• Readers, this will be one of the last times we get to do this until next season. This 23rd edition of The Week Ahead has an encore performance coming up next Sunday but then the regular season -and fantasy leagues- will be coming to a close. As we get closer to the end, managers have likely come to learn that regular player availability is no longer guaranteed. Teams are starting to clinch playoff spots, stars are starting to get rested and injuries are being closely managed. That has made it increasingly hard to have faith in players of all calibers and to trust that you’re making the right pickup with limited transactions.

    Having that steady veteran on a back-to-back might feel like a good thing for the majority of the season but it’s a bit harder to trust now. Look no further than Zach Collins and the Spurs. The Gonzaga alum has proven to be an incredible fantasy asset in almost every game since Jakob Poeltl’s departure. In fact, his per-game numbers rank within the top-10 over the past two weeks. However, Collins has missed at least one game of the last three back-to-backs on the Spurs schedule. Three is the key number here; that’s the number of games the Spurs have in the upcoming slate of games. Unfortunately, almost every Spurs player with fantasy value -including Collins- has barely cleared that benchmark in two weeks. Without any consistency to their lineups, it may be safer for managers to steer clear of the Spurs for the rest of the year. Given that they don’t play until Wednesday in Week 23, it’s likely that there will be a few extra Spurs on the waiver wire in the near future.

    Committing to a per-minute stud without a clear picture of their future isn’t recommended at this point in the fantasy season. That’s what Delon Wright taught us in Week 22 after about a month of super-sub production. A 24-point outburst against the Spurs on Friday may see him trend upward on waiver wires but there’s no telling if it sticks. The reason? Wright’s fantasy value often ebbs and flows with the availability of his higher-scoring teammates. The same could be said of his teammates, Daniel Gafford and Deni Avdija. All three have justifiably been targeted throughout the season, as Avdija has put up mid-round value without Kyle Kuzma around and yours truly selected Gafford as a Quick Add last week. However, we’re at a crucial point in the season where managers should not only be targeting the most games -the Wizards only have three- but also the most minutes. Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma were considered day-to-day at last update, while Monte Morris can only be limited by groin soreness for so long. Even though the Wizards close Week 23 with two games in three days, it’s not clear if their typical streamers will have the opportunity to return solid value by that point. They’ll only play once between Monday and Thursday, so managers shouldn’t hesitate to drop any Wizards near the end of their rosters.

    Competitive teams at the top of their conferences won’t be surprising anyone at this point in the season and neither will any of their key players in fantasy circles. The rosters and output of the championship contenders are essentially known quantities now, but there are a handful of teams in the 6-to-12 range of the standings that are still jockeying for position. Managers looking to find a team more likely than others to field a competitive lineup should look no further than the middle of the standings. Ahead of their respective four-game weeks, that list should include the Mavs, Pacers, Wolves, Pelicans, Thunder and Jazz. Each of these teams offer a solid selection of under-the-radar players that have produced standard league value over the past week, including: Andrew Nembhard, Isaiah Jackson, Jaden Hardy, Jordan Nwora, Ochai Agbaji, Naz Reid, Reggie Bullock and Taurean Prince. None of these athletes will be appearing on the Quick Adds or Honorable Mentions of the week but they’re excellent deep league targets and could be premier pickups in case of rest or injury situations.

    The Nuggets and Pistons had two games last week, so it’s likely that their players are widely available in most leagues. It’s likelier still that what Bruce Brown, Jalen Duren, Killian Hayes, Marvin Bagley III did over the past seven days went under the radar for that reason. Bagley was the unquestioned king of that group in recent events but managers shouldn’t hesitate to pick any of these players up after they registered 12-team per-game numbers in their slow weeks. Look forward to better cumulative output from these players ahead of their four-game weeks and don’t sleep on what Max Strus did in two games for the Heat last week. Although he plays only three times in Week 23, managers shouldn’t hesitate to take a chance on streaking players from last week’s other low volume team, as the Heat have an early week back-to-back to take advantage of. 

    Although only winning once in four chances last week doesn’t fare well for Joel Embiid’s MVP campaign, he was one of four Sixers with early round totals value over the past seven days. The Harden-Harris-Maxey trio was joined by Brandon Ingram, Keegan Murray, Nikola Vucevic and Trey Murphy III. Each of these players will play four times in the upcoming slate of games so they shouldn’t be available in any leagues and should be starting each day. There are a few other names that we’ll circle back around to later, but not before we acknowledge Kristaps Porzingis for continuing to put up first round fantasy value with above-average output in everything but assists and steals. Ditto for Quentin Grimes after producing an incredible 47 points with 11 treys, seven assists and three steals in his last two games. 

