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If you have any players for the Magic on your roster and are still alive in your playoffs, Week 22 (March 23-30) is the part of the schedule you've been dreading for months.
A two-game Fantasy schedule is an unwelcome sight at any point in the season, but it can be a killer with so few games left. If you've been relying on the improved backcourt duo of Victor Oladipo or Elfrid Payton, can you justify keeping them in your lineup this week? Given how well both are playing, can you afford to bench them?
Oladipo is in the midst of the best month of his career, averaging 22.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game in March, while generally looking like a star in the making as an offensive centerpiece. At the same time, Payton is starting to live up to his Rajon Rondo-light ceiling, posting consecutive triple-doubles last week and throwing up 13.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game in March, despite his well-documented shooting woes.
Both Oladipo and Payton have looked like must-start Fantasy options of late, joining Nikola Vucevic as the franchise's centerpieces, and those three are the only players you can even consider starting in Week 22. As productive as Tobias Harris can be, you aren’t getting much from him in a two-game week you couldn't get from someone like Andre Iguodala (four games) or Matt Barnes (three).
So, should you start Payton, Oladipo or Vucevic this week? Here is my take on each heading into the critical playoff week:
Nikola Vucevic, C, Magic
One positive for Vucevic's owners is the schedule is relatively favorable this week, all things considered. Sure, the Magic only play twice, but at least the schedule isn't packed with four-game weeks -- 12 teams only play three games in addition to Orlando's two. The center position is deeper than it has been in the past, so it will be hard for him to top most players who have four games. However, if you are picking between Vucevic, Alex Len (three games), Jusuf Nurkic (three) or Tyson Chandler (three), the choice is a little tougher. Vucevic could still be a Top 25 center this week, though obviously on the lower end, especially with his production down a bit over the last month.
Elfrid Payton, PG, Magic
Payton's all-around ability to fill up the box score makes it hard to turn away from him, especially now that he has assumed a much larger share of the scoring load in March. He has scored in double figures in nine straight games, so consistency isn't as big of an issue with him as it used to be. I would be a little wary of starting someone who only players twice and is a risk to post a dud thanks to his offensive limitations, but Payton's ability to post big assist numbers might still get him into the top-50 at the position.
Victor Oladipo, SG, Magic
Whether Oladipo can keep this kind of play up moving forward is probably going to be the key storyline for Orlando moving forward. His performance in March could make him a top-10 Fantasy guard overall, and you can probably count on 40 points, 10 assists, five steals and three 3-pointers from him this week. That is very much low-end production for a guard over a four-game week, but if your only other option as a fourth guard is the likes of Ben McLemore (three games), Trey Burke (four games) or Randy Foye (three games), it might be worth rolling with the upside Oladipo can bring to the table.
Ish Smith, 76ers (21 percent started)
Smith is the latest fringe NBA player to find some semblance of career salvation in Philadelphia over the last two seasons. The 26-year-old journeyman has become the team's primary ballhandler since Michael Carter-Williams' departure, and has been able to put up decent numbers for them as a result, averaging 11.6 points and 6.1 assists per game. Things have been even better lately, with Smith averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 assists in just 25.3 minutes per game over the last 10. With the league's best schedule on the way -- Cleveland is probably the toughest matchup -- Smith should continue to put up solid numbers as a low-end starting Fantasy option.
I would start Smith over ... Jordan Clarkson, Dennis Schroder, Rajon Rondo
Jeremy Lin, Lakers (41 percent started)
Lakers coach Byron Scott can't quite seem to figure out if he likes Lin or not, which probably means Fantasy owners shouldn't. Scott has benched Lin for his defense and his decision making at various points in the season, but has also made noise recently about moving him back into the starting lineup to finish off the season. If that comes to pass, Lin could end up making a difference down the stretch, but it's not necessarily something you should be counting on. What you should be counting on is Lin getting loose against pretty dreadful collection of defenses in Week 21, as the Thunder and their fast pace are probably the best defense they will face all week.
I would start Lin over ... Patrick Beverley, Langston Galloway, Aaron Brooks
Rodney Hood, Jazz (9 percent started)
The Jazz look like they have pretty much perfected defense over the last month or so, and it is their elite defense that has carried them to one of the league's best records since the All-Star break. The offense, however, is still a big question mark, and Hood looks like he might be one of the answers. The Jazz desperately need perimeter shooting, and Hood has taken advantage of the opportunity presented to him by becoming the dead-eye shooter they need. He is averaging 13.0 points and 1.6 3-pointers in 27.6 minutes per game over the last five, and could see an even bigger role this week of Gordon Hayward's knee keeps giving him problems.
