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NBA Daily Games Strategy: The Folly of Chasing Points

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.

Chasing Points: Is it right for you?

It's not hard to predict that Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, or Kevin Love is going to have a big night. Sure, the matchups might have you leery of a blowout or feeling more enticed by one of these guys than usual, but essentially, they're all studs all the time.

The challenge of daily fantasy sports (DFS) is picking the low-to-mid priced players who end up having huge fantasy point (fpt) totals on a given night.

I've written about strategies to build your lineup in general, as well as about tweaks for large and small slate nights.

This week, we'll look at how you might find the so-called lightning in a bottle of daily fantasy NBA.

Obviously, you want to consider recent performance. Fantasy value fluctuates rapidly in basketball. Injuries change lineups nightly, affecting not only the injured player but his teammates as well. The ramifications are often complicated and hard to predict. At other times, it's relatively straightforward. Either way, if a new player starts for an injured player, or has a hot night off the bench and has a terrific fantasy night, the chances are that you'll hear about it. One recent example was Aaron Brooks of Houston. He came off the bench on November 23 when James Harden was out with an injury, and Brooks put up 45 fpts. His season average was less than a third of that total. The breakout game was unpredictable, but was it sustainable?

Recency Bias

Nights like the one Brooks had catch our attention. We want a piece of that 9X value in our daily lineup! Ownership of Brooks in DFS went from 0% to 30-50% overnight. This is an example of Recency Bias, a topic I wrote about extensively in my book about how your brain sometimes sabotages your fantasy teams. I've had mixed feelings about the Recency Effect in fantasy basketball because things do change rapidly, and I feel like you have to constantly update your valuations of certain players. The question I've been wondering about is: Should you chase those points? Is rostering a player the game after his breakout game a good DFS move?

As a scientist, I don't usually take people's words for things that I can prove with actual numbers. The start-percentage data says that people DO chase points. The data I collected and present below tells you we shouldn't.

I recently researched the game logs of every guard eligible player, looking for breakout games. I defined a breakout game as a fpt total at least 2.5 times his season average. Then I simply plotted the fantasy points earned in the first big game and the follow up game for each player meeting the criteria. As you can see by the number of lines, breakout games happen quite often. As you can see by the steep negative slope of the lines, they are generally not followed by equally good games. In fact, the follow up game yielded 80% or more of the first game's fpt total only six times. The lone big improvement was Jeremy Lin, back on November 11-13.

Players get a chance to post these out of character supergames for a variety of reasons. The most common scenario is injury, but sometimes a coach will just choose to stick with the hot hand off the bench. Sometimes it's both, which is what happened to Aaron Brooks on November 23. Incidentally, he followed up his 45 fpt night with a 9.5 fpt game, much to the chagrin of his new fans. In an ironic twist of the Recency Effect, after letting DFS point chasers down, Brooks went on to post 34 and 35 fpt the two consecutive nights after his follow up dud.

It's likely that some people were bitten in the behind twice by this one instance of chasing points. Another reason why players had breakout games was a particular matchup. A substantial percentage of these breakout games for guards came while facing the 76ers. This is a trend I hope you have been following all season. The evidence is never ending. See Joe Johnson's record-breaking performance from Monday night for the latest.

In Conclusion

To be honest, I really expected this analysis to be more complicated. I envisioned breaking the data down by the reason a player had a high scoring game to see if some situations were more stable predictors of point chasing success. I didn't expect it to be so obviously a bad tactic no matter what. The graph speaks for itself. You have to be a true gambler to chase fantasy points that appear unexpectedly. About 90% of the time, you'll be losing that gamble.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don't win consistently at DFS by gambling. There will always be a narrative you can spin (or read) for why the last breakout game is the start of a trend. The 10% of the time that it turns out to be right, someone looks smart. The other 90% of the time it's just you and the crickets.

The moral of the story is not to chase the fantasy points already on the board but to look for good opportunities, note the matchups, read our daily cheat sheets (they won't advocate any point chasing!), and as always share your comments and questions below or on twitter.
The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire.