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NBA Daily Games Strategy: New Year's Resolutions

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.

Resolve to Avoid these Silly Superstitions for Your Daily NBA Lineups

Ersan Ilyasova is among my least favorite fantasy basketball players. I'm sure he's a fine human being, and I know that he occasionally contributes to his real NBA team, the Bucks, but he's never shown up for me on my daily fantasy teams.

This fall, after playing daily NBA games for the previous two seasons, I was invited (begged) to take over my brother's last place team in a 12-team keeper league of fairly serious players. My brother stayed on as an owner, making me the official co-owner of the team. Our keepers were Mike Conley, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and Monta Ellis. When draft day arrived, I was totally ready, I knew who I wanted and where I wanted to take the team. Moreover, we had the first pick, being the last place team a year ago. Little did I know, only the primary team owner could do the draft! As soon as I realized, I got my brother's log in and was good to go, but not before I auto-drafted the first overall pick of the 2013 Big Ballers League....you guessed it: Ersan Ilyasova.

If you play fantasy sports long enough, you fall into certain patterns with your lineups, and come to recognize certain "lucky" or "unlucky" situations. As I’ve detailed here before, I'm very interested in how our brains trick us into making decisions that are less than optimal or logical. I've written a lot about cognitive biases in fantasy sports. The things I'm talking about here might be more along the lines of superstitions than cognitive biases, but they can still influence the way you set your nightly lineups in NBA games.

The Dead-to-Me List
If you play daily NBA for any length of time, you'll end up with a Dead-to-Me (DTM) list of the guys that tank when you use them and go off when you don't. There's no predictability as far as matchup, minutes, or injury related changes that could tip you off to an impending good or bad night from these guys.

It's generally the group of players just below the elite level that fall prey to DTM status. Stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul don't make these lists.

My list has stably included Ilyasova, Brandon Jennings, and Josh Smith for well over a year. As I recently tweeted, Smith and I are starting to get back on track as I've used him three or four times this year when he's had good games, and avoided all the duds. I'm still very cautious with him though. I have yet to play Ilyasova this year, and think I've used Jennings once, in a successful game.

In order to make the list, it can't just be one off night. The pattern has to repeat over and over again. We're talking about high quality players here, who could easily be someone else's favorite play...if they use him on all the "right" nights. In reality, these guys have bad nights when you don't use them too, but we fail to register those events that don't impact us as strongly.

I'm on the fence about whether DTM hurts your daily strategy or not. Yes, it could lead you to miss out on a certain player's best game on occasion. However, on a night with less games or good plays at a certain position, refusing to play any one player could be detrimental. Most nights, there are ample options in the second tier range we're talking about. In that case, I think you should draft a team you believe in, and if you have a DTM guy or another guy to choose between, you’d probably feel safer choosing the other guy. I have no problem with that. It's when you make a significant downgrade merely to avoid the player on your DTM list that you could be hurting your chances at victory.

Zeroing Out Your Salary Cap
We've all done it. It's fairly easy on some sites, while it constitutes a major accomplishment on others, where salaries go down to the $1.

You fool around with your lineup, replacing players here and there, when all of a sudden that magical '$0 remaining' appears. The feeling is like you've just hit the jackpot, that you can do no better with the options tonight. How many of us hit "submit" right then-and-there and walk away?

I don't care what site it is, maximizing salary does not equal maximizing fantasy potential. In fact, it's one of the worst things that can happen to you, because once you zero out, you blindly commit to zeroing out and don't want to keep tweaking things because you’ll mess up your "perfect" lineup.

Achieving the best mix of value, stability, and upside in any given daily games lineup requires trial and error. You have to mix and match different players and maximize your production at each position to the best of your ability. If you cut the process short by quitting when you zero out, you're fooling yourself into believing that you've accomplished something that, in reality, means nothing.

Come-from-Behind Wins
Do you prefer to get and hold an early lead in your DFS games or to start slow and overtake your opponents late in the night?

To put it another way: I've been asked if I purposely pick players from late games to enable the come from behind win. At face value, the answer is no. It doesn't matter to me, or my final score, when my players score their fantasy points. That said, it’s worth remembering that the West is totally outplaying the East this year. The West plays many more late games than the East, so simply by virtue of targeting players on the Clippers, Warriors, Trail Blazers, Thunder, or Spurs, you are putting yourself in a position where many of your fantasy points will come later in the night.

You could misattribute the late night successes in your come-from-behind wins to fact that the games are late at night, rather than crediting the talented players that happen to have play on the west coast. When I set my lineups, I pay no attention to what time the teams play. It's not part of how I analyze a guy's matchup, unless there is injury information that won't come out until tip off and my lineup locks early. If you do happen to use players in late games and then come from behind to win your DFS games and misattribute the cause of the win to using late-game players (rather than good players who happen to play late), you could get into trouble.

The brain likes patterns more than anything. It's how most cognitive biases get established to begin with. If you see a pattern in a come-from-behind win, it could cause you, even subconsciously, to bias your DFS lineups toward late game players.

In Summary
What I'm trying to get across is: By falling into these patterns of superstition, luck, and misattribution of success, you can get tricked or lulled into making sub-optimal choices for your lineups.

Often this season, the best players have played in late games, but the reason for choosing one player over another should have nothing to do with when a game is played. Furthermore, it simply isn't good (or bad) luck to zero out your lineup, even on the sites where it's very hard to do. Keep working until you have the best lineup!

Finally, you have to like your lineup and believe that you have the best guys going to win your games. You don't want to absolutely limit your choices to the point where you'd start a less talented player.

So, what did I do in my yearly league with Mr. DTM Ilyasova, the No. 1 overall pick for team "The Fam"?

I'm sure you're aware that between coach Larry Drew's rotations/usage and Ilyasova’s injuries that Ilyasova was completely useless the first two months of the season. As soon as I got the chance, I think, I dropped him (for Andray Blatche). Then I picked him back up, so my brother could drop him. It was very satisfying all around. Not as satisfying as making an actual No. 1 pick would have been, but we're doing okay. It's weird because most people bring their seasonal league biases and habits into their daily games, while I find myself bringing my daily hangups into my seasonal league.

My brother and I have the pleasure of taking on the team that added Ilyasova next week. I'll let you know how it goes.

As always, I appreciate your comments, questions, and this week especially, stories about your daily NBA superstitions below or on Twitter. Happy New Year!