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Five things to watch this week

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Here are some Monday morning thoughts from the Hoops Lab as we prepare for Week 9 of the fantasy basketball season. Keep in mind that standings for the rest of the Fantasy Basketball season are also updated on Mondays, so check them out as you prepare for this week’s games. Between the rankings and this article, we’ll also help you identify a few good Buy Low/Sell High candidates. So, without further ado, let’s dig into it.

Pelicans are better in the West, but what happens to Zion when Ingram returns?

The Golden State Warriors are your defending champions. The Phoenix Suns had the best record in the NBA last season. The Clippers are the big “what if?” team waiting unless/until Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can get back together and stay healthy for an extended period of time. The Nuggets have the two-time NBA MVP title. The Grizzlies have the next generation of Human Highlight Film Jr. (thanks to Dominique Wilkins).

But … silent as guarded? The New Orleans Pelicans are playing the best basketball in the West right now…and it’s not particularly close.

The Pelicans have won seven straight and nine of their last 10 games. During that streak, they beat the Suns twice, the Warriors and the Nuggets. On the sports betting front, it’s worth noting that the Pelicans still have the sixth-longest odds to win the Western Conference (+800), despite having the league’s best record at around a third of the season.

On the fantasy hoops front, it’s important that they do it all while winning without young All Star Brandon Ingram. Ingram has missed all seven games of his current winning streak with a toe injury. In his absence, the Pelicans ran through their other young All Star and showpiece, Zion Williamson, who is averaging 30.0 PPG (66.9 FG%, 74.6 FT%), 9.1 RPG, 5, 3 APG, 1.6 SPG and 1.1 BPG in 36.3 MPG during the series. Although the mega-efficient, high-volume score is eye-catching, don’t sleep on the aids. Pelicans win by running their attack through Zion and letting him decide whether to create for his teammates or end, and his fantasy value is through the roof.

But, Ingram will be back soon…according to his trainer, the hope is that he will come back on the next road trip. It should ultimately be great for the Pelicans because Ingram is an exceptional player. But he’s also a heavily used player who is third on the team with 15.4 FGA and second on the team with 4.9 APG. Prior to Ingram’s current seven-game absence, Zion “only” averaged 22.4 PPG and 3.7 APG while sharing the court with Ingram. His other numbers were also down (6.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.3 BPG), but offenses are where Ingram could have the most impact.

I’ve suggested in the past that fantasy managers who field Zion should be cautious about his injury history and might consider trading him high. If that’s your inclination, this is probably your best opportunity to do so. It’s hard to imagine Zion producing at this level once Ingram returns, so this might be the best fantasy production you’ll see from him this season. And your trade offer should basically write itself…a guy averaging nearly 30/10/5 on nearly 70% (!!!!) shooting from the field who is Dunks Ridiculous Run Daily SportsCenter should be someone you can get good value for.

Westbrook takes on Davis

I noticed a trend that I wrote about in the Sunday Daily Notes and made it the centerpiece of my best bet for the day. And it repeated itself, almost exactly, which now makes it a trend I’m going to watch this week. In the last six games, Anthony Davis has played more than eight minutes in four games. This is how Westbrook played next to Davis, as opposed to when Davis was away:

The Lakers seem to have found their strategy, and their level, when Davis is available. Everything is designed for Davis to be the first finisher, even on LeBron James. Westbrook seems to have fully embraced this. When Davis is on the field, Westbrook goes to Davis. When Davis is out, Westbrook drives to finish himself. This has clear fantasy, DFS and sports betting implications of what to expect from Westbrook. On Sunday, Westbrook’s assist prop was pegged at 6.5 and he finished with nine assists. Until Vegas catches up, the Westbrook assist prop deserves nightly attention.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard

Leonard and George have been injured for much of the season, something I’ve lamented here on several occasions. But last week they came back and, apart from the second half of a back-to-back streak where Kawhi (planned) sat out, and the two are slowly getting into shape.

George played all four games, but in the last two he looked like PG13 with averages of 32.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 6.5 APG, 5.0 3PG, 2.0 SPG and 1.0 BPG . He has the ability to play at this level for long periods of time, if he can stay healthy. But one would expect his score to be toned down if and when his running mate Kawhi finally hits his mark. And… he’s not that far away.

In his three games last week, Kawhi averaged 14.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, and 1.0 3PG in 29.3 MPG. That last stat is the most important: 29.3 MPG. While Kawhi is still limited in minutes, the cap has increased from his run earlier in the season. If he is able to continue to stay on the field (outside of back-to-backs), the next threshold to watch will be when the minutes limit is completely exhausted. Those who drafted Leonard waited almost two months to see him play at the level. He’s not here yet, but for the first time this season, it looks like the real Kawhi may be on the horizon. Maybe.

Lillard wakes up, Simons channels McCollum

Damian Lillard had a three-game streak in October where he broke Dame Time, averaging 37.7 PPG in three straight wins. Then the next game he strained his calf and hasn’t been the same since. He missed 12 games outright, and in the eight games he played, he averaged 22.1 PPG on 37.4 FG% without ever crossing the 30-point threshold. But, starting this weekend, it’s Dame Time again.

In his last two games, Lillard exploded for 38.0 PPG (47.7% FG, 100 FT%), 10.0 APG, 6.0 3PG, 3.5 RPG and 2.0 SPG in 39.5 MPG. Lillard starts this week facing the same Timberwolves defense he just burned down on Saturday. I’ll be watching to see how long this series of Dame Time can last.

Oh, and by the way… watch Anfernee Simons. Last season, Simons exploded while Lillard was injured, but he was never able to play at the top level while Lillard was on the pitch. These days, however, Simons is channeling his inner CJ McCollum and thriving even when Lillard is playing well. Simons has scored at least 22 points in six of his last seven games with Lillard, capped by the 31 points and five 3-pointers he lost to the Timberwolves on Saturday.

Welcome to BG

The latter is not about fantasy men’s basketball. I just have to take a moment to say a huge Welcome Home to Brittney Griner, who has been away from her family for far too long. Very grateful to have you home, BG!

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