The key to improving your team in the middle of the season is finding those players who seem to be hitting their stride at the right time. Whether due to a hot streak or an increased opportunity to play, these are the players who end up putting your team over the top when the season comes to an end. Fantasy owners who picked up Andray Blatche over the last week are definitely reaping the rewards of that move, for example.
The latest player who seems to be following that trend is Bulls guard Marco Belinelli, who has taken advantage of Richard Hamilton's foot injury to vault back to Fantasy relevance -- a situation that has him in line for the Start of the Week nod for Week 7 (Dec. 10-16). After playing a limited role on the team for much of the first month, Belinelli has played 40 minutes in back-to-back games in Hamilton's absence, as coach Tom Thibodeau has basically refused to open his rotation despite the injury.
Thibodeau is well-known for riding his good players and relying on a short bench, so as long as Belinelli plays well the minutes will be there. His play since Hamilton went down helps make Thibodeau's decision easier, as Belinelli has connected on 13 of 28 shots for 39 points in two games, including two three-pointers in each game. He does not do much else besides score, but his shooting ability helps open up a Chicago offense that is dependent on space in the paint so he should keep playing.
The Bulls have a tough Week 7 schedule, with three potential slugfests against the Clippers, 76ers and Nets on the way. However, it looks like Belinelli has worked his way into a big chunk of playing time and should be worth getting active for the week.
Jared Dudley, Suns (MEM, UTA): After a couple of solid seasons in which he proved himself as a very solid shooter and scorer, Dudley seemed to fall out of favor over much of the season's first month. With a handful of new, shiny offseason additions to play with, coach Alvin Gentry relegated Dudley to a secondary role, even removing him from the starting lineup after the season's first 11 games. As he has done his entire career, Dudley simply kept plugging away, and we are starting to see him re-assert himself over the last few weeks. Dudley has scored in double figures five times in the last six games, after reaching that mark just five times in the first 14 games of the season. Gentry hinted that lineup and rotation changes would be coming, and it would make sense to see Dudley earn a larger role. Phoenix plays just twice, so he is a bit of a risk, but his play is worth getting into the lineup right now.
Gerald Henderson, Bobcats (GSW, LAC, @ATL, ORL): A foot injury cost Henderson a full month of play, and left us wondering what he his role would be in an offense that seemed to have moved on without him. He did much to quell any worries in his second game back, scoring 18 points despite playing just 25 minutes off the bench against the Knicks. Henderson does not give you much beyond scoring, but he has proven himself to be a very good producer when healthy and given the chance. The Bobcats don't have the best matchups in Week 7, but I think he will start to get rolling as he gets more comfortable in the offense.
Sleeper Alert: Chris Duhon, Lakers (@CLE, @NYK, @WAS, @PHI): I know what you're thinking -- "Chris Duhon? Really?" Duhon has become something of a non-entity in the league in recent years, ever since he posted a couple of solid seasons in New York. He did that in Mike D'Antoni's point-guard heavy offensive system, where he once again finds himself with the ball in his hands. Duhon's numbers for the season are nothing to write home about, but he has been in the lineup recently with both Steve Blake and Steve Nash out, and he is averaging 6.2 assists per game over the last five. Owners in desperate need of a point guard can turn to him with a decent schedule on the way.
Ramon Sessions, Bobcats (GSW, LAC, @ATL, ORL): With Henderson returning to the fold, one of Charlotte's guards is going to have to give up his share of the minutes and the early returns suggest it's going to be Sessions. That decision makes sense. Neither Sessions nor Henderson is a comfortable three-point shooter, so their presence on the floor along with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could cause serious spacing issues for the Bobcats on offense. Sessions is averaging 15.2 points per game on the season, but has seen his minutes fall with Henderson healthy. Sessions can still be a healthy source of assists, but I expect him to take a back seat with Henderson back.
Mike Dunleavy, Bucks (SAC, @CLE, LAC): Dunleavy has been limited by a knee injury recently, which is unfortunate as he is a favorite in this column. He has been a sneaky-good Fantasy option over the last two seasons, but the knee injury has clearly bothered him recently. Dunleavy has missed three of the last four games as of Friday and has not scored in double-figures since Nov. 21 against the Heat. The Bucks have some good matchups in Week 7, but until he gets back to full health Fantasy owners might want to steer clear of Dunleavy.
Bust Alert: Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves (DEN, @NOH, DAL): We're all excited about Rubio's impending return, which is rumored to be coming sometime in Week 7. His return makes the Timberwolves a more intriguing team and should improve the level of play for everyone in the offense -- eventually. For now, Rubio is probably going to be pretty pedestrian, coming off the first major knee surgery of his career. Rubio is expected to be limited to 15 to 18 minutes per game, and he might not be able to play on back-to-back nights right away. That could limit him to just two games in Week 7, even if he returns Wednesday, which seems to be the current expectation. Fantasy owners should temper expectations for his first few games back.
Carlos Delfino, Rockets (SAS, WAS, BOS, @TOR): A groin injury exasperated a slow start for the 30-year-old Argentine, but he seems to be figuring things out. As of Friday, Delfino had scored in double figures in each of his first two games since returning from the groin injury and he shot 6 of 15 from three-point range in those two games. Delfino is the kind of player who can get hot off the bench and pour in points from long range. Houston's offense can be frustrating for Fantasy owners, as they have a handful of guys who seem to contribute inconsistently, including Delfino. However, when he gets going he is certainly worth getting active.
