By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The first batch of scrimmages from inside the Orlando bubble have been surprisingly competitive, but no amount of James Harden isos, Giannis dunks or Bol Bol transition threes can make up for the four-plus months of no NBA basketball that the coronavirus pandemic forced fantasy players to endure.
Thinking back to the spring, when the NBA acted quickly to suspend the season on March 11, it feels more like four years than four months ago. Back then, the times were much simpler. We wondered when Karl-Anthony Towns would return from injury, whether Steph Curry could salvage a productive final month for desperate fantasy managers, and how Clint Capela would look catching lobs from Trae Young. Fast-forward to late-July, and none of those players will even have the opportunity to finish their seasons.
With only 22 of the league’s 30 teams in Orlando, most fantasy leagues were left with no choice but to call it a season. But with DFS contests set to return this week and playoff-only leagues on the horizon, there’s no better time to look back and refresh ourselves on the top storylines around the league when play came to a halt in March.
Jayson Tatum was on a tear
At the time of the shutdown, no player was hotter than Jayson Tatum. Fresh off of his first All-Star appearance, the third-year wing averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks in his final nine games before the shutdown. Tatum shot a ridiculous 46.8 percent from three in that span (8.6 3PA/G) while hitting better than 47 percent of his field goals, overall.
But Tatum’s breakout had begun even before the All-Star break. Kicking off with a 41-point effort in a blowout win over New Orleans on Jan. 11, Tatum averaged 26.6 points per game over his next 14 contests leading up to All-Star Weekend. In his final game before the break, Tatum went for 39 points on 23 shots in an eight-point win over the Clippers in Boston — part of a run in which he scored at least 25 points in 12 of 13 games from February 1 through March 4.
Victor Oladipo was working his way back
Unfortunately, not a whole lot has changed on this front over the last four-and-a-half months. When Oladipo made his season debut in January, the hope was that he’d gradually work his way back up to speed in time for the playoffs — then slated for April.
But Oladipo got off to a rockier-than-expected start, shooting just 39% from the field, and 30% from three, in 13 games before the shutdown. More concerningly, he continued to be bothered by his surgically repaired quad tendon, which caused him to miss four of the Pacers’ final nine games.
After initially announcing that he planned to sit out the restart, Oladipo joined the team in Orlando and has been a participant in both of the Pacers’ scrimmages. But as of Sunday, he remains on the fence about playing during the seeding round, leaving fantasy managers in a similar predicament to the one they found themselves in back in March.
The Thunder were surging
After starting the season 15-15, the Thunder closed with a 25-9 record over their final 34 games. A 7-2 record after the All-Star break — including wins over New Orleans, Boston, and Denver — propelled Oklahoma City to the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
Fantasy-wise, the Thunder were a surprisingly productive bunch, with five players — Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams, and Danilo Gallinari — ranking inside the top 75 in total fantasy points at the time of the shutdown. Coming off of a strong rookie season, Gilgeous-Alexander’s ascension was mostly expected, but both Paul and Schroder exceeded expectations.
For Paul, it’s always been about staying healthy, something he simply hadn’t been able to do over the previous three seasons. The 35-year-old has missed only one game this season, in turn recapturing his status as a top-30 fantasy asset. Meanwhile, Schroder is in the midst of by far the most efficient campaign of his seven-year NBA career, averaging 19.0 points per game on 47% shooting, including a career-best 38% from three.
The Rockets went full Rockets
When the Rockets dealt Clint Capela to the Hawks in February, it was a clear signal that they were ready to fully embrace small-ball on a level the league had never seen. But the shutdown meant Houston only had 14 games to experiment with its revamped roster, which often featured Robert Covington or PJ Tucker functioning as the nominal center.
During that sample, the results were decidedly mixed. Just after the trade, the Rockets won on the road in Los Angeles, beating the West-leading Lakers by 10 points. Later in February, Houston went on a six-game winning streak — five of which came by double-digits. But the Rockets immediately followed up with a four-game skid, including losses to the Knicks, Hornets, and Magic (by 20 points at home).
As seeding games approach, Houston looms as a dangerous opponent, yet one that also faces a number of questions. Incredibly reliant on two very different, very ball-dominant guards, the Rockets present a unique challenge. And while they’re capable of beating any team on any night, they’re also prone to bogged-down offense with wild swings in three-point shooting.
Coby White was red-hot
The Bulls did not, of course, qualify for the Orlando restart, but their first-round pick in 2019 had begun to show signs of promise before the shutdown. Beginning with a 33-point eruption against the Suns on February 22, White scored at least 20 points in eight of his final nine games while topping 30 points three times. He averaged 26.1 points per game in that span, tossing up 9.0 threes per game and hitting at a 43% clip.
DeAndre Jordan supplanted Jarrett Allen
Four days before the shutdown, Brooklyn replaced Kenny Atkinson with Jacque Vaughn, who immediately inserted DeAndre Jordan into the starting five, pushing Jarrett Allen to the bench. As expected, the two had split the workload at center relatively evenly throughout the season, with neither player emerging as a particularly reliable fantasy asset. While Jordan remains an elite volume rebounder, the ongoing position battle projected to be annoying, at best, over the final month of the regular season.
Flash forward to Orlando, and the Nets’ roster has been decimated. In addition to Jordan — who tested positive for COVID-19 in June — opting out of the restart, Brooklyn is down Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Taurean Prince, and Spencer Dinwiddie. The result? Major boosts in value for both Allen and Caris LeVert. For DFS players, it’s something of a blessing in disguise. Allen will be locked into a starting role, with the potential to play significantly more minutes than he averaged before the shutdown (25.7 MPG).
Meanwhile, LeVert is now the Nets’ No. 1 offensive option by default. The 25-year-old was already in the middle of a mini-breakout in February and March, posting averages of 24.1 points, 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals over his final 16 games. During that span, he went for at least 20 points 10 times, highlighted by a 51-point outburst in a wild, come-from-behind win in Boston on March 3.
LeBron James forced his way into the MVP conversation
Was LeBron James actually going to challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo for the award? Probably not. But the narrative was out there, especially after James led the Lakers to back-to-back wins over the Bucks and Clippers in a three-day span just before the shutdown.
The NBA’s leader in assists, James has come back as strong as ever after missing significant time with an injury for the first time in his career last season. Through 60 games, James posted 25.7 points, 10.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds, and shot just under 50 percent from the field — all while putting in a noticeably renewed effort on the defensive end.
He’s a virtual shoo-in to finish second in MVP voting, and James will look to cap off another top-10 fantasy season with his fourth NBA title.
The Bucks were banged up
While the Bucks no longer have what would’ve been a significant home-court advantage in playoffs, the layoff did provide Milwaukee with an opportunity to rest up. Dealing with a knee injury, Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the final two games before the shutdown and was likely set to miss at least a few more. Eric Bledsoe was battling a knee issue of his own, which kept him out of Milwaukee’s final game on March 9 against Denver.
Now fully healthy in Orlando, the Bucks will have an opportunity to lock up the one seed early in the seeding games. If that happens, Mike Budenholzer will have the luxury of being cautious with his starters’ workloads as Milwaukee braces for what it hopes will be another long postseason run.