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With 20 weeks of Fantasy hoops in the review mirror, the finish line to the season is well within sight. We're still a month away from the true end, but that isn't the case for everyone reading this. Some of you may have watched your season end weeks ago with an early elimination from playoff contention, while others may be staring the end in the face if things don't go right in Week 21 (March 16-22).
Still others of you will fight through the playoffs, running through multiple contenders for the crown before succumbing in the final push. With so much at stake, every small difference is magnified, especially when it comes to the schedule.
With the majority of playoff matchups beginning either this week or next, Weeks 21-24 are the most important of the season. And, with such a condensed period of time defining so much of your fate, the small differences in the schedule each week are magnified. Here is a combined schedule analysis for the next four weeks:
(A higher strength-of-schedule ranking is a good thing, based on points allowed this season)
Hawks: 14 games, 20th in strength of schedule
Celtics: 15 games, 17th in strength of schedule
Nets: 16 games, 18th in strength of schedule
Hornets: 16 games, 11th in strength of schedule
Bulls: 12 games, 27th in strength of schedule
Cavaliers: 12 games, 30th in strength of schedule
Mavericks: 13 games, 12th in strength of schedule
Nuggets: 13 games, 24th in strength of schedule
Pistons: 14 games, 29th in strength of schedule
Warriors: 15 games, 19th in strength of schedule
Rockets: 14 games, 7th in strength of schedule
Pacers: 15 games, 13th in strength of schedule
Clippers: 13 games, 10th in strength of schedule
Lakers: 15 games, 2nd in strength of schedule
Grizzlies: 14 games, 14th in strength of schedule
Heat: 15 games, 21st in strength of schedule
Bucks: 14 games, 25th in strength of schedule
Timberwolves: 15 games, 6th in strength of schedule
Pelicans: 14 games, 3rd in strength of schedule
Knicks: 14 games, 15th in strength of schedule
Thunder: 14 games, 17th in strength of schedule
Magic: 12 games, 22nd in strength of schedule
76ers: 14 games, 5th in strength of schedule
Suns: 13 games, 28th in strength of schedule
Trail Blazers: 16 games, 6th in strength of schedule
Kings: 15 games, 16th in strength of schedule
Spurs: 16 games, 4th in strength of schedule
Raptors: 14 games, 8th in strength of schedule
Jazz: 15 games, 1st in strength of schedule
Wizards: 14 games, 26th in strength of schedule
The biggest takeaways should be the schedules of the Bulls, Cavaliers and Magic, who play just 12 times in the next four weeks. You may notice those teams aren't exactly stocked with nobodies, so the schedule disparity is even more pronounced than it might be if, say, the Nets had just 12 games on the way.
The Nets have 16 games in this time frame, and they allow us to demonstrate just how much the schedule can impact things. Joe Johnson is stuck in a deep slump, averaging just 18.8 Fantasy points per game over the last five. If he were to keep that average up for the next 16 games, he would accumulate right around 300 Fantasy points in Weeks 21-24; Tobias Harris would be expected to put up right around 340 in the same span, based on his recent play. That isn't a big gap, despite how much better Harris has been on a per-game basis.
At least with the Bulls, you can feel pretty comfortable that, barring injury, Tom Thibodeau is going to get 12 games out of his key players. The Cavaliers have already shown a willingness to give their stars strategic rest if they need it, so you might not even get the full 12 games from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. The Magic have also had inconsistent rotations at times lately, and some of their biggest names for Fantasy have questions about either production or health swirling around them.
The schedule also would limit the impact the return of injured Bulls' stars like Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. If you are stashing one hoping they can make it back and can make an impact, keep an eye on the number of games you'll be getting from them, compared to some of the options on waivers.
The schedule can't define everything you do down the stretch, especially not if you have stars like LeBron, Nikola Vucevic or Pau Gasol around. They're going to get their numbers, and will be far better than any potential pieces you might be able to get instead.
However, for the role players in Chicago, Orlando or Cleveland who have helped you out this season, the replacement level is much lower. You might have to dump them if you want to get the most out of your roster spots.
