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DFS Basketball 101: How to Play Daily Fantasy Basketball

Step 1: Picking The Right Contest

Is your goal to win big? Or is your goal to win frequently? Daily sites offer many different contest types, and each have their own advantages. While experimenting with the different formats can be fun, most people stick to the two most common formats: guaranteed price pools (GPPs) or cash games.

GPPs, also known as "tournaments," pay huge prizes to a very small number of winning lineups. The payoffs are heavily weighted toward the top few finishers, but prizewinners outside the top handful can still see a significant return on their entry fee. The other popular format, cash games, includes "50-50" contests, where half of all entrants are winners, and all winners earn the exact same prize: double the entry fee (minus a cut for the host site, of course).

Knowing what you want out of your gaming is a key piece of success. If you feel every loss as wasted money, stick to the cash games. On the other hand, if spending a few dollars is a part of your daily entertainment budget, then chasing the bigger pots in a GPP might be more your style. Step 2: Matchups Matter Matchups are important, and there are two matchups that any successful daily gamer must pay attention to: 1. Team matchups. Every year, at least one team's defense is perfect for fantasy targeting. In 2015-16, the Lakers and 76ers were both deliciously terrible. Both played at average or above-average game paces, and both were league leaders in opponent points and opponent points per possession. Simply seeing one of those teams under "opponent" was enough to warrant giving a player a second glance. This season, the Nets could take over this role. On the flip side, some teams should usually be avoided. Several teams boast commanding defenses, and who dominates the lot can vary from month to month. Pay attention to who has played well recently, and keep an eye on the "advanced stats" (see Step 4, below). 2. Position matchups. There is no genius in observing that Rudy Gobert is an excellent defender and rebounder. Most centers get their DFS value from scoring and rebounding. Hence, avoiding a center facing Gobert is a good idea. The same principle applies across all positions. The 2015-16 Celtics were the second-stingiest team in the league against point guards, but they allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to power forwards. Daily gamers should have avoided using point guards against the C's, but given power forwards an extra long look. While matchups matter, don't overuse them. The difference between the eighth and 10th-best defense is probably small. I only focus on opponents among the fifth-to-seventh-best or worst in any area (as a team or at a position). Even the best matchups are often less valuable than the tricks highlighted in Step 5. Step 3: Predictable Stats Some categories are more predictable than others, so it's best to focus salary on value that comes from the more predictable stats. On a game-to-game basis, the most predictable categories are points, rebounds and assists. Steals and blocks are far more random. Outside of the truly elite shooters, consider three pointers in the more random category as well. Not only are those more random categories less reliable, but their unreliability has an outsized impact on that player's daily fantasy production: steals and blocks earn more points than rebounds and assists, and three pointers earn more than points scored. These categories increase a player's average fantasy points, and increase the player's salary, but they are hard to rely on from one night to the next. Players who depend on these unreliable categories have a shifted risk-reward ratio that daily gamers need to consider. This is one of the biggest differences between daily fantasy and the season-long game. In a yearly league, most preferred Nerlens Noel to Enes Kanter last season. Both snagged 8.1 rebounds per game, and while Kanter averaged 12.7 points to Noel's 11.1, Noel bested Kanter by more than one full assist, steal and block per game. But Noel's daily games salary is inflated due to unsteady points from the less predictable categories. Kanter's game, where he gets almost all his value from points and rebounds and his salary is discounted because of that limitation, is exactly what I look for daily games. Step 4: Pace And Advanced Stats More possessions mean more opportunities to score. Or rebound. Or steal. Faster teams are better for fantasy. The NBA tracks pace, among many other helpful statistics, and publishes them for free here. Pace is important, and is one of the first advanced stats that I look at every night. Target players who will play in the fastest games. After pace, I look at the following advanced stats, in the order of importance:

  1. Opponent's DefRtg (Defensive Rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions) Target the weak, avoid the strong. After about the first month of the season, make sure that you adjust the settings to look at only the more recent games.

  2. ( [Team A OffRtg] - [Team B DefRtg] ) + ( [Team A DefRtg] – [Team B OffRtg] ) Do I expect it to be a close game? Checking the Vegas lines (Step 7, below) is another way to consider the same information, but I like to make my own judgment before checking with the odds. If you expect a blowout, avoid starters and give extra consideration to bench players from the winning team. If you expect a close game, then target starters on both teams.

