- Neil Tardy, Fantasy Basketball
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Last week I noted that players on certain NBA teams are less likely to frequent the Forecaster than others. I probably should have been clearer on this point. Really, in general, the top 50 or so players in fantasy hoops get little to no mention here. I think it's apparent why this is the case: The Forecaster provides fantasy owners with information to help them make the tough lineup calls. You certainly don't need me or anyone else to tell you to stick with the likes of LeBron James, Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant. In general, the Forecaster focuses on borderline starters and top free agents in fantasy.
But among this group of good, but not elite, players, there are a few who don't often find their way into the Forecaster, either. I call them the wild cards. These are the players who tease you with huge games, then kill you with clinkers.
I can think of no better an example of a fantasy wild card than J.R. Smith. When he's on, Smith is pretty much unguardable. For instance, one of his better performances of this season came on Nov. 30, when he dropped five treys on Houston. Particularly impressive about that is the Rockets allow a league-low 5.1 3-pointers per game.
Of course the 23-year-old Smith is also a frequent visitor to George Karl's doghouse. That Houston game came a night after he played seven minutes in a scoreless outing in Minnesota. Smith has scored in single digits in 11 of his 36 games this season; that's almost one in three.
Another player whose performance is painfully hard to predict is Charlie Villanueva. Wherever he's gone, he's been in and out of the starting lineup and in and out of his coach's good graces. Just last month, the 24-year-old had a seven-game stretch where he averaged just 6.7 points. However, now that the calendar's flipped to '09, Villanueva is hot; he's had at least 25 points in three of four. But that other game? Just five points in 18 minutes at Charlotte.
Still, maybe the schedule can offer some insight into the up-and-down Villanueva's short-term prospects. I'll get into that in a bit.
Check the grid for Week 12 schedules of each NBA team. Teams with the most games in the upcoming week are listed first.
Nuggets (DAL, PHO, ORL): Denver's Week 12 schedule isn't all that favorable, but, as I said, I wouldn't let that keep you from rolling the dice on Smith if you're so inclined. Now Linas Kleiza, that's another matter. With Carmelo Anthony out, Kleiza got the start Jan. 7 versus Miami, but both he and Smith went for 21 points. Kleiza knocked down four 3s; Smith had a pair from downtown. Keep in mind though that Heat opponents get the sixth-most 3-pointers. No. 7 on that list is Phoenix, but Denver's other competition for the coming week is super-stingy on the perimeter. Magic opponents get the second-fewest 3s and also have the third-lowest field goal percentage (just 42.8). Meanwhile, Mavs opponents are fourth-worst from the field, and get the sixth-fewest 3s. Don't get me wrong: Smith, who's a free agent in 61 percent of ESPN.com leagues, and Kleiza, who's available in 97 percent of leagues, are well worth adding to your roster. But with this schedule, the 20-point outbursts shouldn't come easily.
Nets (OKC, @BOS, POR, BOS): You know who else qualifies as a wild card? Yi Jianlian. Yi is coming off back-to-back 20-point games versus Sacramento and Memphis. He'd topped 20 points only twice all season prior to this week. Of course, Kings and Grizzlies opponents both shoot better than 47 percent, so maybe Yi's surge makes sense. Let's see about that in Week 12, which, thanks to Boston's struggles, isn't as tough as you might think. Thunder and Blazers opponents are third and eighth, respectively, in field goal percentage. As for the Celtics, their D is wilting. Five of the six teams that have beaten them since Christmas Day shot at least 45 percent.
Daily Lineup Recommendations: Players to Watch
Some quick tips for owners in daily leagues. Recommendations -- start, sit or add -- are made for specific days of the coming week, based on the schedule.
Andrea Bargnani, SF/PF/C, Raptors (@BOS, CHI, @IND, PHO): In the five games since Jermaine O'Neal went on the shelf with a sore knee, Bargnani has gone off, averaging 21.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 3s, 1.8 blocks and 57.3 percent shooting. While O'Neal's return is up in the air (he will sit again on Friday), the Week 12 schedule is unambiguous. The Pacers and Suns are below average at defending the 3, the Bulls are generally horrible against big men (Chicago opponents register the fourth-most blocks) and of course the Celtics are looking rather vulnerable of late. He's a risky play in a weekly lineup league, but it wouldn't hurt to add the almost 70 percent unowned Bargnani now. Then wait out the weekend to see what news comes out on O'Neal.
