By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We took a brief hiatus last week due to the holiday, but we’re back in full force as the NBA moves into Week 11. More than ever, COVID-19 has come to dominate the headlines, and for the third straight season, fantasy basketball has been significantly disrupted.
While one could argue that fighting through the barrage of absences separates the good fantasy managers from the great fantasy managers, there’s no denying that half of your roster landing in protocols is, at the very least, extremely frustrating.
Nevertheless, the show must go on. The NBA remains intent on postponing as few games as possible, so bracing for key absences and studying up on G League game logs looks like it will become commonplace for at least the next several weeks.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the virus is impacting the league this week as well as dive into some of the biggest non-COVID storylines as we near the end of 2021:
Weekly COVID-19 Update
Frankly, it would be pretty weird if we didn’t begin by addressing what’s been by far the dominant storyline of the NBA season. As the virus continues to make its way through the league, leading to several outbreaks within teams, several notable names have landed in protocols.
On Tuesday morning alone, Montrezl Harrell, Darius Garland, Rui Hachimura, Udonis Haslem, Gorgui Dieng, Josh Giddey and Bogdan Bogdanovic each entered protocols. Several teams have been hit hard, but right now it’s the Atlanta Hawks who lead the league with a whopping 13 players in health and safety protocols. The Celtics, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Pistons, Timberwolves, Raptors, Magic and Wizards have also been disproportionately impacted of late.
While virtually every team has had to utilize the new 10-day hardship exemption to fill roster spots, some good news arrived Monday, when the league announced revised quarantine guidelines designed to shorten potential absences. Per an official memo from the NBA: Vaccinated NBA players and coaches can now clear quarantine after six days if COVID-testing data shows they’re no longer at risk to be infectious.
This new mandate should help facilitate a faster return for players who test positive. Previously, those players were expected to miss roughly 10 days.
In more positive COVID news, the Nets announced Tuesday that Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kyrie Irving have all cleared protocols.
Durant and Aldridge could be back as soon as Thursday night against the Sixers, while Irving is expected to face a “ramp-up” period that could extend his absence by another week or two.
Irving, of course, will not be permitted to play in any Nets home games due to New York City’s vaccine mandate. Brooklyn plays seven of its next nine games at home, so Irving will have only two chances to debut between now and Jan. 17, when the team hits the road for a four-game trip that includes stops in Cleveland, Washington, San Antonio and Minnesota.
The Nets play at Indiana on Wednesday, Jan. 5 and at Chicago on Wednesday, Jan. 12.
The Timberwolves announced Tuesday that three players — Anthony Edwards, Taurean Prince and Naz Reid — have each cleared protocols. All three are expected to remain out Tuesday night against the Knicks due to conditioning concerns. With off days Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy managers are hoping to get Edwards back for Friday’s game at Utah.
Star rookie Evan Mobley also cleared protocols and is expected to be available for Tuesday night’s game against the Pelicans. Mobley was asymptomatic, so the team apparently isn’t concerned about his conditioning, although he hasn’t played since Dec. 13 against Miami.
Clippers lose George to elbow injury
On Christmas Day, the Clippers revealed that Paul George suffered a torn ligament in his right elbow that will sideline him for at least 3-to-4 weeks. It’s a crushing blow for George, who had been fighting through the injury and previously missed a stretch of five games earlier in December. On the season, George ranks as one of the 10 most valuable players in fantasy basketball (8-cat, per-game value), but he’ll likely be shelved for most of January.
With Reggie Jackson in protocols and expected to miss three more games, the Clippers started Eric Bledsoe, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac on Monday night against Brooklyn.
Morris made his return after a four-game COVID absence, finishing with 24 points, six assists and five boards.
The absences of George and Jackson have re-opened the door for Bledsoe, who’s started three straight games and averaged 17.3 points, 7.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.7 threes in 33.7 minutes during that span.
Curry, Jokic still reign in fantasy
Amidst all of the chaos, there are two constants in fantasy basketball: Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry. For the second straight season, the pair ranks first and second, respectively, in overall value. Jokic finished first overall in both per-game and total value in 2020-21. This time around, Curry holds the lead in total value, while Jokic, who’s played four fewer games entering Tuesday, leads in per-game production.
Since the start of last season (99 games), Jokic is averaging a ridiculous 26.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 0. Assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks and 1.4 threes with a 57/38/84 shooting line.
Over that same span (94 games), Curry is putting up 30.6 points, 5.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks and 5.4 threes on 47/41/92 shooting.
Haliburton surging after slow start
Early on, Tyrese Haliburton looked like he was the latest victim of a sophomore slump, but he’s turned things up a notch over the last few weeks and now ranks as a top-20 player (8-cat, total value) on the season. In fact, over the last two weeks (six games), Haliburton is the single most valuable player in all of fantasy basketball, posting averages of 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.0 blocks and 2.2 threes on 48.9 percent shooting (89.5% FT).
The absence of De’Aaron Fox, who spent time in protocols, appeared to spur Haliburton’s breakout, but even with Fox back in the lineup Sunday night, Haliburton went for 18 points, seven assists, five boards and three steals in 32 minutes. After posting just three double-doubles in his first 27 games, Haliburton has four in his last five games.
