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Mario Hezonja
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The Numbers Game

Numbers Game: Irregular Season

by Ryan Knaus
Updated On: April 10, 2019, 2:38 pm ET

The term 'load management' became an amusing euphemism for ‘rest’ this season, and we've seen plenty of it in recent weeks. Kawhi Leonard has been the poster boy for the term all year, but his teammates Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka recently got the same treatment. The DNP-rest phenomenon can impact stars (LeBron James), veteran role players (Tyreke Evans) and even rookies (Trae Young). We can't determine all the rest days that occurred, because minor injuries become smokescreens for off days and de facto shutdowns. None has been more obvious or high-profile than Anthony Davis – he was listed as 'probable' for the final seven games of New Orleans' season but didn't play in any of them due to "lower back spasms."

Today I propose a new term for these off-kilter weeks: the 'Irregular Season'. To begin the NBA calendar, we have the preseason. This is when we learn more about rookies, see which skills players have added or refined (if any), learn how coaches will manage rotations, and more. Then we have the regular season, where fantasy hoops live and breathe. That ends around mid-March, followed by the irregular season where guys like Alex Caruso and Mario Hezonja can carry you to victory. Then there's the postseason, where daily fantasy leagues are the dominant option. Finally, there's the offseason and we start the cycle over again.

This year's irregular season, as with those before it, was highlighted not only by DNPs, but also the emergence of unlikely fantasy studs. Let's begin with the Lakers. They shut down LeBron James, of course, but had already lost Brandon Ingram (shoulder), Lonzo Ball (ankle) and Josh Hart (knee) for the season. That left them relying on a skeleton crew of veterans headed to free agency, two-way players and guys on rookie contracts. One of the biggest winners was a player I've already mentioned – Alex Caruso.

Over the past six games, with a vastly expanded role at his disposal, Caruso has averaged 18.2 points, 8.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.8 triples. He's played over 36 minutes per game and the only thing preventing him from being a top-50 fantasy asset in that span is poor shooting (43.8%) and high turnovers (4.2). His emergence began in mid-March and it's been accelerated by the absence of so many high-profile teammates, of course, with Rajon Rondo also being rested the final two games. It's worth remembering that Caruso is on a two-way contract that extends through 2019-20. He can only play 45 days with L.A. on that type of deal, before they must send him back to the G League, but it still gives them incentive to evaluate him in the waning days of the season. There was some method to the madness.

Johnathan Williams is another two-way player for the Lakers who helped DFS owners. He's double-doubled twice in the past four games, with averages of 13.8 points, 9.0 boards, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.5 blocks. He's shooting 60.0% from the field, too, so even season-long owners grinding it out have benefited. I'm surprised we haven't seen more minutes for Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga during the irregular season, as they're both still on guaranteed rookie-scale deals next season and could benefit from the extra experience. A more eagle-eyed observer of the Lakers might be able to explain this apparent discrepancy – I credit the mysteries of the irregular season.

Another group of Lakers helping fantasy owners is veterans on expiring contracts. The results have been mixed, but you can't have asked for more from JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Bullock (before his neck injury) and Rajon Rondo (before his recent rest days). Presumably, if Josh Hart were healthy the Lakers wouldn't be giving KCP heavy playing time – he wouldn't have attempted 15 (!) three-pointers on Tuesday, scoring 32 points with eight assists and five boards. L.A. may also have promised guys like KCP, JaVale and Rondo that in exchange for signing one-year deals last summer (for KCP, his second in a row), they'd get enough meaningful minutes to enter free agency with momentum. The motivation as to why a player is getting playing time doesn't always matter – stats are stats – but it's one more angle to consider when hunting for value at this chaotic time of year.

