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The Numbers Game

Steal This Column

by Ryan Knaus
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

Last week in this space we discussed the four fantasy categories related to scoring -- points, 3-pointers, FG percentages and FT percentages. Today's column explores the other primary categories, beginning with steals before moving on to blocks, rebounds, assists and turnovers.


Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $300,000 Fantasy Basketball league for Wednesday's NBA games. It's $25 to join and first prize is $30,000. Starts at 7pm ET on Wednesday. Here's the FanDuel link.




Paul Millsap leads the NBA in steals at 2.4 per game, unique production that anchors his borderline second-round fantasy value. The other top-10 players in steals are (in descending order) John Wall, Corey Brewer, Tony Allen, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Wroten, Chris Paul and James Harden. That list features seven players in the top-30 for overall value, but steals prove to be middle-of-the-pack in terms of scarcity and concentration (more on that below).


Fantasy owners should be keenly aware of matchups, which is obvious for scoring purposes but is easily overlooked in other categories. The 76ers' opponents are averaging 10.0 steals per game this season, by far the most of any team in the NBA. The Rockets' opponents are racking up the second-most steals at 8.9 per game, followed by the Bucks (8.8), Warriors (8.7), Wizards (8.3), Pacers (8.3) and Suns (8.2). The stingiest teams, in terms of allowing steals, are the Hornets, Lakers, Raptors, Mavericks and Pelicans.


Before going any further, let's introduce two charts which visualize and quantify tendencies amongst key fantasy categories. The first chart is a simple breakdown of means among the top 180 players at this point in the 2014-15 season.


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As becomes evident, blocks and assists are easily the most 'concentrated' categories with less than 40% of players raising the population mean. We'll return to these ratios when discussing other categories below.


The second chart presents another way to think about the concentration and/or scarcity of a category. By dividing the standard deviation of a category by the mean for that category we can determine which categories are 'boom or bust'. Blocks are a perfect example. The SD for blocks (0.58) is 95.2% of the mean for that category (0.60), which is to say that players typically either do or don't block shots (to wit, there are 44 players in the top-180 who block fewer than 0.2 shots per game).


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Certain players get blocked more than others, a truism that leads to appetizing matchups for savvy fantasy owners. Nobody in the league has their shots blocked more often than Tony Wroten, who has 1.8 shots turned away per game. He is the only guard in the top five for this inauspicious stat, followed by Nikola Pekovic, Omer Asik, DeMarcus Cousins and Tobias Harris. Directly after them we find Russell Westbrook, Terrence Jones, Tyreke Evans, Elfrid Payton and Greg Monroe. It's no coincidence that the players I just listed all take a large percentage of their attempts right around the hoop, allowing opportunistic big men to rack up blocks in a hurry.


Those individuals also heavily influence team-based stats. The Kings are blocked 6.1 times per game, more than any other team, thanks largely to DeMarcus Cousins (himself blocked 1.7 times per game). They are followed by the Magic (Tobias), Pelicans (Asik/Tyreke) and 76ers (Wroten), after which we find the Nuggets, Rockets, Timberwolves, Celtics and Pistons.


At the individual level, Anthony Davis leads all players with 2.9 blocks per game. He is followed by DeAndre Jordan (2.6), Roy Hibbert (2.4), Serge Ibaka (2.2), Tim Duncan (2.2), Andrew Bogut (2.2), Pau Gasol (1.8), Andre Drummond (1.7), Brook Lopez (1.7) and Brandan Wright (1.6). That rapid decline slows down over the next 100 players before trailing off toward zero blocks per game, which is consistent with the 'boom or bust' nature of shot-blocking.


It's worth highlighting a few unheralded players who jump out on a blocks-per-minute basis, as their fantasy value could blossom with expanded roles. Rudy Gobert leads the entire league in this per-minute metric, and other top-20 players include Brandan Wright, Joey Dorsey, Samuel Dalembert, Festus Ezeli, Kosta Koufos, James Johnson, K.J. McDaniels, Chris Kaman and Ed Davis.




The availability of rebounds hinges to a large extent upon a team's pace, as more shots inevitably lead to more boards. It's no surprise, therefore, that the 76ers' opponents are hauling in a league-high 45.9 rebounds per game. Slightly behind them are the Pistons (allowing 45.8 rebounds), Lakers (45.0), Suns (44.8), Nets (44.6) and Warriors (44.4). The Kings have given up the fewest boards at just 37.8 per game, followed by the Cavs, Jazz, Heat and Spurs.


Many leagues include offensive rebounds as a separate category, so it's worth mentioning that the most lenient teams for OREB are the Warriors, Mavs, Knicks, Nets, Bulls and Thunder.


