By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Week 4 of the fantasy basketball season is upon us and with it, unprecedented levels of uncertainty. As multiple teams deal with COVID-19 contact tracing, three more games have already been postponed, while several key players will miss parts, if not all, of the week.
The NBA tightened up its health and safety protocols Tuesday, but for the time being, the message is clear: Obstacles or not, the show must go on. For now, the league will continue to play as many games as it can — it’s worth noting that the four postponements thus far represent less than one percent of the NBA’s regular season — while re-emphasizing its policies to teams and players.
For fantasy players, especially those in weekly leagues, the lack of clarity is frustrating. But if nothing else, it’s forced managers to be more vigilant and engaged than ever.
As we take a look around the league, ignoring the ramifications of the virus is impossible, so that’s where we’ll begin this week. We’ll also touch on the status of Kyrie Irving, impressive rookie point guards, Russell Westbrook, a more aggressive Anthony Davis, and much more.
COVID-19 absences and subsequent postponements ramp up
After a relatively smooth start, it looked as though the league had enacted enough policies to prevent COVID-19 from significantly hamstringing the season. It was naive to think the virus wouldn’t rear its head at some point, but for the most part, teams and players were able to operate about as normally as possible given the circumstances. Suffice it to say, things have taken a turn for the worse.
Now three full weeks into the regular season, several teams — the Sixers, Mavericks, Celtics, Heat, and Wizards — are dealing with a barrage of COVID-related absences. Monday’s Mavericks-Pelicans matchup was postponed after it was determined that Dallas would not be able to field the eight players required for the game to take place. Tuesday night’s Celtics-Bulls game and Wednesday’s Celtics-Magic game were also postponed for the same reason.
Anyone who paid attention to the MLB, NFL, and college football seasons knew it would be impossible for the NBA’s to go off without some hitches. And maybe, when April comes around — we’ll look back and this will be the worst of it. But for fantasy managers, the lack of transparency and apparent randomness of it all has made navigating roster decisions nearly impossible. While some players are ruled out for 10-to-14 days, others’ statuses seem to be determined on a game-to-game basis. The need for privacy surrounding the virus is understandable, but it’s become incredibly difficult to discern who has the virus, who might have the virus, and who could simply be sidelined for a day or two while contact tracing is conducted.
Heading into Tuesday night, here’s what we know about each team currently dealing with COVID-19 issues:
Seth Curry tested positive for COVID-19 and is expected to remain out until the middle of next week
Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Vincent Poirier, and Tobias Harris are expected to remain out “until at least Saturday,” per Doc Rivers.
Neither Ben Simmons nor Joel Embiid is dealing with the virus.
Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Jalen Brunson are facing quarantine periods of at least a week, and perhaps longer. Maxi Kleber is also in the league’s health and safety protocols. At this time, it’s unclear how many other Mavericks players are affected.
Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Tristan Thompson, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye, and Jaylen Brown are all subject to the league’s health and safety protocols — so it’s easy to see why Tuesday’s game was called off. Of that group, only Tatum and Robert Williams have been handed definitive timetables. Both players are expected to miss 10-to-14 days after testing positive for the virus.
Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, KZ Okpala, Udonis Haslem, Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, Moe Harkless, and Avery Bradley have all been ruled out of Tuesday's game against the 76ers due to virus concerns. The Heat will need two of their three injured players — Kelly Olynyk (groin), Gabe Vincent (knee), and Meyers Leonard (shoulder) — to be available Tuesday. Otherwise, the game will have to be postponed.
The Kyrie saga continues
While the virus has been the primary storyline of the week, the continued absence of Kyrie Irving grabbed headlines Tuesday morning. A video emerged on social media that purports to show Irving attending a birthday party for his sister, Asia. Irving, who was mask-less in the video, has not addressed the matter, and it remains very much unclear when he’ll rejoin the Nets.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday that the Nets do not expect to have their star point guard back at any point this week. That means Irving will miss games against Denver (Tuesday), New York (Wednesday), and Orlando (Saturday), running his total up to six consecutive absences.
