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NBA Daily Games Strategy: There's No I in Team

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.

In my first article here at RotoWire, I told you that I think daily fantasy NBA is simply the best fantasy game out there. So, I feel comfortable admitting that I also love the NFL. One of my favorite things about it is watching for six and a half uninterrupted hours on the Red Zone Channel every Sunday. Now that we're into the playoffs, that luxury is no longer available. Wild card weekend brought what felt like a record number of commercials with it, including that terrifying Old Spice ad that I really, really wish I hadn't seen. There was also a steady stream of the cell phone ads with the little kids at the table, the "what's better, fast or slow?", "what's better, big or small?", you know the routine. They essentially all boil down to "what's better, good or bad?" with the answer being unequivocally, "good". Good is clearly better than bad, right?

As a regular daily fantasy NBA player for the past three seasons, I'm always looking for any advantage to help me make the best lineup decisions possible. It makes sense to wonder whether the player's team matters to his fantasy value. If you play other fantasy sports, particularly baseball, it may seem apparent that the best players play for the best teams. That would be why they're the best teams! In baseball last summer, 65 of the top 100 fantasy players played for teams with a winning percentage of .525 or better. There was still a slight trend within this top 100 for the best of the best players to come from the most winning teams. You had an advantage if you could take not just the best player, but the best player on the best team. In other words, in both seasonal and daily MLB games, you would be smart to consider the team's record when making a lineup decision about a certain player.

In fantasy football, I found something quite different. The positive correlation holds for quarterback, but not for any of the other offensive positions. (The football analysis is written up here). This means that you can find equally valuable WRs, TEs, or RBs on teams with winning records and teams with losing records.

Basketball, like baseball, has a much longer season than football, which could allow a trend to emerge. But like football, NBA players can pad the fantasy stat sheet without scoring points or winning games. I performed a very simple analysis of the current top 200 fantasy basketball players using points/game as the sorting metric. The players were ranked 1-200 and then plotted against their team record. Teams with a winning percentage >.700 are plotted as "5", between .500 and .699 "4", .400-.499 "3", .310-399 "2", and <.309 "1". So the higher the rank in the graph, the better the team. A quick glance reveals that the trendline is straight across. This means that there is essentially no correlation between points scored/game and team record.

If, as the commercial would have us believe, good is always better, we would expect to see a negatively sloped line with more of the winningest teams harboring the top ranked fantasy scorers. The fact that the line is straight suggests that, at least for scoring, team record shouldn't matter. Some of the most reliable and highest upside fantasy players, Isaiah Thomas Jr., DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Vucevic (when healthy), and Michael Carter-Williams play for bad NBA teams. If you look closely, you will see that there aren't an equal number of data points at each tier. This is mainly because only three teams currently have a record below .310: Orlando, Milwaukee, and Utah.

When setting your daily lineup, often you come down to a choice between two similar caliber players. Blake Griffin or DeMarcus Cousins? Damian Lillard or Kyrie Irving (when healthy)? Kevin Martin or Lance Stephenson? They have similar salaries, they have similar fantasy point averages, how do you choose? The data above suggests you shouldn't look to how good the team is to bias your decision here.

I've written about some of these strategies before, and these are the some of the things our daily cheat sheet writers take into consideration when suggesting specific nightly plays. First and foremost is the matchup. What is the defensive ranking of the opponent against that position? What is the back to back situation for each player? Has there been any change to the team composition that might affect the individual's performance?

What is the Vegas line on the game? Both the over/under and the spread can factor into your decision between two players, with the higher scoring, closer game to be targeted in most cases. Something I'll write about soon is the blowout factor, and if/how it should affect your lineup decisions. The point for today is that you should dig a little deeper when faced with a tough choice between players instead of taking the obvious, easy answer of "good is always better".
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.