By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As we move into Week 5 of the NBA season, we’ll officially cross the one-month mark and every team will end the week having played at least 15 games. It’s still early, but 15 games are nearly 20 percent of the season, so what we’ve seen thus far definitely matters.
For some players — and fantasy managers — it’s been a frustrating start, while others who hit on breakouts and have managed to dodge injuries/COVID-19 absences are feeling good about their rosters.
Overall, it’s worth highlighting the league-wide trend in offense, which is notably on the decline relative to seasons past. Entering Tuesday, the average offensive rating sits at just 107.7 — nearly 5.0 points lower than last season’s mark (112.3).
Meanwhile, the average field goal percentage (44.9% FG) is at its lowest since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and three-point efficiency (34.5% 3Pt) has sunk to its lowest level since 1998-99 (better known as Cuttino Mobley’s rookie season). Also of note: The league-average free throw rate (free throws per field goal attempt) sits at just .171 — by far the lowest mark in NBA history.
Amid the three-point boom that’s engulfed basketball at every level, free-throw rate has been on the decline for the last few decades. But this season’s figure is an especially stark downturn.
So what does this mean for fantasy? Well, if nothing else, it means that if you’re rostering a star player who’s struggling out of the gates or failing to get to the line at his normal clip, chances are you’re not alone. It’s a league-wide trend, and whether it continues — or reverses course — will be worth monitoring closely throughout the 2021-22 campaign.
Let’s dive into more of the biggest fantasy storylines of the week:
Hawks lose De’Andre Hunter
The Hawks announced Monday that Hunter will undergo surgery to address a tendon injury in his wrist, which will likely sideline him for about two months. That means Hunter will miss in the neighborhood of 25-to-30 games, effectively wiping out one-third of his season. Knee issues limited Hunter to just 23 games in 2020-21, but he was pegged as a bounceback candidate this season, provided he could stay healthy. Before the injury, Hunter averaged 10.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.4 threes in 27.8 minutes per game.
Coming into the season, there was a case to be made that the Hawks were the deepest team in the East, if not the entire league. But were they too deep? Hunter’s injury is a significant blow, to be sure, but it does partially alleviate the logjam on the wing. With Hunter out, Kevin Huerter moved into the starting lineup Monday, while Cam Reddish, Danilo Gallinari and Solomon Hill could all be set for increased minutes over the next eight weeks.
It’s worth noting that Huerter exited Monday’s win over Orlando with a hamstring injury and did not return.
Evan Mobley dealing with sprained elbow
In other injury news, the Cavs will be without star rookie Evan Mobley for 2-to-4 weeks after he was diagnosed Tuesday morning with a sprained right elbow. The injury occurred during Monday’s loss to Boston, which Mobley finished with just one point (0-11 FG, 0-2 3Pt) to go with nine boards, five assists and two blocks.
Over his previous seven games, Mobley averaged 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals while shooting 54.8 percent from the floor.
Cleveland will also be without Jarrett Allen (non-COVID illness) for at least one more game. The big man did not practice Tuesday and will not travel to Brooklyn for Wednesday’s game. The Cavs play the second half of a road/home back-to-back Thursday against Golden State.
The good news for the Cavs is they’ll likely get Kevin Love — and potentially Lauri Markkanen, as well — back for Wednesday’s contest.
Both players have been in COVID-19 protocols for more than two weeks, but Love rejoined the team Monday and will travel to Brooklyn. Before his eight-game absence, Love had posted 11.8 points, 7.4 boards and 1.0 threes over his previous five games.
LeBron aiming for return at Boston
LeBron James missed his seventh consecutive game Monday against Chicago, and he’ll sit at least one more contest when the Lakers travel to Milwaukee on Wednesday night. But according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, James is hoping to get back on the floor Friday night at Boston.
An ironman for the vast majority of his career, injuries have been a much bigger factor for James since arriving in Los Angeles in 2018-19. Wednesday’s game will already mark his 10th absence of the season. Of course, James missed significant time in 2020-21 due to a high-ankle sprain, and he also missed several months in his first season with the Lakers due to a groin injury.
The Lakers did receive a boost this week in the form of Talen Horton-Tucker, who made his debut Sunday against the Spurs after missing the first 13 games of the season due to a torn ligament in his thumb.
Horton-Tucker finished Sunday’s game with 17 points, four rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block in 27 minutes. He followed up with an even more impressive performance in Monday’s loss to Chicago, putting up 28 points (9-19 FG, 4-9 3Pt, 6-6 FT), six boards, two assists and a steal in 37 minutes. It’s unclear if Horton-Tucker, who started both games, will remain in the lineup once James returns.
