By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
An NBA season that arrived quicker than ever before has nearly reached its halfway point. Despite a slew of COVID-19 and weather-related postponements, 27 of the league’s 30 teams have played at least 33 games entering Tuesday night. By the time the All-Star break arrives this weekend, more than half of the league will have officially passed the halfway mark in an abbreviated, 72-game season.
While we’re starting to get a clearer picture of the hierarchy in each conference, the first half has packed no shortage of surprises. If the season ended today, the Knicks would be hosting a first-round playoff series, Indiana would have to play its way in, and the Nuggets would match up with the defending-champion Lakers in Round 1. Of course, plenty will change over the next three months, but the All-Star break offers a chance for the league to reset before the home stretch.
The same goes for fantasy managers, who will have only a few more weeks to assess their rosters before the late-March trade deadline arrives in most leagues. Now is the time to run an audit on your strongest and weakest categories and determine where you might need to add or trade away some talent.
In this week’s look around the league, we’ll examine the All-Star Game rosters from a fantasy perspective, highlight some injured players who could return after the break, discuss the second-half schedule, and much, much more:
All-Star Game set for Sunday night
Not every star player is exactly fired up about it, but the 2021 NBA All-Star Game — as well as the Dunk Contest, Skills Challenge, and Three-Point Shootout — will take place on Sunday night in Atlanta. LeBron James and the injured Kevin Durant will captain their respective teams, with the player draft set for Thursday night.
While it will be far from a typical All-Star Weekend, the game itself will as always be a star-studded affair featuring most of the league’s premier names, as well as some first-timers like Zach LaVine, Julius Randle, and Jaylen Brown. There were a few notable omissions, but for the most part, the fans, players, media, and coaches combined to send 24 of the NBA’s most-deserving stars to Atlanta.
But how do the rosters stack up when it comes to fantasy value? Here is how the Eastern and Western Conference selectees compare in terms of eight-category ranking (total value), as of Tuesday morning:
Stephen Curry: 2
Luka Doncic: 12
LeBron James: 9
Kawhi Leonard: 13
Nikola Jokic: 1
Zion Williamson: 31
Chris Paul: 18
Donovan Mitchell: 36
Rudy Gobert: 23
Damian Lillard: 5
Paul George: 24
Anthony Davis*: 56
Devin Booker**: 52
Kyrie Irving: 26
Bradley Beal: 8
Kevin Durant*: 54
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 11
Joel Embiid: 4
Nikola Vucevic: 7
Jayson Tatum: 29
Jaylen Brown: 30
Ben Simmons: 35
Julius Randle: 14
Zach LaVine: 6
James Harden: 3
Domantas Sabonis**: 21
*Out due to injury
Using total fantasy value as the deciding factor, the biggest snubs would be: Fred VanVleet (11), Bam Adebayo (15), Khris Middleton (16), Trae Young (17), Brandon Ingram (19), LaMelo Ball (20), Myles Turner (22) and Malcolm Brogdon (25).
Injured players to monitor
While the All-Star break functions as the unofficial halfway point in the season, it also serves as a milepost for players dealing with longer-term injuries. Over the last several weeks, many key players — from Christian Wood to Anthony Davis to Kevin Durant — have received the somewhat-vague ruled out through the All-Star break designation. Unfortunately, the five-day break doesn’t act as some sort of magical healing period, but if nothing else it’s an opportunity for teams to closely evaluate injured players and use the time off to ramp up the final stages of rehab and conditioning.
Again, it’s no guarantee that players like the three mentioned above will return as soon as the break is over, but here are some names to monitor for news as the All-Star break comes to a close:
Kevin Durant: Durant will have missed 12 of the Nets’ last 13 games once the break begins, but there’s hope that he’ll be cleared to return from his strained hamstring as soon as Brooklyn’s first post-break contest on Mar. 11 against Boston. Coming off of a torn Achilles, Durant has looked every bit like his former-MVP self when healthy, but he’s already missed 18 games.
Pascal Siakam: Siakam isn’t dealing with an injury — rather, the league’s COVID-19 protocols will sideline him for the final three games before the All-Star break. Assuming he’s mostly OK, physically, the time off should enable Siakam to return for the Raptors’ matchup against Atlanta on Mar. 11.
Jaren Jackson Jr.: Jackson hinted at his return from a torn meniscus back in mid-January, but that never came to fruition, and it’s pretty much been radio silence in the month-and-a-half since. Back in February, the Grizzlies were “optimistic” that Jackson would be able to return soon after the break, but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for next Wednesday’s home matchup against Washington. Given the lengthy layoff, Jackson will likely require several games before he’s back to a full workload.
Lauri Markkanen: A sprained shoulder has kept Markkanen on the shelf since Feb. 5, and as of this time last week he had yet to return to on-court work. Markkanen could be back immediately after the break, but he could miss additional time.
