This week's column is a departure from the norm -- in lieu of a 'deep dive' into a specific statistic, or an analysis of fantasy values writ large, we'll be discussing the outlooks of prominent injured players. With exactly four weeks remaining in the regular season, time is not on their side.
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To begin, let's look at the remaining schedules for each team, in terms of games per week and total games. I'm looking at the three full weeks remaining, from Week 22 (Mar. 21-27) through Week 24 (Apr. 4-10). The final week is shortened, with no team playing more than two games, and typical fantasy playoffs exclude it to avoid unpredictable DNP-CDs and the assorted chaos that comes at the end of the regular season.
The Warriors and Bulls are the only teams with a dozen games during this three-week period, and the Bulls and Nets are the only teams with five-game weeks. The Bulls can hardly afford to rest players as they claw their way toward a playoff berth, but it wouldn't be surprising to see guys like Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young rested at some point during the Nets' busy stretch in Week 23. There are 12 teams that play 10 games during this span, and 16 teams with 11 games. Without considering the strength of schedule for each team, the raw games-played totals don't confer a huge advantage (unless you have some high-profile Warriors and Bulls... Stephen Curry should be a wrecking-ball for his owners).
With that cursory look at the schedule out of the way, let's discuss some injured players. Note that, unless specified, I'm assuming there's no IL spot available. At this stage of the season I become very risk-averse and impatient for production, so as you'll see I'm rarely inclined to wait around for an injured player. If you have a higher risk tolerance, or play in very deep leagues, you might come to different conclusions as you chase the championship(s).
Jae Crowder: The Celtics' forward is enjoying a breakout season but his recent high ankle sprain will sideline him "a couple of weeks minimum," according to Brad Stevens. Assuming Crowder returns 14 days from the date of his injury, which is very optimistic, he'd be back in time for one game in Week 22 and a full slate of games in Weeks 23 & 24. It's more realistic that his absence will extend into Week 23, however, leaving owners with a tougher choice. If you're supremely confident that you can survive a week (or two) without Crowder in the playoffs, it might be worth holding onto him -- after all, he's been a top-30 value in 9-cat leagues this season. In most scenarios without an IL spot, however, I'm cutting Crowder for anyone who's healthy and producing. His teammate Evan Turner fits the bill.
Pau Gasol: The Bulls lost their starting center to a swollen right knee, the details of which are a bit hazy. "He's had irritation down there," Fred Hoiberg said. "And the knee just swelled up." The good news is that Gasol is day-to-day and his knee "responded well to treatment," so there's a chance the Bulls will get him back on Thursday. This is an open-and-shut case for his fantasy owners -- he's been terrific all season, the Bulls need him on the court to stave off the Pistons for the No. 8 seed, and he could return this week. Barring a setback, Pau is a must-hold.
Jusuf Nurkic: A chronic knee injury has spoiled Nurkic's season, confounding his owners' expectations and opening the door for Nikola Jokic to thrive in an expanded role. Nurkic had a brief, shining moment of effective play on Saturday before limping through the game's final minutes. He's been on and off the injury report ever since, and appears to have been a DNP-CD on Monday and Tuesday, all of which confirms that fantasy owners should go nowhere near him.
Danilo Gallinari: Nuggets coach Mike Malone said on Mar. 8 that Gallinari is "ahead of schedule" in his rehab, which may have caused a premature stampede to the waiver wire. The reality isn't as rosy as owners would like to believe -- Malone clarified on Wednesday that Gallo is still "weeks away" from playing and has no clear timetable. Denver previously considered shutting him down, and they have zero incentive to rush him back in a lost season, making him an unattractive stash in almost any format.
Blake Griffin: Things went from bad to worse in a hurry for Griffin's fantasy owners this season. First he partially tore his left quad, then on the cusp of his return he fractured his right hand punching the team's equipment manager, which resulted in a four-game suspension. Unfortunately, his quad "is the main reason he’s yet to be cleared to return," which means the clock on his suspension isn't ticking. The same report stated that his return date "has been pushed slightly back to late March," which means that he'd be serving his suspension into April. It's a dreary situation and at this point there are very few scenarios in which it makes sense to keep Blake on your roster.
Chris Bosh: Blood clots have threatened to end Bosh's season, though fortunately he reported last week that he has no active clots and is hoping to return this year. That's terrific news in the wake of a very serious health scare, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Bosh is worth scooping off the waiver wire. Erik Spoelstra reiterated last Friday that Bosh doesn't have a timetable to return, and the team hasn't provided any specific updates on his status. Given the severe risks involved with blood clots and the blood-thinning medication used to eliminate them, and Miami's reluctance to provide any timetable, only the most optimistic owners should think about adding Bosh.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: The Nets' prized rookie remains without a firm return date, though he has progressed to what sounds like a full workload. RHJ said last Saturday that he's "working out, [doing] sprints, a lot of full-court stuff, shooting, ball handling, just doing everything, core, lifting." Interim coach Tony Brown confirmed that RHJ is going through "every facet" of practice but his conditioning wasn't quite there, and the Nets aren't taking any risks -- he's already almost 14 weeks into his recovery, whereas the Nets originally suggested he'd need 8-10 weeks. He was a late-round value (9-cat) when healthy, playing 22.0 minutes per game, and a minute-limit is a real possibility whenever he returns to game action. With this much uncertainty about his return date, and a lack of stellar upside, I'm not inclined to keep RHJ on my bench during the playoffs.
