The NBA resumes meaningful games on Thursday with two games on the schedule – the Jazz will play the 'home team' Pelicans, after which the Clippers will take on the Lakers. Thus begins the league's grand experiment of concluding the 2019-20 season in a "campus-like" bubble on Disney properties in Orlando. It also marks the return of fantasy sports, with DFS partially filling the void of lost season-long leagues. If you're not a DFS player, there's still good news – the 2020-21 season is currently slated to resume in a mere four months (!), and whatever unfolds in Orlando will better-equip fantasy GMs for their next season-long draft.
For those unfamiliar with details of the league's resumption, each team has eight 'seeding' games which are ostensibly regular-season games. After the eight-game seeding period, there will be a 'play-in' tournament triggered if the No. 9 seed in either or both Conference(s) is within four games of the No. 8 seed. If that happens, the teams play twice – the No. 8 seed only needs to win one game to advance, whereas the No. 9 seed would need to win both games to advance. Given the complexities of resuming the NBA season in the midst of a pandemic, while still being fair to all teams involved, the play-in tournament is a relatively elegant solution.
For the duration of play in Orlando, which could go as late as Game 7 of the Finals on Oct. 13, this column will keep tabs on the most important fantasy implications of the NBA's re-start. Today's edition talks about Jonathan Isaac's return from injury, Eric Gordon's ankle sprain, and how Indiana will cope without Domantas Sabonis (foot).
Jonathan Isaac hadn't played a game since severely spraining his left knee on Jan. 1. His return during an exhibition on Monday was therefore his first real game action in nearly seven months, yet he looked like he'd never been gone with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, seven rebounds and two steals in a mere seven minutes of action. "It felt really good," Isaac said. "[O]ne of the biggest parts about just getting back out there was being with my teammates and being able to put my jersey on and kind of just have it come full circle with all the work that's been put in and just the day in and day out [grind]."
This good-news story sells itself, but I'm of two minds as a fantasy manager. From the perspective of an eager soon-to-be DFS player, I'm extremely leery of Isaac. He was excellent in his first game back, but played seven minutes. When Magic coach Steve Clifford was asked if/when/how much he might expand Isaac's workload, he didn't answer. Clifford wouldn't even commit to playing Isaac in Orlando's critical seeding-game opener vs. Brooklyn on Friday (they're chasing the ludicrously short-handed Nets for the No. 7 seed, and should catch them even if they lose the opener). Isaac's hyper-efficient game this week aside, he's not a high-volume scorer (four 20-point games all season) and needs defensive stats to hit DFS value. With minutes a massive concern, I'm staying away.
From the perspective of a season-long owner in 2020-21, however, I'm overjoyed to see Isaac back on the court for meaningful games. Rotoworld's hoops staff won't need to qualify all of our statements about Isaac with 'if/then' scenarios, since we've already seen him playing 5-on-5 at a high level. Injuries have unfortunately defined much of Isaac's early years in the NBA, but there are plenty of optimistic angles to point out. His ankles weren't the culprit for his DNPs this year. His knee injury did not require surgery. He played 75 games in 2018-19, so there's some proof of durability. He's still just 22 years old and he's improved exponentially the past few years. A refined 3-point shot would go a long way, and I'll be watching for that up until I draft my next squads, but everything else looks golden – particularly his ridiculous 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.
No matter your fantasy format, there's another reason to applaud Isaac's return to the court – he doesn't hurt his teammates' value. Wes Iwundu played significantly more minutes without Isaac, and James Ennis takes a hit, but neither guy was on the fantasy radar anyway. Isaac isn’t yet at the ‘go-to scorer’ level, and his 18.6% usage won't impinge on teammates who rely on higher volume. Indeed, Isaac's usage was the lowest among top-35 players in 9-cat leagues this season (rivaled only by Hassan Whiteside (19.5%) and Ben Simmons (20.7%)).
Isaac's return is the best injury news to emerge from the bubble, but there are plenty of other positive stories. Joel Embiid has been dealing with right calf "discomfort," but he's expected to play in Philly's seeding-game opener vs. Indiana. Teammate Ben Simmons is also fully healthy after dealing with an impinged nerve in his lower back before the NBA's shutdown. That's an aspect of the break we haven't talked about too often – the sheer number of nagging injuries that are no longer a concern in Orlando. Among other examples, Meyers Leonard rehabbed a severe ankle sprain, Andre Roberson is ready to return after more than two years on the sidelines, and the Blazers welcomed back both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.
