By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As we work our way through Week 12 of the fantasy basketball season, a handful of teams will cross the halfway point in the schedule. It’s somewhat of a stunning realization considering this season has, at times, felt like it’s crawling by amid rampant, virus-related absences.
With new, faster protocols in place, hopefully, fantasy managers won't have to deal with so many players missing, but it nevertheless continues to dominate the landscape with names like John Collins, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Deandre Ayton and Kristaps Porzingis still dealing with protocols as of Tuesday.
As usual, we’ll begin our weekly look around the league with the latest virus-related news before digging into more of the biggest storylines in fantasy basketball.
Weekly COVID-19 Update
Compared to where things stood this time last week, the league is in a much better place. Most of the credit goes to the NBA’s expedited return-to-play mandates, which have allowed several players, like Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas, to clear protocols after missing only one or two games. The hope is that as players continue to test positive over the second half of the schedule, teams will avoid being decimated for multiple weeks, as had been the case for a few teams throughout December.
The league is also in a better spot because so many key players tested positive for the virus around Christmas, and virtually all of those players have since returned to their teams. So, while fantasy managers may have spent the holidays fighting over the rights to Skylar Mays or Luka Garza, most teams’ rotations are beginning to return to at least some semblance of normalcy.
As of Tuesday, several top-150 players either remain in protocols or may be sidelined due to conditioning concerns, but many are expected to return to action within the next few days:
Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are both considered questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Thunder. The pair cleared protocols Monday and are working on ramping up their conditioning.
Russell hasn’t played since Dec. 23 at Utah, while Towns has been sidelined since Dec. 21 at Dallas.
Dejounte Murray (conditioning) will miss Tuesday’s game against the Raptors but should have a good chance to make his return on the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday against Boston.
The Hawks are expecting to get John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic back at some point this week. Collins entered protocols back on Dec. 26, while Bogdanovic was placed in protocols two days later (Tuesday, Dec. 28).
Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Enes Freedom each cleared protocols and took part in practice Tuesday morning. Both players will likely be available Wednesday night against the Spurs.
In Cleveland, Darius Garland cleared protocols and went through a full practice Monday. As of Tuesday afternoon, Garland is not listed on the injury report ahead of the night’s matchup with the Grizzlies.
Kristaps Porzingis landed in COVID-19 protocols Monday, so he figures to miss Wednesday’s game versus Golden State and Friday’s game at Houston before potentially returning as early as Sunday against Chicago.
Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and Chris Duarte are among a handful of Pacers players still in protocols. Of the three, Brogdon and Duarte could be back soonest. Indiana plays at New York Tuesday before hosting the Nets on Wednesday.
For the Grizzlies, Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton remain sidelined. Both entered protocols on Dec. 26, so it’s been more than a week. Neither is expected to play Tuesday night at Cleveland, but the pair could be back Thursday (vs. DET) or Saturday (at LAC).
Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle were each placed in COVID protocols Monday for the second time this season.
Deandre Ayton is listed as OUT for Tuesday’s game at New Orleans, but he’s been in protocols since Dec. 27, so he could be cleared in time for Thursday’s game against the Clippers or Saturday’s game against Miami.
LeBron takes over top spot
While the Lakers are yet to claw their way over .500 — they’ll have a chance to do so Tuesday night against the Kings — LeBron James’ impressive individual season rolls on.
Despite a down game (by his standards) Sunday against Minnesota (26 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals in 39 minutes), James has overtaken Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry for the top spot in 8-category, per-game value.
On the year, James is up to 28.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 3.0 threes, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and, surprisingly, draining better than 77 percent of his attempts at the line. More than anything, the free-throw shooting (best since 2008-09), steals (highest since 2011-12) and threes (career-high) are carrying James’ fantasy value to unbelievable heights for a 37-year-old.
Klay Thompson targeting return vs. Cavs
After literal years of rehab and anticipation, Klay Thompson is reportedly targeting Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers to make his return to the Warriors’ lineup. As Warriors executive Bob Myers promised, the game is at home, so Thompson will undoubtedly receive a massive ovation when he plays his first game since the 2019 NBA Finals against Toronto.
If Thompson does indeed play Sunday, it will mark his first action in almost 31 months (941 total days). For fantasy purposes, expect the Warriors to keep a close eye on Thompson’s workload for several weeks, as there’s very little precedent for a player of his caliber returning from back-to-back ACL and Achilles injuries. Once he’s back up to speed, Thompson should return to providing fantasy managers with high-level three-point production in addition to points and lower-level rebounds/assists.
Given who we’re dealing with, there’s little doubt that Thompson will be able to rediscover his Hall-of-Fame-caliber three-point stroke, but the bigger question is whether he can still be an elite defender — or even a plus defender. Thompson has averaged close to 1.0 steals per game for his career, but fantasy managers shouldn’t bank on that being the case going forward.
Cavs lose Rubio, trade for Rondo
The Cavaliers’ dream season took a major hit last week when Ricky Rubio was lost for the season due to a torn ACL, which he sustained during Tuesday’s loss to the Pelicans. Playing on his fourth team in as many seasons, the veteran guard had been one of the year’s biggest surprises, providing a significant boost to a backcourt that lost Collin Sexton (knee) for the season early on. While Rubio’s field goal percentage (36.3% FG) had tanked in recent weeks, he was providing 13.1 points, 6.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals and a career-best 1.7 threes while shooting 85.4 percent at the line.
