Midway through Week 15, Nick Whalen check in on the players and storylines shaping the fantasy basketball landscape.
Wendell Carter underwent surgery Monday to repair ligament damage in his left thumb. The rookie will remain out for 8-to-12 weeks, conservatively placing him back around mid-to-late-March. If Carter were to return in exactly eight weeks (Mar. 19), the Bulls would have 10 games remaining on the schedule. Given the location of the injury and relatively low risk of re-injury, it's possible Carter could come back and provide some value over the final two weeks of the regular season, but fantasy owners shouldn't count on it.
Just days after the Bulls indicated Robin Lopez would move into an (even more) reduced role, the veteran started Monday's slopfest against the Cavaliers. He played 24 minutes and finished with eight points, nine rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block. Even with the lack of depth at center, Lopez shouldn't be counted on for consistent production, though he could be a consideration in deeper formats. Bobby Portis, who started the first game without Carter, saw only 19 minutes off the bench, finishing with 15 points and five boards.
Even if the Bulls go forward with Lopez as the starter, I'd still prefer Portis. He's the far better per-minute fantasy option, and there's a decent chance he could end up seeing bigger minutes down the stretch if Chicago ultimately deals Lopez at the deadline. With Carter now on the shelf, the notion of losing even more center depth isn't quite as appealing, though the Bulls aren't exactly in the business of trying to win basketball games this season. Rolling with Portis and Cristiano Felicio at center for the final 30-odd games would be one way to let the Knicks, Cavs and Suns know they're not messing around.
Speaking of the Bulls, the 20 Million Dollar Man is back in the rotation. After an extended stretch of DNP-CDs, Jabari Parker has earned his way back onto the floor and has played double-digit minutes in five straight games. For most No. 2 overall picks that wouldn't be considered an accomplishment, but for Parker it's a fairly massive step in the right direction. Even in limited minutes – 16.6 per game, to be exact – Parker has averaged 13.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 made threes over the last five contests.
Jim Boylen looks to be content with the Markkanen/Hutchison forward pairing for now – both players saw 32 minutes Monday – but it'll be interesting to note whether Parker is able to creep closer to the 20-minute plateau over these next few weeks. With the Feb. 7 trade deadline approaching, Parker could be auditioning for what would hopefully be a more consistent role with another team.
Following a failed attempt to trade the 2017 top-10 pick, the Mavs will have Dennis Smith, Jr. back in the starting lineup Tuesday night, as the two sides attempt to mend what's been a rocky relationship from the start. By all accounts, Smith and Luka Doncic get along well off the court, but their on-court chemistry hasn't been as smooth, and it's led to Smith clashing with Rick Carlisle. But in very un-Carlisle-like fashion, the coach publicly apologized to Smith earlier this week, and the Mavs will apparently attempt to make things work as the trade deadline approaches.
Clearly, Dallas was underwhelmed with whatever offers it received for Smith, who's been away from the team for the last six games, and his return to the lineup doesn't mean he's off the table in trade talks. Fantasy-wise, Smith going to a point-guard-hungry team like Phoenix or Orlando probably would've been in the best interest of his value, but he can still be a reasonably productive guard in Dallas, provided the minutes are there. Dallas isn't going to take the ball out of Doncic's hands, but Smith should have more opportunities to play-make with the second unit in the wake of J.J. Barea's torn Achilles.
Smith's turnover rate is a major concern, but in 28 games this season he's quietly made progress as a shooter, particularly from beyond the arc, where he's hitting 37.5 percent of his attempts – up from 31.3 percent as a rookie.
The injuries in Los Angeles continue to mount, but the Lakers are expecting to get Rajon Rondo back for Thursday's game against Minnesota. While he was held out of Monday's blowout loss to Golden State, Rondo has been cleared for full activity for several days and should provide much-needed playmaking for a Lakers team that'll be without Lonzo Ball for at least the next month, and likely longer. Brandon Ingram struggled as the primary initiator Monday, while Josh Hart was a complete non-factor – six points, four fouls in 20 minutes – as a secondary option.
Given that Rondo missed more than a month with a separate hand injury earlier this season, we don't have a huge sample to draw from. In 14 games, he's averaging 8.4 points, 6.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 24.4 minutes, while providing marginal value in the percentage categories. But with LeBron James still out indefinitely, Rondo will likely take over primary ball-handling duties from Ingram for the time being, and he has the potential to be a borderline-elite source of assists for as long as James remains out.
