This article is part of our In-Season Strategy series.
The NBA is still on collective vacation for another couple of days, but when play resumes after the All-Star break, the stretch run of the Fantasy season begins in earnest.
The All-Star break ostensibly serves as the league's halfway marker, but in reality, it's much closer to the two-thirds or even three-quarters point. Each team entered the break having played between 56 and 59 games – or roughly 68 to 72 percent of its schedule. That means that when play resumes Thursday night, it's immediately time to start looking ahead to the Fantasy postseason.
In most head-to-head leagues that employ a postseason format – as opposed to simply playing out the full regular season and determining a winner – the playoffs encompass the final few weeks of the NBA's regular season. Each league manager can determine exactly when the postseason begins and how many teams qualify, but it's most typical for the playoffs to span the final four weeks of the NBA schedule. Sometimes, those are combined – i.e. an individual matchup plays out over the course of two weeks – to offer a larger sample and account for short-term schedule anomalies.
Long story short: If you're in a playoff league, you're essentially drawing a line before the final month of the season. So while each team has at least 24 games remaining, you may only have two or three more weeks before the field is trimmed down.
With that in mind, it's important to ensure your team is both ready to qualify for the playoffs, and poised to compete for a title when the time comes.
Be Aware of the Trade Deadline
Just like the real NBA, most Fantasy leagues employ a trade deadline, after which managers can only made additions or subtractions to the roster via waivers. The deadline typically falls sometime in February, so if you have a glaring need that can't be patched up by a mid-level waiver acquisition, now is the time to act.
In keeper or dynasty formats, Fantasy owners should handle the deadline the same way an NBA GM would. If you're a borderline-contending team in need of a spark, making a splashy play to acquire an elite talent from a non-contending team makes sense. On the other hand, it's the perfect time for middling teams to sell off expiring or overpriced assets to restock for next season and beyond.
In season-long leagues, there isn't as much strategy involved, but the deadline should still serve as a final opportunity to make a tangible roster improvement.
At this point in the season, it's also vital to know exactly where you need to improve. With only weeks before the playoffs, be aware of the categories in which you can legitimately gain ground, and others in which you're stuck. Don't be afraid to employ a short-term punting strategy – essentially focusing all of your waiver moves and trade attempts at shoring up a smaller number of categories, rather than simply focusing on the "best" player available.
Know the Schedule
By this point in the season, you're probably not in playoff contention if you haven't been keeping a close eye on the schedule – and more importantly, how you can maximize it. This is especially important in leagues with daily lineups, but weekly league owners should also weigh the schedule above all else when it comes to making critical lineup decisions.
The importance of game count is ramped up once the postseason begins, but the weeks leading up to the playoffs are when your roster should be prepped. Most elite players' schedules will balance out over the course of a multi-week playoff, but for mid-level or waiver-level players, taking an early peak at their schedule could pay dividends. Consider that in the two weeks spanning Mar. 11 to Mar. 24 – the start of the playoffs in many leagues – the Magic and Grizzlies play only five times, while the rest of the league plays at least six times, with a handful of teams playing eight games.
If you're a Nikola Vucevic or Mike Conley owner, that's not great news. But those players – Vuc, in particular – are likely too valuable or too risky to move down the stretch. With that said, any Grizzlies or Magic players should probably be ignored on the waiver wire leading up to those first two playoff weeks. Even if, say, Justin Holiday or Terrence Ross string together a few solid outings, deciding between five games of their production versus seven or eight from a slightly lesser player should be an easy call. At the very least, the schedule can be used as a tie-breaker when making waiver moves, and it can help decide which Fantasy role players to keep around when the calendar turns to March.
Take Stock of Bad Teams
The trade deadline functions as the unofficial no-turning-back point for most NBA teams, and coming out of the All-Star break we typically have a clearer picture of which teams will contend for a playoff spot, and which will shift into ping pong ball accumulation mode. In mid-February, most teams are still giving it their all on most nights – or at least doing a reasonable job of making it look like they're trying to win. But as any Fantasy manager knows, that's not always the case in March and early April.
It's important to be mindful of which teams could shift philosophies, so to speak, in the midst of the Fantasy playoffs, which in most cases means decreased roles for veterans, with an increased focus on youth.
This season, the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers, Bulls and Hawks are in a tier of their own, with each team emerging from the break with fewer than 20 wins. Washington is the other team to monitor in the East, and its deadline moves certainly reflected those of a team ready to embrace the tank. New Orleans is in a similar boat out West, while the Mavs also appear ready to downshift and play for 2019-20. In the West, the Timberwolves, Lakers, Kings and Clippers are each focused on a playoff spot, as are the Hornets, Pistons, Heat and Magic in the East.
If all of that holds true, it leaves nine teams for which there could potentially be concern. Fortunately, the league and Fantasy owners are in lockstop on the issue of player rest and blatant attempts to put a diminished product on the floor. But the league still hasn't found a perfect solution, and teams continue to get creative with ways to justify nights off for productive veterans. Amended lottery odds should help curb the race to the absolute bottom, but with the top three teams now holding the same chance at the No. 1 pick, that race may simply be expanded by two more spots.
At the end of the day, owners can't purge their roster of all players on non-playoff teams, but it's something to monitor as the postseason nears. As teams jockey for lottery position and look to preserve assets, veteran players like Conley, Anthony Davis, Kent Bazemore and Kevin Love could see varying degrees of limited workloads down the stretch.
It can also work the other way, though. While most of the league's bottom-feeders are already dominated by youth, the final few weeks of the season, when development supersedes winning, are when rebuilding teams turn to young players for extended minutes. It may seem counterintuitive to start Delon Wright in a playoff week, but if there's reason to believe Conley might be held out of a game or two, Wright would be first in line for what would probably be a significant minutes boost. The same goes for Jahlil Okafor in New Orleans, as well as a host of other young players around the league.
Study the Matchups
In points leagues, there's not a ton you can do to prepare for a specific opponent, but being realistic about your chances can help guide your lineups. If you're a No. 4 seed going up against a juggernaut No. 1, roll out your highest-ceiling lineup, not your safest. Streaky, low-floor players can kill you during the regular season, but in a difficult playoff matchup, the risk is worth the potential reward.
In roto formats, you're able to study each category and determine where you may need to allocate your resources for a given matchup. Is your opponent punting a category? Are they so strong in one category that it makes sense for you to consider it a lost cause? Do you, or your opponent, have a player whose recent role is markedly different than it was for much of the season?
At the end of the day, your focus should be on winning the toss-up categories, and knowing your opponent's strengths and weaknesses should inform your waiver wire decisions, as well as your lineup for the week. If you feel good about winning assists but you're a little short on rebounds, use that basic knowledge to go with a big man over a lower-tier point guard in your flex spot for the week.
In the same vein, it's also critical that you're using the correct information. Utilizing tools like CBS's custom reports and NBA.com/Stats, which enable you to examine specific time frames, help paint a more complete picture of a player's value heading into the postseason. Recent trends, rather than season-long figures, can often be more indicative of what to expect from certain players – and the same goes for teams.
The Nets, for instance, rank 12th in pace this season (100.2 poss. per 48) – almost exactly the league average. But over the last calendar month, Brooklyn has averaged 103.4 possessions per 48, good for second in the league in that span. Over the course of an 82-game season, personnel and philosophies change, and Fantasy owners should be prepared to adapt accordingly.