Alexey Shved, Knicks (31 percent started)
If he had enough minutes to qualify, Alexey Shved would rank 20th in the league in PER right now, tied with Damian Lillard. I don't know what to do with that information, but I know it scares me. Shved has been very, very good for the Knicks of late, averaging 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, while nailing 2.2 3-pointers per game and getting to the free-throw line 5.4 times. With Langston Galloway slumping badly after a decent start, Shved has filled in very capably as the resident "Fantasy Relevant Knick You Don't Feel Good About Having On Your Team," but he probably has higher upside than Galloway ever did anyways. As strange as it is to say, Shved is very strong starting option at this point, given the amount of minutes he is getting.
I would start Shved over ... Jordan Clarkson, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo
Kemba Walker, Hornets (33 percent started)
Walker was predictably worked back into the rotation slowly upon his return from knee surgery, but he showed the skills that can make him an elite Fantasy option even while shaking off the rust. Walker played just 16 minutes Wednesday, but that number bumped up to 28 Friday, and he flirted with a triple-double despite shooting the ball very poorly. He has been given the green light to find his shot, and should take back most of the ball-handling duties from Mo Williams from this point on. Charlotte opens up with a tough matchup against the Jazz Monday, but things get a bit better from then on. The only concern I can see is if Walker is given a chance to rest on the second night of a back-to-back Tuesday. Even so, he was a no-doubt must-start candidate before the injury, and should be viewed as one before long. His upside makes him worth starting even with some questions.
I would start Walker over ... Elfrid Payton, Patrick Beverley, Jarrett Jack
Ray McCallum Jr., Kings (14 percent started)
McCallum isn't putting up massive numbers, but he is starting to figure things out in coach George Karl's offense. McCallum averaged just 4.9 assists per-36 in his first eight starts, but has taken on more of a play-making role of late, upping that rate to 8.2 over the last five. He is averaging 26.4 Fantasy points per game in that span, and seems to be doing well in the fast-paced offense the Kings are running now. They have some tough matchups on the way, but McCallum makes for a solid low-end fill-in with the way he is playing, if you need one.
I would start McCallum over ... Marcus Smart, Trey Burke, Dion Waiters
Mo Williams, Hornets (74 percent started)
Williams has been a tremendous find for the Hornets and Fantasy players, as he has been one of the most productive guards in the league since landing in Charlotte. The only guards to average more Fantasy points than Williams since the All-Star break are Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, James Harden and John Wall; he has truly lived in rarified air. However, you always knew a time would come when his role would diminish and he would take a step back, with Kemba Walker's return looming. Williams still had 37 Fantasy points in Walker's first game back last Wednesday, but fell to 21 Friday with Walker taking on a larger share of the ball-handling duties. Williams should remain very useful for players in category-based leagues for his shooting, but Walker's return will likely sap his playmaking contributions, which should lead to much more run-of-the-mill production in H2H formats. With so many teams playing four times this week and so many good guards out there, he may be just a borderline option right now.
Khris Middleton, Bucks (79 percent started)
Middleton has been a useful contributor in category-based leagues for months, but he has reached the point where there is no reason for him not to be starting in all formats as well. Jason Kidd's rotations have settled down a bit, with Middleton averaging 36.4 minutes per game since the All-Star break, after fluctuating between 21.8 and 30.7 in the months before the break. Middleton is contributing 29.2 Fantasy points per game since the break, and has only seen his role grow in March, where he has 30.6 Fantasy points in 38.2 minutes. The Bucks desperately need his shooting and defense on the wing, and there is no reason to have Middleton on your bench at this point.
I would start Middleton over ... Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chandler Parsons, DeMar DeRozan
Robert Covington, 76ers (39 percent started)
Since the end of February, it looks like Covington's role might be reduced; he topped 25 minutes just three times in a 10-game stretch that included a two-game absence due to an elbow injury. That injury might be the reason behind his limited minutes, but his production has still been solid of late; he is averaging 12.6 points, 1.6 steals and 2.2 3-pointers per game over his last five, in just 24 minutes per game. He has played 29 minutes in two of the last four games, so hopefully that is a sign that he is going to return to a larger role moving forward. Covington has been a revelation for the 76ers, and I like betting on him to figure things out this week, with some of the worst defenses in the league on the schedule.
I would start Covington over ... Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Luol Deng
Jae Crowder, Celtics (24 percent started)
In H2H scoring leagues, Crowder doesn't really have much appeal, given his relatively low scoring and assist volume. However, what he fails to contribute in volume, he makes for in the breadth of his skills; he is a rare player who can help you a little bit everywhere without hurting you too much in any one place. The Celtics have a pretty good schedule for Week 21, with two teams in the top-7 in pace on the way. You'll never get huge numbers from Crowder, but he finds ways to contribute anyways, and there is value in that.
I would start Crowder over ... Marcus Morris, Trevor Ariza, Tony Snell
Terrence Jones, Rockets (74 percent started)
A nerve issue kept him from really living up to it for the first half of the season, but Jones has been everything his potential suggested since the All-Star break. He is shooting 53.3 percent from the field and averaging 15.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 0.8 steals per game since the break, and has been the best member of the Rockets' three-headed, interchangeable frontcourt monster. However, consistency has been an issue of late; he had games with seven and 11 points sandwiched around a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double last week. When he is rolling, Jones can be a tremendous help, but the Rockets' schedule might not be terribly conducive this week, as they are one of just four teams with three games on the way. Though the matchups are all incredible, if you have comparable option with four games on the way, Jones is probably better left on your bench.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz (74 percent started)
Somehow, Gobert is not starting in 26 percent of CBSSports.com leagues, and I honestly have no idea how to make sense of that. He makes his money in category-based leagues, where he may be playing better than anyone at the position of late, but still ranks 10th in the league in Fantasy points per game at the center position since the All-Star break. He has been racking up huge rebounding numbers, scoring in double figures on a regular basis, dishing out a decent number of assists and blocking every shot his way, but is still starting in fewer leagues than Brook Lopez. Right this wrong this instance. I'm not going to mention him again in this space because if you're still sleeping on Gobert, nobody can help you.
I would start Gobert over ... Mason Plumlee, Jordan Hill, Donatas Motiejunas
Hassan Whiteside, Heat (66 percent started)
I realize it's basically impossible to trust Whiteside at this point, given his diminished role and inability to stay on the floor. He hasn't topped 25 minutes played in any of the Heat's last five, and missed two of those with an ankle injury and then a suspension. However, he has still been mostly productive in that time, racking up 26 points, 23 rebounds and four blocks in just 66 minutes of action. The Heat are starting to slide down the Eastern Conference ranks and are desperate to make the playoffs, so it's hard to imagine Erik Spoelstra going away from by far his most productive big man as long as he proves he can keep himself on the floor. I'll bet on Whiteside's talent winning out, even with the questions swirling around him right now.
I would start Whiteside over ... Marcin Gortat, Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler
Joakim Noah, Bulls (82 percent started)
Noah's rebounding and scoring still aren't where they need to be, but he is dishing out assists like it is 2014 again, which is a good sign. He is averaging 25.0 Fantasy points per game over the last five, which is a solid number for a starting center, but less so when it comes over the course of just three games. Especially so when one of those three games comes against a Pacers team that still ranks among the best in the league on defense, because one bad game could ruin his week with so little time make up for it. Noah is still going to be useful down the stretch, but you'll want to keep a closer on matchups than you otherwise might have.