The Grizzlies: Marc Gasol is already down for the season with a fractured right foot. Mike Conley will miss the next 3-4 weeks (as of Saturday) due to left Achilles tendonitis, which erases him from the fantasy conversation. Mario Chalmers is done with a ruptured Achilles, Brandan Wright (knee) is out indefinitely, and even Zach Randolph (sore right knee) has missed six consecutive games. Randolph is the only viable stash candidate here, but even he is a major gamble -- the Grizzlies rarely provide detailed injury updates, and all we know is that he has a "sore right knee." I'm not inclined to gamble my fantasy season on the health of a player's nebulous knee injury, and Z-Bo has been just a top-100 player in 9-cat leagues this season (lower in 8-cat), so the risk vs. reward equation compels me to dump him for a healthy player.
Norris Cole: Cole came on strong once Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon were ruled out for the season, but his momentum has ebbed -- he's missed four straight games with a sore lower back, though he's once again listed as 'questionable' to play vs. the Kings on Wednesday. Toney Douglas has picked up the slack in Cole's absence and it's not encouraging that New Orleans is adding Tim Frazier on a 10-day contract, which suggests that Cole might not be ready. He has nice upside when healthy, as seen when he blew up for 23 points, seven boards, six assists and three steals vs. the Kings on Mar. 7, and is worth grabbing the moment he's officially cleared to play. Until that time, though, I'm simply monitoring him from a distance.
Gordon Hayward: A bout of plantar fasciitis has struck down Hayward at exactly the wrong time for his fantasy owners, who now face a real quandary. Do you hang onto him in the hopes that he gets back on the court quickly? Or do you cut him for a productive FA, as plantar fasciitis requires rest and has a tendency to linger? Even Damian Lillard, who is as tough as they come, missed seven games with plantar fasciitis earlier this season. I'm inclined to think that Hayward will have an extended absence, but am holding him for a few days (wherever possible) in the hopes that we get a positive update...right now the severity is unclear, and he's listed as 'questionable' for Thursday's game. On a side note, make sure Rodney Hood isn't available on your waiver wire.
Elfrid Payton & Nikola Vucevic: Orlando's starting point guard couldn't practice on Monday due to pain in his sprained right elbow, which isn't a good sign -- he said on Sunday that it hurts him to follow through on shots, and the Magic don't need to rush him back with Brandon Jennings and C.J. Watson both available. Even at full strength Payton is a weak option outside of points leagues, thanks to poor percentages and muted scoring/3-pointers, so he belongs on the waiver wire.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for Nikola Vucevic, whose strained groin has caused him to miss five straight games. Vuc said on Sunday, "They want me to rest it for a few days, and I'll do some stuff to strengthen that area and strengthen my core. The biggest part is really just rest and let it calm down and heal with treatment." Groin injuries can be easily aggravated and we've yet to see Vuc on the practice court, which implies that his return is still some ways off. I'm looking at this from a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately standpoint, and (again, barring an open IL spot) Vuc is simply too risky to carry as dead weight into the fantasy playoffs.
Robert Covington: A scary head/neck left Covington in the NBA's concussion protocol this week, though he did say that he hopes to return "soon." That leaves him questionable for games on Thursday and Friday -- in most cases I'm inclined to hold onto RoCo, whose role has been rock-solid lately. He's flirting with top-50 value since the All-Star break, so if you can hang onto him for a few more days he could pay off richly despite Philly's less-than-stellar schedule in Weeks 23-24.
Jonas Valanciunas: JV avoided disaster when X-rays came back negative on his bruised left hand. He said he got hit in "almost the same spot" as he did when breaking the hand earlier this season, so it's no surprise that Toronto held him out of Tuesday's game. He is questionable to return on Thursday, and as long as he's day-to-day I'm trying to keep him on my roster. If the Raptors downgrade his status, or the DNPs start to pile up, however, Valanciunas lacks the game-changing upside to justify holding onto him.
DeMarre Carroll: The Raptors' key offseason acquisition hasn't played since Jan. 3 but he's reportedly targeting a return in late March. GM Masai Ujiri said in a recent interview that Carroll "is trying to get on-court stuff going now," but a late-March return doesn't bode well for fantasy purposes. If he played on Monday, Mar. 28, for instance, he'd get just eight games for fantasy owners. Throw in a likely minute-limit, and rust after such a long absence, and there should be more appealing free agents available on the wire.