Eric Mack
Thursday January 13th, 2011

Fantasy basketball owners know full well what they're missing with big men Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett out. Their real NBA teams found out, too.

Thankfully for all, the wait to get them back appears to be over, and it might just be a function of the toughening schedule.

Minus the glue that holds their contenders together, Boston suffered rare back-to-back losses before beating the worst team in the NBA and Dallas, which is also without Caron Butler for the rest of the season, cannot beat anyone right now.

Garnett appears to be healthier of the two, but his coach, Doc Rivers, is choosing his typical cautious route, saying, "He's close, very close, but you know how I am with that. I think he wants to play, I'll put it that way. I just don't think he should play yet."

Doc asked the real doc -- or actually not a doctor just trainer Ed Lacerte -- before game time Wednesday night if The Big Ticket was ready and they gave a similar answer: "Well, if it was a playoff game, then yes, but I think we should hold him out for a couple more days."

That means no Garnett on Friday against the Bobcats, but he is going to return in time for the next fantasy week, Jan. 17-23. The good news is the Celtics have now waited past the 10 days to two weeks they originally gave his calf to heal.

He should be back full-go for a four-game week, starting Monday at home against the resurgent Magic. That's a humdinger of a return game. He has to be ready, especially since Jermaine O'Neal's knee is acting up and Kendrick Perkins (ACL surgery) is going to be out until around the All-Star break.

"My thinking right now is, unless he comes out and practices the whole practice and looks great, it's probably off Friday," Rivers said. "Then what, do we play Monday (against Orlando)? I can't guarantee that, but that's my thinking."

The Celtics are jockeying with the Heat for the best record in the East right now. The Magic are lurking right behind. The Docs won't be able to hold Garnett out of that game.

Nowitzki's story is a bit murkier, but the situation is far more dire. He has already missed a career high eight games and the Mavs have gone 2-6 over that time after being just one loss away from the best record in the NBA. It has gotten so desperate, the coach has stopped talking about his return until he actually plays in a game.

"We're not doing Dirk updates," coach Rick Carlisle said.

That sounds ominous from the frustrated coach, but the news is actually getting better. He joined the team on the four-game road trip and was at the team's shoot-around Wednesday.

The Mavs play the rival Spurs on Friday. They surely want -- need -- him to give it a try then. If he doesn't play there, it is doubtful you will see him in the back-to-back at Memphis on Saturday.

Then there is the Martin Luther King Day matinee in Detroit, the final game of the road trip. He didn't go on that road trip not to play, right? That is good to hear for his owners, too, because that starts a four-game week as well.

The Celtics, Mavs and their fantasy owners are sick of finding out what they're missing.

If you don't own Garnett or Nowitkzi, you're fortunate but also miffed this column couldn't help you win your fantasy league. Let's try this.

Butler and Nowitzki's loss has been The Matrix's gain. And it doesn't figure to stop once Nowitzki returns either.

Shawn Marion is back in the starting lineup at small forward and is slated to stay there the rest of the season, according to the Dallas Morning News. He is actually putting up fantasy starter-worthy totals again. He has hit 20 points three times in his past eight games with Nowitzki out and has averaged almost 15.9 points and 6.0 rebounds.

This isn't your older brother's Matrix, but it is something to latch on to if your fantasy team needs life support.

Turning to baseball, Ryan Howard said this week the ankle injury that plagued him after Aug. 1 is around 90 percent right now. The big slugger didn't have his usual strong finish last season.

The Phillies, though, are going to be less reliant on big-time offense as they move to more of a pitching team. It started last season with the addition of Roy Halladay and continued at the trade deadline with Roy Oswalt. Now, free agent Cliff Lee completes a sick, if not unbeatable, rotation.

Why didn't they just keep Lee last winter again? I digress ...

