This article is part of our NBA Roundtable series.
Welcome to another edition of the RotoWire NBA Roundtable. This week, the staff answers a six-pack of questions on surprising fantasy developments, playoff races, Zion's stock, and the Bucks' chase for 70 wins.
What has been the bigger surprise this season: Chris Paul staying healthy in OKC, or Russell Westbrook finally adapting a more efficient style in Houston?
Nick Whalen: I avoided Paul at all costs in my leagues this season, and thus far it's come back to bite me. At this point in his career, I thought we could lock him for a max of around 65 games. Not only has Paul missed only one game thus far, but he's having one of the most efficient seasons of his career. Westbrook's run over the last two months has been impressive, but we always knew the potential for this was there -- it was just a matter of unlocking it.
Alex Barutha: Chris Paul staying healthy. I think Westbrook's legacy was on the line -- as much as it can be for a former MVP -- if he didn't change his style of play. I didn't think he'd be able to do it so dramatically, but he was helped by the Rockets fully embracing small-ball
Mike Barner: It's definitely Paul staying healthy for me. He hasn't played more than 61 games in any of the last three seasons and is already up to 54 games played entering Friday. Him staying healthy is the main reason why the Thunder are on pace to make the playoffs.
Alex Rikleen: Westbrook by a mile. There is nothing surprising about a guy staying healthy for half a season -- even the most brittle players (cough, Kyrie, cough) do that from time to time. Westbrook has been the most stubborn, aggressive player of this generation. I literally expected him to continue the same style of play until his knees eventually turned to dust mid-cut in a random December game.
Ken Crites: Chris Paul's rejuvenation in OKC has been fun to watch, even if he's still cranky about every call. I am not all that surprised to see Westbrook adjust his game – he'll listen to Harden and D'Antoni.
Adam King: The answer is Chris Paul. The last few seasons have been riddled with soft-tissue injuries, something that is known to linger, especially in older players. He has been a revelation for the Thunder and has them poised for a playoff berth. The production is not a shock, as he has always had a very fantasy-friendly game but the durability has been a real surprise.
Jeff Edgerton: I don't find either of these things to be especially surprising, but I would probably give the nod to Westbrook, especially when you consider Houston's new small-ball scheme. By essentially giving up in the frontcourt, you'd expect added pressure on the backcourt to make plays, but Westbrook is instead showing remarkable discipline in his shot selection.
Do you see the Bucks losing four or fewer games the rest of the way and getting to 70 wins?
Whalen: If they want to get to 70, they can do it. But at the end of the day, what does going 70-12 accomplish? If the Warriors hadn't won 73 just four years ago, I think I'd feel differently. But unless you have a real chance to get to 74 and break an NBA record, I don't see the point of a team going out of its way to just to hit a round number.
Barutha: Not quite. On its remaining schedule, Milwaukee has: Three games against Toronto, two against Boston and one against the Lakers. I could see the Bucks losing two or three of those, plus two or three random other games.
Barner: No. They are eventually going to start resting guys based on their hefty lead for the top seed in the East.
Rikleen: The Bucks are absolutely capable of 70 wins. They are more than good enough. But they've effectively clinched the 1-seed already. They start April with a brutal four-game run of Raptors, at Raptors, at Celtics, and at 76ers. Those three teams will still be fighting for playoff positioning. I assume the Bucks lose at least two of those four. Will they go 21-2 or better in the rest of their games? I doubt it.
Crites: Definitely, but I think Mike Budenholzer is too smart to push his guys hard during the last 10-to-15 games. Rest is too important, especially if they continue to run away with the No. 1 seed.
King: This one really comes down to whether it matters to them as an organization. If they are simply happy with the number one seed, they may decide to rest players down the stretch. If 70 wins is a goal, I believe they can reach that number.
Edgerton: This all depends on how healthy the team is down the stretch. They face the Raptors three times, the Celtics twice and the Lakers once, Aside from an odd loss from another team, these six games represent their most serious challenges. If you factor in the possibility of rest days for Giannis or Middleton as we get closer to playoff time, there's a decent probability that they may drop an unexpected game that doesn't include the aforementioned teams. With that said, I would take the over here.
Which team ends up claiming the 8th seed out West? Incumbent Memphis, Portland, San Antonio or New Orleans?
