Commentary

Taking stock of backcourt play

Usage rate helps evaluate guards, small forwards in fantasy

Updated: January 13, 2011, 3:28 PM ET
By John Cregan | Special to ESPN.com

I took my 2-and-a-half-year-old to his first NBA game Tuesday night, the Staples Center depress-a-thon that was Lakers-Cavaliers (also known as "112-57"). I think the people around us, which included the Cavaliers' bench, might have been a bit thrown by the sound of such a young kid cheering every extravagant feed with a "GOODPASSGOODPASS!" before passing out at the end of the third quarter.

I've been training "The Heir" to cheer passing instead of shooting. We have a two-pass rule before one is allowed to take a shot on the assortment of hoops I have inside and outside of the house. My goal is to establish a more democratic baseline view of the game for my son before it gets corrupted by classmates, bitter P.E. teachers, "NBA Jam" and fantasy basketball.

As I've said before, one of the unfair aspects of our scoring system is how it can prize volume over efficiency, especially in the backcourt. When contemplating guards and swingmen, you need to look at who's getting the ball, specifically who's getting the ball and then not giving it back.

The stat that best shows this is usage rate, which is a formula designed to gauge the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes. Usage rate is easily calculated via this formula:

{[FGA + (FTA x 0.44) + (Assists x 0.33) + TO] x 40 x League Pace} divided by (Minutes x Team Pace)

Thankfully, usage rates can also be found -- lovingly calculated for your pleasure -- in Hollingerland.

On a team-wide basis, it's a good stat to examine when measuring the fantasy-friendliness of a particular squad's offensive system. Teams with more evenly distributed usage rates tend to be bad fantasy teams, unless they can make up for it via an extremely high pace (like the Suns).

I find usage rate to be a valuable tool when looking for backcourt players who might be underperforming and overperforming. Usage rate isn't as important when examining a power forward or center, in terms of fantasy potential. An offense doesn't need to flow through a big man for him to be effective in fantasy. But usage rate can be extremely useful when applied to backcourt players and swingmen.

[+] EnlargeChris Paul
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul has been great this season, but he's capable of a lot more.

Take Chris Paul, who is currently vastly outperforming his relatively anemic usage rate of 22.5 (22nd among point guards).

Henry Abbott quoted a nice article from HoopSpeak last week discussing Paul's underlying woes. How could the best point guard in the NBA -- and the No. 1 player on the Player Rater -- possibly be underperforming? Beckley Mason (of HoopSpeak) pointed to Paul's low usage rate (63rd in the NBA) to depict how Paul was deferring too much on offense and not finishing his shots with the usual effectiveness. His guess was that perhaps Paul is not truly all the way back from his injury.

While Paul has been great in fantasy this season, it's not the same level of great his owners were accustomed to before the injury. He's become a more efficient player, but the odds dictate that he can't keep this up without raising his usage rate (USG). It's something to watch when approaching the trade deadline. Is Paul gaining or losing strength as the season progresses?

Let's take a look at three groups of players: underperformers who could be due for a surge in fantasy production, overperformers who could be due for a dip and low-minute/high-usage-rate players who could rise with a boost in minutes per game (mpg).

Underperforming

Carmelo Anthony, SF, Denver Nuggets (USG 30.1, fifth in NBA)
Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers (USG 33.0, first in NBA)
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls (USG 30.3, second in NBA)
Kevin Martin, SG, Houston Rockets (USG 27.1, ninth in NBA)
Devin Harris, PG, New Jersey Nets (USG 26.3, 12th in NBA)
Eric Gordon, SG, Los Angeles Clippers (USG 26.2, 13th in NBA)

I hate to keep picking on Anthony (who's had an understandably rough month), but he's clearly letting all the trade rumors affect his fantasy value. While his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is above 20, it's the lowest amongst the other top eight players in USG. He also sports a relatively low true shooting percentage (TS%) of .527. When you're averaging only about 0.5 3-pointers per game, you'd expect an elite scorer to have a TS% of at least .550. He's making up for his lack of efficiency with a ton of volume, but it's clear a trade is needed for Anthony to recapture his fantasy potential.