Kevin Love: As someone who’s been stashing Love in an IR slot since the first week of the season, the sooner the 32-year-old is back on the court, the better. Initially, it looked as though Love may have a chance to play before the break, but over the weekend the Cavs clarified that the veteran will remain out through Wednesday’s first-half finale against Indiana. This is the fifth straight season in which Love has missed a significant chunk of time, but whenever he returns, he’ll be an immediate source of rebounds, threes, and points, with some assists sprinkled in.
Anthony Davis: Roughly two weeks ago, Frank Vogel said he expects Davis to miss about four weeks, which would place him back in the lineup the week after the Lakers resume play. If that timeline holds up, he’d only miss three or four more games out of the break, which would be a massive win for the Lakers, who’ve mostly struggled since Davis went down. Unfortunately for managers holding Davis on IR, however, it’s very unlikely that he’ll be cleared to play the entirety of the Lakers’ five-game Week 13, which includes a pair of back-to-back sets.
Mitchell Robinson: After undergoing surgery on Feb. 13, Robinson was handed a four-to-six-week timetable, and he’ll be re-evaluated again over the break. If he doesn’t return right away, the third-year center should be back shortly after play resumes. When Robinson returns, Nerlens Noel — 8.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 1.1 SPG in eight starts — will likely slide back into a reduced role off the bench.
Aaron Gordon and Cole Anthony: A severe ankle sprain has kept Gordon sidelined since the start of February, while Anthony is dealing with a fractured rib. The Magic are hopeful to get both starters back after the break, but it’s been a few weeks since we’ve received any updates.
Jusuf Nurkic: Sidelined since mid-January with a fractured wrist, Nurkic is expected to return at some point shortly after the All-Star break. We’re coming up on seven weeks since the big man, who was off to a disappointing start through 12 games, underwent surgery. CJ McCollum is another name to monitor in Portland, though it doesn’t sound like the Blazers are expecting to get him back anytime soon.
Analyzing the second-half schedule
Last week, the NBA released the long-awaited schedule for the second half of the season. With the goal of each team playing 72 games still firmly in place, it will be a sprint to the finish — especially for the cluster of teams most impacted by the 30-plus games postponed due to COVID-19 protocols.
The Spurs and Grizzlies, who each had stretches of games postponed, will play 40 times in the 68 days between the end of the All-Star break and the start of play-in games. For both teams, more than half of their remaining games will be a part of back-to-back sets — they’ll each play 11 back-to-backs — while the Spurs will close out the regular season with four games in five nights from May 12 through May 16.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Knicks (six), Nets (seven), and Clippers (seven) have the fewest remaining back-to-backs.
Houston and Dallas will each have 38 games remaining after the break, while the Pacers, Bulls, Hornets, Suns, and Trail Blazers are the other teams with more than half of their schedule (37 games apiece) remaining.
In terms of strength of remaining opponents, the Rockets, Magic, Timberwolves, Spurs, and Suns will play the five most difficult second-half schedules, while the Nets, Heat, Jazz, Mavericks, and Hornets have the five easiest schedules.
TJ McConnell has climbed his way into the top-100 in eight-category leagues. Over the last 12 games, McConnell is averaging 9.1 points, 7.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals. During that stretch, he jumps all the way into the top 65 overall.
While Dennis Smith Jr. has started all five games in the absence of Delon Wright, unheralded rookie Saben Lee has turned heads with 12.6 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 25.2 minutes per game off the bench. Both players could return to obscurity once Wright is back, but the lottery-bound Pistons will likely try to find opportunities to see what they have in both players — Lee, especially — during the second half.
Jalen Brunson is a top-100 player in nine-category leagues over the last month behind 14.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 threes, and a 56-42-81 shooting line over his last 13 games. He topped out with a season-high 24 points in Monday night’s victory in Orlando.
Bruce Brown has emerged as a gem in Brooklyn, giving the Nets key minutes at multiple positions and, most importantly, playing terrific on-ball defense. After going for 23 points, three rebounds, and two steals in Monday’s win over the Spurs, Brown is averaging 13.1 points, 4.5 boards, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals over his last eight games (27.9 MPG).
Bogdan Bogdanovic will return to action Tuesday night after missing the last 25 games with a knee injury. He’ll likely play a fairly limited role off the bench and use the All-Star break to ramp up closer to a full workload.
P.J. Washington erupted for a career-high 42 points, to go with nine rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks in Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Kings. With Gordon Hayward and Cody Zeller sidelined again Monday, Washington was one of the night’s biggest flops, finishing with just three points (1-8 FG), three rebounds, and two assists in 30 minutes.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has officially re-entered the MVP race with 36-plus points in each of his last four games. He had a massive afternoon — 36 points, 14 boards, five assists, four blocks — in Sunday’s win over the Clippers, making some key plays late, including a highlight-reel block on Ivica Zubac and a monster dunk to seal the victory. Over his last 10 games, Antetokounmpo is up to 33.5 points, 13.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 75 percent (!!!) at the line on 12.0 attempts per game. The lack of a compelling narrative, combined with back-to-back playoff shortcomings, will make it extremely difficult for Giannis to win a third straight MVP. Statistically, though, he’s been every bit as impressive as last season.