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NBA Daily Games Strategy: Not All Injuries Create Equal Opportunities

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.

Sprained ankles, concussions, hamstring and (ack!) groin strains, broken fingers, back spasms, myriad foot and toe issues, shoulder dislocations, and even the flu are part of professional basketball life. This year has seemed particularly unkind to hoops stars, but that could be my recency bias magnifying the newest happenings. Even if this year is no different from any other, injuries change how the games are played, and often the course of a season for a team.

As daily fantasy basketball aficionados, injuries are of paramount importance to our games, too. When a player we have rostered in a daily game goes down midway through the first quarter, we're pretty much doomed. Chris Paul, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler, Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, Avery Bradley, Kemba Walker, Jrue Holiday, Larry Sanders, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague are a few of the guys who may have left you in the lurch over the past few weeks. There's nothing you can do about it, if your guy gets hurt and leaves the game. Recall that last week's article contained a few coping and avoidance strategies for the inevitable losses that occur in DFS. For those brutal injury-induced defeats, though, a good strong drink may be in order. Tequila for me please.

On a more positive note, injuries are a prime source of value plays for our daily rosters. An injury to a starter means someone is going to have to come off the bench to fill a role. In most cases that guy has been making minimal contributions in terms of fantasy production and will be near the minimum salary. When and how should you take advantage of this new development? Some say every time, of course! I think not. I believe the stability of the team and the skills/track record of the replacement player have to be considered.

Great teams have a very consistent, steady rotation when the team is healthy. Think the Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Clippers, Warriors, Trail Blazers, Rockets, and Pacers. Each squad has a solid to amazing starting five and a consistent bench rotation under ideal circumstances. All are over a .600 winning percentage. What happens when one of the starters goes down? Sometimes when one piece of a well-oiled machine breaks, all the parts go flying. Take the Clippers, when J.J. Redick got hurt early in the season after a really hot start. The wing rotation was anyone's guess, and while DFSers were looking hard to replace his consistent 25 FPTs a night at a cheap price, they were nowhere to be found. The Clippers as a team were fine, but the value play did not materialize. We had a similar situation when James Harden sat out a few games with his ankle issue. One night it was Aaron Brooks that went off, while others yielded variable performances from Francisco Garcia or Omri Casspi. As a daily fantasy player, it was like a mine field. If you took the chance on any of those guys, you were lucky if you didn't get blown out.

Other times when that sleek machine breaks down, a new part is inserted and it continues running almost effortlessly. When Chris Paul separated his shoulder, Darren Collison took over his precise role on the team, and in many of our daily lineups. We aren't getting CP3 fantasy numbers, but we aren't paying CP3 salary, either. The same can be said for Reggie Jackson's performance filling in for the injured Russell Westbrook. Consistent minutes, high floor, occasional upside: those are the things you want from an injury replacement value play in daily fantasy NBA.

Is it coincidence that my two "good" examples are both point guards? I'm not sure, since there isn't enough of a sample size to look at the other positions in depth, but probably not. Even on teams with worse records, backup point guards have stood in pretty admirably, from the DFS perspective. I'm thinking of Tony Wroten, Kendall Marshall, Shaun LivingstonBrian Roberts, Ramon Sessions, and most recently, Shelvin Mack and Phil Pressey. A couple of these guys' salaries outpaced their production, putting them out of range for me, but their value on the whole was/is solid.

On the other side of the coin are teams with messy and variable rotations, even when everyone is healthy. The Lakers, Magic, Bucks, Grizzlies, Celtics, Kings, and Jazz have used more lineups than the teams above, and all find themselves well below .500. I appreciate the real life coaching strategy of trying different combinations to hit on a productive rotation that sticks, but for daily fantasy, it's a nightmare. Occasionally, those murky waters clear when injury strikes.

Consider the Bucks. Most people who watch basketball and believe that winning is the goal of the game think that John Henson deserves as much playing time as anyone (or more). So when either Larry Sanders or Ersan Ilyasova is suspended, sick, or hurt, we rejoice because there will be a clear path for Henson to get minutes. The Lakers' big men presented a similar situation for a few games, when Pau Gasol was out and Ryan Kelly emerged with some nice DFS value. Likewise, in a Memphis frontcourt without Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos provided immediate value. However, Jon Leuer and Ed Davis ultimately ended up sharing time and stealing some of his fantasy relevance.

When teams have a large pool of similar level non-All-Star caliber talent, everyone gets less playing time. These teams (or certain positions on teams) are not great targets for daily fantasy in general, but when injury strikes, the development can open up a clear opportunity for one of the "average" players to emerge. It's the opposite of when a star goes down on a good team and a bunch of "average" players try to pick up the slack. (I use quotes around average because being a professional basketball player clearly makes each and every man who touches the court well above average - no disrespect intended).

Being aware of which situation is forthcoming when an injury happens is critical to making a wise decision with your daily lineup. If a star point guard goes out and there is a clear backup at near minimum salary in line to take over all the starting minutes, you go for it. When a star wing or big gets hurt, there seems to be a greater chance of a platoon takeover, so monitor that rotation carefully, before taking a flier on any one guy (in the absence of specific and reliable information to the contrary). Often, teams with no clear-path backup will play the hot hand in any given game, which we've seen from the Hawks, Raptors, Lakers, Grizzlies, Rockets, and others this year.

To summarize, when the injury occurs on a team with a slew of guys, none of whom are playing starter minutes or putting up star numbers, the rotation shrinks. By sheer virtue of playing more minutes, someone yields fantasy value at a cheap price. If you can predict with some certainty who it will be, jump on it early. If not, though, you'll want to avoid the situation for a game or two and see how it shakes out, at least for some of your lineups. Rostering a player filling in due to injury is one of the biggest risk/reward plays you can make. Getting in while the salary is still super low might net you a big game, but if you guess wrong, a zero even at minimum salary is still a zero.

Injuries are part of the game. They hurt us. They help us. Taking the time to understand the afflicted team's rotation, minutes distribution, and likely beneficiary is critical to profiting from the player's misfortune. When everyone is talking about a big injury and debating the replacement, it may feel like you have to play that guy. You don't. If you sense uncertainty, particularly with minutes or past record in a starting situation, and have a similar value play with more reliability, go that route. It's incredibly rare that any player is 100 percent owned (on sites with multi-position eligibility).

In a few games I played in last week when Kevin Durant sat out, even Jeremy Lamb was only about 60 percent owned. Now, he wasn't minimum salary and has been getting steady minutes and providing production all year, so he isn't the best example, but the hype was real for playing Lamb that night, and plenty of people still went other directions, including me. If you played him, he got you better-than-normal Lamb FPTs for Lamb salary, so he was a good choice, if he fit the scheme of your lineup that night. It didn't ruin your chances of cashing, if you didn't use him, though. Ultimately, you'll make the best lineup you're comfortable with, and not all injury-replacement value plays are comfortable.

Sticking with the injury theme, I'll tackle an issue next week that always confounds me: how should you treat players coming back from injury? As always, send me your comments on twitter or below. Have a good and healthy DFS week!

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