Addressing game-to-game fluctuation

Lack of consistency in field goal percentage often overlooked

Updated: April 2, 2013, 5:58 PM ET
By John Cregan | Special to ESPN.com

At this far turn in the fantasy season, we fantasy basketball writers are desperately trying to point you to players on the wire who can aid you in endgame situations. Because, dramatically speaking, that's where most of the action is.

The final month of the season is marked by wild swings in player value thanks to the rotational abnormalities that plague the NBA's last lap. And our primary task over the final couple of weeks is to help you navigate some extremely choppy and unpredictable waters.

But I want to talk about another pool of players we need to pay attention to: ones who have a huge impact on your team in short-term situations.

I'm talking about players already on your roster. Players who make it their business to give with one hand and then take with the other. I'm talking about streaky shooters and the effect they can have on your short-term field goal percentage.

If you're in a head-to-head playoff matchup or a closely fought rotisserie league, you could find yourself in a situation where winning and losing comes down to field goal percentage. And as important as points scored can be, it counts for just as much as field goal percentage. Not to mention that points scored is linked to field goal percentage. So if a player struggles from the floor, he's going to hurt you in two categories.

Your entire season could come down to one or two individual games. That's when you really need to pay attention to streaky tendencies.

The truth is that many NBA players are susceptible to wild mood swings with regard to their field goal percentages. Some may shoot 10 of 12 one night, then 2-for-12 the next night.

You should, if possible, avoid streaky players if you're nursing a small lead in field goal percentage.

But on the other hand, these players can be useful if you're way behind in field goal percentage and are forced to swing for the fences, because they're just as liable to get extremely hot.

A nightmare shooting performance in a late Saturday night game can deliver a kneecapping on a team's razor-thin shooting advantage, costing that team an overall victory.

Conversely, a player might rebound from an awful Antoine Walker-esque 1-for-10 shooting night on a Thursday with an Artis Gilmore-esque 12-for-14 performance on a Saturday, rewarding his owner's broader faith in humanity and vaulting his team to victory.

So who's streaky and who's steady?

We always hear about certain NBA players having reputations as streaky shooters. J.R. Smith, Jason Terry and DeMarcus Cousins are three names often associated with streakiness.

Last year, I went to ESPN's resident geniuses in the Statistics and Information department and opened a discussion on how best to measure game-to-game streakiness. In the end, they used standard deviation to show which players posted the largest game-to-game variations. Or, in less wonky terms, see which players were most likely to go from a 2-for-12 night to a 10-for-12 night. I know this is all very latchkey kid of me. But it's important, so please allow me to elucidate for a moment.

[+] EnlargeMonroe
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsDespite being a 51 percent career shooter from the field, Greg Monroe has seen wild fluctuations from game to game.

Last season's most schizophrenic shooter was Greg Monroe, with a game-to-game standard deviation of 16.8 percent. Monroe shot an excellent 52.1 percent for the season, so history won't care much about the fact he had large shifts in his shooting from one night to the next.

But that average deviation means Monroe was capable of shooting 61 percent one night, then 44 percent the next night. The first night could really help you; the second might hurt you just enough to cost you a categorical victory.

If you knew Monroe had that propensity, and you had a comfortable lead in some of the volume categories to ensure a win with a less aberrant center, you'd bench Monroe, right? Or maybe not start anyone in Monroe's center spot. If you feel confident you're going to take enough volume categories for a win, you don't need to take a risk in field goal percentage.

(By the way, Monroe has suffered a drop in overall field goal percentage this season, but has smoothed out his game-to-game fluctuations. So while he's shooting only 47.9 percent, his standard deviation rate is also down to 7.7 percent, which makes his average FG percentages range from about 43.0 to 51.8. That means his average off night is only 1 percent worse than last year's.)

One interesting fact about last season was that most of the top "deviants" turned out to be big men, but last season was a streaky, fluky season thanks to the lockout. This season's top 10, as you'd expect, features seven backcourt and wing players.

(NOTE: The "Avg FG percentage by game" column is truly an unweighted average of the players' field goal percentages from game-to-game this season, not their actual field goal percentage in 2012-13. The following lists have been filtered to include only players with a higher amount of field goal attempts and games played.)

Who knew Danny Green had such a wild and unpredictable streak? He's put up such an efficient, dry, boring, productive, under-the-radar season. That's what Spurs do.

But take a closer look, and you'll see the mood swings. Here are Green's past five games:

See how in a one-game span Green swung went from shooting 6 of 9 (67 percent) to 2 of 11 (18 percent)? Or went from 2 of 4 to 4 of 14?

Green is a prime example of the kind of streaky shooter you might want to consider benching in a tight percentage matchup. (By the way, look at what kinds of attempts are really hurting Green; it's not the 3-pointers, but rather the shots from closer range).

Let's take a look at the next 10:

Here's where you'll find more of the players I'd normally associate with streaky shooting. Michael Beasley's manic shooting swings, coupled with his lack of production in other areas, has made himself the "empty points" poster child of 2013. DeMarcus Cousins has been beyond maddening to own this season. And I know from watching lots of Wizards games that Nene's perpetual day-to-day status limits his consistency.

Here are the players taking us all the way down (or up) to an average standard deviation of 13.5 percent. That number is important because 13.5 percent is the baseline average standard deviation posted by qualifying players.

Last year, I neglected to mention the positive side of the equation. By that, I mean the players who posted lower degrees of standard deviation from one game to the next.

So I'll close this column on a positive note by listing the players with an average-to-low amount of inconsistency. Which means the players at the very bottom of the next list are the ones you want to prioritize if you don't want any big one-game surprises.

Note how two of the NBA's highest-volume shooters are also amongst the most reliable. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony can be counted on as fairly automatic from one game to the next.

I'd rate the most pleasant surprises as Corey Brewer, Deron Williams, Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook. While none of those players will spark a comeback in field goal percentage (and hurt you in the long run), they're less likely to lay an aberrant egg in your Sunday morning box scores.

I'll leave you with this inspirational statement: In close fantasy matchups, sometimes it's safer to go with a player who's reliably mediocre.

Good luck!

John Cregan

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

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