This article is part of our NBA Observations series.
A couple of recent, big-name injuries cast a pall over the league in Week 14, but the focus will soon shift to the trade deadline, which arrives Thursday afternoon.
With several contending teams looking to buy and a relatively low number of teams looking to sell, this is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable deadlines in recent years. Names like Kyle Lowry, Aaron Gordon, John Collins and Victor Oladipo -- among several others -- could be on the move, but it's anyone's guess where they might end up.
The trade deadline is also approaching in most season-long fantasy leagues, meaning managers may have only a few more days to float deals that could swing their fortunes over the final two months. Now is the time to address category needs before the waiver wire becomes the only source of roster improvement.
For managers who opt to keep the status quo, it will be imperative to closely analyze the real-life moves leading up to the deadline. Not only will the players involved likely see a change in value, but additions and departures will trigger ripple effects for several rosters around the league.
As the deadline nears, let's take a look at some of the crucial players to monitor, as well as the top fantasy storylines of the week:
Key players back from injury
CJ McCollum made his return from a 25-game absence last week and has played in each of Portland's last four games, including Thursday and Friday's back-to-back set. A top-10 fantasy player before the injury, McCollum went just 6-of-27 from the field in his first two games back before erupting for 32 points, seven three-pointers, four rebounds and four assists against the Mavs on Friday. The Blazers are still managing his workload (24.8 MPG since returning), but McCollum figures to be back to full capacity before the end of the week.
- Jusuf Nurkic remains on track to return to action around the end of the month. The Blazers haven't issued an update since last Monday's report that Nurkic was roughly two weeks away.
The Hawks got De'Andre Hunter back for Monday's loss to the Clippers, which snapped an eight-game winning streak coinciding with the firing of Lloyd Pierce. Hunter saw 20 minutes of action off the bench, finishing with eight points (3-6 FG, 1-3 3Pt, 1-2 FT), one rebound, one assist and one steal. Prior to missing 23 games with a knee injury, Hunter looked like one of the most improved players in the league, posting 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, while putting up a 52-38-88 shooting line acros 17 appearances.
Mitchell Robinson returned to the floor Sunday against the 76ers, playing 17 minutes off the bench and finishing with four points and six rebounds. Robinson sprained his left ankle, but he said he'll play in Tuesday's matchup against Washington. Tom Thibodeau said he plans to use Robinson off the bench while he works back into shape, but he'll "eventually" replace Nerlens Noel as the Knicks' starting center.
Christian Wood made his long-awaited return last week and has played at least 26 minutes in each of the Rockets' last four games. Since returning, Wood is averaging 21.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 three-pointers in 29.5 minutes per game. In a narrow loss to OKC on Sunday, Wood posted 27 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 36 minutes.
- Houston snapped its 20-game losing streak Monday night against Toronto, thanks in large part to a throwback performance from John Wall, who posted his first triple-double -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists -- since March 17, 2016. In that game, the Wizards defeated the 76ers, who rolled out a starting five of Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, Isaiah Canaan and Ish Smith. Sonny Weems added four points off the bench for Philly, which finished the season with a 10-72 record.
Major injuries for LaMelo and LeBron
To be clear, LeBron James' high-ankle sprain isn't as devastating as LaMelo Ball's season-ending wrist fracture, but both injuries cast a dark shadow on an otherwise-fantastic weekend of basketball.
James is expected to miss at least a few weeks, leaving the Lakers without their two superstars for an unknown period of time. With Marc Gasol (conditioning) still working his way back from COVID-19 protocols, the suddenly Kyle Kuzma-led Lakers are facing a bleak outlook over the next several weeks. To make matters worse, beginning with a March 31 matchup against Milwaukee, the Lakers' schedule is set to toughen up considerably in the month of April.
- Outside of Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, the other name to monitor in James' absence is Talen Horton-Tucker. The second-year guard had some huge performances during the preseason and had already begun picking up more minutes before James went down. Over his last five games, Horton-Tucker is averaging 14.4 points, 4.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds (24.4 MPG). The Iowa State product saw 28 minutes of action in Sunday night's loss to Phoenix.
The Ball injury is an extremely unfortunate break for Charlotte, which sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday night. Ball was on pace to cruise to the Rookie of the Year award, holding averages of 15.9 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 2.0 made threes across 41 games. The No. 3 overall pick shot 45.1 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from three and 78.9 percent at the line. At the time of the injury, Ball ranked 41st in per-game value (8-cat) and 22nd in total value, making him one of the more valuable fantasy rookies in recent memory.
- The Hornets have a built-in replacement, of sorts, in Devonte' Graham, who returned to the starting lineup for Monday's game at San Antonio and played 29 minutes -- by far his most since returning from a seven-game injury absence after the All-Star break. Graham's upside isn't nearly as high as Ball's, but one of last season's top breakouts should still provide decent value in points, assists and, especially, three-pointers.