    Some of last week’s Quick Adds were absolute studs for long-streamers last week. Kelly Olynyk and Onyeka Okongwu both put up early round value, with Olynyk standing out as one of the very best over the past seven days by cumulative output. As I noted early, Daniel Gafford has been passable but should trend down in Week 23 unless something happens to Porzingis. The jury is out on Dennis Smith Jr. after a largely underwhelming week that was punctuated by him joining the starting lineup and producing a solid all-around game with 13 points, two treys, five boards, nine assists and a steal with only one turnover. With only three games coming up, Smith could be a solid if unspectacular option for teams in need of a point guard and may be better classified as an assists and steals streamer for the weekend rather than week-long hold. Finally, Aaron Nesmith was out-classed by Andrew Nembhard and the record-breaking Jordan Nwora this week and was well off the mark for standard league value. Based on recent results, he’s not worth streaming for the entire week but Nesmith has retained his spot in the starting lineup all season and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him bounce back with low-end points, steals and treys at some point in Week 23.

    Those looking at the upcoming slate will correctly note that all teams play three games or more. However, only the Celtics and Heat have any advantageous scheduling among the three-game group and managers may prefer to pursue a long-streaming strategy with 10-of-12 teams that play three games having those games focused on busy days. This won’t affect fantasy teams that feature the stars of those squads but there won’t be as much flexibility to incorporate streamers into starting lineups. Everything will hinge on the weekend but it’s best to get ahead early. 

    There are 54 games this week and more than half of them take place on the last three days. More than ever, it’s important for managers to focus on maximizing games played in the first half of the schedule in order to get an edge over the competition. Anything can happen over the final few days of Week 23 and it will be important for fantasy squads to try and create an early advantage when it will make the most difference.

    Schedule Breakdown

    Two Games: None

    Three Games: Hawks. Celtics, Nets, Hornets, Cavs, Warriors, Lakers, Heat, Magic, Spurs, Raptors, Wizards

    Four Games: Bulls, Mavs, Nuggets, Pistons, Rockets, Pacers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Bucks, Wolves, Pelicans, Knicks, Thunder, Sixers, Suns, Blazers, Kings, Jazz

    Back-to-Backs

    Monday-Tuesday: Pelicans

    Tuesday-Wednesday: Grizzlies, Heat, Thunder

    Wednesday-Thursday: Bucks

    Thursday-Friday: Celtics, Nuggets

    Friday-Saturday: Clippers

    Saturday-Sunday: Mavs

    Sunday-Monday (Week 24): None

    Schedule Maximizers

    There’s an abundance of teams with four games but the best early options are undoubtedly the Bucks and Pelicans. Three games in four days by players from those teams is likely to prove most impactful early on but some teams will have to take other routes with early streamers. There are 18 teams that will have played twice by Wednesday night, so managers should have their choice of high-quality streamers to start the week.

    Ideally, there will be a move for every day that allows for a four-day stream with three games of production. Managers making a move on Tuesday should target players from the Celtics, Grizzlies and Thunder for a 3-in-4 streaming window and those making a move on Wednesday should factor in the Clippers. Competition for Thursday’s only 3-in-4 squad will be fierce because the Nuggets are one of only four teams that will be active. They represent the last opportunity to pick up three games from a single short-term stream, so managers shouldn’t be afraid to burn the majority of their moves by this point in the week. The Celtics have a Thursday-Friday double-header that should be a worthwhile consolation prize for those that miss out on any prized Nuggets players.

    By the weekend, almost every team will be playing twice and most of them will be on the same day. That means there’s no point in switching players except for emergencies like rest, injury or poor performance and reinforces the idea that fantasy squads should be liberal with their early-week transactions. A two-game Saturday highlights the importance of the Mavs in particular, as they play again on Sunday and feature several potential streamers that aren’t rostered in many leagues. Teams that are active going into Week 24 should be comforted by the knowledge that almost every player should be active when the next set of games kicks off, so take the best player available with any remaining moves to close out the weekend.

