League-wide Trends, What Is Typically Available On The Wire, and Category Consistency
Today, we take a peek at some league-wide trends that you will want to keep in mind as you plan your draft strategy. What was considered average five years ago is not average today. How basketball is being played is changing and these changes have a major impact on the fantasy game. We’ll also look at which categories are easier or harder to find on the waiver wire once your draft is over. Finally, we’ll figure out which prior-year numbers have the most predictive value and which categories are the hardest to predict on an individual level.
*I chose to look at the averages of the top-156 players in nine-category leagues because 156 is the number of players that will be active in a standard 12-team, 13-player league and because it gives us a rough idea of what average production in each category means.
Teams are playing faster and scoring more often so it should not be a surprise that almost all category averages are trending up. The average pace increased significantly last season. In 2017-2018, the average pace was 97.3. Last season, that jumped to 100.0. That means that the average team had about three extra possessions to work with last year. Steals and free throw percentage holding steady is a little surprising. Fewer big men are playing big minutes so you would expect both steals and free throw percentage to increase. Field goal percentage trending up is not a surprise. The threat of the three-ball is stretching defenses and making it easier for teams to get to the hoop and get high-percentage shots.
Threes trending up boosts the viability of some punting strategies and hurts others. The increase in threes means that the value of big men who do not shoot them is decreasing since their 0.0 average is further away from the category mean than it used to be. That makes being competitive in threes more difficult for builds that target these 0.0 3PG big men. I’m looking at you punt FT%. Punting free throw percentage is still a strong strategy, but the shift in NBA shot distribution makes picking the right guards early on more important than ever. You absolutely cannot afford to select guards with average or worse three-point rates early on if you are punting FT%. As always, the best way to approach a punt FT% build is to grab one of the stud punt FT% big men early and then not pick another big man until the middle rounds. If you start your draft with two punt FT% big men, you are probably going to end up being weak in both points and threes. As you may have guessed by now, the increase in threes is a boon for the punt threes build. It’s the only build that carries no penalty for selecting the low-3PG bigs who dominate the big-man categories.
If we expand our sample to the top-200 players in nine-category leagues, we see that the same trends hold. These numbers are useful because they are about the average numbers for a 16-team league. If you are in a 16-team draft and your team comes out with averages above the 2018-2019 rates, you are probably going to win the categories you are above-average in more often than you lose them.
What categories are more likely to be available on your waiver wire?
I looked at the 157th-to-200th ranked players because their numbers tell us which categories are going to be available on the wire in a standard 12-team, 13-player leagues. Players ranked 157th-to-200th are usually the players that are being streamed in your league. The percentage drop is the drop from the Top-156 averages. What stands out to me is how small the drop in 3PG is. This tells us that the easiest category to find on the wire is threes. Blocks is the hardest category to find on the wire which strengthens the case for punting blocks. If you come away from your draft with fewer blocks than you were hoping for, it’s going to be hard to fix that mistake later. Points behind hard to find on the wire is not a surprise. Most players who finish in this range are role players who are not asked to score a lot. If you are rolling with a build where being competitive in points is essential, you’ll want to make points a focus early. Points become very scarce after the first three rounds. You can ignore the minimal drops in field goal percentage and free throw percentage averages. The drop is significantly steeper when you factor in volume and impact on the category.
Number of players reaching category benchmarks
About half a decade ago, a player averaging 2.0 3PG would almost always crack the top-100, even if he contributed little elsewhere. That is no longer the case. Over the past five years, the amount of players averaging 2.0 3PG or more has increased 180 percent. More threes being hit means that players like Steph Curry have to do even more damage from deep to maintain their value. Curry averaged 5.1 3PG in both the 2018-2019 and 2015-2016 seasons. Even though he averaged the same amount of triples last year as he did in his historic 2015-2016 campaign, Curry’s threes were less valuable because the league average was higher than it was in 2015-2016 and therefore his 5.1 3PG average was closer to the category mean. Blocks are more spread out than they used to be. In prior years, if you missed out on the league’s best rim protectors it would be very hard to be competitive in the category. That is no longer the case. It is now easier to build a strong blocks team by targeting players who provide above-average, but not elite, production in the category. The increase in the number of players posting big scoring, rebounding, and assist numbers is due to pace increasing and the game becoming higher scoring.
Year-over-year category consistency
When projecting individual player performance, some categories are easier to predict than others. To figure out which categories fall into the easier to predict basket and which categories come with a little more variance, I analyzed player performance in each category for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons. I looked at how the top-150 players in nine-category leagues during the 2016-2017 fared in each category during the 2017-2018 season and how the top-150 players during the 2017-2018 season fared in each category during the 2018-2019 season. I calculated the R^2 for each category and the above chart shows us the results. What this tells us is that APG in the prior year is a better predictor of APG in the upcoming year than say, prior-year PPG is of PPG in the upcoming year. LeBron James’ prior-year APG is a more useful data point when projecting his assists this year than his prior-year field goal percentage is for projecting James’ field goal percentage in 2019-2020.
The two categories that have the most year-to-year variance are SPG and free throw percentage. This year-to-year variance strengthens the case for both the punt steals and the punt FT% strategies. There’s more guesswork involved when projecting SPG and free throw percentage and the need for that guesswork disappears when you punt either category. Any teams banking on winning one or both categories regularly (i.e. punt FG% teams) will want to keep a close eye on these categories early in the season. They are more likely to not to meet your preseason expectations than the other categories.
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