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Thursday, December 10, 2009
How Usage Rate can help in fantasy

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

I tend to play my feelings and passions rather close to the vest, but I'm pretty unabashed about three things: "Prime Suspect"-era Helen Mirren, bacon and John Hollinger.

While he always seems to pick my Washington Wizards to go 18-64 every single year, he is my statistical hero. Whenever he's on Ryen Russillo's fine NBA Today podcast, all parenting, husbandry and molecular motion ceases for the next 30 minutes.

I can lose myself in ESPN.com's Hollinger section (which I refer to as "Hollingerland") the way certain friends can lose themselves within a new issue of Maxim, or the current Mrs. Cregan within a new Red Envelope catalog.

I look to these pages when searching for Gladwellian outliers, the statistics that might point the way to a deeper understanding of a player's fantasy potential.

When I wrote the column last week about Allen Iverson's returning to the Philadelphia 76ers, I made some mention of his reputation of needing to dominate the ball and the effect of that on his teammates. I immediately ran over to Hollingerland and started looking at Iverson's Usage Rate stat, which measures the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson's usage rate has always been very high throughout his career.

(During his peak years -- think 2004 -- Iverson was a league leader in Usage Rate, averaging more than 30 possessions per 40 minutes played. The 30-possession barrier is tough to crack; any player with a Usage Rate over 30.0 assuredly will be challenging for the scoring title.)

When used on a roster-wide basis, Usage Rate is a useful stat in determining an NBA team's fantasy potential. There is no uniform blueprint, because every team has a different mix. Earlier this year, Basketball Prospectus did an excellent piece on the different philosophies of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets and how it was reflected in their Usage Rates. The Grizzlies (when they had Iverson) had one of the highest aggregate Usage Rates in the NBA, while the Rockets had the lowest. So while Houston might get gold stars for efficiency, they don't offer as many frontline fantasy starters as Memphis.

But Usage Rate really shines in fantasy when applied to individual players because it shows us who is getting an opportunity to produce, which in fantasy is just as important as having the ability to produce. After all, it's better to have an average player who plays 35 minutes a night than an above-average player who plays only 25. The same correlation applies to possessions.

Players with super-high Usage Rates tend not to fly under the radar. The top 5 in Usage Rate today are among the usual suspects: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

If a player has a high Usage Rate, chances are he's already producing for his owners. If he has a low Usage Rate but is producing, chances are his value comes from the defensive categories or rebounding (Pau Gasol is a good example, as his blocks and rebounds make him perhaps the most efficient player in fantasy.) Save for Chris Bosh, you won't find many centers on the list of Usage Rate leaders.

Fantasy owners can use Usage Rate to identify which players are currently underperforming in comparison to their high number of touches per 40 minutes.

Rodney Stuckey is a good example. Stuckey has been subjecting his owners to a relatively slow start this season (18 points and four assists per game). He only ranks 78th on the Player Rater (and 38th among all guards). By any measure, he was a disappointment. Yet as of a week ago, I was still targeting him in trades, because he's a top-20 player in Usage Rate who gets a steady diet of minutes.

For various reasons, Stuckey was vastly underperforming relative to his very high Usage Rate; it was only a matter of time before he turned it around. Sure enough, come December, Stuckey has been on the rise, averaging 22 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists a night. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to land him.)

Let's take a look at some statistical underperformers whose Usage Rates portend a turnaround.

Gilbert Arenas
Gilbert Arenas still gets the ball a lot, which means his other numbers should improve in due time.

Gilbert Arenas, PG, Washington Wizards (Usg. 29.2, 6th in NBA): After a boffo opening night, Arenas has disappointed, not even posting in the top 50 on the Player Rater. With his surgically repaired knee seemingly sound, he's certainly being affected by the Wizards' team-wide offensive malaise. But more than anything, Arenas is suffering from a lack of confidence after two years on the shelf. The assists are up, but the scoring percentages are down. In the end, any player scraping 30 possessions a night has almost no choice but to begin to turn it around.

Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs (Usg. 26.6, 15th in NBA): Ginobili's physically delicate nature has made him one of the most perennially untrustworthy players in fantasy. This season has been no exception, as Ginobili's injury problems have relegated him almost to the level of afterthought in the fantasy world. But what's impressive here is how Ginobili's Usage Rate has outpaced his minutes per game (22.3), a rare feat. Again, the high number of touches he receives when ambulatory mandates fantasy consideration, but you have to ask yourself whether he can be trusted on a long-term basis at this point in his career.

Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (Usg. 26.0, 16th in NBA): Westbrook is only in his second year, and only just turned 21, so his owners need to be patient and understand that they drafted him well aware he was going to disappoint in field-goal percentage. After a hot start, Westbrook's percentage from the floor quickly dropped beneath 40 percent, undermining what should be elite fantasy production.

Ronald Murray, SG, Charlotte Bobcats (Usg. 25.6, 20th in NBA) and Will Bynum, PG, Detroit Pistons (Usg. 24.6, 30th in NBA): This is a tale of two Usage Rates. One of the pitfalls of having a high Usage Rate is that, by definition, it means you've got the ball in your hands a disproportionately high amount of time. This can be a bad thing if you can't pass or shoot. Which brings us to the case of Flip Murray.

Now, Murray is a shooting guard, which means, pathologically, he doesn't like to share. In his role -- as a provider of instant offense -- he shouldn't necessarily have to. And it's not that Murray can't shoot, it's just that he's preternaturally streaky. But he's not a passer, so when his shot is off, whatever fantasy value he holds due to his high Usage Rate flatlines.

In comparison, Bynum is a player of questionable offensive talents who has carved himself a role in the NBA thanks to his willingness to share. His shot doesn't necessarily need to be falling to produce, but his high Usage Rate means that the potential for a big night is there when his shot is on.

Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls (Usg. 24.5, 33rd in NBA): You don't have to rank outrageously high in Usage Rate to be a great fantasy point guard (Steve Nash ranks only 27th), but the margin for error is thinner. This season, Rose has operated on the other side of the margin, playing inefficient basketball and becoming the poster child for the Bulls' offensive struggles.

Because he has yet to develop a 3-point shot and doesn't post high steal totals, Rose needs to average seven or so assists per night to justify his Average Draft Position of 40th. He's currently at 5.6. The bright side is that Rose has nowhere to go but up, making him a solid buy-low candidate.

Stephen Jackson
Stephen Jackson is still finding ways to be fantasy-relevant in Charlotte.

Stephen Jackson, SG/SF Charlotte Bobcats (Usg. 23.1, 46th in NBA): I grabbed Jackson in multiple drafts this year, banking on his getting a high number of touches in a high-paced offense. What I wasn't banking on was his hitting only 28 percent of his 3s. I also wasn't banking on his situation with Don Nelson reaching DEFCON 1 and undercutting his minutes per game. What Jackson needed was a change of scenery, so Golden State (as punishment?) sent him to the offensive equivalent of Siberia; namely, the Larry Brown-coached Bobcats.

This initially gave me pause, but at least (much like A.I.-to-Philly) Jackson was being brought into an offensively desperate situation. He was being looked to for leadership on that side of the ball. Even if the 3s weren't falling, he would be looked to as a facilitator. That meant I would reap at least some returns in Jackson's other areas of strength, such as his passing, rebounding and steals totals.

Now, as he's gotten into a rhythm with the Bobcats (namely Raymond Felton), Jackson's scoring has finally begun to percolate. On Tuesday, he scored 25 points while missing all four attempts from behind the arc, proof that he's efficiency is beginning to match his still-high Usage Rate.

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