The Uselessness of Usage


I don’t like the Usage statistic to be honest. Usage is a pretty popular stat in basketball used to defend various flaws in players games. Usage is used as a proxy for how often the player handles the ball and this is logical. In basketball a play can end in three ways: the team can take a shot, the team can be fouled, the team can turn the ball over. Usage is built on these three stats.

And thus the start of a pervasive argument starts. Kobe has been a good player, but not at the level of many greats (Michael, Magic, LeBron, to name a few) His shooting percentage has been mediocre actually, the secret of Kobe’s success is actually his free throws! Regardless, when this comes up, the logic is as follows: Kobe handles the ball a lot and takes a lot of shots. So, this will make his shooting percentage lower and things like turnovers higher. (Of course, such arguments often don’t match empirical data)

There are three major problems with usage in my opinion:

  1. It does not factor in assists.
  2. It goes up with misses
  3. It goes up with turnovers.

The misses and turnovers part is particularly important. When I say a player is bad because their shooting efficiency is poor, or their turnovers are high, I often hear “Yes, but for a player with their usage….” Well guess what? Their usage goes up by doing those things!

But the major issue is leaving out assists. Let’s examine two players – Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. When we factor in the cost of each shot and free throw, Kobe and Steve Nash are remarkably similar:

  • Kobe Bryant – 3150 net points (15th all time)
  • Steve Nash – 3009 net points (16th all time)

That’s right, Steve Nash scored almost as many points as Kobe when we factor in misses. This is easy to miss as people focus on totals, where Kobe has 31,617 points to Nash’s 17285. This is explained by shooting efficiency. Steve Nash has a career True Shooting Percentage (which factors in three pointers and free throws) is 60.5%. Compare this to Kobe, who has a career True Shooting Percentage of 55.5%.

But you say, Kobe handles the ball a lot and is expected to score! Of course Nash can be more efficient, he doesn’t have as much pressure on him. And their career numbers, using Usage, bear this out. Kobe has a career Usage of 32.0%, compared to Nash’s 21.0%.

But what happens when we factor in assists? If we do a simple formula of

[Field Goal Attempts] + 0.44 * [Free Throw Attempts] + [Turnovers] + [Assists] / [Minutes] * 48.0

We get an estimate of how many plays a player was involved in ending. Career wise Kobe still shows up at a pretty high clip of 40.0 plays per 48 minutes. Nash though, he’s now much closer at 36 plays per 48 minutes. And let’s do another fun experiment. In 2006-2007 Steve Nash finished second in MVP voting and Kobe finished third. Let’s look at the two players that season.

Kobe Bryant

  • 27 Field Goal Attempts per 48 minutes
  • 12 Free Throw Attempts per 48 minutes
  • 6 Assists per 48 minutes
  • 4 Turnovers per 48 minutes

Steve Nash

  • 17 Field Goal Attempts per 48 minutes
  • 4 Free Throw Attempts per 48 minutes
  • 16 Assists per 48 minutes
  • 5 Turnovers per 48 minutes

Kobe helped end roughly 42 plays per 48 minutes, compared to Nash’s 40 plays per 48 minutes. Pretty close. And of course in 2006-2007 Nash was much better than Kobe.

Summing Up

A common problem in stats like Usage, PER and EFF is that they go up when bad stats go up. Now, to be fair, unlike PER and EFF, Usage is not meant to be interpreted as a bigger is better stat. However, it’s often used that way. Higher Usages justifies misses, and turnovers. But you can’t do that when the bad stat goes into calculating the aggregate stat!

The biggest argument against inefficient shooters with Usage is that their bad shot makes sense because they hold the ball so much. Of course, there’s an out. You can pass the ball! As Steve Nash shows, he holds the ball a lot, just like Kobe. And just like Kobe, he’s definitely a scorer threat. However, unlike Kobe, he passes the ball! And with that, we have the crux of the Usage problem. Sure, if a player had no option but to shoot the ball, Usage would explain a lot. But given that the rules allow sharing the ball with your team mates, I just have to pass on the Usage excuse.





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