As anticipated, Caris LeVert has stepped up in Irving’s absence, averaging 27.5 points, 6.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.0 steal over the last four games. In a loss to Memphis over the weekend, LeVert went 7-of-9 from three on his way to 43 points, six assists, and five boards. Kevin Durant missed three of those games but returned to action Sunday against Oklahoma City.
Zach LaVine heating up
Tuesday’s Bulls-Celtics postponement means we’ll have to wait a few more days for LaVine’s follow-up to Sunday’s 45-point eruption in a narrow loss to the Clippers. Through 11 games, LaVine is up to a career-high 27.7 points per game on 49/37/89 shooting splits, while adding 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.3 steals. Over his last four games, those numbers jump up to 34.4 points, 5.8 boards, and 6.0 assists with a 54/43/89 line. LaVine’s career-high 4.1 turnovers per game hurt him in nine-category leagues, but even so, he’s been a top-10 player through the first three weeks.
Kristaps Porzingis’ return on hold
The Mavs received word Monday morning that Porzingis would make his season debut against the Pelicans, only for the game to be postponed less than an hour later. The hope is that Wednesday’s meeting with Charlotte goes on as scheduled, but as the Mavs battle COVID issues, it’s possible that contest could be postponed as well.
Either way, Porzingis should be back in the lineup whenever the Mavericks play their next game. He’ll likely be limited for a stretch as he works back into game shape, and chances are he’ll sit one-half of back-to-backs for most, if not all, of the season. Dallas has three more back-to-back sets in January, the first of which arrives early next week (Sunday vs. CHI; Monday at TOR).
Aggressive Anthony Davis is back
Davis’ numbers have been stellar since the start of the season, but he had some strange games (by his standards) in the early going: 18 points and four turnovers against the Clippers; 13 points and two free throw attempts against the Blazers; just two total blocks through his first five games.
Since losing to Portland on Dec. 28, however, the Lakers are 6-1 and Davis looks more like the player who bulldozed through the league in the Orlando bubble.
He’s topped 20 points and registered multiple blocks in five of six appearances during that span. Entering Tuesday night’s matchup against Houston, Davis has exactly three blocks in four consecutive games. On Sunday, Davis ransacked the Rockets’ defense for 27 points (9-12 FG) and a season-high 10 trips to the free-throw line in just 30 minutes.
Any concerns about Davis and the Lakers loafing through the regular season can officially be put to bed. After the Lakers’ lone loss in January, a visibly frustrated Davis panned the team’s defensive effort. One stat worth monitoring over the next few weeks, though, is Davis’ dramatic drop in free throw attempts (4.6 FTA/G, down from 8.5 last season).
In other Lakers news, Talen Horton-Tucker had his best game of the regular season Sunday night, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds, three assists, four steals, and two three-pointers in only 21 minutes. It was only Horton-Tucker’s third double-digit scoring game of the season, but his per-minute production has been impressive. In just 16.9 minutes, the 20-year-old is averaging 8.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists 1.0 steal per game with a 48/36/92 shooting line.
I had a friend ask me this week if the hype around Horton-Tucker is just an Alex Caruso 2.0 situation; that is, Lakers-leaning social media accounts running wild with a player who, ultimately, isn’t all that good. Playing in LA has certainly fanned the flames, but it’s already clear that Horton-Tucker is way overqualified to be averaging 17 minutes off the bench. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’d be starting for several teams in the league, and as Sean Deveney reported Tuesday morning, some franchises are already planning to pursue him in restricted free agency this summer. If for some reason he’s still available in your dynasty league, pick him up immediately.
Karl-Anthony Towns expected back Wednesday
A wrist injury cost Towns six games before he was back in the lineup for Saturday’s game against the Spurs. The Wolves sat him out Sunday on the second half of a back-to-back, but all indications are that Towns will return to the lineup Wednesday night. It’s a rare two-game week for Minnesota, however, so if you held Towns out of your weekly lineup, you’ll still be in good shape.
