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In-Season Strategy: ESPN H2H Playoff Cheat Sheet

J.J. Calle

J.J. Calle is a fantasy basketball prognosticator with mesmerizing hair who also aggregates obscure stats. Allegiances reside with the New York Knicks, New York Mets, Houston Texans, Penn State Nittany Lions, St. John's Red Storm, and Gael Monfils.

This is Part 2 in a finite series of head-to-head playoff schedule rankings. The first article can be found here, an indirect, detailed analysis of default Yahoo! head-to-head leagues.

This article’s purpose is to analyze the final five weeks of the NBA season, a stretch coinciding with the standard ESPN head-to-head fantasy playoffs (Weeks 21-25). While savvy fantasy managers shun the final two weeks in head-to-head leagues for various reasons, mainly the unpredictability of teams resting players and/or improving draft lottery odds, not all leagues are created equal. Please check your league settings and playoff weeks before consuming this information.

In standard ESPN head-to-head leagues, four teams qualify for the playoffs, which are comprised of two two-week matchups: Round 1 (March 14-27) and Round 2 (March 28-April 13). Two NBA teams play 18 games, eight teams play 17 games, 15 teams play 16 games, four teams play 15 games and one team plays 14 games during that five-week stretch.

Weeks 16 and 17 (February 8-21), the weeks before and after the All-Star break, are conjoined into one matchup. This may cause confusion toward the end of the season when your settings intimate that the fantasy regular season ends on Matchup 19. Round 1 of the playoffs, or what you may perceive as Matchup 20, falls on Week 21 of the NBA schedule. The dates of each playoff matchup can be seen below, courtesy of ESPN.



The full ESPN season ruleset can be found here.

Categorized below are all 30 NBA teams based on their head-to-head playoff schedule (Weeks 21-25). The rankings were constructed using a variety of factors, including but not limited to: total games (18 max; 14 min), quality games (seven max; two min), home/road splits, back-to-backs (seven max; one min), and 2016 first-round pick status.

Quality Games

Basketball Monster popularized the term “quality games,” which are exploitable games in the schedule where, for the purposes of this exercise, fewer than half the NBA teams play on a single day. Scarcity, in this case fewer games played on a specific day, generates a valuable commodity. It permits those in leagues with daily roster moves to maximize their games played, while minimizing wasted games and add/drops, which are typically limited.

I’ve determined seven games, as opposed to Basketball Monster’s standard five games, is the requisite benchmark for a quality game. A standard 10-team league rosters 130 players, or 4.3 players per NBA team. When 14 NBA teams (seven games) are in action, approximately 61 active players are rostered. That leaves each fantasy team with roughly six players for 10 active spots in their lineup. It provides leeway for fantasy teams to incorporate one or two streaming slots.

The grid below denotes the number of games on each day during the fantasy playoffs, running from March 14-April 3. Only 11 of the 21 days yield quality streaming conditions.



Cheat Sheets

Those in head-to-head leagues that employ weekly lineups can ignore the rank-ordered list and focus on the tiers. Even though the Pacers are ranked 11th and the Jazz slot into the 25th spot, each team plays 16 games over the final five weeks. Their overall rank is similar if streaming is no longer a factor.





Tier One: Teams with 18 games in the Fantasy Playoffs

1. Chicago Bulls




Home/Road: 8/10
Quality Games: 6
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

Five of the Bulls’ six quality games occur during the Finals, including three straight in Week 23. The latter distinction is only matched by the Pacers, and it will allow you to stream Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis based on the size of your league.

Derrick Rose has only competed in 11 games during the fantasy playoffs over the previous four seasons combined. Being available at the end of the season has not been his forte. The Bulls play a league-high 17 games in March, and that’s after playing the fewest games (52) during the first half of the season. Condensing the schedule toward the tail end could heighten Rose’s proclivity for non-contact injuries and thrust E'Twaun Moore into a more prominent role.

2. Toronto Raptors



Home/Road: 8/10
Quality Games: 5
Back-to-Backs: 6
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Raptors begin the fantasy playoffs with four games in five nights and play a back-to-back set all five weeks. They’re the only team scheduled with five games during Week 21, a distinct advantage to build a solid lead in your head-to-head matchup. The plethora of games this late in the season translates to the fewest number of games prior to March 14. Luis Scola, Terrence Ross and Bismack Biyombo will find relevance on fantasy benches by the time March arrives.

Tier Two: Teams with 17 games in the Fantasy Playoffs

3. Sacramento Kings




Home/Road: 8/9
Quality Games: 6
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Bulls (top-10 protected each of the next two drafts), which was originally sent to Cleveland in the J.J. Hickson, Omri Casspi trade and rerouted to Cleveland in the Luol Deng, Andrew Bynum deal. If the pick lands inside the top-10, the 76ers have the option to swap places via the Nik Stauskas deal.

The Kings are one of six teams with at least four games each of the first three weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Only seven of their 17 contests come against teams that made the playoffs last season, and two of those are against the newly formed Trail Blazers.

Owning DeMarcus Cousins at this point in the season is a risky proposition. He’s battled a flurry of injuries, and it’s unknown how much those maladies will affect him as the season progresses. Also, he’s accrued a league-high 11 technical fouls in 44 games this season. That’s the worst ratio among players who’ve collected at least five technicals this year. Over the previous three seasons, Cousins has recorded no fewer than 15 technical fouls, and he’s on pace to reach the threshold for a one-game suspension by the end of March.

4. Los Angeles Clippers



Home/Road: 7/10
Quality Games: 6
Back-to-Backs: 7
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Clippers play a league-high seven back-to-backs during the final five weeks, and their schedule is oddly configured with either two or zero days off between games for almost the entire first three weeks. They travel for all but one of their back-to-back sets, and 10 road games is a league-high during the fantasy playoffs, tied with seven other teams. Only once do the Clippers battle an Eastern Conference foe during the final five weeks, but their back-to-back contests against the Lakers in Week 24 exude depressed playing time for the starters heading into the postseason.

5. New Orleans Pelicans



Home/Road: 9/8
Quality Games: 5
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Pelicans don’t play an opponent more than once over the final five weeks. They only play one division opponent and seven games against the Eastern Conference. They’re one of five teams to play four games during Weeks 23 and 24, prime real estate for those heading into the fantasy playoff finals. Alexis Ajinca will land on some radars for the two-week, eight-game timeframe. Ajinca tends to hold relevance when Anthony Davis isn’t in the lineup, and the Pelicans may decide to shut Davis down in April.

6. Golden State Warriors



Home/Road: 11/6
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: The 76ers have the option to swap the less favorable of the Heat’s top-10 protected pick and the Thunders’ top-15 protected pick with the Warriors via the Gerald Wallace and Jason Thompson deal. If only one of the protected picks conveys to the Sixers, they maintain their swap rights.

The Warriors are 3.5 games up on the San Antonio Spurs at the All-Star break. Both teams square off three times in the final five weeks, including two of the Warriors’ final four matches.

The Warriors are undefeated at home this season, boding well for their end-of-season outlook. Their home/road splits this season are nearly identical, and their core players aren’t significantly worse away from Oracle Arena.

Steve Kerr was conservative with the team’s rotation last season and selectively rested his players while muting their playing time. Should the Warriors cement a playoff seed, Kerr strikes me as a guy who’ll find moments to give his starters a reprieve.

As of Feb. 10, Draymond Green accrued 10 technical fouls, tied with Marcus Morris for second most. Before Kerr returned to the sideline on Jan. 22, Green led the league with 10 technical fouls. Kerr’s presence has helped deter Green’s penchant for picking up silly techs.

T-7. Orlando Magic



Home/Road: 8/9
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

More than half the Magic’s games occur against the Hornets (two), Pistons (two), Heat (three) and Bucks (two) over the final five weeks. I don’t suspect coach Scott Skiles will rest his players as they compete for a playoff berth, reducing the risk of keeping them. Although, Skiles has been known to toy with rotations and bench starters entire second halves. Four games each of the first three weeks is matched by six other teams, highlighting the advantage of rostering Magic players.

Week 21’s game against the Cavaliers feels like a pitfall. The Magic have been beaten three times by an average of 24.7 points this season by the Cavaliers, and Kyrie Irving only participated in one of those contests. The chart below highlights the porous performances this season against the Cavaliers. Additionally, the Pacers (Week 23 opponent) limited the Magic to a season-low 85 points and the Pistons beat the Magic by 26 in their first meeting of the season.

v. Cavaliers GP PTS REB AST FG% MPG
Oladipo 3 6.7 2.3 1.7 32 19.6
Payton 3 3.0 2.7 3.3 19 18.5
Fournier 3 9.0 1.0 1.3 58 22.7

T-7. Cleveland Cavaliers



Home/Road: 8/9
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 5*
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Suns (top-10 protected) via Celtics in the Cavaliers' attempt to clear cap space prior to signing LeBron James in 2014.