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said this week he is in no hurry to deal innings-eater Joe Blanton, who might be overkill as the No. 5 starter. Blanton is owed $17 million over the next two years and is a luxury they might want to part with to create flexibility to upgrade elsewhere, like the bullpen. It still is thin, although five starters carrying the team deep into games have the tendency to allow a bullpen to slot more effectively into short roles.

Here is a capsule look at the Phillies:

Projected lineup

1. Jimmy Rollins SS 2. Shane Victorino CF 3. Chase Utley 2B 4. Ryan Howard 1B 5. Placido Polanco 3B 6. Raul Ibanez LF 7. Carlos Ruiz C 8. Domonic Brown RF

Top bench options

R Ben Francisco OF R John Mayberry OF R Ross Gload PH

Projected rotation

1. Roy Halladay RH 2. Cliff Lee LH 3. Roy Oswalt RH 4. Cole Hamels LH 5. Joe Blanton RH ALT Kyle Kendrick RH

Top bullpen arms

CL Brad Lidge RH SU Ryan Madson RH RP Jose Contreras RH RP J.C. Romero LH RP Danys Baez RH Francisco could get more time in right than Brown out of the gate, but fantasy owners need to expect Brown to take off by June. Lidge will be a nice sleeper at closer, because that rotation will get him so many leads to hold.

This is an old everyday lineup, so you have to expect these hitters to need DL stints. Rollins, Utley, Howard and Polanco all dealt with significant injuries last year. Move them down a few notches in your rankings for that reason. You should expect the Phillies to be on cruise control because of the rotation and they will mean a lot of Doc Rivers-like caution with injuries and return dates.

Here is what they are competing with. A capsule look at the Braves:

Projected lineup

1. Martin Prado LF 2. Jason Heyward RF 3. Chipper Jones 3B 4. Brian McCann C 5. Dan Uggla 2B 6. Alex Gonzalez SS 7. Freddie Freeman 1B 8. Nate McLouth CF

Top bench options

R Eric Hinske OF R Jordan Schafer OF R Brooks Conrad INF

Projected rotation

1. Tommy Hanson RH 2.Tim Hudson RH 3. Jair Jurrjens RH 4. Derek Lowe RH 5. Mike Minor LH ALT Brandon Beachy RH

Top bullpen arms

CL Craig Kimbrel RH SU Jonny Venters LH RP Pete Moylan RH RP Eric O'Flaherty LH RP Kenshin Kawakami RH The addition of Uggla adds some much needed pop and also strengthens left field, which is where Prado moves to. The strength of this team remains pitching and, while the rotation won't get drafted as highly as those Phillies, it is backed by a more stronger and deeper bullpen. The Braves also have a lot more pitching depth to handle injury than the Phillies. There should be a lot of nice late-round values with the Braves.

And the distant third in this division, a capsule look at the Marlins:

Projected lineup

1 Chris Coghlan CF 2 Omar Infante 2B 3 Hanley Ramirez SS 4 Michael Stanton RF 5 Gaby Sanchez 1B 6 John Buck C 7 Logan Morrison LF 8 Matt Dominguez 3B

Top bench options

R Emilio Bonifacio UTL R John Baker C R Wes Helms PH

Projected rotation

1 Josh Johnson RH 2 Ricky Nolasco RH 3 Javier Vazquez RH 4 Anibal Sanchez RH 5 Chris Volstad RH ALT Alex Sanabia RH

Top bullpen arms

CL Leo Nunez RH SU Mike Dunn RH RP Clay Hensley RH RP Brian Sanches LH RP Ryan Webb RH This is a very good rotation, too, with a bolstered bullpen after the additions this winter. But it is far less proven. There should be some nice sleepers from this team, especially if those big-time young talents find their niche.

The decision to move Coghlan to center instead of third base until the Marlins announced plans to give a job to raw Double-A prospect Dominguez. They are rushing him, but the Marlins seemed to get away with it on the immensely talented and powerful Stanton, who could hit 35 homers in his first full season.

Eric Mack writes contributes weekly for You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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