  3. Opponent's rebound percentage A high percentage means a player who depends on rebounds might struggle, while a low percentage can add value. I use this stat most when considering mid-sized players – small forwards and extra large guards.

Step 5: Mind The Gaps Daily prices are determined by computers. Once released – usually late afternoon the day before a contest – daily prices are fixed. Any system so rigid will have exploitable gaps. The math behind the pricing algorithm, combined with the timing of when prices are announced, cannot account for some situations. Taking advantage of those gaps in the pricing system can be the difference between winning and losing. Here are the most common loopholes to look out for:

  1. Injuries. When a player is sidelined due to an injury, his price drops. Once healthy, he typically returns to normal production before his price returns to its pre-injury value.

  2. Role changes. Sometime in January, the Pelicans might announce that they are giving Buddy Hield some of the minutes that had previously been going to Tyreke Evans. Though the press may announce the change, it will take a few games for the salary algorithms to adjust to this new normal. The biggest opportunities for a role change are typically trades, or the effects on the remaining healthy players after an injury.

  3. Shorthanded opponents. Referring back to Rudy Gobert for a minute – when Center X is facing the Jazz, the fact that he has one of the toughest opponents for a center is factored into his price algorithm. But if Gobert is out, that means that Center X's price has been unnecessarily lowered. The same reasoning should be applied when any of the league's best defenders take a night off.

  4. Explainable recent anomalies. The salary algorithm heavily weights recent performances. A Player who had a terrible game for a perfectly understandable one-time-only reason usually sees his prices go down for the next few games. Did a player get into early foul trouble – or, better yet, get eliminated early with two technicals? Did a player sit out almost the entire second half because of a gruesome blowout? Sometimes the reasons don't have anything to do with basketball – once Derek Fisher played only nine minutes after arriving late to a game because he had been at the hospital with his child (he averaged 27 minutes per game that season).

When these players are available, they can be some of the best values available for daily gamers. Step 6: Vegas Odds Oddsmakers in Vegas provide useful tools for daily gamers. They predict the total number of points scored for each game (the over-under), as well as who will win and how close they think the game will be (the spread). The higher scoring games should provide more opportunities for fantasy points. The closer games should provide for the more predictable rotations and maximum time for the more expensive star players. Blowouts often lead to extra minutes for young bench players on the winning team. Step 7: Schedule Impacts Playing on three-days rest is easier than zero days of rest – again, no great insight there. Yet, obvious though it may seem, daily gamers too often ignore the impacts of scheduling. Scheduling alone is not enough to pay for overpriced players, but other factors being equal, you may want to give the edge to player who has rested more. Similarly, NBA players are all human beings. Just like the rest of us, therefore, they are susceptible to jet-lag from changing time zones and can grow weary from lengthy travel. Be wary of players traveling across the country, or older players towards the end of road trips. Give extra consideration to players who go against potentially travel-weary defenses. Step 8: Overlay This has nothing to do with basketball, and only to do with how daily games sites operate. Occasionally, not enough contestants enter a contest that has a fixed payoff. In these instances, the gamers who are in the contest have a vastly increased opportunity to earn a profit from their entry. Most sites have tried hard to minimize these opportunities – which makes sense, since I am literally telling you to look for contests where the host site will lose money – but some still fall through the cracks. If you find one of these contests close to tip-off, enter it. Step 9: Play The Night, Play The Contest On Wednesday nights, there are a ton of NBA games. On Thursday nights, there are very few NBA games. As a result, a winning strategy for Wednesday nights might fall flat on Thursdays, and vice versa. Recognize that each night is different, and adjust your game play accordingly. Typically speaking, it takes a higher point total to win the more games are being played. Winning a GPP on a busy night may require a lineup filled with high-risk, high-reward players, while winning a cash game on a Thursday might be accomplished with a stable of low-floor, low-ceiling plays. While it can be helpful to have general guidelines that you always try to stick to, maintain some flexibility. Winning frequently requires you adapt to your strategy to the night and the contest you are playing.

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