• While the recent stretch in Houston Rockets history will ultimately be defined by James Harden, perhaps it’s P.J. Tucker’s departure that signals the end of a hidden era. It was Tucker’s presence that transformed the Rockets, thrusting them deep into experimental small-ball territory. Everything that Houston was able to achieve was largely a product of Tucker buckling down and doing the dirty work; guarding players much larger than him without putting up a fuss as he was fed a diet of exclusively corner threes on the other end. That team ownership has shallow pockets and alligator arms is no surprise, but it’s been sad to see Tucker’s contract status loom over the organization over the last season-and-change. He was a linchpin in the team’s title hopes — hopes that might have borne fruit if not for Chris Paul’s hamstring. And now he’s done.

    With Tucker sitting out Thursday’s game, it’s clear that the Rockets are going to be in for some pain, though that’s not news to anyone who’s been paying attention at all in the last calendar year. As the deadline approaches, you can be sure that Tucker will be moved. This latest development may also change Houston’s asking price, which was previously reported as a young player who could help the roster immediately. Between Tucker being sent away and a 14-game losing streak, odds are that futures are now more prominent in talks.

    That also puts impending free agent Victor Oladipo on the block, and Eric Gordon might’ve been in the mix as well, though we’ll see if the groin injury he sustained on Thursday cools that market.

    As for the Rockets, at least those who look like locks to remain on the team, there will be big shoes to fill. Jae’Sean Tate is going to get all he can handle. Sterling Brown will be a regular and is worth a look in 14-team fantasy leagues, with enough upside to maybe land him in the top-150. David Nwaba (wrist surgery) will be back in a handful of weeks, hopefully. Kenyon Martin Jr. logged 32 minutes on Thursday, scoring 13 points with nine rebounds, three blocks and a 3-pointer. Deep-league GMs should take note there. Justin Patton, taken from the scrap heap, will get a chance to keep reviving his career and is worth a short-term look in standard leagues, at least until Christian Wood (ankle) returns, which is hopefully next week. There was a standout performance in the backcourt that we’ll get to in a second.

    Things change fast in pro sports, but the teardown of the Rockets has happened with lightning speed. While the real starpower was already gone, the final straw with Tucker adds a sad sense of finality to the proceedings. We’ll see what comes out of all the impending maneuvering.

    Add(s) of the Night

    Kevin Porter Jr., G/F, Houston Rockets

    Porter was superb in his Rockets debut, collecting 13 points, 10 assists, three steals, a block and a 3-pointer while shooting 5-for-11 in 29 minutes off the bench. With all of Houston’s injuries and the possibility of some significant departures in the next two weeks, Porter might fall into a huge workload whether he earns it or not. The talent has never been in question here and he should be scooped up wherever available. The Rockets have the potential to be very, very bad in the second half of the season, but the fantasy numbers are still going to count and Porter fits the right profile for success in that kind of setup.

    Drop Zone

    DeAndre Jordan, C, Brooklyn Nets

    Jordan, despite a starting role being handed to him, has been outside the top-150 over the last month. He’s a rebounding specialist at this point, and the Nets seem to be realizing that their small-ball combos are their best. With Nic Claxton, Jeff Green and soon Blake Griffin around to give Steve Nash some versatility with that configuration, the arrow is pointing down. Fantasy GMs in 12-team leagues should be able to do better.

    Injury Report

    Devonte’ Graham (left knee) returned after missing the seven games before the All-Star break, checking in off the bench. We’ll see if that’s how the Hornets will roll out going forward or if it’s a load management concern.

    Delon Wright (groin) was back in action but didn’t do a ton in 22 minutes. He should be able to hold off Dennis Smith Jr. and Saben Lee, but it’ll get interesting and probably messy whenever Killian Hayes (hip) returns.

    The Raptors were missing Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby (health and safety protocols) again.

    Marcus Smart (Grade 1 left calf strain) returned from a lengthy absence and played 21 minutes, scoring 19 points and looking like his old self. That’s a huge lift for the Celtics.

    Evan Fournier (groin) and Terrence Ross (left knee soreness) sat out on Thursday while Aaron Gordon (left ankle sprain) returned after several weeks on the shelf. He was eased in with just 14 minutes of action.

    Bam Adebayo (left knee tendinitis) sat out on Thursday and didn’t travel with the team for Friday’s game in Chicago. Looks like that injury was more serious than it appeared at first.

    Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis both sat out on the second leg of a back-to-back.

    Lauri Markkanen (right shoulder sprain) returned from a multi-week absence and looked good, scoring 23 points and hitting seven threes in 28 minutes. Otto Porter (back) also returned but was less good, scoring three points in 18 minutes. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (health and safety) sat out on the other side of that matchup, with Embiid expected to play tomorrow and Simmons on track for Sunday.

    John Wall (left knee contusion) was ruled out on Thursday while Eric Gordon (left knee soreness) was ruled in, only to leave the game after suffering a groin injury.

