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How Advanced Stats Can Help Fantasy Basketball Owners

Nikki Boertman/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Fantasy basketball owners who solely rely upon box scores to gauge player production are doing themselves a grave disservice. Given the wealth of advanced statistics available, owners who stay abreast of certain measures will have a significant advantage over their leaguemates, particularly during draft time.

Heading into the year, a number of players are entering new situations, whether due to trades, free agency or rookies who are soon to make their NBA debuts. Preseason production can help shine some light on what to expect from such players, but fantasy owners who go beyond box scores and dig into 2014-15 data will be ready to dominate their drafts.

The following three types of advanced statistics, in particular, will help all fantasy owners crush their competition both during the draft and throughout the season.

 

Per-36-Minute Production

This is the easiest of the three to understand, as playing time primarily drives most players’ fantasy value. A player who averages 35 minutes per game will have a significantly greater chance of making a positive fantasy impact than a player who averages 20 minutes a night. While it’s often difficult to surmise which players will waltz into such hefty playing time, particularly if they were in limited roles throughout the 2014-15 campaign, per-36-minute production can help serve as a gauge for what to expect if they do earn additional minutes.

Take C.J. McCollum, for instance. Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers combo guard averaged just 6.8 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.9 treys and 0.7 steals per game, which hardly screams “breakout candidate” for this coming campaign. If you look at his per-36-minute production, however—he averaged 15.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 treys and 1.6 steals—the Lehigh product suddenly becomes significantly more interesting. Considering the Blazers lost four of their five starters from 2014-15 over the offseason, McCollum figures to be in line for upwards of 30 minutes a night this coming season, making him the type of late-round upside play who can help win you a fantasy title.

Rudy Gobert is another excellent example of how the usefulness of per-36-minute stats isn’t just limited to draft time. When the Utah Jazz shipped out starting center Enes Kanter at the trade deadline last year, fantasy owners should have been rushing to scoop Gobert off the waiver wire, as he was averaging 11.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes prior to the All-Star break. Once he slid into Kanter’s vacant role as Utah’s starting 5, he averaged 11.1 points, 13.4 boards and 2.6 swats over the season’s final two months, undoubtedly helping turn the tide of numerous fantasy campaigns.

Per-36-minute production isn’t the be-all, end-all—small-sample-size theater often distorts players’ would-be fantasy value for the better—but you can use it to gain a sense of which players could produce a significant fantasy impact if given an ample amount of playing time. Once injuries and trades inevitably begin springing up, check out the per-36-minute production of those players’ replacements while scoping out possible waiver-wire pickups.

 

Usage Rate

While playing time is one of the top factors in fantasy value, usage rate isn’t far behind. Logically, it makes sense: The more often a player is involved in a given possession, the greater the chance he has to make a fantasy impact.

Let’s look at Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill as an example of this. In 2013-14, Hill averaged 10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 32.0 minutes per game, but he erupted for 16.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 29.5 minutes per game this past season. What changed? Lance Stephenson and Paul George weren’t around to soak up possessions. Hill went from a career-low usage rate of 14.8 percent in 2013-14 to a career-high 23.8 percent this past season, which largely explains his massive jump in fantasy production. Now that George is back in the lineup, and the Pacers signed Monta Ellis in free agency, fantasy owners should brace themselves for Hill’s production to drop off significantly this coming season.

Russell Westbrook is another great example of usage rate distorting fantasy production. Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard led the NBA in usage rate (38.4 percent), as the entire OKC offense had to run through him with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka sidelined by injuries for the final two months of the year. It’s no coincidence, then, that Westbrook erupted for career highs across the board, averaging a league-high 28.1 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.3 treys in 34.4 minutes per game. With Durant and Ibaka now back in the fold, there’s reason to expect Westbrook’s production to regress slightly this coming season, although he’s still worth a mid-first-round pick in all fantasy formats.

Keep usage rate in mind when evaluating players, particularly those heading to new teams, as radical shifts in it will have significant effects on fantasy output. While someone like Damian Lillard figures to see an expanded role this year thanks to Portland’s offseason departures, temper expectations for those with rates set to decline—Hill and Westbrook included.

 

Pace

When torn between two coin-flip players during your draft, you could rely upon team pace as a possible tiebreaker. Teams that run up-tempo offenses generate a greater number of possessions per game, thus creating additional opportunities for players to make their fantasy impact felt.

Last season, the league average for possessions per 48 minutes was 93.9, according to Basketball Reference. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, averaged 98.3 possessions per 48 minutes, while the Houston Rockets averaged 96.5 per 48. Stephen Curry and James Harden were already no-brainer top-three fantasy picks this year, but knowing that their teams run at such a fast pace only increases their potential value to your squad.

Pace stats aren’t a failsafe way to measure fantasy impact, particularly for teams who switched head coaches during the offseason. The Chicago Bulls, for instance, averaged just 92.8 possessions per 48 minutes, putting them in a three-way tie for 21st, but new head coach Fred Hoiberg figures to ramp up the pace of their offense significantly. The Memphis Grizzlies, who ranked 26th with 92.0 possessions per 48 minutes, don’t figure to experience such an uptick in tempo, perhaps limiting the fantasy upside of their players outside of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

As 2015-16 pace data begins rolling in, fantasy owners should take notice, particularly when surveying the waiver wire or pursuing trade targets. If a player on an up-tempo offense gets off to a slow start this season, he could be an ideal buy-low trade candidate.

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