I would start Hood over ... Will Barton, DeMarre Carroll, Harrison Barnes
Ty Lawson, Nuggets (90 percent started)
Lawson is still racking up huge assist numbers under new coach Melvin Hunt, but he really cannot score anymore. He was scoreless in Sunday's game against the Magic, and is now averaging just 10.6 points per game in the month of March. In a H2H scoring format, Lawson's 9.5 assists per game still more than get the job done, but his poor shooting percentages and lack of contributions in almost every other category make him an awfully tough play in category-based formats. If you don't necessarily need assists, it might not be a bad idea to look for other options, as Lawson has to try and break out of his slump against the 76ers, Jazz and Trail Blazers this week, three of the 11 toughest defenses in the league.
Thaddeus Young, Nets (76 percent started)
You don't feel great about Young right now, given his somewhat diminished role playing in Brooklyn. However, he is actually playing better than his counting stats might lead you to believe, as he is shooting 47.7 percent from the field in the month of March, while averaging 14.1 points, 5.0 rebound and 1.7 steals per game. If you are looking for more production from him, that could come this week, with the Nets facing one of the best schedules in the league. They open with Boston and close against the Lakers, with a matchup Wednesday against the Hornets standing out as the only one against a top-10 defense. Young is a pretty borderline case most of the time, but you should feel good about getting him out there this week.
I would start Young over ... Jeff Green, Solomon Hill, Tobias Harris
Andrea Bargnani, Knicks (55 percent started)
It really shouldn't be that much of a surprise that Bargnani can put up numbers when he gets the opportunity. For all of his flaws, he could always put up a decent looking box score when he got big minutes throughout his career. You can question whether this Knicks team, devoid of talent as it is, is best served by using Bargnani as their offensive centerpiece, but Fantasy players can't complain about the results -- 17.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 1.7 assists per game over the last 10 games. The Knicks have a tough matchup to open the schedule against the Grizzlies, but things get significantly easier from then on, so expect him to continue scoring in the high teens.
I would start Bargnani over ... Wilson Chandler, Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, 76ers (15 percent started)
Mbah a Moute hasn't been mentioned in this space this season, because his numbers never really blow you away. However, he has been a pretty consistent contributor on a 76ers team that is always in need of competent NBA players, and that is exactly what he is. He rarely posts a huge scoring line, but Mbah a Moute has a nice schedule on the way in Week 22, with some games that should have huge scoring numbers. With his assist numbers going up lately (3.1 per game over the last 10), Mbah a Moute should make for a nice fill-in at the end of your roster.
I would start Mbah a Moute over ... Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Tony Snell
Tobias Harris, Magic (61 percent started)
In years past, Harris has been the player for the Magic who stepped into a bigger role and looked like a star late in the season, but that doesn't appear to be the case this season. Oladipo has been the team's go-to scorer, and though Harris has been solid, he doesn't bring much in terms of all-around production right now. In a normal week, you'd feel fine about him as a No. 3 or 4 forward, but not with Orlando only scheduled to play twice. Add in the fact that Harris has missed the last three games with a lingering ankle injury, and you just can't trust him this week.
Steven Adams, Thunder (24 percent started)
Adams isn't a dominant rebounder or defender, and he struggles to stay on the floor while racking up tons of fouls, but just because he is flawed doesn't mean he is without merit. He protects the rim well enough to get you a block or two on any given night, and is averaging 13.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per game over the last five with the Thunder playing without Serge Ibaka. Scott Brooks has been forced to play him as much as possible with Ibaka out, as Adams has logged 30-plus minutes with at least four fouls in each of the last five games, so you don't have to worry about them going away from him. He is filling up the box score right now, and should be capable of putting up big numbers with a schedule that includes the Lakers and Suns to bookend the week.
I would start Adams over ... Mason Plumlee, Jordan Hill
Donatas Motiejunas, Rockets (45 percent started)
You would like to see more consistency out of Motiejunas, who has failed to score in double figures in two of the last four games despite playing huge minutes. However, he makes up for an inconsistent scoring touch with a solid all-around game, as he is averaging 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 0.8 3-pointers per game over the last five. With Dwight Howard's return looming, Motiejunas has some questions about his playing time surrounding him, but Terrence Jones' absence should leave him free for 30-plus minutes even if Howard returns. With matchups against some huge frontlines, the Rockets will need Motiejunas to soak up space down low this week.
I would start Motiejunas over ... Marcin Gortat, Tyson Chandler
Tyson Chandler, Mavericks (63 percent started)
Chandler's presence has been huge for the Mavericks this season, and his return to form after an off year in New York has helped replenish the depth at the center position. However, being the lone plus defender and rebounder in Dallas' lineup might be taking its toll, as his production is down across the board lately. He is still shooting 60.0 percent from the field in March, but that is actually 70 points lower than his season mark, and his per-game averages are down to 7.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in that span as well. Chandler is a mid-tier starting center most of the time, his flagging production and a trio of tough matchups against the Spurs and Pacers makes him a risk this week.