- With Ball sidelined, the Rookie of the Year race is suddenly back on. There's a chance Ball could still win it (he's +225 at BetMGM), but Anthony Edwards is now installed as the betting favorite (-182), while Tyrese Haliburton looms at +300 and Immanuel Quickley sits at +1200.
Who is Moses Brown?
After Monday's victory over Minnesota, the Thunder have now won five of their last eight games, despite finding ways to avoid playing at least one -- and sometimes two or more -- of their best players nearly every night. With Al Horford resting in four of the last five games, Moses Brown has come out of nowhere to emerge as a fantasy-viable option at center.
Since the break, the UCLA product, who went undrafted in 2019, has averaged 10.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, making him a top-80 player in that span. Brown broke out with 20 points, 16 boards and five blocks in 30 minutes against the Bulls last Tuesday. On Monday night, he had just four points but added a career-high 17 rebounds to go with three blocks. Oklahoma City is unlikely to increase Horford's workload down the stretch, so Brown (40% rostered in Yahoo leagues) is easily worth an add ahead of the deadline.
Trade deadline watch
As Thursday's 3:00 PM ET deadline creeps closer, these are the players fantasy managers should keep a close eye on:
- Andre Drummond: The Cavs' asking price is low, so there's a chance Drummond could be traded, but the more likely scenario is that he's bought out shortly after the deadline. The depleted Lakers are believed to be the frontrunners to land the big man, who's been shut down since mid-February.
- Aaron Gordon: One of the more likely names to be dealt, Gordon formally requested a trade last week, and the Magic will have plenty of suitors for the 25-year-old. Gordon is reportedly only interested in joining a playoff-bound team, however, which may limit Orlando's true options. He was close to being sent to Houston over the weekend, but the deal fell through at the last minute. Portland and Denver are in the mix for Gordon's services, but Boston is viewed as the front-runner.
- Any deal with the Celtics would almost certainly involve Boston sending Marcus Smart back to Orlando. In that scenario, Smart would likely pick up some fantasy value, while Gordon could take a step back as the clear No. 4 option behind Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.
- Kyle Lowry: If the hottest name on the market is traded before the deadline, it will likely be to Philadelphia or Miami. No one is quite sure how Toronto will handle the situation, but if Lowry asks out, the Raptors are likely to grant his request. Set to turn 35 on Thursday, Lowry is the ultimate win-now addition, but he's remained plenty productive this season, posting averages of 17.6 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.8 made threes in 36 games.
- If Lowry were to end up with the Sixers or Heat, his fantasy value could slightly decline, as each team has plenty of top-end talent and would prioritize his readiness for the postseason.
- LaMarcus Aldridge: Like the Cavs with Drummond, the Spurs will attempt to get some return for Aldridge, but if that doesn't happen, the veteran is expected to hit the buyout market. The Heat, Trail Blazers and Celtics are reportedly in play, with Miami looming as the prohibitive favorite.
- Lauri Markkanen: He's played well this season (17.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 39.6% 3Pt), but the Bulls are said to be listening to offers for the big man, who will hit restricted free agency this offseason. Fantasy-wise, Markkanen is in a good spot with the Bulls, so if he's ultimately traded, there's a chance his value could take a hit.
- Lonzo Ball: The Pelicans aren't exactly shopping Ball, but as he approaches free agency this summer, New Orleans will either have to pay up or risk losing its starting point guard for nothing. Atlanta and Chicago are believed to be among the teams interested, should the Pels be willing to part with Ball.
- Victor Oladipo: With Oladipo still not quite looking like his old self and set to become a free agent this summer, the market for the veteran hasn't been overly robust. The Rockets are reportedly seeking a first-round pick and a promising young player, but at this point it's unclear if any teams will be willing to meet that price. If Oladipo remains in Houston, he could be at risk of missing several games down the stretch for rest purposes.
- John Collins: Winners of eight of their last nine games, the Hawks likely won't be in a hurry to deal one of their most productive players. Several teams have inquired about Collins, but there's a fair amount of risk, from a cost perspective, as he's set to hit restricted free agency this offseason. Considering Collins turned down a $90 million extension last summer, interested teams may want to avoid having to offer a near-max contract to retain the big man beyond 2020-21.
- Marvin Bagley: The No. 2 pick in 2018 is believed to be widely available, but given where he was drafted, he carries a significant financial burden that -- thus far, at least -- outweighs his on-court value. With Bagley set to make north of $11 million in 2021-22, with a $14.7 million qualifying offer in 2022, any trade would likely involve a rebuilding team willing to gamble on his perceived upside.