At least Kobe has an excuse. The sheer weight of the minutes Kobe's played the past couple of seasons -- and a refusal to rest in some situations -- has added wear and tear, meaning Kobe has to handle the ball more to get his expected production. Still, I expect that Kobe could gain some value as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. Remember what happened to his numbers last season post-knee drain.

The addition of the 3-point shot was supposed to make Rose a top-10 player. To take that last leap, he needs to continue to display his increased willingness to get to the line, but most of all he needs to get more steals. The reason Paul can still ride high on the Player Rater is because of his high volume of steals per game. Rose is having a breakout season, but he's going to continue to be a mild fantasy disappointment unless he starts upping his thefts.

Martin's been getting more attention since joining the Rockets, but he's still too one dimensional for my tastes -- or should I say two dimensional. Aside from points and free throw percentage, I've learned to not expect too much out of Martin. He's the classic case of how high-point totals can falsely inflate fantasy value.

On the other hand, I'd say Gordon is suffering a bit from the return of Baron Davis. He's still a player on the rise, but Gordon's assists have taken a hit since Davis reassumed control of the Clippers' offense. Harris has the largest disparity of USG versus fantasy production of anyone on this list, which could mean two things: He's always hurt, and/or the trade rumors are affecting him as much as they've affected Anthony. Like Anthony, some closure could really boost his fantasy value in the second half of the season.

Overperforming

Dorell Wright, SF, Golden State Warriors (USG 18.2, 139th in NBA)
Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans Hornets (USG 22.5, 63rd in NBA)
Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics (USG 20.3, 92nd in NBA)
Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs (USG 24.7, 31st in NBA)
Rudy Gay, SF, Memphis Grizzlies (USG 21.6, 74th in NBA)

[+] EnlargeDorell Wright
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesAs long as Dorell Wright can continue to hit 3s at a huge pace, he'll have decent fantasy value.

I was sort of callously waiting for the wheels to fall off of Wright. But I've come to realize that as long as the man continues to can 2.7 3-pointers a night, he's going to keep sniffing the top 40 in fantasy. He's having one of the more statistically freaky seasons in recent fantasy memory.

He does one thing on offense: spot up and shoot the 3. But he's doing it at such a Herculean pace that the lack of free throws and 2-point attempts don't matter. He's never really been a full-time player before, and that means we don't really have a way to reliably figure if this is a fluke. My guess is it isn't, at least not this season.

Like Paul, Rondo owes his elite status to steals and assists, not points per game. Unlike Paul, that's not such a surprise. Ginobili, meanwhile, is simply the most efficient player on perhaps the NBA's most efficient team.

A couple seasons ago, we finally saw Danny Granger take the crown from Shawn Marion as the premiere underrated across-the-board contributor in fantasy. Since then, I've been pushing Gay as having mini-Granger potential, but this is the season Gay has actually surpassed Granger.

In need of more minutes

Aaron Brooks, PG, Rockets (24.6 USG, 25.4 mpg)
Richard Hamilton, SG, Detroit Pistons (24.5 USG, 25.8 mpg)
Corey Maggette, SF, Milwaukee Bucks (25.9 USG, 19.3 mpg)
Marcus Thornton, SG, Hornets (22.9 USG, 14.9 mpg)
Tyrus Thomas, PF, Charlotte Bobcats (23.6 USG, 21.5 mpg)
Goran Dragic, PG, Phoenix Suns (23.2 USG, 19.0 mpg)

This is a grab bag of players to watch in second half, should they find their minutes expanded because of trade, injury or gradual recovery from injury. Look at Thornton, who stepped in Wednesday night when Marco Belinelli went down, promptly putting up 22 points and nine rebounds in Belinelli's absence.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

John Cregan

Fantasy Basketball
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE