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Which stars are rising, falling due to changes in usage rate?

Getting away from Russell Westbrook's epic usage rate has opened up things for Victor Oladipo this season. Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

In my spare time, I dabble in a little fantasy football. To be honest, it's not half as enjoyable for me as fantasy hoops.

The randomness of fantasy football drives me crazy. The smaller sample sizes over which key statistics are doled out tend to dampen my Sundays. And Monday nights. And Thursday nights.

I try to control what I can. So, I always tend to prize running backs over receivers. It's for the same reason I prize point guards in basketball: I like consistent possession. Lots of touches I can rely upon.

In fantasy basketball, the numbers pile up with more regularity. Plus, there are ways players can contribute without a high volume of offensive possessions. Blocks, steals, rebounds, a high concentration of 3-point attempts ... a quality fantasy basketball player doesn't have to own a large piece of an offense to chip in.

But to become elite?

You need the ball on offense. You need to up your usage rate.

Usage rate is a metric the estimates the percentage of possessions a player controls when said player is on the floor. It basically conflates stats such as field goal attempts, turnovers and free throw attempts and measures the individual's usage across his team's total field goal attempts, turnovers, free throw attempts, etc. Do that, and you arrive at a percentage of estimated possessions run through each individual player.

The league average for usage rate tends to hover around 20 percent.

In 2016-17, Russell Westbrook set an NBA record with a usage rate of 41.7 percent.

It's no surprise that in posting a triple double-rich throwdown campaign for the ages, Westbrook had the ball in his hands more than double the average amount of possession. But Westbrook also led the league in player efficiency with a PER of 30.6. The result: a historic fantasy season.

Ideally, an elite player balances elite usage with elite efficiency. Most top fantasy players have a mix of the two. The two key metrics at the heart of fantasy hoops -- usage rate and PER -- tend to become more symbiotic the further one climbs up the Player Rater.

Stability breeds efficiency and vice versa. And a high usage rate guarantees statistical stability.

We're ten or so games in. One eighth of the season is in the can. We're moving past the "just a hot/cold start stage." Players who have come on huge out of the gate (DeMarcus Cousins, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo) are starting to cement their positions. Players who have fizzled risk being labeled season-long disappointments.

One way of pegging whether a trend in player production is here to stay is to look for changes in usage rate. Boosts in usage drive boosts in overall performance. Sudden drops in usage drive dips in performance.

Let's take a look at a few players posting big shifts in usage.

Trending upward

Kristaps Porzingis, PF, New York Knicks
2016-17 usage rate: 24.4 (47th in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 35.6 (2nd in NBA)

The post-Melo effect has transformed Porzingis' fantasy prospects, leading to some of the best fantasy production out of a Knick ... ever. Porzingis' stratospheric usage rate means that his top-10 fantasy ranking should stick. The only issue now is keeping Porzingis healthy -- a new elbow issue could linger for a large chunk of the season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 usage rate: 28.3 (22nd in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 34.6 (3rd in NBA)

After starting the season at the top of the Player Rater, Antetokounmpo has trended downward ever-so-slightly. The slight downward dip should continue.

Why is it difficult to see Antetokounmpo keeping up this level of production? His league-leading PER is still an unsustainable 32.87. The all-time record for single-season PER is 31.82, and Wilt Chamberlain did that in 1962. (LeBron posted the highest PER in the fantasy era in 2008-09 at 31.67).

D'Angelo Russell, PG/SG, Brooklyn Nets
2016-17 usage rate: 26.5 (33rd in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 34.4 (4th in NBA)

Russell's change of scenery benefited him from every conceivable fantasy angle. He became a No. 1 scoring option overnight. He went to one of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA. And he left behind certain ... social media-powered baggage.

The bad news: Russell is still lagging a little on the Player Rater at 64th overall. He's going through a typical growing pain of young players who suddenly have increased possessions thrust upon them: his efficiency is lagging.

The good news: Russell's high usage rate underscores the fact that he's got all kinds of room to grow from a fantasy perspective. High usage rate equals high fantasy upside. A higher ceiling. If Russell keeps controlling possessions at this rate, he probably plays his way into the top 40 by default, as his efficiency should increase.

Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 usage rate: 21.3 (79th in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 30.4 (11th in NBA)

The story behind Oladipo's transformation has some similarities to Russell's. He went to a team that suddenly needed a new No. 1 scoring option. The Pacers play a fairly fast-paced style. And like Russell, he's historically a fairly streaky shooter. But with increased usage, he's been allowed to shoot through his periodic slumps and off nights.

Right now, Oladipo is shooting 44 percent from behind the arc. It's hard to see Oladipo sustaining that level of accuracy (his career average is 35 percent). But even if his 3-point shooting cools off, Oladipo is a good bet to give top-20 production for the season, thanks to his diversified box scores. Oladipo also averages 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.7 blocks, and 2.4 3s per game ... plus, he shoots 86 percent from the free throw line.)

High usage rate players who give Oladipo's brand of all-around production have higher fantasy floors, because he's able to supplement his points per game from multiple angles.

Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
2016-17 usage rate: N/A (rookie)
2017-18 usage rate: 29.7 (14th in NBA)

Mitchell landed in a great spot for a first-season shooting guard: on a defense-first team that just lost their No. 1 scoring option to free agency.

Utah was left starved for scoring. Those of us who predicted great things for Rodney Hood have instead seen a maddeningly inconsistent Mitchell steal a rising number of Hood's minutes.

The rare first-season player with an early high usage rate, Mitchell is going to post some brutal shooting nights ... such as Tuesday's 3-of-21 performance from the floor. But a high usage rate can help overcome a lot of rookie inconsistency.

Trending downward

Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 usage rate: 41.7 (1st in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 31.6 (7th in NBA)

What happens when you go from unfettered hero basketball to suddenly playing in a Big Three-driven dynamic? What happens is that Westbrook's touches have decreased by 25 percent.

Westbrook's regression has been brutal for the owners who boosted his ADP to 2.3. Usage rate is directly linked to one key fantasy category: points per game. The drop in usage has almost mirrored Westbrook's drop in scoring, which has wilted from 31.6 points per game to 20.1.

Less usage has meant Westbrook has wilted in one of the key areas of his fantasy game: free throw performance. His trips to the line have been cut almost in half (from 10.4 attempts per game to just 5.6). The decline in Westbrook's free throw attempts per game has been made even worse by a career-low free throw percentage (61 percent).

Westbrook's free throw woes underscore a key point: high-possession players struggle to find a rhythm when their touches are suddenly taken away. Drops in usage rate usually lead to statistical drops that go deeper than mere drops in volume.

Jimmy Butler, SG/SF, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 usage rate: 26.6 (32nd in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 19.8 (99th in NBA)

Butler wasn't brought in to be a No. 1 option. He was brought in to help translate for coach Tom Thibodeau. The Timberwolves are winning, but Butler's free fall in usage rate and scoring (from 23.9 points per game to 15.1) means he runs a strong chance of going down as a fantasy bust.

Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 usage rate: 24.8 (42nd in NBA)
2017-18 usage rate: 20.1 (97th in NBA)

Lowry's scoring is down by ten points per game. He's shooting 40 percent from the field. 32 percent from 3-point territory. Worst of all, he's reached the age (31) when most point guards begin to decline.

The age question has me concerned. Historically, Lowry is a slow starter, but this is a downright crater. He's always been streaky, but his off periods don't last this long. His usage has dipped while DeMar DeRozan's has risen.

Most likely, the problem isn't with Lowry's age. It's with the change in Toronto's offense.

They've moved from more pick and rolls to a pass-heavy attack, which means Lowry has the ball in his hands less. Like Westbrook, the sudden drop in usage has thrown Lowry's production decidedly off in ways that go deeper than loss of volume.

Players get used to getting in the flow of games in a certain way. Instead of dictating flow, the drop in usage reflects that Lowry is struggling to defer. As the Raptors are struggling a little out of the gate, coach Dwayne Casey could revert to letting Lowry control more possessions.