Only four of the Cavaliers’ final 17 games come against the Western Conference. A watered down schedule could lead to various rest days for prominent players.

Under coach Tyronn Lue, the Cavaliers are 8-2 and he’s playing his starters more minutes than David Blatt did, with the exception of Kevin Love, who’s battled through injury. I don’t know if that trend will maintain in the second half of the season, but Blatt was quick to rest his players last season once locked into the second seed. The Cavaliers appear destined for the top spot in the East this year, yet they’re only three games ahead of the Raptors heading into the All-Star break. Key rotation cogs like Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova will have spiked fantasy value should Lue opt for rest.

9. Washington Wizards



Home/Road: 8/9
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The lack of quality games limits the appeal of streaming Jared Dudley, Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal. It helps the regulars that the Wizards are one of seven teams to play four games each of the first three weeks, elevating the value of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat.

10. Charlotte Hornets



Home/Road: 7/10
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 5
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

If we assume quality games occur on nights with no more than seven games, the average NBA team boasts 28.6 quality games this season due to the smoother schedule. However, because the Hornets’ organization has specific requests for the schedule maker, they play a league-low 17 quality games all season. They don’t play a single Western Conference foe in their final 12 games, and they don’t venture west of Milwaukee during the fantasy playoffs, impressive for a team with 10 road games over the final five weeks.

Tier Three: Teams with 16 games in the Fantasy Playoffs

11. Indiana Pacers




Home/Road: 11/5
Quality Games: 7
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

Seven quality games is a league-high during the fantasy playoffs. Players like C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Ian Mahinmi and Jordan Hill will have varying levels of fantasy value on nights with limited games, especially during Week 23 when the Pacers have three quality games.

The disproportionate home games to close out the season makes no difference for the Pacers’ starters. Their performance doesn’t skew one way or the other based on the location, but the lack of back-to-backs boosts the value of Monta Ellis, someone who scores more efficiently with at least one day of rest this season.

12. Oklahoma City Thunder



Home/Road: 6/10
Quality Games: 6
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the 76ers (top-15 protected each of the next two drafts) via the Nuggets by way of the Cavaliers. The pick was rerouted thrice over the course of a month, ultimately landing in Philadelphia along with JaVale McGee.

Steven Adams, Dion Waiters and Cameron Payne are the lesser owned players worth considering over the final five weeks. None of them are primary targets, but they’ll do in a pinch if you miss out on other worthwhile streamers.

13. Philadelphia 76ers



Home/Road: 8/8
Quality Games: 6
Back-to-Backs: 5
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The 76ers’ fantasy schedule is front-loaded with half their games during the semi-finals. After which, they join eight other teams with a minimum eight games during the Finals, claiming the best overall rank among the bunch. Someone like Jerami Grant could fill certain categories, but the rotations are in flux and it’s unclear who will be on this team in two months.

14. Brooklyn Nets



Home/Road: 7/9
Quality Games: 5
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Celtics by way of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade.

The Nets are one of two teams to play five games during Week 23. In most head-to-head leagues, that doubles as the final week of the season. If only the Nets rostered decent fantasy options. If Brook Lopez is lost to a recurring foot injury, Andrea Bargnani and Thomas Robinson could platoon as the de facto center. I shudder at the thought.

They’ll play two games a piece against the Pacers, Cavaliers, Hornets and Wizards, accounting for half their schedule. Their five quality games deplete before Week 23 concludes, signaling the end of the Nets’ fringe player usefulness. You could sneak in Shane Larkin for Week 23’s revenge games against Knicks, but maxing out a three games in four of the final five weeks moves most of the Nets’ players to the bottom of the queue.

15. Houston Rockets



Home/Road: 10/6
Quality Games: 5
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Denver (lottery protected) in the Ty Lawson deal.

The Rockets present a favorable semi-final schedule with a maximum eight games. Patrick Beverley, barring injury, should be rostered at that point in the season to help fantasy teams advance to the next round. Someone like Corey Brewer can be streamed.

As of Feb. 10, Dwight Howard tied for the league lead with 11 technical fouls. A player is automatically suspended one game for accruing 16 techs and an additional game for every other technical foul beyond 16. There’s grumblings Howard could be traded at the deadline. In that case, Clint Capela will likely shift to starting center, but don’t forget about Donatas Motiejunas. While not a fantasy darling, Motiejunas would likely chip away at Capela’s minutes, assuming they and Terrence Jones remain on the team.