    Devin Booker (left knee sprain) was able to suit up after missing the All-Star game, which is no surprise.

    For Friday’s slate, Kevin Love (calf strain) is questionable and is looking to make his third appearance of the year. Fingers crossed there. Larry Nance Jr. (finger fracture), meanwhile, is not on the injury report at all.

    Jaren Jackson Jr. (meniscus tear) remains out and an update is expected later in the month as his never-ending recovery continues to never end.

    DeMar DeRozan (personal) has been ruled out of Friday’s game, and we’ll see how long this absence extends.

    In a bit of fantastic news, Caris LeVert (renal cell carcinoma) appears to be nearing a return. Make sure he’s not available anywhere.

    Trade Time

    Lloyd Pierce mentioned earlier today that the Hawks are down to what could be their final practice days of the season, given all of the COVID restrictions and condensed schedule the rest of the way. With the trade deadline officially two weeks away and extremely limited opportunity to get new guys acclimated, it might be wise to expect moves to be made a little earlier than usual.

    As such, you’re going to want to keep track of players who could be in line for extra opportunity pending any transactions. Beyond the obvious situations of guys who might actually be traded themselves, it’s good to take a note of which intriguing fantasy players might be in line for more work — and that’s not necessarily going to come as a result of the reason you predict.

    The Mavs, for example, may want to bolster their rotation a bit. Someone like James Johnson could be moved for salary purposes, and would be a worthwhile fantasy option even if he’s just playing out the string on a bad team. It’s exactly what we saw in Minnesota last season.

    The Pelicans look like they want to create more opportunity for Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

    The Magic might soon be without Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and/or Terrence Ross, which would lead to extra minutes for Al-Farouq Aminu, Dwayne Bacon, James Ennis and Chuma Okeke, among others. Sometimes you just need to brute-force your way to value on volume.

    The Thunder elevated Aleksej Pokusevski to the starting five with Darius Bazley (shoulder) out but made Moses Brown the first big off the bench, with the second-year center posting eight points, 12 boards and a block.

    They’re not household names, and these are some examples on the extreme end of the spectrum, but this is the time of the season where it can pay off significantly if you pay attention to the supposed scrubs.

    Hungry Like the Wolves

    Chris Finch said the other day that the Wolves are probably going to tighten up the rotation a bit, which is good news for fantasy players. That’s a team with a whole lot of bodies; enough that it’s hindering development and of course, fantasy stats. Thursday’s game wasn’t the most illuminating with D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarrett Culver out, as you’d assume they’ll be in the rotation when healthy, but there was still some stuff to look over. Jordan McLaughlin, who has been flat-out better than Ricky Rubio lately, was also out.

    (It also doesn’t help that the Wolves actually boatraced the Pelicans to the tune of a 30-point victory, but we can only work with what we’re given.)

    The five starters: Karl-Anthony Towns (duh), Ricky Rubio (the D’Lo placeholder and potential trade bait), Anthony Edwards (also duh), Jarred Vanderbilt (interesting) and Jake Layman (less interesting but can compensate for that by playing extremely hard).

    The bench: Jaden McDaniels (very, very interesting), Naz Reid (the backup center), Josh Okogie (the only defensive-minded guy), Jaylen Nowell (the hot hand) and Juancho Hernangomez (six minutes of garbage time).

    The first three starters and Reid don’t really need any extra analysis, but the forward mix is worth diving into.

    Vanderbilt hit the fantasy radar earlier in the year but has been getting outplayed by McDaniels fairly regularly, which is what happened tonight. JV had two points, six rebounds and four assists in 17 minutes while McDaniels put together the best game of his young career, scoring 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting with four rebounds, two steals, three blocks and four 3-pointers in 26 minutes. He’s top-190/170 (8/9-cat) in the last month and is on a serious upward trend, with the stat set to sustain fantasy appeal. It looks like we could see a changing of the guard there, and we’re not overly concerned about Layman despite 12 points, three triples and a block in 23 minutes. He’s gone from starter to DNP-CD at the drop of a hat and you’d figure that he’s the first one to go when Beasley’s suspension is up.

    Nowell had another outstanding game, popping off for a career-high 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting with six triples. He’s been on a nice scoring run since entering the rotation at the end of January. The Wolves might not have the space for him when Russell returns, but there’s short-term scoring punch here. Okogie has struggled to string good games together this season and has also fallen out of the rotation at times, so while he brings a necessary dynamic to the table he also hasn’t played well enough to deliver its benefits.

    This is a very bad team; the sort that usually yields at least some kind of fantasy value. We saw Hernangomez pull it off last year, and he’s terrible. Finch seems to recognize, for his own purposes, that there’s too many cooks in the kitchen. It’d behoove you to figure out which guys will make the grade, because a condensed playing group should benefit all involved.

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