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The Numbers Game

The Minute Men

by Ryan Knaus
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Today's column looks at the relationship between fantasy value and two important variables -- how many minutes per game a player averages, and how old they are.


As in previous weeks, when I looked at the importance of usage rates and pace, the goal is to establish how strong the correlation is between fantasy values and minutes/age -- when the variables increase, do fantasy values also have a tendency to increase or decrease?


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You can follow me on Twitter @Knaus_RW.


Let's begin with minutes. There's zero doubt that this variable will be positively correlated with overall values (note: I'm looking at the per-game, 8-cat values for the top-200 players last season) -- you have to be on the court to get statistics. What interests me is: just how strong is that correlation?


Three backup big men are instructive examples: Gorgui Dieng, Kyle O'Quinn and Brandan Wright. Here are their per-36-minute career averages:


Dieng: 11.9 points (50.3% FGs, 74.3% FTs), 10.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.1 blocks, 2.2 turnovers and 3.5 personal fouls.

O'Quinn: 13.0 points (50.1% FGs, 70.8% FTs), 10.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.1 blocks, 2.3 turnovers and 5.2 personal fouls.

Wright: 15.6 points (60.6% FGs, 67.9% FTs), 8.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.2 blocks, 1.1 turnovers and 2.9 personal fouls.


And yet this season they are averaging 19.6, 17.4 and 17.1 minutes, respectively. (KOQ's foul numbers are one reason he might be limited, but it's worth noting that he's down to 4.8 and 4.4 fouls-per-36 in the past two seasons.) O'Quinn is the only one currently clinging to late-round value, and even that's not guaranteed if Derek Fisher doesn't loosen his grip on the reins. There's a certain fallacy at play here, that extreme efficiency in a limited backup role would translate fully if a player gets more minutes vs. starters, but still it's a frustrating position for fantasy owners -- do you hold someone with enormous potential, as displayed above, in the hopes that they'll be unleashed?


According to NBA.com, Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns have shared the court in three lineups for coach Sam Mitchell this season, for a grand total of 5.2 minutes. Mitchell will have to view him as more than a strict backup center, or Dieng's fantasy season will be lost.


O'Quinn, similarly, has played in four lineups with Robin Lopez, but they've shared the court for a total of 15.6 minutes. B-Wright and Marc Gasol have the same value-stifling relationship -- they've played together in four lineups for 11.2 minutes. (For what it’s worth, I’m holding onto O’Quinn and particularly Dieng for a while longer, in the hopes that rotations will change, but I can’t fault any 12-team owners for cutting bait.)


The big men under discussion are extreme examples, and playing time is no guarantee of value -- Ty Lawson is averaging a whopping 38.5 minutes per game, but dreadful percentages (35.3% FGs, 66.7% FTs) combined with high turnovers (2.9) have made him a liability in 9-cat leagues to this point. This could be rock-bottom, no doubt, but his awful start proves the point. Similar FG%-and-turnover struggles have crushed the overall value of Joe Johnson (33.5 minutes), Monta Ellis (33.0), Andrew Wiggins (32.2), Derrick Rose (32.0) and Emmanuel Mudiay (30.1).


It's worth mentioning that of all the PFs and Cs averaging at least 30 minutes per game, Jahlil Okafor is the only one who is outside of the top-120 for per-game 8-cat and 9-cat value. Without further ado, here's what the cross-section of playing time and 8-cat values looked like last season:


Image and video hosting by TinyPic


Image and video hosting by TinyPic


The trend is unmistakable and predictable -- fantasy values tend to rise as minutes rise. The Pearson's r of 0.71472 indicates a 'very strong' positive correlation, considerably higher than even the correlation between fantasy value and usage rates (0.55024). This circles back to the conundrum caused by Dieng/O'Quinn/Wright -- it's extremely difficult to sustain value if you're not getting enough time on the court.


The sheer strength of the relationship makes it essential that you monitor boxscores not just for points, rebounds, assists and the like -- keeping tabs on players' minutes is key. Subscribers to the Rotoworld Season Pass also have access to an enormously useful tool, the Playing Time Report. This tracks every player's minutes-per-game on a weekly basis so you can see who is on the rise and who is declining. If you have the Season Pass, be sure to give it a look each week. A quick glance at Miami's breakdown, for instance, shows Tyler Johnson's playing time rising as D-Wade's falls. The arrival of Beno Udrih could change the equation once again, but it's worth keeping an eye on.


The end of this column will take a quick look at age as a variable that affects fantasy values. As things stand at this point in the 2015-16 season, there are only seven players over the age of 32 who are returning top-120 value (9-cat). That esteemed group of veterans includes Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, Kyle Korver, Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili.


There are plenty of reasons why players of a certain age struggle to compete with the young guns -- injuries take a toll, athleticism declines, coaches scale back minutes and rest veterans in back-to-backs to keep them fresh. That same top-120 group contains only nine players who are 22 years old or younger, however, so extreme youth isn't necessarily a good thing, either. Here's what the picture looked like last season:


Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The linear trendline above shows a mild tendency for 8-cat values to increase as ages decrease. This is supported by the Pearson's r of -0.06552, though the negative relationship here is considered statistically insignificant. One thing to notice is that not a single player over 30 years old cracked the top-12 last season -- Chris Bosh is breaking that trend in 9-cat leagues this season, but LeBron James and Paul Millsap are the only 30-year-olds in the top 25 when looking at 8-cat values. Youth is being served.


I intended to also look at how playing time rose or fell as players aged, but the spreadsheet I needed was lost to a corrupted hard drive two days ago. I might revisit the idea in a future column.


Thus far my correlations columns have determined that age is a mild predictor of fantasy values (I'm taking liberties with the word 'predictor'), and that age appears to be a more important variable for elite players than mid-round guys. Minutes per game are explicitly and very strongly linked to fantasy values -- keeping an eye on playing time is absolutely necessary to play the waiver wire and succeed long-term. Usage rates are also strongly correlated with fantasy values; it makes sense to check out players' numbers on NBA.com every so often. On the other hand, pace, whether gauged on the team or individual level, proved to be a statistically insignificant variable for 8-cat values. It didn't make a real impact in DFS leagues, either, and looking at individual team and player matchups is more important that worrying about the game's pace.


Good luck this week! If you have any questions or insights, you can find me on Twitter @Knaus_RW.

Ryan Knaus
Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.