One-category helpers for stretch run
If you live in Los Angeles, this is the time of year when you may be offered anywhere from two to 10 free Clippers tickets a day. I'm one of the two to 10 people who actually will gladly take them.
On Monday night, I was looking forward to seeing the Los Angeles Clippers-Charlotte Bobcats matchup for one primary reason: It was a way for me to sort of thank Stephen Jackson in person for what he's done for my fantasy teams the past two months.
Jackson responded with a percentage-killing 1-of-16 from the floor, sending me back to the bar at least twice, and forcing me to instead focus on the happy things. Like the fact that Theo Ratliff was back on an NBA court, actually getting minutes. Because an on-court Ratliff, no matter his age, means he's going to be bringing his owners a cornucopia of blocks.
This is the time of the fantasy season when I start looking to roster some categorical specialists.
As you move into the stretch drive of the season, and every statistical percolation begins to really count, you should be thinking more and more about the categories in which you could take a hit in order to gain an advantage in the areas where an outcome is in doubt.
If you're in a head-to-head league, this strategy holds a ton of value. By this point of the season -- post-trade deadline -- you should have an increasingly precise idea of what your areas of need are going to be in your weekly matchups. The flukiness of head-to-head might be infuriating at times, but taking categorical precautions is one way to guard against being snuck up on by some sub-.400 team while you're fighting for the playoffs.
Let's take a look at specialists, averaging 25 to 29 minutes per game, who might make the difference for you down the stretch.
This has been a tough season to troll for assists. The chief culprit? A relatively high amount of stability at the point guard position in NBA backcourts. Aside from the Chris Paul injuries and the Gilbert Arenas personal implosion, there really haven't been too many fantasy flameouts at point guard.
As a result, this is basically a one-man list. Oh, sure, I could remind you to pick up Sergio Rodriguez, but this column is supposed to be discussing players who should be available in your league. And if Rodriguez is still available in your league, you and your friends should be ashamed of yourselves. Wait he's owned in just 4 percent of ESPN leagues? Most of you reading this should be ashamed, apparently.You know who's almost always available? Steve Blake.
Blake's sort of the Shane Battier of point guards, a player who, when given 25 minutes, can help your team in ways you probably won't even notice. And Blake is about the only assist specialist you can pencil in for at least four assists per night -- even with limited minutes -- the rest of the way. Blake's per-minute efficiency means he'll also be good for the occasional 3-pointer and steal.
He's in a good spot because, post-deadline, he's found himself backing up Baron Davis. Davis is a perpetual day-to-day risk, and a perennial "personal shutdown" candidate. To say he's a "personal shutdown" candidate means Davis is one of the select, special NBA players (think Vince Carter) who is capable of giving himself entire months off, even while playing 35 minutes a night.
Beyond Blake, Luke Ridnour can still pitch in if you're in an assist battle, even with only 20 minutes a night to distribute the basketball (this is the time of the season when I have to remind myself of my personal promise to never use the terms "run" or "burn" in a column).
And, of course, there's always Mike Miller. Miller comes with the added bonus of qualifying at a position other than point guard, a great bonus if you're in desperate need of dimes.
Chris Andersen, minute-for-minute, has been one of the most underrated fantasy specialists of the past couple seasons. Thanks to his well-defined role in the Nuggets' rotation, he's also virtually automatic. If you plug in Andersen and expect six points, six rebounds and two blocks, you'll almost never be disappointed. If he's hot, he's one of the few fringe players who's capable of winning a category almost single-handedly in a head-to-head situation.
One of the nice things about writing a specialists column is the high amount of old, friendly faces that pop up. Darko Milicic, who's been pining for a gig in Europe, wasn't planning on ever showing up in a fantasy column again. Then fate intervened in the form of David Kahn, and the one general manager who was capable of actually giving Darko minutes picked him up. If you're a Darko-watcher, you know that translates to two blocks a night.
Another friendly old face? Theo Ratliff. The NBA's longest-tenured shot-blocking specialist, Ratliff has somehow landed in the Bobcats' rotation, and should stick during Charlotte's stretch drive.
Mickael Pietrus, SG/SF, Orlando Magic
Quentin Richardson, SG/SF, Miami Heat
Wesley Matthews, SG, Utah Jazz
Jared Jeffries, SF/PF, Houston Rockets
Tony Allen, SG, Boston Celtics
If you pick up Thabo Sefolosha expecting stable production in any category other than steals, you're going to end up banging your head against your laptop. But if you're looking for 1.5 steals a night -- and nothing else -- then it's hard to go wrong with the multi-positional Sefolosha.
Beyond Sefolosha, you're going to find that most steals specialists are also capable of providing help in 3-pointers. Mickael Pietrus and Quentin Richardson are good examples of this phenomenon. Even though it's been awhile since either player has been firmly locked on the fantasy radar, both are solid one steal/one 3-pointer-type contributors.
It's easy to mock Jared Jeffries from a fantasy perspective. He and Sefolosha are similar in that they can't ever seem to translate a steady diet of minutes into anything remotely resembling dependable offense. But he's in position on the Rockets to get 25-28 minutes a night, and has responded with two nice games in a row. When Jeffries was being showcased back in New York, he also suddenly started jacking 3s by the truckload. Don't expect that in Houston, but the steals and blocks should be there for needy owners.
The Jazz players seem pretty upset about the Ronnie Brewer trade, but one member of the team who shouldn't be complaining is Wesley Matthews. His numbers are actually reminiscent of early Brewer box scores: inconsistent, but holding some special steals potential.
Thanks to the Tracy McGrady trade and a Kyle Lowry injury, Chase Budinger has gone for double figures in six straight games. Anyone who comes with the Daryl Morey stamp of approval is bound to have some fantasy potential, and Budinger has proven himself this season to be somewhere between the new Pat Garrity (3s and nothing else) to the new Kyle Korver (ability beyond 3s).
That's ironic, because the original Kyle Korver has recently been spotted in his old role, unashamedly hoisting 3s while collecting the occasional steal. Back in 2005 or so, Korver was one of the most overrated players in fantasy, but Korver's historically been a solid two-category guy. Now, the same trade and same injuries that have combined to give the aforementioned Matthews a shot at the fantasy small-time are also helping Korver regain some relevance.
At the Clippers game the other night, I noticed that the Clips' post-Dunleavy offense seems to hinge on the time-tested strategy of standing around and waiting to shoot. That means it's good to be Rasual Butler, and before too long it could be good to be Travis Outlaw. Outlaw's Bird rights were the one appreciable thing of value the Clippers received in the Marcus Camby salary dump, and they'd be wise to see what they've got in him during the final stretch of the season.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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