DeAndre Jordan's 12.3 boards per game lead the league (*among qualifying players who've appeared in 70% of their team's games), but not far behind him are Pau Gasol (11.9), Andre Drummond (11.8), Tyson Chandler (11.7), Nikola Vucevic (11.7), Zach Randolph (11.0) and Omer Asik (10.7).


The first non-PF/Cs to make the list are Tobias Harris (23rd in the league with 7.9 boards per game), Lance Stephenson (7.6 per game), Kawhi Leonard (7.5), Rajon Rondo (7.4), Harrison Barnes (6.4), James Harden (6.3), Rudy Gay (6.2) and Wilson Chandler (6.2).


I didn't draw attention to Pau Gasol previously, when mentioning him as No. 7 in blocks per game this season, but his appearance on the rebounds list gives occasion to praise him. The Bulls' veteran is having a tremendous season with averages of 20.1 points, 11.9 boards, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, as well as solid percentages and low turnovers. He's producing first-round fantasy value, in other words, and as long as he's healthy there's no reason to expect a downturn. Tom Thibodeau isn't shy about giving his key players huge minutes and both Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah have battled various injuries this season, all but cementing Gasol as an elite fantasy big man.




Rajon Rondo has quickly claimed the league lead in assists per game at 10.8 (*among qualifying players), though both John Wall and Ty Lawson are close behind at 10.4 per game. Chris Paul is averaging 9.9 assists, after which there is a big drop to LeBron James (7.7), Stephen Curry (7.7), Kyle Lowry (7.5), Jeff Teague (7.1), Mo Williams (6.7) and Jrue Holiday (6.6).


After LeBron, the nearest non-PG players to top the assists list are James Harden (6.6), Tyreke Evans (5.9), Lance Stephenson (5.4), Nicolas Batum (5.1) and Kobe Bryant (4.9). Assists join blocks as one of the most heavily-concentrated categories -- among the top 180 players this season, only 66 are above the population mean (in other words, nearly two-thirds of all players are below the mean). It's somewhat predictable that the standard deviation (2.19) is almost 80% as large as the mean itself (2.79), with the implication that assists are another 'boom or bust' category -- a player either gets assists or they don't, which makes the non-PG players listed above even more intriguing. I didn't mention this previously, but Joakim Noah and Josh Smith are the only big men in the top-50 for assists.


Total assists allowed per game hinge largely on pace and defensive efficiency, so it's unsurprising to find the Lakers giving up a league-high 25.8 dimes per game. They are followed by the Cavaliers, whose defense is a work in progress, then the Hawks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Hornets and Raptors.


On the other end of the spectrum, the Wizards are easily giving up the fewest assists per game (17.7), far ahead of the Grizzlies (18.9), Jazz (19.3) or Trail Blazers (19.5).


A look at NBA.com's player tracking data reveals a few interesting details about the top-50 players in assists. Pacers PG Donald Sloan is averaging 4.8 assists but he's creating 11.1 "assist opportunities" per game, which means that his teammates are only converting 43.2% of the shots he creates. That isn't necessarily an indictment of his teammates since Sloan could be putting his teammates in tough positions via less-than-ideal passes, poor shot-clock management, etc. The next five players with low opportunities-to-assists ratios are Reggie Jackson (43.7%), Deron Williams (44.2%), Michael Carter-Williams (45.1%), Isaiah Thomas (46.1%) and Kobe Bryant (47.1%).


Among the top-50 players in assists, Kyle Lowry is benefiting from the highest percentage of made baskets on his assist opportunities, at 59.5%. Rudy Gay and Russell Westbrook are in a virtual tie with K-Low, followed by Darren Collison, Nicolas Batum, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe.


Another interesting cut of the data reveals that Jose Calderon (averaging 4.0 dimes per game) is making 15.4 passes for every assist he's created. That's easily the most passes-per-assist among the top-50, followed by Donald Sloan, Joakim Noah, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving.  Calderon's ratio is even more eye-opening compared to Ty Lawson, who is making just 5.9 passes for every one of his assists. Other players who get assists on a low number of total passes include Ricky Rubio, Kobe Bryant, John Wall, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Rajon Rondo.




The Hornets give up the sixth-most assists per game, as we saw above, but they also force the third-fewest turnovers per game (12.2). For those reasons and more, Kemba Walker is an enticing matchup for any point guard. The Kings are forcing the fewest turnovers of any team, followed by the Blazers, Hornets, Jazz and Pacers.


The 76ers lead yet another list by forcing 18.2 turnovers per game, more than the Mavericks (17.4), Wolves (16.9), Bucks (16.7) or Rockets (16.3).


That will do it for this week's Numbers Game. If you have any questions, you can send them my way via 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 NBC Sports Edge since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.