- John Cregan, Fantasy Basketball
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Pardon me if this -- my first column of 2011-12 -- sports some rough edges. I normally get a full training camp and several warm-up columns before jumping headlong into the teeth of the Draft Kit. I promise that by Christmas my full complement of prose-based moves will have returned.
With everything so rushed this preseason, for real general managers and fantasy GMs alike, everyone's preparation process is going to be more work in progress. It sort of has the air of a mad shotgun wedding (something I know a lot about) due to the amount of new variables thrown into the mix: a hurly-burly player movement period, amnesty clauses, balancing viewing of "Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas" with watching preseason games (hello, Amazon), and a compressed schedule packed with back-to-backs sure to work against the over-30 set.
Given the anarchy, its no wonder all preseason indications point toward NBA teams gravitating to the reliable, the known and familiar. Sticking with last season's rotations because there just isn't enough time to experiment with alternative lineups.
Well, I thought the craziness of the run-up to NBA Christmas would provide an effective excuse to write about two of our most reliable yet undervalued stats: usage rate and true shooting percentage (TS%).
I love these stats (found in Hollingerland) because they helped me break an addiction that decimated many of my early fantasy squads. My addiction to points per game.
Our points bias is something that's beaten into our left brains from our first interactions with basketball. As Dr. Naismith taught us, whoever scores the most points tends to win the game. But as we also know, points are just one-eighth of the puzzle in most fantasy leagues, and an even smaller piece in leagues with more complex scoring systems (more than 10-12 categories and you start to lose me. At that point, you're just making fantasy Cream of Wheat).
I've gotten to the point in my fantasy basketball career where I pay no attention to points scored in my draft preparation whatsoever. I block out that column on my spreadsheet on draft night. Why? Because I'm weak. Because in the heat of a draft, I know I will panic and fall back on points per game when forced to make a tough call.
Many people understandably use PPG as an indicator to measure a player's possible fantasy worth in other categories. After all, a player who scores in abundance is getting a good amount of court time. As a result, minutes per game (MPG) is an even better indicator of possible fantasy value than PPG (underrated players like Dorell Wright and Gerald Wallace were both top-10 in MPG last season).
But we want players who spend a lot of time on the court and have the ball in their hands. So we should be looking for a player who gets plenty of minutes and has a high usage rate.
Many of you already know what usage rate is, but to the uninitiated, it is a formula that approximates the amount of possessions a player uses per game. In short, how much a player dominates the ball.
If you look at the top of the rankings in usage rate from last season, you won't find many surprises at the top:
It doesn't take a Sam Presti to figure out you'd want as many of these guys on your team as possible. But let's take a look at the players ranked from 9 to 22 in last season's rankings:
Kevin Martin 27.2
Baron Davis 27.0
Monta Ellis 26.5
Lou Williams 26.2
Michael Beasley 26.2
Mo Williams 25.9
Deron Williams 25.9
Jordan Crawford 25.7
Andrea Bargnani 25.6
Blake Griffin 25.6
Dirk Nowitzki 25.5
DeMarcus Cousins 25.4
It's shocking how quickly we shift from the cream of the crop to some very underwhelming names. Kevin Martin is one of the most undervalued fantasy contributors in the NBA, but Baron Davis? Jordan Crawford? Lou Williams? How did they get ahead of guys like Dirk and Blake Griffin in touches?
Because they were on bad teams.
Bad teams aren't the lifeblood of winning fantasy teams, but at worst, they're the plasma. I'd rather have an average player on a terrible team than a good player on a great team, because they'll generate a higher usage rate.
I've spent a lot of pixels disparaging Baron Davis (for good reason), but when he was ambulatory, Baron was secretly effective because he generated a high usage rate (27.0) and a reasonably acceptable .506 TS%. Sudden relocations to Cleveland tend to have a bit of a wake-up-call effect for most people.
Lou Williams doesn't get a lot of court time (23.3 MPG), but when he's on it, he's being paid to generate offense. It's why Williams was a valuable fantasy contributor in deeper leagues, despite playing only 23 minutes a night.
Jordan Crawford is one of the most inefficient players in the NBA (his PER was a paltry 11.89 last season). But after being traded to an offense-parched Wizards squad, he was given the green light and took advantage. It's not his fault his PER was so low. He was an OK rookie on a bad team. I'm not saying he's as good as any of the other guys in the top 20, but he undeniably gave undervalued production down the stretch and helped a lot of teams.
Another thing I like about usage rate is that along with ball hogs, it tends to favor point guards. I basically go for point guards (and centers) once my other positions are filled because of their high usage. If they don't score, they'll generate assists (the hardest category to acquire once the season starts), steals, and good free throw percentages.
My favorite multipositional player is the elusive PG/SG, because I'll get PG production out of my least favorite position of SG. I disdain shooting guards because they tend to be one- or two-trick ponies: points per game and 3-pointers, with bad field goal percentages on the side.
Now, I hear you say, "I can't get 3s without taking on a couple of low-percentage shooters. The have a low percentage because they're shooting 3s. I just have to take the hit and get Tyson Chandler or Nene to counteract it."
I'm not telling you to give 3s short shrift, but there are players out there who can give you 3s without killing your field goal percentage while boosting your free throw percentage. And those are the players with a high TS%.
Instead of giving you shots made per attempt (FG%), true shooting percentage gives you points generated per attempt -- accounting for the extra point you get for 3-pointers and free throws. Like FG%, many of the top TS% players in the NBA are big men who don't attempt shots from beyond 2-3 feet:
But get beyond the biggest of the big men, and you'll find some very efficient shooters:
Half of these guys (Cook, Jones, Bonner) don't play enough to warrant serious fantasy consideration, but it shows that if you put James Jones in the right spot -- say, Dorell Wright's rotational spot in Golden State -- he would probably contribute. The other three -- Afflalo, Pierce and Billups -- always show up on my rosters, because they're boosting my percentages in under-the-radar ways.
I always look for a TS% of at least .550 in a guard or a wing. Anything about .580 is great for a player who attempts 3s. For your draft prep purposes, here are the rest of the 3-generators who posted a TS% above .580 in 2010-11:
Ray Allen .615
Richard Jefferson .612
Kevin Martin .601
Steve Nash .601
Jodie Meeks .600
Jared Dudley .598
Landry Fields .598
James Harden .598
Danilo Gallinari. 597
Stephen Curry .595
LeBron James .594
Mike Dunleavy .593
Ty Lawson .593
Ryan Anderson .591
J.J. Redick .589
Kevin Durant .589
Peja Stojakovic .588
George Hill .588
Beno Udrih .587
Reggie Williams .585
Some low MPG and obvious big names to be sure, but you'll also find the very undervalued Martin, Jodie Meeks, James Harden, Ty Lawson, George Hill, and Beno Udrih (who quietly had one of my favorite fantasy seasons of 2010-11).
As I said, I'm not trying to disparage PPG so much as to pretend it doesn't exist. Spend a little time grazing in Hollingerland, and I think you'll see that there are other ways of approaching your draft prep that will give you an advantage over other owners those owners still in the throes of a sad points addiction.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
John Cregan discusses how true shooting percentage and usage rate can be key indicators for future fantasy value.