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Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Chaos helps in fantasy hoops

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

This year, I scored a golden ticket to sample the joys of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. To a person like me, the Sloan Conference is one of the greatest ideas in the history of everything. It's every science project I concocted in my youth (all sports-statistic based) extrapolated, cash-injected and fully intellectually formed into a 48-hour all-you-can-calculate smorgasbord of numerical glory.

If you listen to our podcast, you'll occasionally hear me preach as to how, despite a certain degree of "oh, really" we fantasy enthusiasts receive from certain corners of the analytics set, the irony remains that we could and should be a key part of their core audience.

In many ways, that's what this column is about. A careful distillation of the statistical boons of analytics into predictors of fantasy production can only help promote and highlight the wonderful work these people accomplish on an everyday basis.

Morey/Harden
Daryl Morey's philosophy of team-building leads to creating fantasy superstars out of players such as James Harden.

One example of a panel that was chock full of fantasy repercussions was Kevin Arnovitz's "In-Game Innovations: Genius or Gimmick." (ESPN has nice wrap-ups of the panel here and here.)

The panel featured a jaw-dropping, Hall of Fame amalgamation of analytic minds: Bill James, Nate Silver, Kevin Kelley (of "I am never, ever punting" fame), George Karl and Daryl Morey. They were discussing what makes certain teams so statistically rich. It was a 60-minute paean to the forces of randomness, speed and chaos.

Though I'd assume (and hope) they don't dwell on the fact, Morey and Karl are two of the great fantasy basketball proponents of our age. Their daring philosophies have produced two of the most fantasy-friendly NBA teams in recent memory: Karl's Denver Nuggets and Morey's Houston Rockets.

In fantasy hoops terms, George Karl-coached teams and Daryl Morey-built franchises are money in the bank. They will give you both surefire superproducers (James Harden, Carmelo Anthony) along with underrated midround and endgame finds (Chandler Parsons, Wilson Chandler).

Their approach to team-building and to in-game tempo are welcome numerical antidotes to the slow-paced (and yes, winning) styles employed by teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls.

The traditional knock against Karl's style is that it doesn't win in the playoffs. Luckily, for us, that doesn't really matter, except that the lack of playoff success eventually got Karl fired.

Our dirty little secret is that the best thing about chaos theory is that all chaos is beneficial. Both highly efficient, buttoned-up chaos (this year's Rockets, Riley's Showtime Lakers, D'Antoni's 7 Seconds or Less Suns) and sloppy, meandering chaos (this year's 76ers).

Which specific stats bear this out? As long as two basic factors are amplified -- pace and turnover ratio -- fantasy goodness will soon follow.

And the relative quality of the team? It only matters with regard to who benefits.

Look at this year's Lakers (second in pace). They're a bad team, but thanks to the D'Antoni pace, they've produced under-the-radar contributors such as Kendall Marshall and Kent Bazemore.

Michael Carter-Williams
The Sixers may not be winning games, but the way they play is making Michael Carter-Williams a fantasy gem.

Or the much-maligned 76ers, who run at the highest pace in the NBA (104.59 possessions per 48 minutes over their last 15 games). Michael-Carter Williams may be struggling at present, but he's one of the top rookies in fantasy.

Let's talk chaos. Philadelphia is tied for dead last in turnover ratio (15.0 percent of their possessions end in a turnover).

In fantasy terms, being last in turnover ratio is actually being first. Lots of possessions and turnovers? That's chaos in action.

Guess who's tied with Philadelphia for worst (best) turnover ratio? Morey's Rockets, who have played some of the best basketball in the NBA in 2014.

Think of it like a cornerback who plays for the interception; he's not necessarily a shutdown corner, but he takes chances, and that boosts fantasy numbers. Some of the better defensive players in the NBA don't boast high block or steals rates.

In fantasy, you want defensive gamblers. And that's why teams and players with high turnover ratios are so important.

I believe pace is the most important advanced fantasy basketball statistic. A high volume of possessions yield a high volume of fantasy numbers; you get more steals, shots, points, everything. A high turnover ratio is a byproduct of playing at a high pace but also reflects a gambling philosophy that yields a higher volume of fantasy-friendly stats.

Let's boil this down.

Over at NBA.com, the stats page offers individual pace rankings. It's how fast a team plays when a certain player is on the court. Guess whose players are all over the top of this list? Teams underperforming in terms of wins and losses but overperforming in volume-based stats.

(This is over the past 15 games, and only players who average over 20 minutes a game.)

Not a lot of big names on this list. Good. That means some are still available on your waiver wire.

They might not be players you want for the duration of the regular season and playoffs. But all of these players have been roster-worthy at some point, if only for a few games.

And at this juncture in the fantasy season, when you may have passed your league's trade deadline? You should be mining high-pace players on the waiver wire, because they have the best chance of a breakout game or two.

The 76ers' awe-inspiring awfulness is just fine for us in Fantasyland. It's still beneficial for us because A) whoever plays Philadelphia will post great fantasy numbers, and B) the marginal NBA talent on Philadelphia's roster becomes fantasy-worthy.

The Sixers rank dead last in offensive efficiency (95.8 points per 100 possessions), but they're still giving us high-volume producers like Michael Carter-Williams while giving the ball back to the other team at a historically high rate, regardless of how their possessions end.

Stan Van Gundy can fulminate all he wants. If you're a fantasy basketball owner, the Philadelphia 76ers are absolute magic.