Anthony Davis was ejected from Monday night’s loss after arguing with a referee who allowed Chicago to inbound the ball while Davis was putting his shoe on.
Ejection aside, Davis is quietly off to a really strong start, ranking 10th in eight-category value (per-game). Before Monday, he’d averaged 28.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.5 blocks over his last four games.
Davis continues to struggle from three, however, draining just 6-of-30 attempts on the season. During the Lakers’ championship season in 2019-20, Davis shot 33 percent from deep on 3.5 attempts per game.
Lillard pushing through abdominal injury
After missing Sunday’s blowout loss in Denver, Damian Lillard returned to action Monday and helped push the Blazers past Toronto with 24 points, eight assists, four rebounds, two steals and three three-pointers. The superstar guard is battling through abdominal tendinopathy (don’t ask me what that means) but looked more like himself Monday night.
Overall, it’s been a slow start for Lillard, but he’s posted 24.8 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 threes (39.1% 3Pt) over his last five appearances.
Keep an eye on the battle for minutes developing between Robert Covington and third-year forward Nassir Little. Covington hasn’t played more than 23 minutes in four straight games, while Little has seen at least 22 minutes in all four of those contests. Covington has by far the more-proven track record, but Little could be a decent source of points, rebounds and defensive stats, as he posted six steals and three blocks during that four-game run.
Chauncey Billups has also slashed Jusuf Nurkic’s workload of late, as the big man has played 19, 29, 21 and 18 minutes, respectively, over the last four games. Nurkic doesn’t always need big minutes to be productive, but the lack of a major role has been a disappointment for fantasy managers who spent a mid-round pick (55.7 Yahoo ADP) on the 27-year-old, who currently ranks 83rd in eight-cat leagues.
Odds and ends
Deandre Ayton returned from a five-game absence Monday night against Minnesota, finishing with 22 points and 12 rebounds in 33 minutes.
Frank Kaminsky, who had a nice run in Ayton’s absence, saw only four minutes off the bench as the third center behind Ayton and JaVale McGee.
Nikola Vucevic entered COVID-19 protocols last week and is expected to miss at least 10 days, so fantasy managers should not expect to see him until sometime in Week 6.
The Bucks expect to finally get Khris Middleton back from COVID-19 protocols for Wednesday’s home game against the Lakers. Middleton hasn’t played since Oct. 30 against the Spurs, missing the last eight contests.
Milwaukee is still yet to play a single game with its full rotation, and that won’t change Wednesday in the continued absence of Brook Lopez (back), who hasn’t played since Opening Night. The Bucks have provided no updates on the big man, so it’s completely unclear if he’s anywhere close to making his return.
Speaking off clouded injury situations, the Nuggets continue to play things close to the vest with Michael Porter. While the team has stopped short of providing a timetable, coach Michael Malone has implied multiple times that he’s not expecting to get the talented young wing back anytime soon.
Denver has also been without Will Barton for the last two games after the veteran’s back tightened up during pregame warmups before Sunday’s win over Portland.
Barton has been a major bright spot for Denver thus far, averaging 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.6 threes with a 49/43/73 shooting line through his first 11 games. He ranks 52nd overall in eight-cat, per-game value.
The Bulls received a boost Monday night when Coby White made his season debut. The third-year lottery pick wasn’t very effective — zero points (0-2 FG), one rebound in 11 minutes — but he’ll gradually work his way up to speed and should eventually serve as the first guard off the bench. White averaged 17.6 points, 5.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 3.2 made threes (40.3% 3Pt) over the final 18 games of last season.
In Memphis, Dillon Brooks made his second consecutive start as the Grizzlies rolled over the lowly Rockets on Monday night. Given the blowout scenario, Brooks saw only 23 minutes, but he still put up 16 points, three assists, two rebounds, two steals and one three-pointer.
De’Anthony Melton’s workload has declined since Brooks made his return. Melton has played fewer than 20 minutes in each of the last three games after starting and averaging 28.8 MPG through Memphis’ first 11 contests. Melton still managed to rack up three steals in just 17 minutes Monday.
Monday’s game in Portland marked Pascal Siakam’s fourth game back from the shoulder procedure that sidelined him for the first few weeks of the season. After putting up 25 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists in a loss to Detroit on Saturday, Siakam followed up with 20 points, six rebounds and six assists Monday. Thus far, Siakam is shooting 50 percent from the field while going 5-of-13 from three and 15-of-20 at the free-throw line.
As it turns out, Cade Cunningham just may be good at basketball after all. The No. 1 overall pick had his best game to date Monday against Sacramento, finishing with 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and five three-pointers in 35 minutes. Personally, I will be choosing to ignore the fact that Detroit fell behind 42-17 at one point and lost the game by 22 points.