NBA DFS Primer: Guiding Thoughts

NBA DFS is likely very different from other sports you may have played. In MLB and NFL DFS you want to maximize fantasy points, and the same is true with NBA DFS, but the concept of value plays a much larger role. Value is essentially how many fantasy points your players score relative to their salaries. Because MLB and NFL are highly event based, value is a fuzzy concept, but the NBA is much more predictable. So much more predictable in fact, that rules of thumb like shooting for 6x value (6 points for each $1000 in salary) to compete in tournaments have emerged. The increased predictability makes NBA DFS variance less brutal, but it also means that you are giving up a huge edge if you don’t do your homework. To get you started on the right track, I’m going to give you some guiding thoughts heading into the NBA DFS season.


Vegas – Start your research with the Vegas lines. You shouldn’t let these lines dictate your thinking entirely, but they provide a good starting point. Ideally, you want to target games with high totals and low spreads, so that there are a lot of opportunities for fantasy points and the starters have to log heavy minutes.

Injuries – This is pretty obvious, but you don’t want to roster players who aren’t going to play. Beyond that, however, you don’t want to roster players who are going to be limited for any reason. There are a lot of sites that monitor and report injuries, but go one step further and utilize Twitter. Beat writers report the fastest injury updates to Twitter, and there are a number of useful lists that compile this information. Twitter is the most efficient place to find injury updates and starting lineups.

Defense vs. Position – Certain teams defend certain positions well. The metric used to get a grasp on this concept is Defense vs. Position. It helps you determine how good or bad a player’s matchup is, and is an extremely valuable metric. You have to stay current with trades to make this information useful, however. For instance, Enes Kanter started at Center in Utah for much of the season last year and he has no defensive talent whatsoever. Toward the end of the year, Rudy Gobert started at Center and he plays lockdown defense. One way to get the maximum value out of this sort of statistic is to pair it up with a metric called Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM), which attempts to determine exactly how good of a defender a certain player is. If you can confidently determine who will be guarding a player you intend to roster, DRPM is a great tool.

Minutes – One of the most important metrics for projecting player performance is minutes. No player ever accrues fantasy points from the bench. Best of all, this metric tends not to be very volatile. One common exception to that trend is when injuries force minutes increases or decreases, and you’ll have to keep up with this if you want to be successful. Additionally, game flow can occasionally cause minutes to change. You should approach rostering starters carefully, particularly those with some mileage, when a game could turn into a blowout.

Usage – In theory, it’s possible that a player could play an entire game and never really get involved. To prevent this from affecting your rosters, take usage rate into account. It’s a slightly complicated statistic, but it essentially measures how involved a player is in the type of activities that generate fantasy points. Further, there are sites like that allow you to find the usage rate of players when certain other players are not on the court. This is useful when a team is dealing with injuries.

Pace – Related to the above two categories, some teams just play faster than others. Last year, Golden State and Houston led this category, and it’s no coincidence that many of their games were high-scoring. Often, people will use pace rankings to pick teams to target, but they neglect to target players on the other team. Don’t do this. Our goal is to find players who outperform their expectations, and finding situations where players are going to run up and down the court more often than usual is a great way to do this.

Coaching Specifics – This is important but there’s only so much advice I can give you. The onus will be on you to keep up with the league and understand the different coaching philosophies. I’ll give two to get you going. First, the Spurs sit their starters so much that it can be hard to roster them unless something is really on the line. This specifically applies to the older players like Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli. A second common coaching detail is that Doc Rivers is extremely good at scheming the opponent’s key player out of the game. He did it to James Harden on numerous occasions last year, and it’s something you will want to keep an eye on.

Roster Construction

Site Scoring – Scoring varies slightly from site to site. Before you even begin building teams, make sure you have a full understand of how the scoring works. The scoring on DraftKings is as follows:

Point = +1 PT
Made 3pt. shot = +0.5 PTs
Rebound = +1.25 PTs
Assist = +1.5 PTs
Steal = +2 PTs
Block = +2 PTs
Turnover = -0.5 PTs
Double-Double = +1.5PTs (MAX 1 PER PLAYER: Points, Rebounds, Assists, Blocks, Steals)
Triple-Double = +3PTs (MAX 1 PER PLAYER: Points, Rebounds, Assists, Blocks, Steals)

DraftKings rewards players that stuff that stat sheet, and the penalty for TOs isn’t terribly high. If you decide to play on another DFS site, make sure that you take the scoring differences into account when constructing lineups.

Roster Lock – NBA DFS is extremely different from other sports you may have played in that the last 10-15 minutes before roster lock is where the money is made. If you want to get the studs into your lineup, you have to find value, and new value often opens right before rosters lock, generally when a player is ruled out late. To make things even more complicated, the fun doesn’t end on DraftKings right at roster lock, since late swap is available. You don’t have to sit in front of your computer all night, but keep an eye on things in case there is extremely late injury news. If you catch important injury news that your opponents don’t, well, you’re probably going to make money.

Stacking – Stacking in NBA DFS is somewhat of an open question. One school of thought is that only one player on a team can be scoring at a time. Of course, there are limits to this thinking when you take things like assists into account. I’m not going to tell you outright whether stacking is right or wrong, but I will say that stacking more than two players on a team is extremely risky. When you stack 3+ players you need their team to have an amazing night. But if the team has an amazing night, they may develop a lead early and backups might play a lot near the end of the game. Stack carefully!

Contest Type

Cash Games – “In cash, roster players with high floors.” This is by far the most common advice you’ll get and I think there’s truth to it, but it’s not enough. The edge gets smaller and smaller all the time, and if you want to compete, you’re going to have to find some upside. As a result, I think I’ll amend the above rule to something like: “For cash games, roster high upside players who have a high probability of not falling below their floor in the current matchup.” Once the season gets going, plenty of resources will have “floor” and “ceiling” stats for players—use them.

Tournaments – To have a chance at winning a GPP, you have to be upside greedy. GPPs have become so large that you must have very, very close to the optimal lineup to win, and this means finding diamonds in the rough. You should, if possible, play multiple lineups. Don’t just throw arrows at a dartboard, however. Rather, find a core of approximately 2-4 players that you like, and build around them. If your core goes off, you may find one or more of your lineups climbing up the leaderboard. You have likely been told before that you should be contrarian to win tournaments. That’s absolutely true in sports like MLB where there is no shortage of variance, but it’s slightly less important in a more predictable sport like NBA where, more often that not, the stars plays like stars. The only time I suggest being contrarian is when you feel that two players are likely to have very similar nights and you suspect that one of them will have a far lower ownership. In that case, if you have to choose, go with the lower owned player. If he outperforms the higher owned player you gain a leg up on a large part of the field.

NBA DFS is by far my favorite sport to play. It requires a lot of work, but there is a definite edge to be had if you do your homework. You’ll need to dedicate the time around roster lock to DFS if you really want to be successful, but it’s worth it. Feel free to comment below if you have any specific questions regarding NBA DFS. Good luck!

Featured Image Credit: By Game Face (Flickr: The Beard) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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