NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

(Note: All statistics are through Monday, March  11.)

Welcome to Spring League, NBA fans.

This is the part of the regular season that most closely resembles the NBA’s Summer League exhibition series, where many franchises focus more on getting an extended look at young prospects and giving their stars a break.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. With the playoffs all but out of reach, LeBron James was placed in a “load-management” protocol by the Lakers, whose 2019 first-round pick becomes more valuable every minute that James does not play. The Lakers also signed 33-year-old G League journeyman Andre Ingram to a 10-day contract after he became a national sensation last season. No disrespect to Ingram, but the Lakers, like the New Orleans Pelicans, are making the organizational choice to not try to win games.

As such, there’s going to be a whole lot of non-competitive stretches in the final month of the season. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at Garbage Time Heroes that could help you win your fantasy league or choose what to watch every night.

I’ve broken it down into three categories. First, I was curious about which stars have the largest differential in how they score when the scoreboard is tight compared to when the game gets out of hand. For those, I looked at each of the top 25 scorers and analyzed their points per 36 minutes when the score is within five points versus when the lead or deficit is over 15 points (garbage time). The players with the biggest jumps in scoring during garbage time are listed below.

 

Secondly, I identified a few players who could see big numbers down the stretch as their teams go into full-out tank mode. And lastly, I listed three G League call-ups that could make some noise down the stretch as good teams rest their stars for the playoffs and bad teams rest their stars for the draft lottery.

Let’s get to it.

Opportunistic Stars

Klay Thompson

Of the top 25 scorers, no one saw their scoring numbers jump during garbage time more than Thompson. He scores 29.5 points per 36 minutes when the Warriors are either leading or trailing by more than 15 points compared to 22.7 points per 36 minutes when it’s within five or less. That’s not just a matter of touches. Thompson’s field-goal percentage also drops from 54 percent to 46 percent when the games are more competitive, a decline anchored by a 3-point percentage that sinks from 49 percent to 36 percent in the same situation.

This isn’t an isolated case, either. Though he’s certainly had his playoff moments (sorry, OKC), Thompson has also seen his scoring shrink in the playoffs when the competition is stronger than in the regular season. The sharpshooter has averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the previous four regular seasons but has reached that plateau just once in the past four postseasons.

It could be that playoff teams try to take away Thompson first and then deal with the rest of the Warriors. Teams could also be keying in on Thompson a lot more when the game is close and loosen their grip when the game seems out of hand. But either way, Thompson’s scoring rate jumps 6.7 points in garbage time, the highest in this group.

Zach LaVine

LaVine has fought the label of being an overrated “good stats, bad team” guy. While such criticism is unfair for a guy who just turned 24 years old and tore his ACL two years ago, these numbers certainly doesn’t help his case. LaVine has scored 161 points in 199 minutes of garbage time this season, a rate of 29.1 points per 36 minutes. But when the game is close, LaVine’s scoring average plummets to 23.2 points per 36 minutes, a difference of 5.9 points, the second-largest gap on this list.

Most of LaVine’s scoring surge in garbage time can be attributed to his overt aggressiveness. In those less-competitive minutes, he’s shooting 21.2 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, compared to just 18.4 in tighter situations. He’s actually sharper from 3-point land in close situations (41 percent vs. 30 percent), which further emphasizes that this is more about usage than it is about efficiency. Still, scoring 23.2 points per 36 minutes in competitive circumstances ain’t bad.

 

Bradley Beal

No star has scored more points in garbage time than Beal (278 points). Most of that is because the Wizards get blown out a ton, but that’s hardly Beal’s fault. Case in point: Since the All-Star break, the Wizards are plus-47 with Beal on the floor and minus-46 with him off the court. Beal’s scoring average in garbage-time situations is 27.3 points per 36 minutes, which is 4.6 points larger than when games are tighter.

That being said, I still think he should be in the All-NBA conversation (I laid out his candidacy in this week’s BIG Number video). Even if Beal has a scoring surge in garbage time, those situations only make up 15 percent of his minutes this season. The guy has played more minutes than anybody in the NBA this season. If he’s ball-hogging a bit in blowouts, so be it.

CJ McCollum

Fun fact: McCollum is a card-carrying member of the 50/40/90 shooting club -- as long as we’re talking about garbage time. (For those who don’t know, the 50/40/90 shooting club is reserved for those who shoot at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the line. This is the elite of the elite). The Portland shooting guard is shooting 51 percent from the floor, 42 percent from deep and 91 percent from the charity stripe in these blowout situations. He fits the same profile as Thompson -- an elite shooter who rarely gets to the free-throw line. He’s also someone who, until last postseason, had struggled to put up the same caliber of numbers in the postseason as the regular season.

McCollum is still a super talented scorer in tighter situations (21.4 points per 36 minutes), but he finds himself on this list because both his usage and efficiency rise when the game’s stakes are lowest. This is best illustrated by his whopping 25.4 points per 36 minutes in garbage time. The Blazers would probably benefit by figuring out how to have McCollum more involved in crunchtime simply to lessen the burden on Damian Lillard and make the offense more democratic.

 

Russell Westbrook

Of all the top 25 scorers, no one saw a larger gap in field-goal percentage according to the scoreboard. In close situations, Westbrook has shot 39 percent from the floor, an ugly figure for a go-to scorer. In garbage time, Westbrook’s field-goal percentage soars to 50 percent, a difference of 11 percent.

