If you’re trying to pick up Jusuf Nurkic or Hassan Whiteside from the waiver wire, you’re already too late. Trying to scoop Big Shot Bob Covington? He gone. How about a late run at Jodie Meeks for triples, who has been an afterthought (for some) in the Pistons’ resurgence? Well he’s rostered, too (Pistons 12-4 since Meeks made his season debut). The point of these examples? A simple illustration that it’s getting that much harder to make an in-season improvement via simple trade or waiver wire pickup.
I’m focusing on opportunity in this column. These guys have a real window to make an impact, and that’s not something that can be said of many at this juncture. All four guys on this list have a real opportunity to sustain and/or grow their roles (and production) as the season goes forward, and if you’re a successful fantasy owner, you want to captain the bandwagon, not jump on when the bus is filling up.
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Patty Mills, PG San Antonio Spurs
Mills has 10 three-pointers and 80 points this season, so some might be surprised to see him lead this list. And while it’s also true that Mills didn’t even hit a triple in his first two games this season, it’s safe to believe our favorite Frogging star is back to his usual self. While some are hesitant to use a roster spot on someone with a limited skill set, Mills has real value in what he brings to the table.
This addition won’t be for everyone, and it’s especially not for those in search of a quick fix or a roster tweak. Think of Mills like an ingredient in a dish you’re preparing. To get a nice, balanced finished product, you have to add in different flavors at various stages of the process. Mills isn’t one of those foundational flavors you’re adding it, but instead a very carefully-selected topping that’s suited for this specific meal.
Mills has eclipsed 25 minutes in both of his last two games, both Spurs victories, and it’s hard to think that’s just a coincidence. His best two statistical showings since debuting following an offseason shoulder procedure, Mills is averaging 17 points, 2.5 triples, 2.5 assists and a steal over that stretch of time.
There are some concerns here like the eventual return of Kawhi Leonard (hand) and Tony Parker (hamstring) getting healthier, but Mills is going to have to remain a key cog in the reserve unit for the Spurs to try and recapture even some of the magic they bottled up last season.
Steals & 3-Pointers
Dion Waiters, G Oklahoma City Thunder
A successful 2015 will hinge on Dion Waiters’ performance with the Oklahoma City Thunder...at least that’s likely what Sam Presti, Scott Brooks and co. though before pulling the trigger to acquire the mercurial guard in a three-team trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers last week. As predictable as a Waiters trade was this season, it was almost equally unpredictable to think that the Thunder would be the team that dealt for him, and borderline unthinkable that Waiters would be the player that forced OKC to go into luxury tax territory for the first time ever.
A two-game sample size isn’t much to move on, but that’s what we have so far. It’s clear that the Thunder are going to put Waiters into their plans from the onset, and there will be no talk of a slow integration. This isn’t a team that just makes trades, and this isn’t a club that just makes deals for former No. 4 overall picks, so Waiters is going to get a real shot in OKC, even if it comes at the expense of pending (restricted) free-agent Reggie Jackson. Jackson has played just 22 and 15 minutes respectively in consecutive games since Waiters’ arrival.
Like J.R. Smith, talent has never been the issue for Waiters. He was a terrible fit in Cleveland, and this was well before LeBron returned or Kevin Love came into the picture. A ball-dominant guard who needs the rock to be effective, Waiters should now be able to have a real chance in the Thunder’s second unit. And if his second outing with his new team (15 points, three rebounds, four steals, 27 minutes) is at least a partial illustration of what he can do, owners are going to want Waiters on their team.
I know, I’m still getting used to that last sentence, too.
Shane Larkin, PG New York Knicks
When Shane Larkin was given the reigns to the starting point guard job earlier this season when the Knicks were without Jose Calderon (calf), it was an unmitigated disaster, and the stats don’t lie: In 13 games, Larkin has averaged 6.1 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals on 41.3 percent shooting. That’s just not good.
However, Larkin has been one of the rare bright spots of late as New York’s dismal season continues, and he’s managed to gather 13 steals over his last four games. And since the calendar has turned to 2015, Larkin has averaged 7.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 steals and 0.8 triples on 45.9 percent shooting. The most important number for Larkin is not listed in that improved stat line, but rather here: He’s seeing over 27 minutes per game, and that’s with Calderon still on the roster...for now.
Calderon was mentioned as a trade candidate after the Knicks said goodbye to J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert last week, and he was once again brought up on Monday morning as someone who’s on the trade block. Amar’e Stoudemire (knee) is still without a timetable. Carmelo Anthony (knee) is almost guaranteed to shut it down at some point after the All-Star Break. It would be a surprise if Calderon isn’t moved before the deadline, and he could be moved a lot quicker than that. Given the dumpster fire that is the Knicks roster, combined with the fact that New York is in full-blown evaluation mode, Larkin is someone who makes a lot of sense as a speculative add now who could really pay off later.
Brandan Wright, PF/C Phoenix Suns
It’s going to take some time for Wright to develop a niche in Phoenix, but let’s make something clear right now: This isn’t a situation where the Suns dealt for someone who’s going to sit on the bench. Miles Plumlee. after losing his starting job to a more talented Alex Len, now again stands to lose minutes—this time to Wright.
Len is entrenched as the starter, but he’s still struggling with fouls on occasion, and that’s not going to be an overnight correction. Len has eclipsed 30 minutes just twice this season—the first was the second game of the season, and the other was on Sunday in a double-overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Even though the sophomore has made great strides since a disappointing rookie campaign, he’s not going to suddenly blossom into someone playing 30-plus minutes with regularity. There’s plenty of room for Wright to make an impact, and as we’ve seen in Dallas, he doesn’t need a ton of time to do it—he averaged 1.6 blocks for the Mavs this season despite getting just under 19 minutes per game.
There will be an adjustment period as Jeff Hornacek tries to figure out how to make his new personnel work and find the right spots for Wright, but Ryan McDonough isn’t dealing future assets unless it’s an a clear attempt to land an impact player. In Wright, the Suns nabbed arguably the best rim-protection remaining on the market, and they’re going to need his help if Phoenix anticipates contending for a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference.
Don’t let the minutes deceive you: There is value to be found here.