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Jakob Poeltl
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The Numbers Game

Numbers Game: Fantasy Finale

by Ryan Knaus

The NBA playoffs are coming into focus as we head into the final week of April, which means fantasy owners are scrambling to keep up with ever-shifting rotations, player news and schedule quirks. This week's column forages for value – and identifies potential risks – based on rotations, quotes, standings, player production, scheduling and more. Even if you're out of the fantasy playoffs, it's a good reminder how quickly the landscape changes in the season's final weeks. Let's dive in.

 

Miami's frontcourt

Miami's rotations have been tough to read all season, due to both a parade of injuries and coach Erik Spoelstra's mercurial rotations. One recent trend has been unmistakable – Hassan Whiteside's minutes have fallen off a cliff. He's averaging 24.3 minutes per game, but that dropped to 19.0 minutes in Week 21 and 18.7 minutes in Week 22. It culminated in a mere five minutes of action vs. OKC on Monday. That was due partly to small-ball lineups by the Thunder, and early foul trouble from Whiteside, but coach Spo is obviously enamored with Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk as his starting frontcourt.

Where does that leave Whiteside's fantasy owners? Essentially, hoping that he can produce in 20 minutes per game without landing in Spoelstra's doghouse. I'm not optimistic. James Johnson played 22.0 minutes on Monday and looks like he's back in the mix, and Whiteside's declining minutes have accompanied a nice 7-3 stretch by the Heat (including Monday's win) which keeps them atop the Southeast division.

It's not all bad, as Whiteside's backslide has also correlated with a rise in minutes for Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk – both guys are putting up top-75 value the past month (9-cat). They get it done in different ways, with Bam hitting traditional big-man stats and Olynyk more of an across-the-board guy, but owners can't complain about found money. They should both be locked into lineups with three more games this week and a 3-4-2 schedule remaining, but as for Whiteside? He tends to bounce back after complete duds and has three more games this week, so hang in another few games in case he gets going. If not, and Week 24 (Mar. 25-31) is do-or-die for your squad, you may need to cut him.

 

Silver-and-Black Pearl

Spurs center Jakob Poeltl didn't average more than 21.8 minutes in the first 19 weeks of the season. Here are his minute averages since then:

Week 20 - 23.7 minutes

Week 21 - 22.5 minutes

Week 22 - 27.0 minutes

Week 23 (one game) - 25.0

 

Those are modest totals but they've been enough for Poeltl to hold mid-round value for over a month, playing to his strengths as a natural shot-blocker (1.9) with solid rebounds (7.8), great FG% (64.4%) and almost no turnovers. Here's his shot chart for the past 15 games:

poeltl shotchart

 

He's basically just rolling to the rim and converting offensive putbacks, but that's all the Spurs ask of him offensively. And for fantasy purposes, it's all owners need to get a big boost in FG% – his lousy FT shooting doesn't really matter because he's never at the line. Plus, his coach is happy with what he's seen. Gregg Popovich doesn't offer praise lightly, so take these recent quotes in context: “[Poeltl] is going to get more comfortable as he gets more minutes – it’s just a natural progression ... It’s been a steady improvement the entire year. Now that he has been starting these games in a row, he’s starting to feel real comfortable and really helping us at the defensive end of the court."

My final thought is that this isn't coming out of nowhere. I was among a few Rotoworld readers who touted him as a late-round sleeper who could shore up your center spot on draft day. That didn't pan out prior to the All-Star break, of course, but we're now seeing the promise he showed in Toronto on full display. And the 23-year-old only going to get better, so I'll double-down on him both rest-of-season and as a solid target for next season.

 

Watch the Tank

We haven't heard quite as much about tanking this season, for a few reasons. First, nobody wants to suffer the wrath of commissioner Adam Silver – he fined Mark Cuban $600,000 last year for telling his players over dinner that "losing is [the Mavs] best option." Of course, Cuban is a repeat offender who publicly rubbed salt in the wound by adding, "Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that." There's definitely a 'Shark Tank' joke in here somewhere. If teams do want to tank they're best-served by doing so quietly. *

The other mitigating factor is the new draft-lottery system which gives the three worst team equal odds of the No. 1 pick – the Knicks, Suns and Cavs are all currently at 14.0%, with a gradual decline to 12.5% for Chicago, 10.5% for Atlanta, etc. (per Tankathon). That still offers substantial motivation, but we've seen teams like the Suns, Cavs, Bulls, Hawks and Grizzlies continue to play veterans down the stretch. The Suns and Grizzlies are actually 5-5 in their past 10 games, and even the Cavs are 4-6.

Nevertheless, with 10-12 games left in the season for most teams I'm guessing the wheels fall off in a hurry. Here's a list of players I'm nervous to own in the final weeks, in no particular order: Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Kevin Love, Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday (and maybe Julius Randle?), Tyler Johnson, T.J. Warren (and Booker & Ayton, whom the Suns will rest at the drop of a hat), Jeff Green, Trevor Ariza, Bradley Beal...and too many others to list. There could be an entire column speculating about shutdowns – the best thing you can do is monitor Rotoworld's news feed every day and get ahead of them before (or as soon as) they happen. I also doubt we'll see guys like Avery Bradley or the Wolves' menagerie of Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, Robert Covington and maybe Taj Gibson again this season, though they've yet to be ruled out.