Ryan Gomes, SF/PF, Timberwolves (MIA, @PHO): Oh, look: another underowned forward-eligible player who shoots 3s. Bargnani has the better numbers now, but in a week or two the 95 percent unowned Gomes could very well offer greater fantasy value. Over his past seven games, the 26-year-old is averaging 15.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 3s and 49.4 percent shooting. Of course this two-game slate doesn't do owners much good, but if you have the luxury of setting daily lineups, note that Heat and Suns opponents sink the sixth- and seventh-most 3s. The Miami matchup is tricky though, because Heat opponents are 26th in field goal percentage.
Courtney Lee, SG, Magic (@SAC, @LAL, @DEN): Going into Friday, the rookie had more mentions in the Fantasy Forecaster (two) than career starts (one). What can I say? Ed Werder has Terrell Owens, I have Lee. Actually, my primary league has 20 teams, so digging deep into free agency comes as second nature. At least for now, Lee is starting (replacing the injured Keith Bogans), and the rookie does intrigue me for deeper leagues. If nothing else, he's a cheap source of steals. In December, Lee averaged 1.2 swipes while playing just 22 minutes a night. As it happens, Kings, Lakers and Nuggets opponents are fourth, fifth and 10th in steals.
Nate Robinson, PG/SG, Knicks (@NO, WAS, @WAS, PHI): Little Nate couldn't hit the side of Blair House right now -- he's suffered through six straight games of sub-30 percent shooting. However, give Robinson another week to snap out of it. A back-to-back set with the Wizards alone makes this a favorable schedule. Washington opponents are third in 3s and fourth in field goal percentage and Hornets opponents are ninth in 3s. As for the Sixers, they've surrendered 35 buckets downtown in their past four.
Anderson Varejao, PF/C, Cavaliers (@MEM, @CHI, NO): Think of Varejao as a second chance for those of you who missed out on Paul Millsap. Not that he'll be a double-double machine like Millsap became when Carlos Boozer went down, but as long as Zydrunas Ilgauskas remains sidelined, the 86 percent unowned Varejao is a legitimate fantasy starter. In his first three starts for Big Z, Varejao is averaging 16.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 59.7 percent shooting. This looks like a better week for boards than steals: Grizzlies and Bulls opponents are eighth and ninth in rebound differential, but Hornets opponents are next-to-last in takeaways.
Charlie Villanueva, SF/PF, Bucks (@WAS, MIA, @SAC, @LAC): Scott Skiles wants Villanueva to show more defensively, and in fact the coach has recently said he's pleased with the 24-year-old's effort on D. In this context, it's actually a positive that Villanueva is fouling more (3.0 per game in 2008-09 compared to 2.3 fouls in 2007-08). He's paying more attention to defense. The problem for fantasy owners is that by doing so, Villanueva is taking himself out of some games. He had four fouls in just 14 minutes against Utah on Dec. 23. Same thing on Dec. 31 at Houston -- four fouls in 14 minutes. In his last bad game, on Jan. 3 at Charlotte, he fouled out in just 18 minutes. So maybe one thing to consider with Villanueva is whom he might be guarding. With Antawn Jamison coming to town, Villanueva might be in for a tougher night than you'd expect against the lowly Wizards. (Villanueva had only six points and four fouls in 20 minutes when the Bucks hosted Washington on Nov. 5.) However, the starting power forwards for the Heat, Kings and the Zach Randolph-less Clippers aren't nearly as formidable. With all that -- and the fact that all of the Bucks' Week 12 opponents are in the league's bottom seven in rebound differential -- the schedule looks promising for Villanueva (who, by the way, is more than 60 percent unowned). With Villanueva though, there are no guarantees. That dreadful game in Charlotte I referenced? Villanueva got schooled by Gerald Wallace. But that was the second of a back-to-back. The night before in Milwaukee, Charlie went for 27 points on Crash and the Bobcats. The mark of a true wild card there.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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