(A higher strength-of-schedule ranking is a good thing, based on points allowed this season)
Hawks: Four games, 7th in strength of schedule
Celtics: Four games, 12th in strength of schedule
Nets: Four games, 22nd in strength of schedule
Hornets: Four games, 3rd in strength of schedule
Bulls: Three games, 26th in strength of schedule
Cavaliers: Four games, 30th in strength of schedule
Mavericks: Four games, 7th in strength of schedule
Nuggets: Four games, 22nd in strength of schedule
Pistons: Four games, 15th in strength of schedule
Warriors: Four games, 25th in strength of schedule
Rockets: Three games, 4th in strength of schedule
Pacers: Four games, 14th in strength of schedule
Clippers: Four games, 20th in strength of schedule
Lakers: Three games, 28th in strength of schedule
Grizzlies: Four games, 6th in strength of schedule
Heat: Four games, 12th in strength of schedule
Bucks: Four games, 22nd in strength of schedule
Timberwolves: Four games, 10th in strength of schedule
Pelicans: Four games, 11th in strength of schedule
Knicks: Four games, 2nd in strength of schedule
Thunder: Four games, 19th in strength of schedule
Magic: Four games, 5th in strength of schedule
76ers: Four games, 1st in strength of schedule
Suns: Three games, 21st in strength of schedule
Trail Blazers: Four games, 27th in strength of schedule
Kings: Four games, 28th in strength of schedule
Spurs: Four games, 17th in strength of schedule
Raptors: Four games, 9th in strength of schedule
Jazz: Four games, 17th in strength of schedule
Wizards: Four games, 15th in strength of schedule
Add these players
Kelly Olynyk, C, Celtics (56 percent owned), worth $5 FAAB
Olynyk is still being worked back into the rotation very slowly, as he hasn't topped 21 minutes in any game since coming back from an ankle injury. Still, he had 38 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, five steals and six 3-pointers in a three-game stretch last week before stumbling Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back. He should start to see his minutes increase moving forward, and his unique all-around skill set should make him a very useful Fantasy contributor when that happens. Beat the rush, because he could end up a big waiver-wire pickup down the stretch.
Jordan Clarkson, G, Lakers (67 percent owned), worth $5 FAAB
I'm a believer in Clarkson, even if Byron Scott continues to do everything in his power to make Fantasy players crazy. Clarkson has emerged as arguably the only bright spot on this Lakers' roster, so of course Scott's endless tinkering appears destined to leave Clarkson in a bench role down the stretch. As frustrating as that news is, it's not like Clarkson is going to disappear; Jeremy Lin is still averaging nearly 28 minutes per game over the last 10 off the bench. Even Scott has to know that Clarkson is more a part of this team's long-term plans than Lin, so I would be very surprised if Clarkson ends up benched. Clarkson has very productive since the All-Star break, averaging 14.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in 29.8 minutes, and I would expect that to continue no matter what his role is to begin the game.
Rodney Hood, G, Jazz (10 percent owned), worth $2 FAAB bid
With Gobert and Favors stepping into such large roles, the Jazz are going to need to find shooting from somewhere, and Hood could be the answer. Persistent foot injuries have limited him to just 36 games so far, but he has shown the ability to stretch the floor even with inconsistent playing time. Since returning from his latest issue after the All-Star break, Hood is shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point range, averaging 9.6 points per game in just 20.7 minutes. His strong play has earned him a much larger role of late, with Hood attempting at least 10 shots in each of the last three games. You shouldn't expect much from him as far as filling up the box score goes, but if you need shooting in a category-based league, he should be able to help you out as one of the few high-volume gunners available on this roster.
Paul George, F, Pacers (82 percent owned)
Optimism about George's chances to come back and make a big impact for the Pacers was always misplaced, given the length of his absence and timing of his return. However, he could still come back in a much-diminished role for the final month of the season and help out, especially with shooting and defense. Talk of a mid-March return fueled Fantasy owners to add George in droves, but the last few days have given us plenty of reason to doubt whether he will even return to the floor in a meaningful role. According to the Indianapolis Star, George hasn't looked back to full strength in practice, with one teammate expressing skepticism about a return this year and noting he is "not even close to 100 percent." If you can afford the roster spot, George might be worth holding on to, but it's a lot harder to envision him actually helping out today than it was a week ago.
Nikola Mirotic, F, Bulls (87 percent owned)
I'm not necessarily saying you should drop Mirotic right now, because he is still throwing up double-digit scoring games on a regular basis while filling up the box score well. However, given the Bulls' schedule and the looming return of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, at some point, this is going to come to an end. The question is, when. He should continue to be useful through this week, but he is an excellent sell-high candidate if your league still allows trades. Mirotic has proven himself worthy of a roster spot whenever he gets minutes, but those might be tough to come by in the final few weeks of the season. It would be a tough decision, but with Jimmy Butler potentially beating his three-week timetable, Mirotic could see his role greatly diminished soon. He remains a must-own in 10-team or deeper leagues, but don't hold onto him for too long if his minutes start slipping.