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Thursday, March 8, 2012
If You're Hard-Core: Lottery tickets

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

If you're like me -- an NBA fanatic who also roots for a quarterback-parched franchise -- your Googling day is currently triangulated between "RG3," "Peyton Manning" and "NBA Trade Deadline" (I do occasionally throw in a "Wilson Chandler").

And while it's mandatory and addictive to speculate on all the various probabilities, our job as fantasy basketball enthusiasts is to project beyond the next week or so and anticipate what's going to happen after the trade deadline (and after the Redskins crap out and sign Kyle Orton).

You obviously can't make any deals or waiver-wire acquisitions based on where players might go in an NBA trade. It's hard to justify making a fantasy move based on rumors. But, if you're into reading tea leaves (as I am) and want to start thinking about some players who could pop onto the fantasy radar over the next month, then turn your eye to the teams headed to the lottery.

Because as certain teams begin to count their current allotment of pingpong balls -- as GMs begin to play around with Chad Ford's NBA Lottery Mock Draft, dreaming of Andre Drummond -- you'll start to see more and more franchises begin to "play for next year." A cynic could call that code for "tanking," but I prefer to look at it as "opening up new and exciting waiver wire opportunities."

By a date in the not-too-distant future (say, right around St. Patrick's Day), you'll be forced to improve your fantasy team via a single route: free agency. The problem is that teams pushing for playoff positioning will be shortening their benches, not giving that 10th guy with high upside 25 minutes a night. It's the hard-to-watch teams, the ones who have already started laying out their lucky charms, that will help you the most down the stretch.

These teams will start to shut down slightly dinged, more established players to see what they've got at the end of their bench. I guarantee you there will be five or six players owned in less than 25 percent of leagues who will help determine who wins or loses your league.

To help you out, I'm going to give you 25 players who could end up on that short list. (It's a little long, but I have next week off, so I wanted to give you something to really chew on in my absence.)

Records as of March 8

Bobcats

Charlotte Bobcats (5-32)

A 5-32 team should be positively percolating with late-season breakout candidates, but the cupboard is looking pretty bare. The backcourt's minutes are filled for the duration, so any shift will occur up front. Bismack Biyombo alternates nightly between being the next Dikembe Mutombo and the next DeSagna Diop. Look for his production-based schizophrenia to die down in the coming weeks, and for him to post a workable box score every three out of five games.

If Boris Diaw is traded or bought out, someone's going to have to fill his frontcourt minutes, and Byron Mullens has already shown some fleeting double-double capability. He has 46 points in his past three games, which is more than he had in his previous two seasons combined.

Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers (14-23)

The Cavaliers have been going through a bit of a market correction of late, taking some losses and going into rotation reshuffle mode. I think Kyrie Irving will finish strong, which should keep his teammates productive and in games. Tristan Thompson is the obvious choice here for increased production, but I think Alonzo Gee will be the big late bloomer over the last month of the season. He's done it in the past (never discount NBDL players in the right NBA situation), and has already put together a nice string of games.

Thompson will have to carve minutes from Antawn Jamison, who's currently leading the Cavs vets in a category I like to refer to as "caring." Still, Thompson has more upside than just about any other player on this list, and I love that he's already become a consistent shot-blocker. And Ryan Hollins could end up with a solid 25 MPG if Anderson Varejao (a huge shutdown candidate) doesn't come back.

Pistons

Detroit Pistons (13-26)

There was once a time -- say, late January -- where it looked like Austin Daye was shooting his way back into fantasy consideration. His 28-point outburst back on Jan. 25 seemed to set the table for a nice little run of box scores. The problem is that he's behind Tayshaun Prince, who's having a nice second half, and the resurgent Jason Maxiell in Detroit's frontcourt rotation. And Charlie Villanueva is inching ever closer to a return. But Daye is precisely the kind of high-upside player who could come out of nowhere and string together a couple of hot weeks.

Warriors

Golden State Warriors (15-21)

Even if Monta Ellis stays a Warrior beyond the trade deadline, I believe Klay Thompson needs only another five minutes a night to merit deep-league consideration. He's only a 3-point specialist at present, but I could see him bombing his way into more minutes over the last month of the season. For some recent evidence, consider his March 5 line against the Washington Wizards (18 points on 4-of-5 from downtown).