16. San Antonio Spurs



Home/Road: 9/7
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

Five games over the final seven days could yield patchy rest days for the over-30 crowd on the Spurs. At first glance, they possess the most difficult end-of-season schedule. A strenuous stretch of matches and a dearth of wing players will tax Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, but Leonard’s best performances have occurred each of the past two second halves. In fact, he recorded 75 steals over the final 29 games last year, 19 more than the next closest assailants (Russell Westbrook and Marcus Smart with 56 each).

Three games against the Warriors over the final five weeks will shape the playoff seeding. In three games against the Warriors last season, no Spur averaged more than 27 minutes per game, led by Tim Duncan at 26.9, and Kawhi Leonard shot a season-high 65.7 percent against the Warriors. He converted a combined 26-of-44 shots against the duo of Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson. Leonard worked a ton in isolation against those two players, and his mid-range jumper was automatic.

17. Denver Nuggets



Home/Road: 6/10
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

Four games each of the first three weeks matches seven other teams. The Nuggets have been statistically worse on the road this season, an ominous sign given their end-of-season schedule.

Gary Harris has proved worthy for standard leagues, yet his ownership percentage hovers at 18 percent in Yahoo leagues. He ranks 109th in nine-category leagues and 110th in eight-category leagues while playing 31.2 minutes per game, second most to Danilo Gallinari on the Nuggets. If you haven’t found a worthy candidate while streaming, plug in Harris for the start of the second half as someone who’ll contribute positively, if not meagerly, in almost all categories.

18. Miami Heat



Home/Road: 8/8
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the 76ers (top-10 protected). This pick originally came to Cleveland in the LeBron James sign-and-trade and was then flipped to the Sixers in the Thaddeus Young, Kevin Love, Andrew Wiggins three-team deal.

The Heat’s early-season schedule was one of the easiest in the league based on level of opponent and number of days off. Even though they have 17 back-to-back sets all season, 13 of them arrive in 2016. That’s a fair warning for Dwyane Wade owners. With the Heat battling for a playoff seed throughout the second half last season, Wade missed one game during two of the final three back-to-backs after taking time off in January. Assuming the Heat earn a playoff berth prior to April, Wade will become a frequent DNP-rest candidate. His absence will permit Goran Dragic to flourish.

19. Boston Celtics



Home/Road: 7/9
Quality Games: 4
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Celtics don’t finish the end of the season against any of the three teams (Brooklyn, Dallas, Minnesota) that could convey their first-round draft pick to Boston. The hodgepodge of similarly talented players on the roster will keep them competitive in the Eastern Conference. Two games against the Raptors in the first two weeks will function as revenge games for Amir Johnson, assuming his ankle problems don’t arise. Marcus Smart profiles as a individual you can stream at the beginning of Week 21 or the end of Week 23 for a boost in steals, and Evan Turner found his niche as the team’s primary facilitator in the second unit, averaging 6.2 assists per game over the past 10.

20. Memphis Grizzlies



Home/Road: 7/9
Quality Games: 3
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Nuggets (top-5 and non-lottery protected) via the Cavaliers in the Timofey Mozgov deal.

The Grizzlies’ schedule is heavily concentrated at the beginning of the fantasy playoffs (six games in nine days) and at the end of the season (four games in the final six days). In between, they have at least one off day between matchups, none of which are quality games. Last season, no one on the roster played more than 32 minutes per game over the final five weeks and Zach Randolph led the team in minutes per game (32.8) after Jeff Green was acquired in January. It was the first time during their playoff reign where Randolph, Marc Gasol (out for the season) and Mike Conley had their playing time limited.

21. Detroit Pistons



Home/Road: 11/5
Quality Games: 3
Back-to-Backs: 5
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Pistons sneak into the final five weeks of the season with a league-high 11 homes games and just three games against Western Conference opponents. Even though they max out the first two weeks with eight games, all three of their quality games occur during the fantasy finals. A front-loaded schedule makes the Pistons one of three teams with 16 games during the fantasy playoffs, with half their games sequestered during in fantasy semi-finals.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves



Home/Road: 8/8
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 1
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Celtics (top-12 protected). If the pick isn’t conveyed, the Celtics will receive the Timberwolves’ 2016 and 2017 second-round picks.

The Timberwolves play a league-low one back-to-back, located in Week 22, and a minimum two quality games, residing at the end of Week 24, during the fantasy playoffs. Only one of their final 16 games occurs against an Eastern Conference team. More than half the schedule, 10 games, is saddled with multiple sessions against the Suns, Rockets, Warriors, Kings and Jazz.