    Best Schedule: New Orleans Pelicans (@ Blazers, @ Warriors, @ Nuggets, vs. Clippers)

    This one of the easiest picks yet. The Pelicans have three games before the weekend and four games overall. Aside from the fact that they play on the four days with the least games scheduled, the Pelicans are also fighting for playoff position and are more likely to field a competitive lineup than others at both poles of the standings. Every team on their horizon will test the Pelicans, so their rotation players are probably going to get all the minutes they can handle. We’re at the point in the season where managers want the closest thing to a guarantee that is possible and the Pelicans seem like the clear choice. 

    Even with Zion Williamson sidelined, the Pelicans still field a reliable fantasy Big Three of Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas, who are going to be key players in fantasy matchups for Week 23. It’s likely that they’ll be joined by key contributors like Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III as standard league contributors, while past 12-team options like Josh Richardson, Larry Nance Jr. and Naji Marshall are ready to seize the moment if anyone above them in the rotation stumbles. 

    The week kicks off with McCollum returning to his former stomping grounds in Portland, so the odds are good that he carries his early round momentum through Monday. In reality, Murphy is the hot name for the Pelicans after posting 32 points with 10 treys, two steals and one block against the Clippers on Saturday. He’s not likely to be available in competitive leagues but readers should check just in case. Nance has no momentum to speak of and is still shaking off the rust from a six-game absence but he typically turns it on for competitive matchups, which he should have no shortage of this week. A return to his February production may be too bold to predict but Nance is a veteran and we’re not too far removed from that point in time. From top-to-bottom on this roster, there are names to consider for managers in a variety of leagues formats and depths. With a solid schedule and an easy-to-predict “next man up” at multiple rotation spots, the Pelicans are going to be a team to watch for Week 23.

    Worst Schedule: Cleveland Cavaliers (@ Hawks, vs. Knicks, vs. Pacers)

    They play once by the weekend and that weekend is jam-packed with games. While they are certainly an intimidating squad and a serious playoff contender, the Cavs just don’t have a lot of depth in terms of fantasy value. Their stars are well-known and were picked in the early rounds of drafts at the start of the season and Caris LeVert is the only other noteworthy name on this roster at present. After his extended hot streak, it’s unlikely that LeVert is available in most competitive leagues and he may be the only one worth consideration for 12-team managers. For steals and treys alone, LeVert holds enough appeal to be rostered through Week 23 but every other player outside the top-five should be considered a streamer in all formats. Cedi Osman and Isaac Okoro have been playing well lately and may have some appeal as weekend streamers in deep formats but their case isn’t helped by the variety of options that will be available to managers for Friday night. With Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell currently producing below their typical marks for fantasy value, managers may not be too comfortable with most Cavs players headed into the second-last week of the fantasy season.

    Game of the Week: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets on March 31, 2023

    It’s the team with the best record in the Western Conference against the odds-on favorite to win the Conference Finals. One might think that having the reigning MVP and the better record would settle the discussion in the Nuggets’ favor but -perhaps ironically- Kevin Durant is the elephant in the room. With the former MVP and league champion in tow, the Suns have been hard to overlook as title contenders. This matchup could either validate that perspective or help the Nuggets assert that they are the true threats in the West. With Durant targeting a Wednesday return, he should be able to suit up for this matchup. 

    The key players are well-known to even the most casual basketball fans, as Durant and Jokic are flanked by electric players like Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Former first overall pick Deandre Ayton has been in street clothes for the past four games and counting and his availability could seriously alter the outcome of this game. Without Ayton, the Suns will seem particularly short-handed on paper against an All-NBA center and could use their own 7-footer as a foil to the Serbian pivot.

    Ayton’s health will ultimately determine if Bismack Biyombo has any streaming value leading into this matchup, but the veteran big would join Josh Okogie and Terrence Ross as potential 12-team adds. On the other side, Bruce Brown gets the nod based on recent events but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should be able to keep pace as well. While he remains a worthwhile season-long hold, Aaron Gordon might be in for a rough night as the likeliest candidate to get the Durant assignment. There’s no doubt that it will be a long night on defense, but Gordon’s shooting efficiency won’t be helped by the 7-footer’s enormous wingspan either. Of all the key Nuggets players, Gordon seems least likely to have a productive fantasy game on Friday and may be replaceable in crowded starting lineups that night.

    Whatever happens and whoever stands out – this game is sure to be micro-analyzed from start to finish as a potential Western Conference Finals matchup. While this has little to do with the fantasy realm, games of this nature stand out as exactly the sort of competitive contests that help us to minimize rest or injury concerns.

    Quick Adds

    Grayson Allen, SG/SF, Milwaukee Bucks

    Allen has never been a fan favorite but the precocious swingman does have the sort of game that stands out in fantasy leagues. While he isn’t a lights-out scorer, the Duke alum is capable of hovering around average marks in that category. His real value is rooted in high-impact areas like steals and treys, where Allen has been consistently putting up value for several weeks. In fact, he is reaching early round value after three consecutive blowout games for the Bucks in Week 23. Allen’s upside is capped by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, but Antetokounmpo has been dealing with knee soreness and it’s likely that the injury management tag is applied to Middleton in one of the Bucks mid-week back-to-back games. For that game and any others that key players are sidelined, Allen should see a boost in value. Whether he gets an injury boost or not, what Allen has done lately is still enough to be worth a pickup. Anything extra is just a bonus.

    Luke Kennard, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies

    It took a while but Kennard is starting to find his fit with the Grizzlies after being acquired at the trade deadline. The 6’4” sniper has been true to form over the past couple of weeks and is averaging nearly four treys a night over that period. That level of production is always worth consideration, but Kennard’s overall profile includes some low-end appeal in points, assists and steals. He has two games against the Clippers this week and Kennard should enter those games on a hot streak. Players love to prove their value against their old teams and the same could be true once again for Kennard. Regardless, the veteran guard is putting up mid-round value lately and would be a worthy addition to any standard league team looking to bolster its guard stats. There shouldn’t be any shortage of those from Kennard in a four-game week.

    Kenyon Martin Jr., SF/PF, Houston Rockets

    This is a classic low-risk play for managers looking for a bit more security down the stretch. Martin is the vanilla ice cream of streamers, as he regularly produces very plain but serviceable fantasy lines. What he does is good enough to hold onto from week-to-week but managers could hardly be blamed for moving on either. The second-generation forward is a regular starter on a team with four games that typically plays him for 30 minutes or more, so there’s a really solid floor of production. Unfortunately, Martin’s impact is typically limited to treys, steals, blocks and free throw percentage. These high-impact categories help to secure Martin’s value, although it should be noted that he’s not particularly special in any of these areas. So long as managers can tolerate a relatively low ceiling, Martin should prove to be a worthwhile addition in most formats for Week 23. 

    Trendon Watford, PF/C, Portland Trail Blazers

    Right around the one year anniversary of Watford’s last statistical explosion, he is back at it again. The Blazers forward is really seizing the opportunity with Jerami Grant sidelined and has used his new spot in the starting lineup to carve out a really impressive top-50 profile with potential value in every category but treys. Watford’s timing couldn’t be better, as the 22 year-old’s mini-breakout coincides with Damian Lillard’s admission that the Blazers aren’t competitive enough this season. That means he should continue to get all the opportunity he can handle and is likely to be able to sustain some facsimile of his current output. At no less than 20 minutes a night since March began and headed into a four-game schedule, Watford seems like a reliable week-long option with some considerable and potentially matchup-altering upside. Make sure he’s not available in your league.

    Honorable Mention: Alex Caruso (PG/SG, Bulls), Bismack Biyombo (C, Suns), Bones Hyland (PG/SG, Clippers), Bruce Brown (SG/SF/PF, Nuggets), Caris LeVert (SG/SF, Cavs), Chris Boucher (PF/C, Raptors), Cole Anthony (PG/SG, Magic), Derrick White (PG/SG, Celtics), Eric Gordon (SG/SF, Clippers), Gary Harris (SG/SF, Magic), Herb Jones (SG/SF/PF, Pelicans), Immanuel Quickley (PG/SG, Knicks), Jalen Duren (PF/C, Pistons), Jaylin Williams (PF/C, Thunder), Joe Ingles (SF/PF, Bucks), Jonathan Kuminga (PF/C, Warriors), Kelly Olynyk (PF/C, Jazz), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG/SF, Nuggets), Kevon Looney (C, Warriors), Killian Hayes (PG/SG, Pistons), Kris Dunn (PG/SG, Jazz), Luguentz Dort (SG/SF, Thunder), Malcolm Brogdon (PG/SG, Celtics), Marvin Bagley III (PF/C, Pistons), Max Strus (SG/SF, Heat), Nicolas Batum (SF/PF, Clippers), Pat Connaughton (SG/SF, Bucks), Quentin Grimes (SG/SF, Knicks), Royce O’Neale (SG/SF, Nets), Tari Eason (SF/PF, Rockets), Trey Murphy III (SF/PF, Pelicans), Tyus Jones (PG, Grizzlies)

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