Other minor injuries sustained in the bubble include Damian Lillard hurting his left foot, Fred VanVleet banging his knee, and Anthony Davis getting poked in the eye. AD continues to miss practices and his status for the Lakers' opener on Thursday remains "unclear," according to coach Frank Vogel. If he does miss time, LeBron James' plate will be overflowing, Kyle Kuzma would see more minutes and touches, and we'll likely see more traditional-center lineups with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Adrian Wojnarowski also mentioned an important point in a recent report – there's no meaningful "homecourt advantage" to play for in Orlando, so teams locked into a playoff berth have even less incentive to risk injuring their key players during their next eight games. Fred VanVleet played 23 minutes in a scrimmage on Tuesday, so his knee is obviously fine, and Damian Lillard is expected to play Friday for the Blazers (who can't afford to rest anyone as they attempt to break into the playoff picture).
Not all injuries are so innocuous. Domantas Sabonis has exited the bubble after suffering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. It's reportedly a bad case and he's seeking specialist opinions, leading coach Nate McMillan to "prepare for the worst" – i.e. he's unlikely to return to the bubble. It's an unfortunate twist for the Pacers. They're without Jeremy Lamb (knee surgery) but it looks like they will have Victor Oladipo available for the re-start. Indiana can still do some damage with a starting lineup of Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo, Aaron Holiday, T.J. Warren and Myles Turner. A big question is how Oladipo will look in real games (he's been up and down in exhibition play), and whether they can squeeze enough production out of their bench. Staggering the starters will help, but it's hard to envision the Pacers going far with a second unit of T.J. McConnell, Edmond Sumner, Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott and JaKarr Sampson (who is playing backup center out of sheer necessity).
From a fantasy perspective, Sabonis' absence leaves increased opportunities for the Pacers' main offensive threats. I'm not as interested in his 34.8 minutes per game, which will primarily be Aaron Holiday and JaKarr Sampson – neither are appealing DFS targets. However, Sabonis had a 23.4% usage rate and was attempting 13.7 shots per game. He also had a 21.7% assist rate, underscoring his massive importance for Indy's offense. Without Sabonis operating out of the post, the Pacers are embracing a faster, more guard-oriented approach to the game. "Myles [Turner] is going to be the inside-out threat but its guards making plays," Brogdon said. "[Guards] getting penetration and then we’ll get shots from there." Brogdon said it's "been made clear" that he will be the team's point guard, and I'm excited to queue him up as a mid-priced DFS option with a vaulted ceiling. Turner is also a solid bet for value with more touches and boards coming his way, and it won't surprise me if T.J. Warren averages 22+ points during the re-start.
I don't want to gloss over the expanded opportunities for Turner. Sabonis claimed 19.9% of available rebounds while on the court this season, many of which will now fall into Turner's hands. Some of his shots will filter down to Turner, too, and his per-36-minute splits with and without Sabonis are worth remembering:
With Sabonis on the court (1,067 minutes): 11.2 points on 42.8% FGs, 1.5 threes, 7.2 boards, 1.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.7 blocks and 14.6% usage
Without Sabonis on the court (558 minutes): 20.6 points on 47.6% FGs, 2.1 threes, 9.5 boards, 1.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.6 blocks and 24.3% usage
Those are night-and-day stats, so don't hesitate to deploy Turner aggressively in DFS, before his salary inevitably spikes.
Another unfortunate injury befell Eric Gordon, who turned his left ankle during Tuesday's exhibition and could miss 1-2 weeks, according to Adrian Wojnarowski. Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni was locked into Gordon as a starter, preferring to use him in shorter stints to begin halves and maximize his playing time vs. opponents' best offensive players. That plan goes out the window, at least for the short-term, and it'll be interesting to see if Danuel House starts in his place. That's the most obvious move, but MDA could instead insert Austin Rivers or Ben McLemore, the latter of whom dropped 26 points in a recent exhibition on 8-of-10 shooting (6-of-7 from deep).
Gordon's fantasy utility has been on a downward trend for years, and he hasn't been reliably useful in season-long or DFS leagues this season. Among other problems, he's posting career-low numbers for True Shooting Percentage (51.1%), Total Rebound Percentage (3.5%) and Assist Percentage (7.8%). His absence doesn't result in clear-cut DFS opportunities, either, since his modest production will be divvied up between the House/Rivers/McLemore trio.