Other times, you don't have to think too hard. The Pelicans have shut down their most valuable veterans, even resting Julius Randle recently, resulting in a smorgasbord of value for Ian Clark, Kenrich Williams, Christian Wood and Jahlil Okafor. When you see guys playing 34+ minutes per game, as Clark has, don't ask questions – DFS sites are typically slow to react to whiplash-fast changes in value, so immediately target those guys. Kenrich Williams hasn't been great for DFS scoring, but his output the past four games in intriguing for roto sleeper value next year. He's averaging 9.5 points on a mere 10.8% usage, yet he's added 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 triples, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. Those supporting stats are extremely fluky, but we now know he's capable of them.

This is one more reason to pay attention to the irregular season. Your fantasy leagues may have ended (and hopefully they did) weeks ago. But unless you're retiring from fantasy hoops, it helps to know that a player like Kenrich can be a supporting-stats monster in the right situation. It's helpful to know that, because the Knicks' backcourt was obliterated by injuries, Mario Hezonja can slot in as a stat-stuffing, 6'8" point forward. He's capable of it. After getting his first career triple-double vs. the Wizards last week, he said he was grateful to be put in his "natural position." He'll be even more grateful for the leverage he just gained in offseason contract talks.

One of my favorite late-season surprises is Jamal Crawford. In another example of 'reward the veteran' leniency, J-Craw has gone off the past two weeks, to the tune of 24.2 points (53.3% FGs, 86.7% FTs), 3.5 triples, 6.3 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals. That of course includes his monster 51-point outburst vs. the Mavs on Tuesday, which made him 1) the oldest player in NBA history to drop 50, and 2) the only player to do so with four different NBA teams (Knicks, Bulls, Warriors, Suns). Crawford said recently that he's not even considering retirement, noting that he sacrificed scoring numbers this season but averaged his highest assists since 2008-09. It's safe to assume he'll land another contract in free agency.

Phoenix has been rife with fantasy values recently, but the others are more predictable – young players turned loose. Josh Jackson has led the pack, followed by Dragan Bender, Richaun Holmes and Mikal Bridges. The key for Jackson has been standing up to an increased workload (21.7% usage in 36.2 minutes the past two weeks) without bottoming out for efficiency. He's shooting 44.2% from the field with 1.8 triples, has 3.2 assists vs. 1.2 turnovers, and I've been pleasantly surprised with his play in a go-to role. The FT% is still brutal (62.5% on 2.7 attempts), so that's something to watch this offseason.

The waning days of the season aren't only for low-end guys who suddenly rise to prominence, a list that also includes Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, JaKarr Sampson, Luke Kornet, Gorgui Dieng, and a dozen other flash-in-the-pan values. They're also a time when reliable stars are at an absolute premium. If you're still playing in a weekly league and you own James Harden, congratulations. You win. Game over. The memory of his late-season dominance and durability will be enough to silence any arguments about who is the No. 1 fantasy player next season.

Chasing the No. 2 seed in the West must be part of the justification for Houston to play their MVP this much. The same can be said for Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and any other contributing veteran. In this regard, Mike D'Antoni's roll-the-dice approach can't be overstated. Denver is the team being hunted by Houston, and they're now just half a game up going into Wednesday night. Nuggets coach Mike Malone, however, recently responded by resting Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray for a game. Even before their lead atop the conference was unassailable, the Warriors were resting players during back-to-backs and particularly busy stretches of the schedule. Pacers coach Nate McMillan toyed with the idea of resting players a few weeks ago but didn't because Indiana was still chasing the No. 4 seed – it didn't happen this year, but now we know he's willing to rest guys down the stretch. The philosophical approach of coaches is something that must be reckoned with on draft day, assuming your leagues go into April.

To be clear, I don’t think head-to-head and roto fantasy leagues should continue into the irregular season...and neither do my colleagues. That doesn't mean you can't be successful in DFS, or prep for next year's leagues by paying attention to scrubs who get thrust into huge roles, stars that are unlikely to be rested, and more. The final weeks of the season are full of chaos and opportunity in equal measure. Playing fantasy hoops in April simply means that, like wearing an irregular shirt from Marshalls, everything gets a little less comfortable.

Ryan Knaus

Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for NBC Sports Edge since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.