Brandon Rush and Dorell Wright have been locked in a slightly somnambulistic battle for Mark Jackson's favor all season, with Wright getting the nod to date. But Rush provides a rare commodity -- blocks with shooting guard eligibility -- that always leads me to hope he gets the upper hand. And if you're looking for the next Biyombo (who is, remember, supposed to be the next Serge Ibaka), may I remind you I've been pushing Ekpe Udoh for some time.

Nets

New Jersey Nets (13-27)

It's a roto-fantasy (Denver wouldn't let it happen), but Wilson Chandler would be an absolutely perfect late-season fit in this rotation. Short of that, Anthony Morrow (if he isn't dealt) is a solid heat-up candidate. He's streaky, so it's all about owning him at the right time.

If Morrow is dealt, and you want a deep name to think about, I'm going to submit Gerald Green for your consideration.

There was a phase early in his career where the uber-athletic Green was thought of as an up-and-comer in fantasy circles. He's still just 26 years old, and he's done well to play his way back into the league. If the Nets -- as they should -- sign him for the rest of the season, Green will play his way into deep-league consideration. It's a hunch, but an educated hunch.

Hornets

New Orleans Hornets (9-30)

On the surface, the Hornets are even more talent-bereft than the Bobcats, but they're so deep in Lotteryland, and so banged up, that they've shown a refreshing willingness to try anything (and anyone) with their starting lineup. It's already resulted in Hard-Core fave Gustavo Ayon being snatched up in a few leagues, but with multiple shutdowns and trades looming, it's only a matter of time before a couple more names bubble to the surface. My money's on either Xavier Henry or Solomon Jones, but the Hornets could be the team that plugs in a D-League star out of nowhere. Keep a close eye on this team.

Suns

Phoenix Suns(17-21)

I didn't want to put the Suns on this list. The sentimentalist in me wants Steve Nash to guide this team of fantasy-friendly upstarts into the eighth slot in the Western Conference playoffs. But the realist in me looks at the standings and turns his hopes to seeing 28 minutes a night for Markieff Morris. Morris is in a shooting slump at present, but he's got potential and happens to play with a pretty fair point guard.

If you're not looking for youthful upside, but for inspirational feel-good fantasy comebacks, Michael Redd could fit the bill. Redd has produced when given the opportunity (he had 20 points in a rare start on Valentine's Day), but something will have to happen to Jared Dudley for him to get a real shot at extended playing time.

Kings

Sacramento Kings (13-26)

The Kings are sort of a poor man's Rockets: a team that's deep with high-upside youth but doesn't have enough minutes to give those players what they need to mean something in fantasy. The frontcourt situation is a sloppy, nondescript miasma of frustration, but keep an eye on who gets the upper hand minutes-wise between Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette. Both of them have flashed ability at different junctures this season, and it makes sense to give them extended playing time as the Kings' season wheezes to a halt.

Raptors

Toronto Raptors (13-26)

Andrea Bargnani's pending return means fewer frontcourt minutes for Ed Davis, but Davis' defensive potential (1.5 blocks, 1.3 steals per-36 minutes) keeps me hoping he won't need an Amir Johnson injury to stay relevant. The Davis/Johnson logjam produces a very high level of roto frustration, but at least Dwayne Casey had the sense to finally give James Johnson playing time. I've probably added James Johnson about 20-25 times to various teams over the past year, waiting for his minutes to stick. If he is still unowned in your league, you need to make some more competitive friends.

Wizards

Washington Wizards (9-29)

Andray Blatche is getting booed out of the District. With no trade to showcase him for, it's tough to justify giving him any minutes at the expense of Trevor Booker, who had a huge breakout line Wednesday (18 points, 17 rebounds, a block, a steal and a 3-pointer) against the Los Angeles Lakers. If Rashard Lewis gets shut down for the duration, look for Chris Singleton and Jan Vesely to alternate turns on the fantasy radar. All three players are high-motor guys that Randy Wittman will need to play almost out of self-defense to keep up with the resurgent John Wall. Singleton is of particular interest due to his potential for 3s, blocks and steals. Come to think of it, he's sort of like a certain James Johnson.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JPCregan.