Rondo is less than 50-percent-owned in Yahoo leagues, but he's a justifiable starter in Week 16 with three games on the schedule. And even if James is back within the next four or five games, Rondo would still have a run of several weeks as the unquestioned starter at point guard after spending the early stages of the season in a timeshare with Ball.
Trae Young went through a rough stretch in November and December, but he's quietly been much better over the last calendar month. Since Dec. 21, Young is averaging 17.2 points, 7.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and shooting 44 percent from the field. He's still turning the ball over a ton (4.4 per game) and has the third-highest turnover rate (20.6%) among players who've played at least 1,000 minutes this season, but that comes with the territory of being a high-usage, undersized point guard.
What's most interesting about Young's season, though, is he's playing a completely different style than what we saw at Oklahoma. In that aforementioned 16-game span, Young is hitting 37.3 percent of his threes, but he's taking fewer than five per game – far below expectations for the leader of a generation of point guards raised on a steady diet of Steph Curry YouTube videos. Entering Tuesday, Young's three-point attempt rate (.371) is lower than that of Mike Conley, Eric Bledsoe, and even Frank Ntilikina.
Due in large part to some recent injuries, there's been a mini-renaissance for the traditional center – or least something resembling it. Gone are the days of rushing home to watch Al Jefferson trade jump-hooks with Roy Hibbert, but with Anthony Davis, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance all currently on the shelf, Jahlil Okafor and Ante Zicic have stepped into the spotlight – as has Ivica Zubac for the Lakers, whose issues are more competency than injury-related.
Okafor erupted for 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes Monday against the Grizzlies, hitting 9-of-11 field goals and looking noticeably more springy than he did in Brooklyn or Philadelphia. Okafor has transformed himself into more of a rim-runner than the back-down force he was at Duke, and he'll be the key to the Pelicans treading water over the next few games while Davis recovers.
Meanwhile, Zizic has started the Cavs' last three games, and he's averaging 16.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in 30.0 minutes over the last four contests. Nance is expected to miss at least another game or two, while Thompson's situation is a bit more clouded. When both are healthy, Zizic will probably move back to a lesser role, but as long as one or both of Nance and Thompson are out, the big man could have some points/rebounds value in medium-to-deeper leagues.
Fantasy-wise, Zubac may be the most intriguing of the three, as he hasn't necessitated an injury to gain minutes. His playing time has been sporadic, but Monday marked Zubac's third straight game of at least 20 minutes, and he responded with an efficient 18 points and four rebounds. That came on the heels of 17-point, seven-rebound and 26-point, 12-rebound efforts against the Rockets and Thunder, respectively. Given his volatility over a larger sample, it's justifiably tough to trust Zubac in weekly lineup leagues, but he's owned in less than a third of Yahoo leagues and is worth a speculative add if you can spare a roster spot. Zubac won't provide much value in the defensive categories, but he's hitting better than 62 percent of his shots for the season and, more importantly, is nearly a 90-percent free throw shooter on the year.
We're now two games into DeMarcus Cousins' Warriors tenure, and Golden State has won those games by a combined 37 points. In last Friday's win over the Clippers, Cousins debuted with 14 points – including a trio of three-pointers – six rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal before fouling out in just 15 minutes. He followed up with eight points, nine rebounds and five assists Monday night, though he shot just 2-of-9 and again dealt with some foul trouble.
While it's obvious Cousins is nowhere near peak game shape, he's fit in relatively seamlessly, save for a few possessions Monday when the Warriors over-passed in their neverend quest to find the perfect shot. As expected, Cousins' presence has unlocked even more spacing for a team that already features the best all-around shooter ever, the best spot-up shooter ever, and also a man named Kevin Durant. Both Curry and Durant were relatively quiet Monday, while Thompson did the heavy lifting with 44 points on 17-of-20 shooting in just 27 minutes.
It's still too early to project how Cousins' numbers will look when he's playing a full minutes load – or even what that full minutes load will look like. For now, the Warriors seem content to limit him to around 20 minutes, and they're yet to decide how to handle back-to-backs. But if these first two games are any indication, Cousins isn't going to stand idly by. His usage rate (29.8%) – though 36 whole minutes – thus far is just a shade below his career average, and while that figures to come down, Cousins should still be close to the same, multi-category contributor he was in New Orleans – just with 70 percent of the volume.