*It's worth noting that since the Mavs don't own their first-round pick for 2019, having traded it to the Hawks in the Luka Doncic deal, they're one of the lowest-ranked teams without clear motivation to lose games.

 

Cash for KAT?

The Wolves are 9.5 games behind the Clippers for the No. 8 seed, which is why I'm assuming most or all of the veterans mentioned above won't play again. Wouldn't it make sense for them to also shut down Karl-Anthony Towns? After all, his iron-man streak of games played already ended earlier this season. The only way Minnesota could do that would be at the risk of infuriating their franchise centerpiece, though, due to an interesting wrinkle in his 'supermax' contract extension.

According to a few capologists (I'm citing Dane Moore here), KAT is in position to make an additional $32 million over the course of his deal by making an All-NBA team this season. He could also get there by winning MVP or Defensive Player of the Year this season or next season, but he's clearly eyeing All-NBA this year. Can you make a case for three centers above him this year? I can’t and expect him to repeat as a third-teamer. Nevertheless, it gives him plenty of motivation to continue his recent tear with past-month averages of 32.2 points on 57.0% shooting, 13.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.9 threes, 1.1 blocks and 0.6 steals. Fantasy owners are loving every minute of it.

 

Back-to-Backs

Back-to-back sets can be your friend or enemy, depending on a variety of factors. If you're streaming players to max games-played, a Saturday and Sunday set is often ideal. Ditto for adding a guy on Sunday who also plays Monday – at times this can act like a 'free' pickup for the following week, to preserve one of your transactions.

However, when you get to veterans and high-minute players, or guys coming off injuries, back-to-backs are a scary sight. For instance, we heard directly from Kyrie Irving that he's iffy: "I’m definitely taking some games off before the playoffs. It just makes no sense to put emphasis on these regular-season games when you know you’re gearing up for some battles coming in the playoffs."

 

Here's a list of remaining b2b sets (via RotoGuru) to help identify teams with the most and least risk:

Nuggets

4

Hornets

3

Warriors

3

Kings

3

Grizzlies

3

Pistons

2

Mavs

2

Wolves

2

Lakers

2

Heat

2

Blazers

2

Bucks

2

Celtics

2

Sixers

2

Bulls

2

Jazz

1

Hawks

1

Pacers

1

Wizards

1

Cavs

1

Rockets

1

Clippers

1

Knicks

1

Thunder

1

Magic

1

Spurs

1

Nets

1

Suns

0

Raptors

0

Pelicans

0

Nobody in the league has played more than Bradley Beal this season. At 2,670 minutes played he's way ahead of Tobias Harris (2,514) and James Harden (2,493). Washington has fallen out of the playoff race but thus far Beal has avoided dreaded DNPs, so it's great to see there's just one back-to-back left on the schedule for Washington.

Kawhi Leonard has been the poster boy for DNP-CDs in back-to-back sets, which are finally done for Toronto. He's also sat out randomly even after a rest day, including one span of a straight week on the sidelines, so owners can't get too comfortable. With four sets left the Nuggets lead all teams, with the first one coming Thursday/Friday. That makes me a bit nervous about Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and others, but it helps that Denver is 0.5 games behind Golden State for the coveted No. 1 seed. We already know that Golden State will rest guys in their three remaining sets, so gear up for DNPs if you own Steph, Klay, KD, Draymond or (in deeper leagues) Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

 

Flash in the Pan

This isn't necessarily a pejorative term for guys who come out of nowhere to help your fantasy teams, even if only for a short while. I remember a few seasons when Aaron Brooks turned into a human dagger in April. Those types of guys can be unexpected heroes for your squad if you get lucky, or send you spiraling to a loss if you're up against them. Such performances typically hinge on a starter being shut down, as discussed above. The Wizards are going nowhere and we've already seen Jordan McRae make some noise when given minutes – he's scored at least 10 points in the four games he's played 15+ minutes. Wizards coach Scott Brooks also said before his injury that he's "earned some opportunities to be looked at more. One thing he can do is score."

I'm just as intrigued by Troy Brown Jr., a rookie whose playing time has ramped up quickly – he's played 21 and 25 minutes the past two games, both setting career highs. He's chipping in a few 3-pointers, boards and assists, and is worth monitoring in case D.C. shuts down Ariza and/or Green. I'm not sure why they're still playing those guys at all, let alone 25+ minutes a night. These are just 'for example' suggestions, and my bigger point is this – don't hesitate to grab them if they catch fire. The first game De'Anthony Melton gets 12 & 10 with a few steals in 30+ minutes, I'll add him and see what happens – maybe Tyler Johnson gets shut down or the Suns opt to rest Devin Booker. Successful pickups at this point of the season can be found at the intersection of research and luck, but only if you move fast. I've touched on some but nowhere near all the factors that go into late-season decision-making in fantasy hoops...let me know if you have any specific questions, insights or comments, and good luck!

Ryan Knaus
Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.