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NBA Daily Games Strategy: Prepping for Blowouts

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.

Before I set a daily NBA lineup, one of the things I always check is what Las Vegas has to say about the night's games. What's the over/under? What's the spread? These numbers give you an idea of how the game is predicted to go by those with the most at stake. For now, we'll assume that Vegas is always right, though I may spend some time looking into how often they're not, in terms of both of those predictions. When the over/under is high (~210), you obviously expect more fantasy potential than when it's low (~190). Recently we've seen a couple games set at 220 or higher...fantasy delight.

The spread can also be very informative. When the spread is about 8-to-9 or higher, the potential for a blowout is something to note. When the spread is 4-to-5, we expect a close, hard-fought game to the end. I hear the adage "Avoid a potential blowout" all the time. But I've never seen the data to back it up. I think there are two ways you could mentally approach a potential blowout.

One is with caution: basketball is a physically demanding game, so when the outcome is essentially certain, it makes sense to rest your key players. This means that whether they are on the winning or losing team, starters can rest as much as a full quarter in blowout, thereby failing to meet value simply due to fewer minutes on the court.

The other is with gusto: if one team has taken such a dominant lead that a blowout win is certain, the players on that team must have been supremely efficient and high scoring (both in real and fantasy points). There may be extra rebounds or steals leading to additional possessions and scoring opportunities, thus allowing such a great lead to open up by, say, the third quarter. Players on the winning team, at least, may still reach value in limited minutes.

In the arguments above, I'm considering mainly the studs of the given teams. In other words, the guys that you'll need to pay top dollar to roster in your daily games. Looking at such players, we could probably pick and choose specific performances that seem to support both approaches. Instead, it made sense to me to analyze the actual fantasy performances of players in blowout games and whether they were on the winning or losing team, and whether they fell into my Stud, Mid-range, or Scrub tier of player (based on salary).

There are many ways to calculate value in daily fantasy NBA games. In fact, it can vary from site to site. On one site I play on frequently, I use a rough estimate of 3X the salary (so a $10k salary player should get you at least 30 FPTs) meeting value. On another, you generally want at least 5X the salary. It should be noted that there are more sophisticated ways of approaching the calculation, but the preceding works as a simple estimation. For the following analysis, I used games played Jan. 5th through 10th in which the score differential was at least 20 points. I then input the salaries and FPTs scored in those games for all players that were rostered in a ~300 entrant GPP tournament style game. There were 13 games and 124 player performances included.

The first thing that jumps out is that the Scrubs have a much easier time meeting value than those in the other tiers. Second, the winners tend to meet value more easily than players on losing teams. Finally, the real takeaway is to think hard about starting the Scrubs from the underdog.

By looking more in depth at each category, the Studs struggled. You'll be spending the highest percentage of your cap on them, so reaching 2-2.5X value is not going to cut it. As a result, you should avoid the Studs in a potential blowout. Lest you think the variability might be pretty substantial -- error bars did not survive file format changes but were pretty small -- I can tell you that none of the Studs in these blowout games reached higher than 3.5X value, and exactly one from both a winning and losing team hit 3.5X. Many were less than 1X value.

The Mid-Tier players on losing teams were quite variable, ranging from 0.7 to 7X value (C.J. Miles). However, those on winning teams were slightly more steady, ranging from 1.2 to 5.3X. Based on this analysis, you're unlikely to crush your chances by taking a Mid-range guy from a potential blowout, but neither are you very likely to hit the jackpot.

The Scrubs are really the daily fantasy stars of a blowout game. Whether they were won or lost, the lowest salaried players met or exceeded value. This trend was especially true for near minimum salary players on the underdogs, who averaged 3.5X value. Moreover, 33 percent of the defeated Scrubs in my analysis were at 4X or higher, while only 15 percent of victors met this threshold. You should start the Scrubs from the underdog in a potential blowout.

While I was compiling the data, I also pulled the percent owned for each of the 124 players on the night of a blowout. Only seven of the 47 Scrubs (winning and losing) were rostered by >10 percent of entrants. Studs in these same games, though, averaged 25 percent ownership, with nine of the 22 total Studs owned by 35 percent of entrants or more. The development suggests that many of us daily players are getting it wrong, continuing to roster Studs in situations in which they are unlikely to meet value, and ignoring Scrubs that have a great opportunity to do so.

One hears things all the time - in daily analysis/advice articles, on Twitter, in chats, etc. about potential blowouts. There is a global sense that you should AVOID them at all costs. This simple analysis shows that you should indeed avoid the high-priced studs that are likely to sit out a big chunk of the game, if it gets out of hand (or if they're having such an off night that their poor performance contributes to the blowout). It also shows that you can find savvy value by targeting the near minimum players from heavy underdogs. You want to do enough research to be sure the guy that you target has a clear path to minutes when the starter rests. In addition to giving you nice value, while using less of your salary cap, your opponents are likely to be avoiding the game altogether -- the Scrubs in particular -- so you might end up with a nice low-ownership, high-upside play for the night when you take an underdog's backup.

Unrelated note for the regular readers: In my seasonal keeper league, I handily defeated the new Ilyasova owner 6-3 in last week's H2H matchup. I'm not blaming Ersan, but there are no regrets, either. For the new readers, get the context for this note here.
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.