Cole Anthony struggling
Orlando losing Markelle Fultz for the season was a crushing blow, but the silver lining was that it thrust Anthony, a first-round pick in November, into the starting lineup. Through three starts, the results have not been favorable. Anthony is averaging nearly 28 minutes per game, but he’s shooting just 34.3 percent from the field while hitting only 2-of-12 attempts from beyond the arc. He also has just seven total assists in that span after posting 3.4 per game off the bench before Fultz went down. Some managers have already cut bait on Anthony, as he’s down to 39% rostered in Yahoo leagues.
The LaMelo Ball show rolls on
While one rookie point guard in the Southeast Division is struggling, another continues his ascent. It feels like a lifetime ago that Ball struggled through his first week of NBA action. Over his last eight games, the No. 3 pick is averaging 15.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 1.8 steals while holding a respectable 43.6 percent field goal percentage. Even when Ball has a poor shooting night, he’s been able to insulate his fantasy value with extremely high-level rebounds and assists production for a rookie guard. Ball has 36 rebounds and 27 assists over his last three games alone. And perhaps most impressively, he’s committed two or fewer turnovers in seven of his last eight appearances (28.5 MPG). Entering Tuesday, Ball ranks as a top-35 player in nine-category Yahoo leagues.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast ...
Ball has firmly grabbed the No. 1 spot in the Rookie of the Year race, but Tyrese Haliburton isn’t far behind. The steal of the 2020 draft has scored in double-figures in eight of nine games while shooting over 50 percent from the field and from three. Over his last four games, Haliburton is putting up 14.0 points, 6.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 3.0 three-pointers with just four total turnovers.
So far, Richaun Holmes is the clear winner of the battle for minutes at center in Sacramento. He saw a season-high 36 minutes in Monday’s win over Indiana, finishing with 16 points, 10 boards, and six blocks for his second double-double of the season. Holmes has played at least 23 minutes in nine of 10 appearances, while Hassan Whiteside reached 20 minutes for the first time this season in Saturday’s loss to Portland, which Holmes sat out. Foul trouble will always be an issue with Holmes — he’s picked up five fouls in four of his last six games — but he’s clearly the No. 1 option for Luke Walton. Surprisingly, Whiteside is still rostered in 68 percent of Yahoo leagues, as of Tuesday.
The Russell Westbrook conundrum
The Wizards were without Westbrook for their last two games, and he’ll miss at least two additional contests as he deals with a quad injury. Through his first seven appearances, Westbrook’s counting stats have once again been impressive. His scoring (19.3 PPG) is at its lowest level since 2010-11, but he’s averaging a career-high in assists (11.3) while falling just short of averaging a triple-double (9.7 RPG). Despite averaging the second-most turnovers of his career (5.3 TPG), Westbrook ranks ninth in the league in fantasy points per game (47.3), making him an incredibly productive DFS option.
The problem, of course, is the scoring system does not account for shooting efficiency or category scarcity. After bottoming out with a 4-of-16 shooting performance in Friday’s loss to Boston, Westbrook is down to a career-worst 37.8 percent from the field. His three-point percentage (30.3%) is actually slightly better than it’s been in recent years, but he’s back under 70 percent — 65.7%, to be exact — at the free-throw line. Those numbers, combined with his league-high turnover average and four missed games, leave Westbrook sitting outside of the top 200 in nine-category Yahoo leagues.
Given the level of investment, and the fact that he’s Russell Westbrook, simply dropping him probably isn’t an option. At least he can be stashed on IR for this week, but the efficiency issues are unlikely to magically fix themselves. If you don’t have the pieces to offset the hits in FG%, FT%, and turnovers, I would consider flipping Westbrook to a more optimistic manager, even if it means taking 75 cents on the dollar.