Kemba Walker’s unlikely breakout
When Tom Thibodeau announced back in late November that he was removing Kemba Walker from his regular rotation, it looked like the high-profile experiment had run its course and Walker could be safely dropped in fantasy leagues. To be fair, Walker was very much droppable while picking up 10 straight DNPs from Nov. 27 through Dec. 16.
But with the Knicks battling a COVID outbreak before Christmas, Thibs had no choice but to turn back to the multi-time All-Star. Suffice it to say Walker stayed ready during his time on the bench, as he’s averaged 26.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 4.3 threes in 40.0 minutes over the last four contests. That stretch includes a 44-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist outburst against the Wizards, as well as a 10-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist triple-double in the Knicks’ Christmas Day win over Atlanta.
Thibs hasn’t said much about how he’ll handle Walker’s role once Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett are back up to speed — Barrett played on Christmas Day; Quickley could make his return Tuesday night — but Walker’s production has been so overwhelming that it’s hard to imagine he won’t be a major factor going forward.
It’s worth noting that Barrett returned to the starting five on Christmas Day and Thibs opted to keep Walker in the lineup while sending Alec Burks to the bench.
The Knicks will also be without Derrick Rose for the next eight weeks after he underwent ankle surgery just before Christmas.
Entering Tuesday night, Walker’s roster rate sits at 86 percent in Yahoo leagues.
Greg Monroe, who is somehow only 31 years old, made his return to the NBA this week, helping the Timberwolves to a 108-103 win over Boston on Monday night. In 25 minutes off the bench, Monroe posted 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and one block. Monroe last played in the NBA during the 2018-19 season, which he split between Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.
Jalen Green made his return to action last Thursday against Indiana after missing 14 games with a hamstring injury. In 25 minutes of action, Green went 6-of-9 from three on his way to 20 points, two assists, two steals, one rebound and one block.
Green was held out of Monday night’s loss to Charlotte but will play Tuesday against the Lakers.
The Rockets are also expected to get Kevin Porter Jr. back Tuesday night. It will mark his first appearance since Dec. 3. Before the absence, Porter averaged 12.8 points, 5.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 35.8 percent from the floor and committing 4.0 turnovers per game.
Monday’s win over Orlando marked Jimmy Butler’s first appearance since Dec. 6 and only his second game since Nov. 27. Butler finished Monday’s victory with 17 points, 11 boards, four assists and three steals in 35 minutes. The long layoff knocks down Butler’s season-long value, but on a per-game basis, he ranks as the 12th-best player in fantasy basketball.
The return of Giannis Antetokounmpo headlined the Bucks’ come-from-behind Christmas Day win over Boston, but it was yet another strong showing from Jrue Holiday, who finished with 17 points, five boards, three assists, four steals and a block in 37 minutes.
A heel injury derailed the first few weeks of Holiday’s season, but he’s quietly played very well over the last calendar month. Over his last 14 games, Holiday is up to 21.4 points, 7.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks and 1.7 threes per game on 54.5 percent shooting.
However, Holiday’s free-throw shooting has suddenly become a concern. While his volume isn’t high enough to completely tank his fantasy value, Holiday is hitting just 67.8 percent of his attempts this season — by far a career-low. The veteran finished 2020-21 as a 78.7 percent free-throw shooter.
Desmond Bane continues to look like one of the biggest steals of the 2020 NBA Draft. As a rookie, Bane was a nice piece off the bench who consistently held his own, but he’s raised his game to new heights in 2021-22. Entering Tuesday, Bane is averaging north of 17 points per game and shooting better than 42 percent from three for the second straight season.
Over his last seven games, Bane is providing fantasy managers with 21.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals and 4.0 threes (51.9% 3Pt).
Speaking of the Grizzlies, Ja Morant has essentially picked up where he left off before suffering the knee injury that sidelined him for 12 straight contests. Through his first four games back, Morant is averaging 22.0 points (48.6% FG), 6.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Morant finished a tough, game-winning layup to knock off the Suns on Monday night.
Quick shoutout to Cade Cunningham. He’s currently in COVID-19 protocols, but before that he’d posted 18.1 points (44.2% FG), 6.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks and 2.6 threes (44.1% 3Pt) per game over his previous 10 appearances.
We’ve checked in on Kevin Love a few times already this season, and his renaissance has only continued. After putting 22 points, six threes and nine rebounds on the Raptors in Sunday’s win, Love has scored in double figures in nine straight games. During that stretch, he’s averaging a very-much-fantasy-viable 16.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 3.4 threes in just 19.9 minutes.
Donte DiVincenzo quietly made his season debut on Christmas Day, logging 15 minutes of action in Milwaukee’s win over Boston. It marked DiVincenzo’s first action since he suffered an ankle injury during Game 3 of the Bucks’ Round 1 playoff series against Miami.
DiVincenzo will likely need a few weeks to return to form, but once he’s back, the battle for minutes between him, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen, George Hill and Wesley Matthews will be worth monitoring.
Before landing in COVID protocols, Rui Hachimura appeared poised to make his long-awaited debut Tuesday night against Miami. A personal matter delayed Hachimura’s arrival this season, but he began practicing earlier this month and was in uniform (but unavailable) for Sunday’s game against the 76ers. Look for Hachimura to debut shortly after he clears protocols.