Five things to watch: NBA trade deadline watch and more

Caris LeVert of the Cleveland Cavaliers could be in line for a boost if he were to be traded. AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht

Here are a few Monday thoughts from the Hoops Lab as we prepare for Week 15 of the fantasy basketball season. Keep in mind, the Fantasy Basketball Rest of Season Rankings also update on Mondays, so check those out as your prepare for this week's games. Between the rankings and this article, we'll also help you identify some good "buy low/sell high" candidates. So, without further ado, let's dig into it.

Upcoming NBA trade deadline

The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 9, just over two weeks from now. This date should be circled on the calendar for all fantasy basketball managers because trades in the next couple weeks can have dramatic impact on player value moving forward. We recently did a roundtable on players whose value would change the most, for good or for ill, if they were to be traded. As a fantasy manager, you should be doing similar calculus for the players, either on your team or just around your league, you think might be moved to see if you can find an angle to improve your team. It's speculative, because if you play for a trade and it doesn't happen, you have to live with the results, but sometimes the results can be dramatic.

For example, in the article, John Cregan brought up Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma is flirting with top-50 fantasy value this season, getting all the responsibility he can handle with the Wizards. He's a primary scorer and secondary facilitator averaging (big) career highs of 21.8 PPG, 2.6 3PG and 4.0 APG. He's playing well, but the spike in numbers has come in large part due to him playing a career-high 35.2 MPG with a career-high 28.1 usage percentage.

Now, imagine if he's traded to a contending team that's in the market for frontline help who can score. There's a good likelihood that he might not even start, sending him back to the 27.0 MPG he averaged in the 20-19/20-21 seasons ... in which he also averaged only 12.8 PPG, 1.7 3PG and 1.6 APG. Even if he were to start, there's almost no chance that he'd get anywhere near the minutes and usage on a contender that he does for the Wizards.

So if you have Kuzma on your FBA team, and you've become accustomed to the level of production he's provided thus far, it really might be worth your while to gauge Kuzma's trade value in your league. You don't want to give him away for nothing, because there's a chance the Wizards keep him and he continues as he's been. But, if you can swap Kuzma straight up for another top-50ish talent, or if you can pair Kuzma with another solid player to bring back an impact guy, it might be worth your while to be a bit more aggressive than usual in moving him, if you believe that the Wizards might do the same.

Now, consider the opposite scenario. In the article, Eric Moody pointed out that Caris LeVert is a walking bucket that is stuck behind two high-usage teammates in Donovan Mitchell (31.8 USG%) and Darius Garland (28.7 USG%). LeVert is putting up solid numbers for his situation with 12.8 PPG, 3.7 APG and 1.6 3PG, but that's only enough to be a fringe top-150 FBA player who's rostered in just over 45% of leagues.

What if he were to be traded to a team that wanted to feature him? LeVert averaged 20.2 PPG, 5.2 APG and 1.8 3PG during the 2020-21 season, and he's already turned in a game of 41 points, 7 assists and 6 3-pointers this season. If he's available in your league, it could be worth a flier and roster spot to pick him up just in case. Or, ask for him as the "throw-in" player in a larger deal.

Just saying. There's often chaos surrounding the NBA trade deadline, and chaos is a ladder, so ... it's time to start climbing.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton set to return?

Giannis Antetokounmpo has missed the past five games because of knee issues, and Khris Middleton has missed the past 18. Both are listed as probable for Monday, a potential return that would put the Bucks' starting lineup at full strength for one of the few times this season. But keep an eye on both near game time, because there have been false alarms in the past. Giannis was listed as probable to play before last Monday's game, but he ended up sitting out that game and the following two as well. Middleton, on the other hand, made his season debut on Dec. 2 after missing the first month and a half of the season, played in seven of the next eight games, then missed every game after Dec. 15. Of the two, Middleton is more likely to need ramp-up time, even after he's spent the past couple of weeks practicing with the Bucks and their G League affiliate to try to get his wind and legs back in shape.

The expectation is that the Bucks wouldn't rush either of their two stars back, prioritizing their long-term health and availability in the postseason more than regular-season success, so them being listed as probable is promising. But stay tuned.

Ball recovering from ankle injury again

LaMelo Ball re-re-sprained his left ankle Wednesday in Houston after teammate P.J. Washington fell into it. Ball also has a sore right wrist, but in the short term the ankle seems more troubling since it's the third time this season he's had to miss time with the injury. He missed the first 13 games of the season, returned from three games, then missed another 11 games when he re-sprained it the first time. Ball already missed one game on Saturday, but it is encouraging that he's listed as questionable for Monday's game after being listed as doubtful on Saturday. Ball is a among the top 10 to 15 FBA contributors in the NBA when healthy, so both the potential for absence and the possibility that this third injury could mark a trend have to be concerning for FBA managers with Ball on the roster. Whether you roster him or not, mark his trade value carefully, because he is a game-changer when he's on the court but now has a risk-reward proposition that could make him worth trading -- in either direction, depending on your team situation.

Suns in and out

Chris Paul (hip) returned from a seven-game absence Sunday to lead the Suns to a victory over the Grizzlies. Paul turned in 22 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 3-pointers, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot in 38 minutes, one of his best performances of the season, to suggest he's back at full strength.

Cameron Johnson also returned Thursday after missing 37 games with a torn meniscus, scoring 19 points with 6 boards and 2 3-pointers in 22 minutes off the bench. He sat out Saturday's game since the Suns had a Saturday/Sunday back-to-back, but he returned to the starting lineup and played 29 minutes on Sunday.

Devin Booker is still out with the left groin strain that sidelined him at the end of December, but he is approaching the four-week mark that was given as his initial landmark for potential return. The Suns haven't announced an impending return, though, so temper expectations until more news is available. Teammate Deandre Ayton has missed two straight games because of illness but could return to action sometime this week. Cameron Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (foot) are both still out, making Damion Lee (available in 95.7% of leagues) the next man up in the Suns' backcourt. Lee had a quiet game in Paul's return on Sunday, but he had averaged 17.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.7 APG and 2.5 3PG in 29.8 MPG in the six games prior -- two starts and four appearances off the bench.

Isaac is gonna play?

When I read that Jonathan Isaac was set to return to game action as soon as Monday, I found myself echoing the excited incredulity in the famous "Daniel LaRusso is gonna fight?" line at the end of "The Karate Kid." After all, the last time that he played in an NBA game was in the Orlando bubble in July 2020 before knee injuries derailed his career. But his return is big news for the Magic and potentially fantasy basketball managers, because when he plays, Isaac has got that game. A defensive-minded combo forward, Isaac (available in 75.5% of leagues) averaged 2.3 BPG, 1.6 SPG, 11.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 0.9 3PG in 28.8 MPG when he last played during the 2019-20 season.

He joins a Magic squad thick with young, talented frontcourt players, so he might not get the minutes to produce fantasy-caliber numbers in the short term. Plus, after almost three full years away, the assumption is that he'll be brought back slowly on minutes restrictions. But he's definitely worth keeping an eye on, with top-75 upside, if he ever earns starter minutes.