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NBA Daily Games Strategy: Gaming for the Small Slate

Renee Miller

Renee Miller

Neuroscientist at the University of Rochester and author of Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?. I cover daily fantasy basketball for RotoWire and write for RotoViz about fantasy football.

Gaming for the Small Slate

You might think that with only two or three games on the schedule for daily fantasy NBA that the game would be a cinch. With fewer options, the lineup should just about set itself right? Wrong.

The traffic on daily fantasy sports (DFS) sites is noticeably reduced on Thursdays. With many guaranteed prize pools (GPPs) and 50/50s having lower entry limits than usual, some sites will even run their Thursday NBA games as a combination with Friday's slate.

Many experienced players skip these short nights, but for whatever reason, I've always loved them. OK, the reason is that I've typically had great luck on Thursdays and other short nights.

The first challenge with only two games on the schedule is salary allotment. TNT likes to show star-studded games and schedules accordingly. This is great for viewers, especially those of us who might otherwise be tempted by Thursday Night Football, but it makes for some high DFS salaries. The Heat, Clippers and Thunder are often on the schedule, where the top shelf performances of LeBron James, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will cost you 15-20% of your cap each. On the other hand, the non-stud players on these teams are often fairly inexpensive, but they aren't the kind of high upside players you'd like to round out your lineup with. The Thabo Sefolosha and Mario Chalmers tier of players is pretty pedestrian.

The salary disparity is huge on small nights. There are a lot of very high salary players and low salary players but not a lot in between. After putting together a team that I can live with, I often find myself with 1-2% of my cap leftover. This is OK. You don't need to use every dollar on a short night. Of course, I often find that my ideal team costs just 1-2% over the cap too. This, unfortunately, is not OK.

The second challenge on short nights is playing to your opponents. On some short schedule nights, there are only one or two stud players. You have to have them in your lineup because everyone else will. There is typically a lot of overlap between you and your opponents, and it will come down to one or two key differences that decide the match. This is the aspect that frustrates a lot of skilled regular players because it takes the skill out of the game to some extent. It's easier to be lucky picking one or two guys from a pool of four to six reasonable possibilities instead of picking eight or nine from a pool of dozens on a bigger night. It is essential to have some idea of what the predicted DFS usage for players is and build your lineup accordingly.

To illustrate how these issues play out, we'll look back to last Thursday and ahead to this coming Thursday night.

Last Thursday

We had three games. It played out like a much larger slate, however, because the teams involved (the Knicks, Nets, Heat, Bulls, Clippers and Grizzlies) provided a full tier of top studs as well as significant value plays. The studs were actually a little disappointing, with none exceeding my 3X value threshold. This led to extraordinarily low overall scoring. The best plays were several tier two guys, notably DeAndre Jordan, Joakim Noah, Zach Randolph, Brook Lopez, Carlos Boozer, Andrea Bargnani, Mike Conley and Luol Deng. Value was found with Quincy Pondexter for the lucky few that used him, as well as with Darren Collison, Iman Shumpert, Norris Cole, Michael Beasley, Kirk Hinrich and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Recalling my Lineup Construction Tips, the All Average strategy with a couple of these high upside value plays was probably the best lineup to use last Thursday.

This Thursday

We have two great games, the Nets versus the Clippers and the Rockets at the Trail Blazers. I think we're going to be tempted to roll with a few studs. I'll be using Chris Paul and Brook Lopez, to take advantage of those nice matchups, as well as LaMarcus Aldridge or James Harden if I can. If there's an obvious stud with a great matchup like Chris Paul, you ought to use him. If you don't, you risk him being used against you.

There are a good number of second tier plays this week, allowing you to avoid some of the high/low salary issues I discussed above. Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, possibly Deron Williams (though I don't play other PGs vs Paul very often), Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Joe Johnson, Wes Matthews and DeAndre Jordan are a few possibilities. I'm not necessarily recommending these specific players but merely noting that they will have intermediate salaries and enable a balanced approach to this week's short slate. From this group, you should be able to pick out one or two players who might have lower usage but who, due to a teammate's injury or particular game plan, might be in for more playing time and therefore greater fantasy opportunity. Separating your lineup from your opponents’ lineups with such players is a great tactic.

Value Play Floor

You'll need to fill out your roster with at least one or two value plays. In deciding between only a few viable players in the value tier on a short night, I look to the floor. What is the minimum this guy puts up? Upside is good, but if you can choose between a guy that might score two, 12, or 30 fantasy points on any given night and one that scores between 15 and 20 every single night, I will choose the latter. I've hopefully maximized upside in the tier two group, so I'm leaning on both my Studs and Scrubs to be consistent and meet value.

On a small NBA night, your daily lineups take just as much consideration to build as any other night. The research might be faster, but the decision making process should be the same. You need to maximize fantasy points per dollar of salary, and you have less material to work with. Especially on nights with few intermediate options, you will be forced to make tough decisions with your salary, including maybe leaving some on the table. Modifying the Studs and Scrubs or All Average lineup strategies to accommodate the available player options often leads me to end up with a kind of hybrid team.

As always, check our NBA Daily Cheat Sheet for expert matchup analysis and recommended plays of the day. I always appreciate your comments and questions here or on Twitter.