By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We’re now past the one-month mark in the NBA season, and while the standings are starting to come into full view, there’s still plenty of uncertainty when it comes to fantasy basketball. A combination of injuries and COVID-19 complications continue to leave managers scrambling to fill roster spots every week, making it difficult to truly discern whether a team is good, bad, or just plain unlucky.
As usual, we’ll dive into some of the top fantasy storylines around the league this week, but first ...
Weekly COVID-19 Update
As has become customary this season, we have to start with a COVID-19 update. Coming into the week, a few teams were still dealing with virus issues, but only a couple of games — Kings/Grizzlies on Monday; Grizzlies/Bulls on Wednesday — had been postponed.
That changed Monday evening when the league announced it would postpone Monday night’s Spurs/Pelicans matchup less than two hours before the scheduled tip-off. It’s still unclear exactly what triggered the postponement, but initial reports indicated that non-team-members of both traveling parties had potentially been exposed to the virus. As of Tuesday afternoon, it’s unclear if San Antonio or New Orleans will have additional games postponed in Week 6.
Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are expected to miss multiple games after landing on COVID-19 protocols Monday evening. Details are scarce, but neither player made the trip to Atlanta for Tuesday’s game, which marks the start of a six-game Eastern Conference road swing. The pair could rejoin the team at some point during the road trip, but the expectation right now is that they’ll miss most, if not all, of Week 6. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley is also set to miss a string of games due to a knee issue.
The Wizards returned to play over the weekend, with Sunday’s loss to the Spurs marking their first action since Jan. 11. Bradley Beal shined with 31 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, but the Wizards had only three players in double-figures in the 20-point blowout. Russell Westbrook’s struggles continued, as he finished with an ugly nine points on 3-of-11 shooting to go with eight rebounds, six assists, and four turnovers in 25 minutes.
Boston finally got Jayson Tatum back from the league’s health and safety protocols on Monday night. Tatum showed few signs of rust, finishing with 24 points, five assists, and four rebounds in 31 minutes as the Celtics cruised to a 119-103 victory over Chicago. Tatum had not played since Jan. 8, though due to multiple postponements he missed only five games during that span.
Karl-Anthony Towns remains out for Minnesota after he tested positive for the virus back on Jan. 15. He’s without a clear timetable, but there’s some hope that Towns could be back on the floor as early as Friday night against Philadelphia. Towns has appeared in just four of the Timberwolves’ 16 games thus far.
Early returns: James Harden in Brooklyn
With Harden playing his sixth game in a Nets uniform Monday night — and fourth alongside Kyrie Irving — we now have a decent sample from which to evaluate his fantasy production. Since arriving in Brooklyn, Harden is averaging 23.0 points, 11.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 threes, and 1.2 steals per game, though he’s played 40 or more minutes in half of those contests. On a per-game basis, his numbers are about even with his rocky, eight-game Rockets sample (probably not the greatest reflection of his true stat profile), but his scoring, free throws per game, and overall usage are down considerably compared to past seasons.
From 2017-18 through 2019-20, Harden had an average usage rate of 37.7 percent, peaking at a borderline-ridiculous 40.5 percent in 2018-19. He led the league in usage (obviously) during that span, finishing more than four percentage points higher than the next-highest-usage player (Giannis Antetokounmpo).
Thus far in Brooklyn, Harden’s usage rate sits at just 25.9 percent, his lowest figure since his final season with the Thunder in 2011-12. That number puts him in the same range as players like Gordon Hayward, Malcolm Brogdon, Jimmy Butler, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Despite the heavy minutes load, he’s taking more than seven fewer shots per game (and five fewer threes per game) compared to last season, so the decline makes sense. Harden is still getting to the line at an outstanding rate, but with considerably fewer drives to the basket, he’s taking only 7.5 free throws per game — down from a career-high 11.8 a year ago. His six-year reign as the league’s leader in free throws could very well come to an end.
While Harden’s scoring is down, his passing is on par with what we’ve come to expect from the perennial MVP contender. Currently leading the league in assists per game (10.8), Harden is on pace to average double-digit dimes for just the second time in his career. His assist rate since arriving in Brooklyn (40.2 percent) is exactly the same as his figure from his final three seasons in Houston.
All in all, Harden will continue to be an extremely valuable fantasy player, though it’s a little surprising how much he’s been willing to defer to Durant and, especially Irving, thus far. That could always change as the season progresses, but for now, Harden appears content to serve more as a facilitator and secondary scorer than the everything-runs-through-me guy we came to know in Houston.
Capela on the rise
Over the last two weeks in nine-category Yahoo leagues, no player has been more valuable than Clint Capela. Somewhat of a forgotten commodity after missing a large chunk of last season due to injury, Capela has resurfaced in Atlanta and enters Tuesday averaging 14.2 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per contest. After putting up a massive 27-point, 26-rebound, five-block line against Detroit last Wednesday, Capela followed up with 13 points, 19 boards, and 10 blocks in just 30 minutes of a win over Minnesota. Over his last four games, he’s posted 22.0 points, 18.8 boards, 5.5 blocks, and 1.3 steals.
Of course, the rub with Capela is his free-throw shooting, which is just as poor this season (54.9% FT) as it’s been for his entire career. Capela has vacillated between 53 and 63 percent over the last five seasons, so a mid-career improvement doesn’t appear likely. But even with that unsightly number (on a career-high 3.9 FTA/G), Capela ranks inside the top-35 in nine-category formats.
Not bad for a player with a preseason ADP outside of the top 60.