Whalen: Ja Morant vs. LeBron James in Round 1 would be a lot of fun. But you know what would be even more fun? Zion Williamson vs. LeBron James. With Jaren Jackson out, I don't trust Memphis to hold onto its three-game lead, and I'd give the edge to New Orleans over the banged-up Blazers. The Pelicans have only had their full roster for a handful of games, and they've played the toughest schedule in the league thus far. Eighteen of the Pels' final 25 games come against teams currently under .500,.
Barutha: The Blazers being down Damian Lillard for a bit is crushing -- they're -8.9 points per 100 possessions when he's off the court. I have no faith in the Spurs. Considering Memphis has the hardest remaining schedule, while New Orleans has the third easiest, I'm leaning toward the Pelicans. With Zion, their talent-level is much higher than the Grizzlies'. Admittedly, I'm desperate for a Pelicans/Lakers first-round matchup.
Barner: I'll take Memphis. The Damian Lillard injury really hurts the Blazers in the short term, and I have no faith in the Spurs. I think the Pelicans have the best chance of catching them, but that's still a significant gap to try and close for a team that has dealt with a lot of injuries this year.
Rikleen: Damian Lillard is the bad guy in an action movie. I won't believe he's dead until they show his corpse on screen, and even then I'm not 100% convinced he's gone. I think Portland edges out a resurgent Pelicans for the 8-seed.
Crites: Barutha informed me that Memphis has a particularly hard schedule the rest of the way. Plus, I worry Morant will hit the rookie wall, especially with Jackson now sidelined. I'll go out on a limb and say the up-and-coming Pelicans put it together and grab the 8th spot.
King: I would love it to be Memphis but the schedule certainly doesn't do them any favors. The Spurs are always going to be thereabouts but I'm just not sure they have the depth to get there. I'm going to go with the Pelicans, simply because I think they have more X-factors on their team.
Edgerton: Despite the loss of Jaren Jackson for a week or longer, I think Memphis will hold on to this spot. The Grizzlies' bench is deeper than any other team listed, and while I think both Portland and New Orleans will keep it interesting, Memphis will ultimately prevail.
Based on what we've seen from Zion Williamson thus far and what you expect for the rest of the season, in what range do you envision him going in 2020-21 fantasy drafts?
Whalen: He'll get the name-recognition boost, so I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with an ADP in the 12-to-18 range. So far, he's been an incredible source of efficient scoring and rebounding, but he's basically been a non-factor from three and hasn't had nearly the defensive impact -- statistically speaking -- that we thought he would. As of now, I'll be cautiously optimistic but wouldn't consider him until later in Round 2.
Barutha: This is a difficult question. Zion has been a sneaky-ineffective fantasy player. Starting with the first game in which he saw 30 minutes, Zion is ranked just 137th in 8-category leagues. His efficient, volume scoring is great. But he's bad from the free-throw line at a high volume, plus he gets no threes or defensive stats. His passing is nice but not difference-making in fantasy, either. My guess is that people will assume some growth in those areas and be willing to take him around Round 5 or 6, where most of the super-reliable options are gone. As an aside, I think the gap between Zion's real-life talent level and his fantasy value is the biggest in the league.
Barner: Some people might get excited and take him in the first round. However, I think he's drafted in the second round of most 12-team leagues.
Rikleen: Top 20 or higher. Scorers always see their draft value inflated, and Zion is probably going to finish the season inside the top-20 in per-game scoring. Add in his rebounding, passing, and the expectation that he continues improving, I wouldn't be surprised to see him go in the 10-15 range. I think injury concerns will keep him outside of the top-10, however, whether or not that is fair.
Crites: Late second round, though I worry whether or not he can stay healthy through an 82-game season.
King: Barring any injuries, I can see him going at the back end of the first-round in many drafts, if not only for the pure upside. If you are picking on the turn, it makes it a lot easier to pair him with the right player in terms of dealing with his free-throw issues and lack of perimeter scoring.
Edgerton: Zion looks better and better with every game, but his ability to stay healthy would be a minor concern for me going into next year's draft. Resting a prized player can be the death knell for a seasonal roster -- Kawhi Leonard is a perfect example. If the Pelicans elect to do something similar, that would be a huge knock to his value. I view him as a late-second-round/high-third-round prospect.
Are you more shocked that Hassan Whiteside is a top-12 player in 8-category leagues, or that De'Aaron Fox ranks outside the top 60 in per-game value?
