The current Mrs. Cregan and I are about to celebrate our 20th anniversary.
I'm as shocked as you are. Going off of the metric of sheer matrimonial years accrued, in the eyes of most young people I am actually operating within a successful marriage. (And by "young people," I mean "anyone under 42.")
A question I'm often asked by you young people: how do you know when someone is the one? My answer: when the honeymoon is over. When you start to notice the little flaws. When crisis hits. That's when you know if this thing you're in has true staying power.
When she gives you leather pants for Christmas? When you get a first look at her shockingly mediocre credit score? When she takes care of your beloved guinea pig Sylvia Plath for a week... and Sylvia Plath dies?
One starts to wonder.
Were those opening blissful six months an ongoing trend? Or is this trip to the pet cemetery a regression to the mean?
Stick with me. I am making an analogy to fantasy basketball. Because we are at the juncture of the schedule where we are moving past the Honeymoon Stage.
Every season, there are a handful of players that can seemingly do no wrong out of the gate. We're loving the ride. The nightly confirmation of our fantasy acumen. The trade offers we're getting? Only reinforce our fake basketball vision.
Then said player lays an egg.
And another egg.
And... the honeymoon is over.
Was this guy just overperforming over a smaller sample size of games? Or has some switch flipped in his game that portends permanent, lasting positive change?
Do I sell high? Or do I hold steady and reap the permanently enhanced production?
In Fantasyland, we learn to look for certain tells.
Here are some examples. Dominating Summer League. Becoming the first option on offense. Big man entering third season. Change in scenery. Change in coach. Cutting back on foul trouble. Getting rid of long 2-point attempts. Spike in True Shooting Percentage. Rise in rebounding. Upping assist to turnover ratio. New offensive system. Getting to free throw line with greater frequency.
A lot of mangers might point to consistency as a tell. Is a player delivering night-in, night-out? Without a high degree of variance?
Truth: while consistency is nice to have (especially in DFS), it's not always an indicator of lasting fantasy dominance.
Some great players (James Harden, Damian Lillard) are actually somewhat inconsistent. Their box scores can fluctuate from solid All-Star to borderline GOAT. Even when you're that dominant, everything is relative.
Some very good players are rocks of consistency. Khris Middleton's game scores don't fluctuate. Jabari Parker is as steady as they come. If you don't like surprises? Roster those guys. But I'll take Harden, Lillard, and LeBron James.
Some managers might point to increase in scoring as a tell. This is a trap.
While spikes in PPG can be an indicator of lasting positive fantasy change, it can also just be a sign of an increase in volume. Many times, an increase in volume is masking a drop in efficiency. A player might score more, but is getting dinged (like we discussed last week) in areas like True Shooting Percentage.
Let's set the table properly. Look to two areas we've been discussing: lasting increases in volume and efficiency. Statistically speaking, I use Usage Rate and Player Efficiency Rating.
We talked about Usage Rate a couple weeks back. Here's a quick refresher on PER.
PER: the brainchild of One of our greatest living Americans, John Hollinger. PER conflates all of the good things a player does (made shots, assists, 3s, blocks, steals, rebounds) with the bad things (missed shots, fouls, turnovers). Then it extrapolates that conflation adjusted for Pace. Then it boils it down to per-minute production. You're left with a number that rests anywhere from the single digits to the low 30s. The league average PER: 15.0.
We've banked about a third of our games. We're just past the Honeymoon Stage. It's a large enough sample size to tell if jumps in production have staying power.
I'll use Doncic as a too-obvious example.
In 2018-19, Doncic clocked in at a 31.2 Usage Rate. Already elite. But only a 19.61 PER. That was merely okay.
In 2019-20, Doncic has a 38.7 Usage Rate... and a 31.57 PER. Doncic is third in Usage and second in PER. He is posting sustained, Unicorn-esque leaps in both volume and efficiency.
This is no Honeymoon Period. This is real. It's not going anywhere.
Let's take a look at two players outperforming expectations.
Player Rater Rank: 13
2018-19 USG: 20.6
2018-19 PER: 18.74
2019-20 USG: 28.3
2019-20 PER: 18.84
At first blush? Siakam is another Unicorn.
The narrative: Siakam's seized the mantle post-Kawhi. Posting across the board leaps in every volume-based category. Siakam's crashed the top-15 on the Player Rater. If you drafted him in the second round? You're happy with your investment.
But take a second look. Siakam's boost in Usage is masking a flaw: his PER has nearly stayed the same.