In response to losing Rubio, the Cavaliers moved to acquire Rajon Rondo from the Lakers over the weekend. Rondo is unlikely to bring the same kind of spark, but he’s a reasonable replacement for a Cavs team looking to shore up its standing as a playoff team in the tightly contested Eastern Conference. Rondo appeared in only 18 games for the Lakers, logging averages of 3.1 points, 3.7 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 0.7 steals in 16.1 minutes.
Rondo could make his Cavs debut as early as Friday at Portland, which marks the start of a six-game Western Conference road swing.
Kyrie set to debut Wednesday
Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Monday that Kyrie Irving is targeting Wednesday’s game at Indiana to make his long-awaited 2021-22 debut. Irving is not listed on the Nets’ injury report for the first time this season, so all indications are that he will play Wednesday.
Due to New York City’s vaccine mandates, Irving will only be permitted to play in road games in cities that do not have similar mandates. San Francisco, Toronto and Washington D.C. have enacted similar rules, so Irving will likely be forced to sit out away games against the Warriors, Raptors and Wizards as well as the Knicks.
After Wednesday’s game, the Nets play four of their next six contests at home. And with upcoming road games at Washington (Jan. 19) and Golden State (Jan. 29), Irving may end up being active for only six January games. Needless to say, the situation is going to be frustrating for fantasy managers holding Irving in weekly lineup leagues, but he could provide a big-time boost for those with daily lineups.
Donovan Mitchell is somewhat quietly having the best fantasy season of his career, as he ranks 14th in per-game value as of Tuesday. The newly minted Western Conference Player of the Month for December is averaging 25.7 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 3.3 threes per game.
Jrue Holiday continues to roll along and is now a top-30 player in per-game value this season. Over his last 16 games, Holiday is putting up 22.4 points, 7.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.9 threes on 57 percent shooting. In a season where Khris Middleton has been up-and-down while missing more time than usual, Holiday has clearly been the Bucks’ second-most-important piece.
The Bucks’ depth did sustain a slight blow over the weekend when Donte DiVincenzo rolled his ankle — the same one on which he underwent surgery in June — during pregame warmups. He’s since been ruled out for the next 2-to-3 weeks with a sprain. DiVincenzo played in only three games before suffering the injury.
Speaking of ankles, Jimmy Butler was held off the floor Monday night after appearing to roll his during the Heat’s loss to Golden State. Miami is yet to offer an update, but based on how the injury looked, Butler will almost certainly miss time. The star wing has already sat out 15 games due to injury.
Luka Doncic made his return to action Sunday at Oklahoma City and also played in Monday night’s win over Denver. Over the two games, Doncic averaged 17.5 points, 12.5 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals. He went just 3-of-12 from downtown, however.
Scottie Barnes was one of several Raptors regulars who returned for Sunday’s 120-105 win over the Knicks. It marked Barnes’ first action since Dec. 18, but due to some postponements and a lighter time in the schedule, he only ended up missing three contests.
Barnes (68th) is one of three rookies who currently rank inside the top-70 in per-game value, joining Cade Cunningham (47th) and Evan Mobley (54th).
Kevin Love corner: Coming into the year, it looked as though Love and the Cavs may be heading toward an acrimonious divorce. Instead, the veteran forward has emerged as one of the linchpins of Cleveland’s surprising season. He now ranks inside the top-85 in 8-cat leagues behind averages of 19.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and a whopping 4.0 threes (49.1% 3Pt) over his last 13 games. He’s playing just 23.0 minutes during that stretch.
Over Love’s last five games, his numbers jump to 25.0 points, 8.6 boards, 2.8 assists and 5.4 threes (52.9% 3Pt).
Detroit has most of its key players back from COVID protocols, but Hamidou Diallo took advantage of the situation to break out for 28, 31 and 34 points, respectively, over a three-game stretch from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Big-time minutes certainly helped his cause — Diallo played 50 minutes against the Spurs on Saturday — but he showed enough to warrant keeping an eye on going forward. Dating back to Dec. 8 (11 games), Diallo is averaging 17.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 steals (31.6 MPG).
After pulling down 17 boards against Golden State on Monday, undrafted rookie Omer Yurtseven now has double-digit rebounds in nine straight games. He’s been a streaming godsend over that stretch, posting 10.0 points, 13.8 boards, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks in 27.6 minutes.
Dewayne Dedmon (knee) should be back soon, and Bam Adebayo (thumb) is nearing the end of his 4-to-6-week timetable, so Yurtseven’s run could come to an end soon. But like Diallo, his numbers jump out enough that he’ll be on the fantasy radar whenever the Heat are without any of their big men.
The Rockets suspended both Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. for Monday’s game against the Sixers. The suspension stems from both players’ conduct during Saturday’s loss to Denver. Porter reportedly got into an altercation with an assistant coach and left the arena in his own vehicle at halftime. Wood at least remained in the arena, but he refused to check into the game, which devolved into yet another blowout loss for Houston.
It’s unclear if either player will face further discipline, but as of now, they’re both expected to return to action Wednesday at Washington.