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Welcome to the NBA Fantasy Forecaster, which this week includes a long-term outlook.
The NBA's second full month is upon us, so I checked each team's December schedule. Sure, there are a lot of games in the month ahead: 20 NBA teams play 15 or more games. However, there's also a trend that's sure to annoy those in leagues that require weekly lineups: Many teams, starting with the Rockets, Hornets and Kings in Week 6, have weeks with just two games.
When a team has just two games, there's not much you can do other than stick with the fantasy studs and bench everyone else. But a closer look at Houston, New Orleans and Sacramento follows. For the month of December as a whole, Golden State has the most grueling schedule: 17 games, 11 on the road. And even though you'll ride Stephen Jackson, Corey Maggette and Andris Biedrins through this stretch, you might not get the production you expect, especially in the percentages. The Warriors play Orlando twice, Houston twice, Boston and the Lakers. Each of these teams is holding the opposition to 43.1 percent shooting or less.
In contrast, Phoenix has mostly silent nights in December. The Suns play 12 times, and in an eight-day stretch around Christmas, they have just one game. Here's the kicker with this schedule: Phoenix still has three back-to-backs. So if Terry Porter sticks with his plan of not allowing Shaquille O'Neal to play on consecutive nights, Shaq owners (and he is 96 percent owned in ESPN leagues) could be looking at as few as nine games for the Big Cactus between now and New Year's Day.
Check the grid for Week 6 schedules of each NBA team. Teams with the most games in the upcoming week are listed first.
Utah Jazz (@SAC, MIA, TOR, @PHO): The Jazz are nearing full strength. Carlos Boozer, who's missed four games with a strained left quadriceps, could play this weekend. Meanwhile, Deron Williams has returned and is back dishing out assists like so many, many plates of Thanksgiving leftovers. (Because, you know, like Deron's spot-on passes, turkey day leftovers are so abundant, yet still really, really good.) Boozer's return means that Paul Millsap, who's averaging 17.7 points and 10.0 boards while starting the past three games, goes back to the bench, but keep in mind that Millsap is averaging 10.9 points and 1.3 blocks as a sub. He should be owned in more than 11 percent of ESPN leagues, and in deep leagues you should think about keeping him in your lineup for Week 6. The Kings, Heat, Raptors and Suns are all being outboarded this season; Miami is third-worst in rebound differential. One Jazz player still sidelined is Kyle Korver, who has a sprained right wrist. As long as Korver is out, Ronnie Brewer is a solid play, as he's averaging 19.3 points and 2.8 steals in the four games Korver's missed. Kings opponents lead the league with almost nine steals per game, while Suns opponents average more than eight steals.
Houston Rockets (LAC, GS): While the Clippers and Warriors are two of the NBA's worst defensive teams, the only Rocket I'd consider playing (other than Yao Ming or Ron Artest) is Luis Scola because Los Angeles and Golden State both allow lots of rebounds and stink in rebound differential. Check for updates through the weekend, but this schedule gives you ample incentive to sit Tracy McGrady and his balky knee.
New Orleans Hornets (PHO, MEM): I don't think any Hornets other than Chris Paul and David West are worth activating in a two-game week, but if you need 3-pointers, I suppose that Peja Stojakovic, who just burned the Nuggets Thursday, could help you. Suns and Grizzlies opponents both average 6.7 treys per night.
Sacramento Kings (Utah, DEN) I don't believe that Kevin Martin's imminent return destroys John Salmons' fantasy value, but it will make a difference. Salmons has averaged 21.3 points in the 10 games since Martin went down, compared to 17.3 ppg in Martin's seven starts. Martin, who's expected to return this weekend, looks like the slightly more tempting play for Week 6, with Nuggets and Jazz opponents averaging 6.4 and 6.3 3s per game, respectively. If your team relies on Spencer Hawes for blocks, stick with him. Denver opponents get the fourth-most rejections.
Some quick tips for owners in daily leagues. Recommendations -- start, sit or add -- are made for specific days of the coming week, based on the schedule.
D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats (MIN, OKC, @MIL, CLE): He's averaged 19.4 points, 5.8 assists and 2.4 3s in his past five games, but the rookie's playing time seems certain to dwindle upon Jason Richardson's return. Still, Augustin could produce off the bench, particularly against the Timberwolves and Thunder, who allow opponents to shoot 45.9 and 47.2 percent, respectively.
Andray Blatche, PF/C, Wizards (@NJ, POR, LAL, @CHI): OK, that 25-point, 12-rebound, 5-steal performance against the Warriors is an aberration. But with Ed Tapscott on the Wizards bench, don't give up on Blatche. Yes, he had just five points and five boards against the Magic, but Blatche had to guard Dwight Howard, which is kind of like having to stroll through bear-infested woods reeking of honey and salmon. You'll definitely want Blatche active against the Bulls, who allow a league-leading 6.6 blocks per game.
Jordan Farmar, PG, Lakers (@IND, @PHI, @WAS, MIL): After averaging 0.9 steals per game in 2007-08, Farmar is getting 1.4 takeaways in nearly identical minutes this season. With 76ers, Bucks and Pacers opponents second, third and sixth in steals per game, this should be a good week for deep-leaguers to slip Farmar into their lineups.
Rudy Fernandez, SG, Trail Blazers (@NY, @WAS, @BOS, @TOR): He's still giving you a solid 2.3 treys per night, but Fernandez has topped 40 percent from the floor in just three of his past 11 games. Of equal concern is the rookie has played fewer than 20 minutes in three of his past five. With Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw also hitting their share of 3s -- and Martell Webster about to return -- I don't like where this is headed. However, the schedule plays in Fernandez's favor somewhat -- at least against the Wizards, who allow the second-most 3s, and Raptors, who allow the sixth-most. Remember that Mike D'Antoni teams give up points, but not so many 3s; Knicks opponents make only 5.2 per game, sixth-fewest in the league.
Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers (@DAL, @HOU, @MEM, @MIN): Gordon is coming off 24- and 25-point performances in starts against the Hornets and Nuggets, but what really intrigues me is his steals potential. He has 11 in his past four games and is averaging 1.1 this season despite playing only 17 minutes a night. However, none of these opponents allow that many steals; T-Wolves opponents, believe it or not, average a league-worst 6.0 steals. L.A.'s Week 6 opponents (the Grizzlies excepted) are also stingy against the 3.
Yi Jianlian, PF, Nets (WAS, MIN, @PHI): I shouldn't care much about a player (especially a forward) who shoots 39.1 percent, but Yi's 1.2 3s and 0.9 blocks fascinate me for some reason. The truth is, his ordinary line is inflated by some huge nights and, just maybe, there's a pattern to it. Sure, it's a tiny sample size, but Yi's biggest games so far -- 17 points versus Washington on opening night, 24 points versus Miami on Nov. 10 and 27 points versus the Clippers on Nov. 22 -- came against teams that are getting destroyed on the boards. The Wizards, Heat and Clippers rank 27th, 28th and 29th in rebound differential. So, with a rematch with Washington on tap, perhaps Yi is due for another strong showing. The Timberwolves are also being outrebounded this season, but the Sixers, despite their other problems, come out 6.3 boards ahead per night, the largest differential of any team.
Roger Mason, PG/SG, Spurs (DET, @DEN, GS): Manu Ginobili is back, and Tony Parker's return isn't that far off. So if you can get something for Mason, now is the time to move him. However, this schedule probably doesn't help you market the fella. The Pistons, even with their recent struggles, allow only 5.1 3s per game, while the Nuggets, despite yielding 6.4 3s, limit opponents to just 32.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Mike Miller, SG/SF, Timberwolves (@CHA, @ORL, @NJ, LAC): Two things I don't get about Miller: his sudden reluctance to shoot the ball, and his continued reluctance to get a haircut. However, despite that first thing -- Miller has taken 11.4 shots per game for his career, but has just 30 field-goal attempts over his past five --- he's not a total fantasy bust. That's because Miller averages 5.7 rebounds (great for a guard-eligible player) and 4.7 assists (excellent for a forward-eligible player). With the Bobcats and Clippers getting outboarded and Clippers and Nets opponents getting a goodly number of assists, stay with Miller, even while you keep scratching your head.
Brandon Rush, SG/SF, Pacers (LAL, @BOS, @CLE, BOS): Yet another rookie, Rush should be on your radar because he's getting more minutes (30 and 36 in his past two games) and because, with steady court time, he could contribute in the hustle categories (given his current averages of 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks in only 22 minutes). That said, Indiana's Week 6 schedule is brutal: Celtics, Lakers and Cavs opponents are 30th, 28th and 27th in field-goal percentage.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder (@CHA, @ORL, @MIA): Westbrook has a stunning 19 steals over his past six games, but this schedule doesn't offer much hope that he'll improve on his 33.0 percent shooting. The Magic and Heat hold opponents to under 45 percent from the floor. On top of that, Bobcats, Magic and Heat opponents are all in the NBA's bottom half in steals.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.