Vucevic’s hot start
Has there been a more under-appreciated fantasy player in the last decade than Nikola Vucevic? Over the last eight years, Vucevic has never finished lower than 52nd in per-game value (eight category), and he has four top-35 seasons, including 16th overall in 2018-19, to his name. The 30-year-old has taken his production up a notch this season, currently holding career-highs in points, steals, and made threes per game, as well as three-point percentage.
He added the outside shot to his game a few years ago, but his volume has increased dramatically. After launching 4.7 threes per game in 2019-20, Vucevic has cranked it up to 6.4 attempts this season, resulting in 2.8 makes per game. For context, Kevin Durant and James Harden are each hitting 2.9 threes per game.
All of this has resulted in Vucevic ranking as the second-most valuable fantasy player thus far in nine-category leagues (total value). Having not missed any games, Vucevic isn’t quite as high in per-game value, but he still ranks ninth overall, ahead of Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Stephen Curry. Other than a slight regression in three-point efficiency, nothing Vucevic is doing feels unsustainable. The Magic are down two starters (Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz) for the balance of the season, so Vucevic should continue to serve as the clear No. 1 option on offense.
Mitchell Robinson: Succeeding despite a (relative) lack of blocks
Fantasy managers finally got their wish when Robinson was installed as the full-time starting center to begin the season. While his status as a top-60 player in nine-category leagues (per-game value) is about in line with expectations, it’s worth noting that Robinson’s shot-blocking hasn’t been nearly as prolific as most expected it would be with increased minutes.
Despite playing a career-high 29.6 minutes per game — up from 23.1 a year ago — Robinson is blocking a career-low 1.7 shots per game, and his block percentage has tumbled to just 5.6 percent. That’s still good for seventh in the NBA, but it’s closer to James Wiseman/DeAndre Jordan territory than it is Robinson’s off-the-charts 2018-19 (10.0%) and 2019-20 (8.0%) figures. Through 18 appearances, he has only three games with more than two blocks (18 total games) after achieving that feat in 22 of 61 games a season ago.
Robinson is also posting career-lows in field-goal percentage (65.5%) and free-throw percentage (46.4%), but he’s getting to the line fewer than twice per game, so the latter figure hasn’t been overly damaging. He’s insulated his value with solid steals (career-best 1.2 SPG) and rebounds (career-best 8.4 RPG) production, but as is the case with blocks, Robinson’s per-possession numbers are nothing special. His total rebound percentage is down to 14.6 percent (16.2% last season), and his defensive rebound percentage has also fallen (15.1%, down from 18.8%), likely as a byproduct of Julius Randle’s emergence as one of the league’s best volume rebounders.
All of this is to say that Robinson hasn’t necessarily lived up to expectations as an ultra-high-volume shot-blocker, but he’s nonetheless managed to be a very solid fantasy commodity. If you believe he can move closer to his career averages in terms of per-possession rebounding and shot-blocking, Robinson could actually be an undervalued player to target in trades.
Mike Conley’s bounce-back season
Managers who bought low on Conley after a disastrous 2019-20 season have been rewarded thus far. Through 16 games, Conley has looked much more like the player Utah thought it was getting when it acquired the veteran via trade in June of 2019. He ranks 48th overall in per-game value (nine category) behind averages of 16.4 points, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals and a career-high 2.9 made threes per game while shooting career-highs from both the field (46.3%) and from three (42.2%).
The latter two numbers could regress as the year goes on, but any decline might be offset by a progression at the free-throw line, where Conley is shooting a career-worst 71.4 percent. Over the previous nine seasons, Conley never dipped below 80 percent, so it’s likely just an early season slump. The (relatively) good news for fantasy managers is that Conley is only getting to the line 2.6 times per game — his lowest figure since 2011-12.
The battle for Rookie of the Year
Our friends at the BetMGM Sportsbook have LaMelo Ball (-186) installed as the slight Rookie of the Year favorite, with Tyrese Haliburton (+325) second. James Wiseman (+600), Anthony Edwards (+1300), Immanuel Quickley (+2000), and even Cole Anthony (+2000) are still in the mix, but with roughly a quarter of the season complete, it’s quickly turning into a two-man race.
Haliburton hit a bit of a rut earlier in the month, totaling just 18 points, eight boards, and nine assists over a three-game stretch from Jan. 15 through Jan. 20, but he bounced back with 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a career-high four blocks in the Kings’ last contest (Jan. 22 vs. NYK) before a pair of COVID-19 postponements. The 12th-overall pick leads all rookies (min. 200 MP) in win shares, VORP, and offensive rating, while ranking second (behind Quickley) in both PER and box plus/minus.
Meanwhile, Ball has run a bit more hot-and-cold of late after beginning the month of January on fire. Over his last seven games, Ball is shooting just 35.1 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from three, but he’s still providing 9.1 points, 5.7 boards, and 5.9 assists. Among rookies, he ranks fourth in win shares, third in PER, second in VORP, fourth in box plus/minus, second in defensive rating, and first (by a mile) in assist rate.
Here’s how the numbers stack up on a per-game basis:
Ball: 24.6 MPG, 11.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 1.4 3PM/G, 40.1% FG, 31.2% 3PT, 66.7% FT
Haliburton: 28.0 MPG, 11.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 2.2 3PM/G, 50.4% FG, 47.0% 3PT, 81.8% FT
Of course, plenty will change between now and June, but the Rookie of the Year race is incredibly close at the quarter-season mark. Haliburton has a significant edge in efficiency, but Ball’s counting stats are better in fewer minutes, and he’s had more "I need to send this to the group chat immediately" moments. If the votes were cast today, it would likely come down to a matter of preference, with no obvious correct answer.