(A higher strength-of-schedule ranking is a good thing, based on points allowed)
Hawks: Three games, 24th in strength of schedule
Celtics: Four games, 9th in strength of schedule
Nets: Four games, 5th in strength of schedule
Hornets: Four games, 23rd in strength of schedule
Bulls: Three games, 19th in strength of schedule
Cavaliers: Three games, 25th in strength of schedule
Mavericks: Three games, 29th in strength of schedule
Nuggets: Three games, 26th in strength of schedule
Pistons: Three games, 18th in strength of schedule
Warriors: Four games, 28th in strength of schedule
Rockets: Four games, 17th in strength of schedule
Pacers: Four games, 20th in strength of schedule
Clippers: Three games, 7th in strength of schedule
Lakers: Four games, 2nd in strength of schedule
Grizzlies: Four games, 13th in strength of schedule
Heat: Four games, 21st in strength of schedule
Bucks: Three games, 27th in strength of schedule
Timberwolves: Four games, 12th in strength of schedule
Pelicans: Three games, 4th in strength of schedule
Knicks: Four games, 16th in strength of schedule
Thunder: Four games, 8th in strength of schedule
Magic: Two games, 30th in strength of schedule
76ers: Four games, 1st in strength of schedule
Suns: Three games, 14th in strength of schedule
Trail Blazers: Four games, 6th in strength of schedule
Kings: Three games, 10th in strength of schedule
Spurs: Four games, 11th in strength of schedule
Raptors: Three games, 15th in strength of schedule
Jazz: Four games, 3rd in strength of schedule
Wizards: Four games, 22nd in strength of schedule
Add these players
J.J. Redick, G, Clippers (78 percent owned), worth $10 FAAB
On the one hand, I get why Redick's ownership is still so low, because much of the season has seen him post middling box score numbers beyond shooting and scoring, leaving him mostly useful in category-based leagues. However, he has meant everything for the Clippers since Jamal Crawford's calf injury, and is averaging 21.2 points and 29.3 Fantasy points per game in the month of March. Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged recently that he is concerned Crawford may not be able to return from his calf injury this season, so Redick could continue to see 35-plus minutes and a bunch of shooting opportunities for the Clippers down the stretch. He is a must-own in his current role.
Zach LaVine, G, Timberwolves (22 percent owned), worth $5
The Timberwolves have had pretty awful luck with injuries this season, and that pattern hasn't slowed down at all late in the season, with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic all dealing with issues right now. LaVine still isn't a natural option at point guard, but he's just about all the Wolves have with Rubio out and Mo Williams in Charlotte. He is averaging 15.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game over the last four, starting three of them with Rubio on the sidelines, and could end up making a solid impact down the stretch if the Wolves are forced to shut Rubio down.
Ersan Ilyasova, F, Bucks (56 percent owned), worth $5 FAAB
Any Fantasy player who has had Ilyasova on their team in the last few years knows "consistent" is just about the last word anyone would use to describe him. And yet, that is exactly what Ilyasova has been lately, scoring in double figures in seven straight games, with at least one 3-pointer and five rebounds in each game as well. He doesn't quite give you the volume you need to be much more than a fringe starter in H2H points leagues, but his combination of 3-point shooting and rebounding, along with nonexistent turnover numbers, makes him a very nice play in category-based formats; he should probably be owned in all such leagues.
Kevin Durant, F, Thunder (98 percent owned)
I put another injured star here last week, and reports surfaced in the days after indicating that Paul George could return to the floor within a week, so let's hope for the same result this time. "Indefinitely" is a scary word when it comes to injuries, but it doesn't really mean all that much without some context applied to it. The fact that Durant is out indefinitely after another setback with his surgically repaired foot doesn't necessarily mean he is not going to play this season, but we do have to acknowledge that we are starting to run out of time. Even if indefinitely only means a week or two, that's pretty much all that is left of the season from this point on. If you drafted Durant, chances are his ongoing injury issues have already derailed your season, and it might be time to give up and get something out of that roster spot while you can. Hopefully it's not too late for you.
Alex Len, C, Suns (47 percent owned)
I've been very impressed with Len's play this season, as he has been a surprisingly natural fit in the Suns' fast-paced offense after a mostly lost rookie season. However, the seven-footer has struggled to remain healthy and the ankles that bothered him last season have remained an issue. He was a solid source of rebounding and blocks for a few months in the middle of the season, but Len's production and playing time have dropped in March, and it's tough to trust him right now. Len has been a part of the resurgence at the center position, and could be a long-term stud for Fantasy players, but he is unreliable at this point, with his ankle becoming an issue every few days.