Jeff Green, Celtics (DAL, @HOU, @SAS): I have not been high on Green's Fantasy value this season, but his recent play is giving me pause. Green has now scored in double figures in three of Boston's last four games. He is averaging 16.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in that span, and seems to be living up to at least some of the preseason expectations the Celtics put on him with that big contract. I'm not convinced that Green has turned the corner, as his scoring is buoyed by an unsustainable 53.8 percent mark from three-point range, but he is clearly stepping up. Each of Boston's opponents in Week 7 rank in the top five in pace, which should help Green get going, as a player who relies heavily on his athleticism.
Sleeper Alert: John Salmons, Kings (@DAL, @MIL, @OKC, DEN): It has been a while since Salmons was a Fantasy contributor, but he seems to be finding his way back to relevance. Salmons has been inserted into the team's rotation over the last few weeks, and he slowly is figuring out how to contribute. The 32-year-old has is averaging 8.6 points per game over the last five, while adding a solid 3.4 assists. Those aren't great numbers, but at least he is starting to trend upward. The Kings' four opponents in Week 7 each rank above the league average in pace, so they should be in line for some track meets. That bodes well for Salmons' continued improvement.
Mickael Pietrus, Raptors (@POR, BKN, DAL, HOU): Pietrus scored a loud 21 points Wednesday in just his third game since joining the Raptors, which might lead Fantasy owners to think maybe he will have a new life in Toronto. Given his recent track record, that seems unlikely -- the 21 points he scored were his highest single-game total since December, 2010. Pietrus is getting big minutes in the thin wing rotation for the Raptors, but he is unlikely to fill up the box score moving forward, so don't be fooled by the big breakout.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Hornets (WAS, @OKC, MIN, @POR): A season that started with a ton of promise for the former lottery pick seems to be coming off the rails recently. Aminu begin the season with double-figure scoring in five of the first six games, and he ended the first month averaging 10.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Unfortunately, Aminu seems to be falling out of favor with coach Monty Williams, who benched him Friday. Williams told reporters that he wanted "guys who are going to play with a passion." It sounds like Aminu's effort has not been up to par as of late, which gibes with his recent poor play. The Hornets play four times this week, but It is not a certainty that Aminu is going to be able to get out of the doghouse, so sit him on the bench.
Bust Alert: Michael Beasley, Suns (MEM, UTA): Admittedly, we bought wholeheartedly into the "Michael Beasley Bounceback Campaign" talk here at CBSSports.com. Beasley has always been a solid scorer, as evidenced by his 19.2 points-per-game average in 2010-11 with Minnesota. He was used as more of a primary option in that season, a role we expected him to fill for Phoenix after they invested a three-year contract in him. Instead, the wheels have completely come off for the 24-year-old, as he is averaging career lows almost across the board. It looks like he is going to be taken out of the starting lineup moving forward, at least until he can figure things out. With just two games on the schedule, leave him on the bench while he tries to get his issues sorted out.
Lavoy Allen, 76ers (DET, CHI, @IND, LAL): It took a while, but the 76ers finally seems to realize that, of all of their disparate options at the pivot with Andrew Bynum out, Allen gives them to best chance to win. Allen has started the last seven games, and is starting to provide consistent production. Allen has scored in double figures three times in the last six games, averaging 8.4 points per game, while also contributing 7.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks. At this point, Allen is worth getting active with four games on the schedule.
Sleeper Alert: Greg Smith, Rockets (SAS, WAS, BOS, @TOR): Smith brings to the table many of the same issues as Delfino, as his production has been inconsistent at times this season. Still, the raw second-year big man is enjoying a pretty solid run as the team's backup center, averaging 9.0 points per game over the last five. Granted, much of his scoring has come over the course of two games, but at the thin center position there aren't a ton of options. With four games on the schedule, including only one against a top-10 defensive team, Smith has the chance to give you decent production this week if you need an emergency starter.
Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors (@POR, @BKN, DAL, HOU): 20 games into his career, nobody seems to have cooled on Valanciunas' long-term potential. The early part of his career has exposed some flaws in his game, which is to be expected from a 20-year-old seeing his first NBA action. The Raptors are reportedly on the verge of getting Valanciunas out of the starting lineup, as his production has run into a wall recently. He has not scored in double figures in any of the last five games. The Raptors are on the verge of a lineup change, as they have won just once in the last 11 games, and Valanciunas looks like he may be the victim. Valanciunas has plenty of value in keeper leagues, but he is doing more harm than good in the starting lineup right now.
Bust Alert: Byron Mullens, Bobcats (GSW, LAC, @ATL, ORL): After being a key part of their hot start, Mullens is starting to see his role on the team reduced. Mullens has played fewer than 20 minutes in each of the last two games, after seeing at least 25 minutes in each of the first 16 games of the season. His inefficiency shooting the ball seems to have finally caught up with him, as he has crossed the threshold of more field-goal attempts than points scored on the season. Mullens has been a pleasant surprise this season, but it looks as if he is going to have to fight to get his place in the rotation back, so steer clear of him with three above-average defensive teams on the slate.