is a top-15 player in eight-category leagues (total value)
We begin with a relatively modest prediction, as Westbrook ranks 21st in total value in standard Yahoo leagues coming out of the break. It’s been an incredibly strange season for Westbrook, who got off to a slow start and was all but written off as a borderline-elite fantasy option by the end of November. In 13 November games, Westbrook averaged 21.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.8 assists while hitting just 41.1 percent of his field goals and 21.6 percent of his threes. The Rockets had an offensive rating of 96 — that’s very bad — with Westbrook on the floor.
Since then, it’s been a remarkable turnaround. Westbrook started heating up in December, caught fire in January and carried that momentum into the All-Star break. Since Dec. 16 (a 22-game sample) Westbrook holds averages of 32.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.6 steals while shooting 49.4% from the floor. He’s still scuffling from three (24.6%), but he’s dramatically slashed his number of attempts, instead reverting to the attack-the-rim-at-all-costs mentality that launched him into superstardom early in his career.
When it comes to Westbrook’s fantasy value, what’s perhaps most encouraging is his return to respectability at the free-throw line. After careening down to 65.6% a year ago, Westbrook is creeping up toward 80% this season.
With the Rockets leaning even more into a five-out, extreme-small-ball style, Westbrook will be in a position to continue to flourish over Houston’s final 28 games. Just how high he can climb in the rankings is partially dependent on how others perform, but Westbrook should continue to gain ground if he remains the top-five fantasy player he’s been over the last four weeks.
The Cavaliers buy out Tristan Thompson
If this is the path the Cavs ultimately take, it could have larger ramifications for the NBA title race than fantasy basketball. But Thompson has been a borderline-top-100 asset this season, quietly averaging a double-double for the second consecutive year.
He’s only played two games since the arrival of Andre Drummond, and thus far it’s been nearly impossible to gauge what his new role will be, as the Cavs lost one of those games by 41 points and won the other by 22. On the aggregate, it’ll be almost impossible for Thompson not to lose significant value if he remains in Cleveland the rest of the way. Some of the teams he could join — the Lakers or Clippers, for instance — may not be able to offer Thompson a major role, but if were to land in, say, Boston, Thompson would have a legitimate chance to compete for a starting spot.
After the trade deadline, Thompson’s rostered rate in Yahoo leagues sunk to 58%, but if you’re a manager still holding out hope, you should be rooting for a buyout before the March 1 deadline.
Deandre Ayton puts up the first 25-25 game of the season
The Suns’ gradual fall from fun surprise team to The Same Old Suns™ has overshadowed a strong sophomore campaign from Ayton. A lengthy PED ban and the omnipresent “You know you could’ve just drafted Luka Doncic” conversation may also have something to do with it, but since returning from suspension, Ayton has essentially been a nightly 20-12 guy. Over his last 20 games before the break, he averaged 19.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks, while hitting 54% of his field goals and 82% of his free throws. Of course, one of the knocks on Ayton is he doesn’t get to the line nearly as much as he should (2.8 FTA/G), but on some level, it’s a victory when any center doesn’t kill you at the line.
Ayton already has a 20-20 game under his belt — 26 points, 21 rebounds in a win over the Knicks on Jan. 16 — and he went for 28 and 19 in his final game before the break (Feb. 8 vs. Denver). While the ankle issue that cost him the Suns’ last two games, as well as the Rising Stars Game, is a bit of a concern, the hope is that the time off means he won’t miss any more games coming out of All-Star Weekend.
Ayton ranks near the top of the league in offensive, defensive, and total rebound percentage, and the Suns’ top-10 pace has helped Ayton become a top-20 fantasy asset over the last month. To be fair, 25-25 games are rare, but there’s been at least one in every season since 2012-13. No player has reached the mark yet this season, with the last 25-25 coming on Jan. 12 of 2019 (Karl-Anthony Towns).
Stephen Curry swings some fantasy seasons
Even as the Warriors emerge from the break with the worst record in the league, the party line remains that Curry will be back at some point this season. He’s been working out and going through shooting drills in recent weeks, so a return could come at virtually any point over the next month.
Golden State has only 27 games remaining and very little to play for, so Curry likely won’t be thrown out there for 38 minutes per night. He’ll probably sit half of back-to-backs and could face an aggressive resting schedule, similar to how the Warriors have handled Draymond Green this season. But even with the projected limitations, this is Steph Curry we’re talking about. He’s been a top-10 per-game fantasy player in every season of his career, including the fifth overall player in eight-category leagues a season ago. There’s a reason he remains 96% rostered in Yahoo leagues, despite not playing a game in more than three months.
Even if Curry plays 15 games the rest of the way, he’ll be a massive addition (just in time for the playoffs) for managers who’ve stashed him on IR.
We don’t see the real Victor Oladipo until next season
The Pacers closed out the Giannis-less Bucks just before the All-Star break to snap a six-game losing skid that coincided with the return of their best player. When at his peak two seasons ago, Oladipo was one of the NBA’s best two-way players at any position. He’s earned the right to recover from a torn quad tendon at his own pace. But last week’s win aside, there’s no denying that Oladipo has hurt the Pacers since making his season debut on Jan. 29.