Whalen: Both are surprising, and the fact that Whiteside ranks this high is borderline-appalling. But I'll go with Fox, who was my preseason Most Improved Player pick. He's finishing around the basket at the best rate of his three-year career, but he's taken a big step back as a three-point shooter and has a lower free throw percentage than Whiteside. Long-term, I'm still very much in on Fox as a future All-Star, but this season hasn't been the stepping stone I envisioned it would be.
Barutha: I was confident that Whiteside could be an elite fantasy presence if given the minutes, and Portland's center depth is a joke. Obviously, Zach Collins getting hurt is a big part of that, but everyone would have taken Whiteside in the first two rounds if they were guaranteed 30-plus minutes out of him. Fox's stunted development -- maybe the Kings' issues in general -- is more of a surprise. Fox's passing and defense are great fantasy assets, but he took a step back as both a three-point shooter and free-throw shooter. I'm really not sure what to make of it.
Rikleen: For me, it's Fox. Whiteside is only 30 years old, and because of the weird path his career has taken, he's more similar to a 24-to 27-year-old center, in terms of mileage. He was a top-10 player just a few years ago. He was top-24 last time he averaged more than 30 minutes, in 2016-17. So, sure, top-12 is higher than I would have expected, but it shouldn't be overly surprising. We knew he was capable, and we knew he was entering a great situation. While I was skeptical of the market valuation on Fox this preseason, I certainly did not expect the 22-year-old third year to regress. It's worth noting, however, that Fox has actually improved in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage -- he could be a solid bounce-back candidate next season.
Crites: It shouldn't surprise us that Fox's FT percentage is getting worse. That said, I did not expect Whiteside to be this productive – I guess Portland's lack of competent forwards has aided his game. Whiteside is more surprising.
King: For me it's Fox, however, it's more to do with Whiteside than Fox himself. Whiteside's game is heavily reliant on blocks, a category that can easily move a player up the rankings quite substantially. His improved free-throw percentage is also not completely surprising based on what we have seen throughout his career. He has had periods where he has shot the ball well, only to tinker with his form, resulting in a decrease to his efficiency. He really just needed someone to get in his ear and find something that worked for him.
Edgerton: The addition of Carmelo Anthony in Portland gives the Trail Blazers something they've sorely lacked in previous seasons -- a wing who can space the floor, create his own opportunities and relieve pressure in the interior. Teams have to account for Anthony, and it results in added opportunities for Whiteside. Ultimately, Whitside's success isn't all that much of a surprise given the injuries up front and his workload, but Fox's struggles are a bit of a shock after last season.
With Kyrie Irving done for the season, can the Nets hold on for a playoff spot? If not, which team currently outside of the playoff picture could you see catching Brooklyn?
Whalen: I don't see the Nets missing the playoffs, due entirely to the quality of teams chasing them. At some point, it becomes a math equation. Entering Monday, the Nets are 6.0 games up on Washington and 7.5 games ahead of Chicago. Even if the Bulls get Wendell Carter, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter back in the next week or two, they have far too much ground to make up over their final 24 games. Brooklyn could go, say, 9-18 the rest of the way, and Chicago would still have to finish 16-8 to pass up the Nets.
Barutha: Considering the Nets' are marginally better without Kyrie on the court, I think they'll be fine. Washington and Chicago, if healthy, have the personnel to make things interesting for the Magic, who are 24-32 and sitting in the eighth seed. But, ultimately, I think the Nets and Magic are both playoff teams.
Barner: Yes. The bottom of the East is a dumpster fire. The closest team right now is the Wizards, who are four games back in the loss column. It's not like they have a ton of talent outside of Bradley Beal, so while the Nets could fall to the eighth seed, I think they still make the playoffs.
Rikleen: Bradley Beal has enough talent to will the Wizards into playoff contention if he chooses to. That said, I'm expecting another example in the long history of "Kyrie's teams doing better when he's gone" as the Nets hold on for the eight seed.
Crites: Definitely. I think the Nets are used to playing without Kyrie. Last year's squad made the playoffs. They can do it again. Plus, the rest of the lower East absolutely stinks.
King: Despite losing Kyrie, I think the Nets can hold on for a playoff spot. This actually has less to do with the Nets themselves and more to do with the lack of talent behind them. I really just don't see the Hornets, Bulls, or Pistons making a charge late in the season.
Edgerton: Kyrie only played 20 games for the Nets, and the team went 8-12 when he was in the lineup. Kyrie isn't the reason why the team is currently in contention. Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert are doing just fine and Jarrett Allen is holding his own. While the Wizards have kicked things into gear, to some degree, they'd need a stellar second half to catch up.