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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Can benching stars actually help?

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

Is there ever a situation where a fantasy owner should consider actually sitting one of his top producers, maybe even a top-30 player?

We're getting to the juncture of the season where you can start to ask this question. Because if you own a team that is at the top of your league, or if you're in a head-to-head playoff situation, the answer is yes.

If you're in a rotisserie-based league, within the next couple of weeks you're going to probably (if you haven't already) garner a firm idea of who's going to finish where in several categories. And if you're in a head-to-head playoff scenario (congrats), you may find yourself at a point in the week where the volume-based categories are seemingly decided.

But even if you've put together a first-place juggernaut unseen in the annals of modern fantasy ownership, you still need to watch your back.

Why? Because in tight matchups over field goal percentage, there are situations where one player can single-handedly shoot your way out of a win.

I know, because it's happened to me.

In situations where a 1-for-10 shooting night can mean the difference between victory and defeat, you need to inoculate your lineup from certain players … even if they're players who on the whole are very productive.

It's not enough just to look at players with uninspiring and sometimes terrifying field goal percentages. Because when we're talking about situations where you're trying to nurse a lead for a game or two, you shouldn't just be worried about which players have been bad over the course of an entire season.

You need to be worried about game-to-game streakiness. And when we talk about streakiness, we need to address some misconceptions.

One, that streakiness is directly related to poor field goal percentage. As you're about to see, there are some players sporting serviceable to excellent percentages who are still stunningly inconsistent.

Two, that streakiness tends to be contained to perimeter players who jack up shots from longer distances. Even players who play with their backs to the basket can be susceptible to a boom-or-bust shooting touch.

Three, that streakiness is linked to inefficient, low-PER play. While it certainly can strike with players with a run-and-gun mentality (I'm looking at you, shooting guards) and players who sport painful assist-to-turnover ratios, these traits can also be mutually exclusive.

Brandon Jennings
Brandon Jennings is known for his streaky shooting, but he's not the streakiest this season.

There are players with streaky reputations. If you were to take a poll amongst NBA observers on which players had the streakiest shooting reputations, I'm guessing you'd see names like Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Brandon Jennings, Jason Terry and J.R. Smith.

But the challenge here was to find an actual statistical means of measuring which players tend to run hot and cold. So I, as I do in most of these situations, turned to our marvelous Stats & Info department. I asked for a means to delineate which players fluctuate the most from the field on a game-by-game basis.

What they came back with was the idea of using the concept of standard deviation. Most of you who've taken a statistics class probably remember the term. It basically examines the patterns of how numbers are distributed versus the mean (or average) across a period of time.

What was done was to look at which players had the most scattered patterns of distribution on a game-to-game level (we also need to cite NBA.com here for some statistical support).

For an example, let's take a look at a player -- who will remain nameless for a moment -- who happens to be the streakiest shooter in the NBA this season.

For the season, this player sports an admirable 51 percent field goal percentage; he averages 15.9 points per game while needing only 12.3 attempts to get there; he owns a nice average of 1.29 points per shot. By all accounts, this player should absolutely be someone you'd want to plug into your lineup every night.

But let's take a closer look at his performance on a game-by-game basis. Earlier this month, this player went out one game and threw up a 1-for-10 clunker, then went out the next night and posted a sterling 10-for-14.

So, we're talking about a guy who's capable of shifting from a 10 percent shooting night to 71 percent in a 24-hour period. Yes, those are the extremes, but they point to a player who suffers from an extreme case of shooting schizophrenia.

For the month of March, this player still shot 53 percent from the floor. One looks at his totals and thinks that there's nothing to worry about. You'd happily run this guy out on the floor at the tail end of a head-to-head matchup and believe your field goal percentage was safe, maybe even protected due to this player's presence. During the course of a month, you'd be right. But over the course of 24 hours, you'd be playing with fire.

Because in the end, no rim is totally safe from Greg Monroe.

Greg Monroe
Greg Monroe has shot 40 percent or worse 10 times this season, but better than 60 percent 15 times.

Monroe is absolutely, positively one of my favorite fantasy players for the season. He's the definition of a skilled big man. I have him on multiple teams. According to the Player Rater, he's the 25th-best producer in fantasy.

But Monroe has posted the most extreme standard deviation in field goal percentage in the NBA this season. It's currently 16 percent. What that means is that Monroe averages a fluctuation between 45 and 61 percent on a game-to-game basis.

And if that's his average deviation, it means that there are still some more 1-for-10 and 3-for-14 outliers in his near future. Yes, there are also more 15-for-20 nights, but there are some situations where you simply cannot afford to take that risk.

If it's a Saturday and I don't need his help in the volume categories and I'm in a tight battle for field goal percentage? I will give him a well-earned night off, because he's capable of going off the reservation in any given game.

And Monroe is not the kind of player you'd peg as streaky. He's a PF/C, he doesn't shoot 3s, and is a high-efficiency, high basketball IQ kind of guy with a sky-high 22.15 PER. But he's got a Jekyll and Hyde streak that runs a mile wide.

Is this something to base your entire fantasy strategy upon? Of course not. But it is a little something to keep in mind down the stretch, especially at those times when there's no margin for error.

Here's the complete list of the worst offenders. And as you'll see, four of the top six are big men:

Taking a look at the next chunk, you'll see a pattern emerge; that being the lack of the pattern you'd predict. There are players you'd assume would be up here (Jamal Crawford, Nick Young), and then some mildly shocking names on the big-man front. It also helps explain why the idea of Andrew Bynum going all Antoine Walker and suddenly jacking 3s in protest isn't so far-fetched.

I think there's a particularly interesting range of players ranking from 14 to 24, with some obvious unconscionable gunners, but also some respectably grizzled vets nursing various injuries. You'll also start to realize why Vinny Del Negro's Clippers have a certain reputation for inconsistency.

From here on out we finally start to see some more swingmen, but one thing that stands out is that up to this point, the list is bereft of small forwards.

Hopefully, this gives you a better idea of the fluctuation you could be dealing with in the coming weeks in your playoff matchups, and how best to approach it.