23. Phoenix Suns



Home/Road: 8/8
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 2
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

A minimum two quality games limit the flex appeal of Alex Len and Mirza Teletovic in standard leagues, but four combined games against the defensively-inept Timberwolves and Lakers through the first 15 days buffer their opportunity.

I hesitate to make any predictions because of the turmoil surrounding the team. A complete roster overhaul isn’t out of the question. Trading P.J. Tucker would open up 40 minutes per game, a team-high since Earl Watson assumed the interim head coaching position. Watson has platooned Len and Tyson Chandler while giving the rest of his starters at least 35 minutes per night.

24. Dallas Mavericks



Home/Road: 6/10
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 2
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Celtics (top-7 protected through 2020) via the Rajon Rondo deal.

Aside from the most visually appealing schedule, the abundance of road games could spell trouble for Deron Williams. He shoots eight percent worse on the road and attempts three fewer shots, preferring instead to facilitate without forcing the issue. Aside from the increased number of assists, Williams’ road statline pales in comparison to his performance at home this season (table below - through February 10th).

Williams GP PTS AST STL TO FG% 3PT% FT% MPG
Home 21 17.2 5.0 1.2 3.0 45 34 93 34.4
Road 25 11.5 5.7 0.8 1.7 37 33 84 30.0

25. Utah Jazz



Home/Road: 8/8
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 4*
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Cavaliers and Jazz are the only teams to play the day before the fantasy playoffs and the first day of Week 21, constituting one back-to-back set. Both the Jazz’s quality games and three of their four back-to-backs envelope the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Alec Burks (ankle) should’ve returned by this point in the season, but it’s unclear how he’ll affect the surging Rodney Hood.

Tier Four: Teams with 15 games in the Fantasy Playoffs

26. Portland Trail Blazers




Home/Road: 8/7
Quality Games: 5
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the Nuggets (lottery protected each of the next two season) in the deal for Arron Afflalo.

The Trail Blazers lead the league in miles traveled every season. Their location in relation to the rest of the league hinders their performance down the stretch. Historically, they’ve reverted to a .500 team under coach Terry Stotts once the calendar reads March. As of Feb. 10, the Trail Blazers are 27-27 and seventh in the Western Conference, competing with the Jazz, a team they’re tied with, the Kings, a team they’ll battle twice over the final two weeks and the Nuggets, their final opponent of the season.

27. Los Angeles Lakers



Home/Road: 9/6
Quality Games: 3
Back-to-Backs: 4
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owed to the 76ers (top-3 protected each of the next two years) via the Suns in the Steve Nash deal.

Based on my benchmark for a quality games (nights with no more than seven games), the Lakers play a league-high 37 quality games this season, almost half their schedule. However, they only play three quality games during the fantasy playoffs, all coming in the first two weeks. Worst yet, the Lakers are the only team to play a minimum two games during Week 21. With a top-three pick on the line and Byron Scott manning the sideline, all bets are off on how the Lakers perform prior to the postseason.

28. Atlanta Hawks



Home/Road: 8/7
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 2
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

The Hawks are one of three teams with only one four-game week during the fantasy playoffs. Most of their opponents are currently in the playoff mix, meaning coach Mike Budenholzer will have to rely on his starters more than he did last season when the team coasted to the No. 1 seed. The combination of a poor playoff schedule and suspect bench removes the Hawks from the streaming conversation unless you want to give Thabo Sefolosha a chance in Week 22.

29. Milwaukee Bucks



Home/Road: 9/6
Quality Games: 2
Back-to-Backs: 3
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: Owned

Both of the Bucks’ quality games occur in Week 21. Players like Jerryd Bayless and John Henson will have increased value the first two weeks before losing their luster during the fantasy finals.

Tier Five: Team with 14 games in the Fantasy Playoffs

30. New York Knicks




Home/Road: 7/7
Quality Games: 3
Back-to-Backs: 2
2016 First-Round Draft Pick Status: The Nuggets have the right to swap picks due to the Carmelo Anthony deal. The lesser of the two picks belongs to the Raptors because of the Andrea Bargnani trade.

The Knicks play the most games (68) heading into the fantasy playoffs. That distinction drops them to the bottom of the rankings. They’re one of four teams to play once during Week 25.

Each of the previous two seasons, Carmelo Anthony was shut down once the Knicks’ playoff hopes evaporated. If interim coach Kurt Rambis pulls a Mike Woodson and plays Anthony 38 minutes per night on a sore knee, Anthony’s season may be over before April begins.