Over his first seven games, Oladipo is averaging 11.1 points, 2.9 assists, and 2.0 rebounds in 25.0 minutes per game, but he’s shooting an alarming 32.9% from the field, including just 24.4% from three on 5.9 attempts per game. His three-point attempt rate sits at 48.2%, nearly 20 percentage points higher than his career average. Naturally, Oladipo’s efficiency will improve as he gains more reps, but how patient will the Pacers be as they fight for seeding in the East?
Thus far, the answer has been “extremely patient," but if the struggles continue after the break, it wouldn’t be a shock if Oladipo ends up back in a bench role, or at least cedes more minutes to the Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Justin Holiday quartet. At the rate he’s progressing, fantasy managers shouldn’t expect to see the real Victor Oladipo — a potential 20-5-5-2 producer — until 2020-21.
Zion Williamson averages 25 points per game the rest of the way
Watching Williamson through his first 10 games back, what stands out most is how little he’s had to adapt his game. When he arrived at Duke, the question was “How will he look when he’s going up against other four- and five-star athletes?” We know how that went.
Williamson faced similar questions when he arrived in the NBA, and even as it’s clear he’s still not in peak physical shape, he’s jumping over and plowing through opponents the same way he was at the college level. It hasn’t mattered that the Pelicans don’t run their offense through him. And it hasn’t mattered that Williamson hasn’t hit a three-pointer since going 4-of-4 in his debut on Jan. 22. His first step is as quick as ever, and his second jump is entirely unmatched in a league of the world’s best athletes.
At the break, Williamson is coming off his two highest-scoring games of the season: A 31-point effort against Portland and a 32-point outburst against Oklahoma City — two teams with hulking, physical centers. If Steven Adams can’t keep Williamson away from the rim, who can?
Williamson is averaging just over 22 points per game through his first 10 games, so hitting the 25-per-game mark the rest of the way is entirely plausible, especially if the Pelicans begin to make more of an effort to feed him in the half-court. Now, whether that’s ultimately enough to catch Ja Morant and the Grizzlies for the eighth seed out West is another story entirely.
RJ Barrett creates some optimism heading into next season
I was all-in on Barrett coming into my season, which I understand is my cross to bear. I’m not pointing any fingers. Through 45 games, there’s been more bad than good, but I refuse — I simply refuse — to believe that Barrett is this much of a train-wreck. Admittedly, his lack of consistency is borderline-appalling, but every now and then, Barrett shows flashes — like a 22-8-3-1-1 line against Milwaukee on Jan. 14 — of why he was the projected No. 1 pick entering last season. Just when I’m ready to jump ship, he pulls me back in.
I’m not predicting anything grand for Barrett the rest of the way, but with possession-hog Marcus Morris out of the picture, Barrett will have a chance to settle in as perhaps the second option behind Julius Randle on a team bound for the high lottery. In terms of fantasy value, it’s far too late to reverse the damage he’s already done. But I like Barrett to create at least some semblance of “All right, maybe he’s not the next Josh Jackson” buzz around him as the season winds down.
Fantasy managers will have to roll dice on Hassan Whiteside
On the whole, the Blazers have been a disappointment this season, but in terms of sheer production, the Hassan Whiteside experiment has been a success. The same “Does this guy actually help us win?” questions that have followed Whiteside his entire career are as prescient as ever, but the 30-year-old is having the best all-around fantasy season of his career. He leads the league in blocks per game (3.0), in addition to providing 15.7 points, 14.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists (somehow a career-high by far) and hitting a career-best 71% at the line. He’s missed only four games on the season, making him a top-10 value in eight-category leagues.
But for as good as Whiteside’s numbers have been, he’s ultimately a placeholder for Jusuf Nurkic, who’s expected to eventually rejoin the rotation at some point in the next few weeks. Given that Nurkic hasn’t played in nearly a year, he’ll likely be eased back into action, but if he’s cleared to debut before the end of the month, he could cut into Whiteside’s workload at center. On top of that, the Blazers expect to get Zach Collins back sometime in March, meaning Whiteside’s minutes could be slashed fairly severely just in time for the fantasy postseason.
With the amount of value he’s provided, Whiteside is likely a fixture on a good chunk of playoff-contending fantasy rosters. But as the trade deadline approaches in many leagues, managers should at least consider selling Whiteside — especially if the Blazers provide a firmer timeline on when to expect Nurkic back.
Mike Conley is a top-80 player the rest of the way
The fall of Mike Conley has been one of the strangest storylines of the season. One of the steadiest veterans in the league, Conley’s struggles to fit in with Utah have been baffling, but before the break, he finally showed signs of finding a groove. An illness kept Conley out of Utah’s last two games, but prior to that, he averaged 20.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and hit 3.3 threes per game over a four-game stretch. Conley topped 30 minutes in each of those games and hit just under 50% of his field goals.
For his career, Conley has typically hovered closer to the 15-to-17-points-per-game range, so I’m not expecting him to average 20 per game the rest of the way, but if he has truly settled in, the 32 year old may be peaking at the perfect time for managers who bought low earlier in the year.
The addition of Jordan Clarkson has helped Utah compensate for Conley’s decline, but if the Jazz hope to pass the Nuggets or Clippers — and avoid the Lakers in Round 2 — they’ll need Conley to get there.