Siakam is a classic example of how a large boost in volume can lead to slippage in efficiency. Look at the True Shooting Percentage. Remember that TS% is a leading indicator of hidden fantasy value. Siakam's TS% has actually dropped from 62.8% to 55.3%.
Siakam's current 3-point percentage (36.1%) is nearly the same as last year's (36.9%). His free throw percentage has gone up (from 78.5% to 81.9%). So what's happening here?
Answer: Siakam has increased his percentage of bad shots, while missing more 2-point shots across the board.
He's taking more deep 2s. Per Basketball Reference, in 2018-19, only five percent of Siakam's shots were from 10-16 feet. Only 2 percent were from 16 feet to the 3-point line.
This season, 6 percent of Siakam's shots are from 10-16 feet. But now 9 percent of his shots are coming from 16 feet to the 3-point line.
And Siakam's 2-point percentage is down across the board. He's gone from hitting 60.2% of his 2s to just 50.0%. The most telling sign of increased defensive attention? Siakam's percentage from 3-to-10 feet. It's cratered. It's dropped from 47.4% to just 35.0%.
Another indicator I like: FTr. The rate of free throw attempts per field goal attempts. It's a sign a player is attacking the hoop. Not forcing bad shots. Drawing contact.
Siakam has nearly doubled his field goal attempts per game. He's gone from 11.8 FGA to 20.0 FGA. But he's only gone from 3.8 FTA to 4.8 FTA. His number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt (FTr) has dropped. It's gone from .320 to just .241.
Siakam is now the first option in the Raptors' offense. But that status comes with increased defensive attention. Which means more of Siakam's shots are contested.
Being a first option also comes with the expectation of points per game. So Siakam is taking more shots overall. But he's also required to force more shots from less efficient spots on the floor. He's attacking the basket with less frequency.
At a glance, Siakam is a top-15 player. He is scoring like a star. But Siakam is carrying large pools of hidden negative value.
And while his scoring and 3s per game have increased, his other volume-based numbers have stayed the same. Siakam's rebounds, assists, steals and blocks are in line with his 2018-19 averages.
If you look at Siakam's production across the season? You'll see a slight regression in volume and efficiency. His past-2-week numbers: 20.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 48.8 TS%.
The Player Rater says Siakam's 13th overall. But post-Honeymoon? Accounting for hidden negative value?
I'm saying Siakam's secretly in the mid-20s.
Player Rater Rank: 17
2018-19 USG: 22.9
2018-19 PER: 13.48
2019-20 USG: 28.7
2019-20 PER: 21.34
Here's another player coming off of a wild honeymoon. But unlike Siakam, Ingram is logging substantial gains in volume and efficiency.
Yes, Ingram's field goal percentage has dropped (from 49.7% to 49.0%). But his TS% has actually increased (55.5% to 60.1%).
Why? Two reasons.
Reason one: 3-point performance. Last season, 13 percent of Ingram's attempts came from downtown. In 2019-20, that's gone up to 31 percent. He's gone from 1.8 3-point attempts per game to 5.7 attempts per game. At the same time, his 3-point percentage has improved (33.0% to 40.8%).
Reason two: free throw performance. Ingram's FTr has also dropped (from .396 to .302). But that's due to the shift in weight of 3-point attempts. It's harder to draw fouls off of 3s. So Ingram is taking the same number of free throws per game as last season. But Ingram has dramatically increased his free throw percentage (from 67.5% to 84.5%).
Ingram is taking about the same amount of shots per game as Siakam (19.6 FGA vs. 20.0 FGA). But Ingram is far, far more productive in terms of what he's generating with those shots. He's matching Siakam in points per game (24.9 PTS to 24.5 PTS), but he doesn't need the same amount of volume to get there.
Ingram's other volume-based fantasy numbers have all improved. His rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all increased. So Ingram's looking at broad-based, across-the-board improvement, as opposed to Siakam's scoring-based improvement.
Ingram 17th on the Player Rater? It's real. Even in terms of hidden value, he's a mid-teens player.
The elephant in the French Quarter? Zion. What will Zion's return do to Ingram's production?
The bad news: Ingram's Usage will dip. The good news: Ingram has proved he doesn't need a ton of Usage to deliver star-grade production. But we have to anticipate some slippage, in Player Rater value and Hidden Value.
The irony? By the end of the season? I'll have these guys ranked side by side. Somewhere in my mid-20s. But Ingram is displaying way more upside.
Griffin should have extended that dude before the honeymoon even started.