Continuing this trend, Westbrook’s shooting percentages have tumbled in postseason play over the last few years, as he failed to shoot above 40 percent in each of the last two playoffs -- both first-round exits for the Thunder. Westbrook has come up huge in the playoffs before (2016 Western Conference finals Games 3 and 4 against Golden State is a place to start, as is OKC’s 2012 run to the Finals). The Thunder hope to get more of that Westbrook in this upcoming postseason. Interestingly enough, Westbrook’s 2.7-point jump in garbage time (24.1 vs. 21.4) isn’t a matter of shooting more; he actually has seen his field-goal attempts per 36 minutes fall from 20.4 in close situations to 18.1 in garbage time. He’s just vastly more efficient when the game’s not out of hand.

Tank Pilots

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Luka Doncic is limping to the finish line and could be shut down soon. Dirk Nowitzki’s hinting that he’s giving it another go so there won’t be a last-hurrah scoring binge, a la Kobe Bryant. Throw in the fact that the Mavericks lose their first-round pick to Atlanta if it falls out of the top five on draft lottery night and you have the makings of a Tim Hardaway Jr., scoring binge.

Hardaway Jr.’s minutes have fallen from 32.6 per night in New York to 28.9 per night in Dallas, but if they pull the plug on the season, THJ could fill it up. He sees his scoring rate skyrocket when he’s not playing with Doncic, going from 15.4 points per 36 minutes with the rookie sensation to 23.0 points per 36 minutes with Doncic on the bench, per NBA.com. The icing on the cake? The Mavericks also get blown out by 11.6 points per 36 minutes with Hardaway on the floor without Doncic. Tank pilot, indeed.

 

Julius Randle

Tim Hardaway’s situation would only get more tanktastic if he was a free agent trying to get paid this summer. This guy, Randle, on the other hand? He’ll nuke his $9 million player option well before July 1 with the way he’s playing. This used to be Anthony Davis’ team. Then it was Jrue Holiday’s team. Now, with Holiday ailing, it’s Randle’s team -- for the next month.

Randle is an undeniable talent on the offensive end, but he gives up just as much defensively. Randle is averaging 23.8 points per game since Davis’ tanking, err, load-management program went into effect on Feb. 12. Since that point, the Pelicans surrender 110.4 points per 100 possessions to the other team when Randle is on the floor, compared to a stingy 102.8 points per 100 possessions, when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. As long as Randle is playing, there will be buckets.

Joakim Noah

He’s back. Since the trade deadline, Noah is averaging 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in just 22.4 minutes per game. Translated per 36 minutes: 18.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He’s not just filling up the box score with hollow numbers; he’s genuinely made Memphis a better team since it took a flier on him earlier this season.

The Grizzlies have him on a one-year veteran’s minimum contract so it’ll be interesting to see how they feature him down the stretch. With the way it’s going, he might play himself into a pricier contract than the Grizzlies will be willing to pay. Part of me just wants to see Noah firing up 3-pointers for the heck of it. The Grizzlies only keep their 2019 first-round pick if it falls in the top-eight. They’re currently sitting with the seventh-worst record in the NBA. I’m praying for Noah 3-bombs.

G-League Call-ups

Andre Ingram

After a disastrous season in Los Angeles, Ingram is the last hope to end the season on a high note. Brandon Ingram (not related) is out for the season with blood clots. Lonzo Ball is likely finished. Kyle Kuzma is battling a bum ankle. James is on The Brow program. It’s Andre’s time to shine.

The Lakers obviously don’t think he’s going to help them win games, otherwise they’d sign him earlier to help with a genuine playoff push. Nonetheless, it’s a heartwarming story for basketball’s Crash Davis, having made his NBA debut as a 32-year-old rookie last season. Ingram scored just 12.8 points per 36 minutes for the South Bay Lakers this season with a G League career-low 35.7 percent from 3-point land, but the Lakers figure to give him every opportunity to recreate the magic from Staples Center last April. Don’t forget about Dre.

 

Christian Wood

This guy can fill it up. The 23-year-old averaged 28.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per game in the G-League this season and currently ranks No. 1 all-time in career PER for the G League (yes, that’s a thing).

Here’s the issue: He’s buried on the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench. The top-seeded Bucks called Wood up from the G League last Friday, but he hasn’t gotten any burn as they try to lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. If the team contracts the injury bug or rests its bigs down the stretch, keep a close eye on Wood. He could be the next Hassan Whiteside, just waiting for his big-league opportunity.

Jordan McRae

The NBA journeyman is someone to watch if the Washington Wizards are finally eliminated from the playoffs. McRae actually got garbage-time burn during the 2016 Finals with the Cavs and he torched the G League this season on a two-way contract with the Wizards, averaging 30.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 35 percent from deep for the Capital City Go-Gos.

McRae wasn’t a great fit for a championship contending Cavs squad, but if he gets some run with the Wizards down the stretch, he could put up big scoring numbers. He’s nursing a sore Achilles at the moment, but I wouldn’t rule out a big April from the 27-year-old NBA champ. He scored 20 points in 26 minutes in a win over the Atlanta Hawks last month. More of that could be in order.

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