There is a common misconception that the NBA DFS tournament market has become far too efficient to maintain a significant advantage over your competition due to the availability of relatively accurate basketball projections and low player performance volatility. However, just as in other daily fantasy sports, there remain several ways to beat the field in DraftKings and FanDuel.
Below, we'll address these strategies and provide tangible examples of how this advice can work in practice.
How to Win NBA DFS Contests: Strategy, advice, tips for daily fantasy basketball tournaments
Leveraging the Questionable Tag
One of my favorite strategies in NBA DFS GPPs is leveraging the questionable tag. In many major tournament, you cannot late swap, leaving many DFS players confused about how to handle the long list of players who can be impacted by a Q.
Consider a high-usage, often-injured player such as Anthony Davis. NBA DFS strategies are often built around a player such as Davis being ruled out if the prices of his teammates have not yet been adjusted in reaction to his absence. On the flip side, strategies are often built around Davis himself on the days that he plays given the frequency with which he puts up monster lines. Despite these realities, what most often happens when a player like Davis gets a legitimate questionable tag (i.e. we cant tell if the team is leaning toward playing him ) is that the field will mostly avoid Davis while very mildly increasing ownership on his replacements and potential usage beneficiaries.
In an environment such as NBA DFS where you are fighting for every drop and decimal of value, the opportunity to be leaps and bounds ahead of the field in a situation like this is incredibly valuable. Building a strategy that should succeed if either Davis or his teammates are winning players is a strong approach. If Davis plays, you can set yourself up with huge leverage on an elite player who would have seen much higher ownership had it been known he was playing. If he sits, you will lose your Davis lineups, but you can still be set up with leverage on the players that benefit from his absence. Its not appealing to take on what feels like a ton of risk in a high percentage of your lineups, but it can be worth it to trade in that day-to-day risk for long-term reward.
Emphasizing Fantasy Points per Minute
Its legitimately difficult to find an NBA advice column that doesnt discuss the importance of minutes. I dont understand how "experts" can still be pounding away at this concept considering that everybody is fully aware that minutes are important for NBA players. We get it. A crucial statistic that continues to go overlooked in the process of identifying strong GPP selections often runs in contrast with the theory of prioritizing expected minutes. Fantasy points per minute is just as worthy of consideration as expected court time in a GPP environment. Although minutes do contribute to upside, it is most often the players who can do more with each minute per their salary who wind up in winning GPP lineups, even if they may not play the most minutes. Obviously this general concept isnt entirely unique, and the best-case scenario is to find a high fantasy points-per-minute player who also plays heavy minutes.
The opportunity to use this statistic best to your advantage arises when a high fantasy points-per-minute player is widely projected for modest enough minutes to drive down their price and ownership. One of my favorite examples of a player like this is Hassan Whiteside. Despite being one of the highest fantasy points-per-minute producers in the entire NBA, Whiteside was frequently priced modestly across most major DFS sites last season and yet rarely received heavy ownership attention. This was easily explained by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstras tendency to bench Whiteside in the fourth quarter of games last season in favor of players such as Bam Adebayo, who had a far better free throw percentage. As a result, Whitesides minutes often landed in the 20s, causing many to reject even the diminished price tag. This can be a massive mistake, as Whiteside proved on several occasions.
A player like Whiteside can make DFS players pay for ignoring him in multiple ways. The first is the most obvious: Whiteside is in an elite tier of fantasy points-per-minute scorers, and sometimes all he needs is 20-25 minutes to put up a monster line. You basically cant find any other player who can put up fantasy points as quickly as Whiteside at his price point. Next, what if Spoelstra decided not to bench Whiteside in the fourth quarter for a game? This is something that happened a handful of times and can result in a severely positive deviation for Whiteside from his projection. Even beyond coaching decisions, any game can go into overtime, which can lead to even more court time volatility. Given Whitesides heavy production when he does see the floor, any increase in minutes can have a monumental impact. It is far too easy to become overconfident in a court time projection and instead fixate on other details like matchup and recent performance. Dont hesitate to take a chance on a player like Whiteside (assuming his situation remains similar in Portland this year) sometimes all it takes is that extra minute for him to win you a GPP.
Where Else to Target Low Ownership
Many DFS players understand the importance of being contrarian, but where to implement your contrarian instincts can be a point of confusion. In NBA contests, value frequently surfaces among cheaper players when a starter goes down with an injury, leaving usage and playing time available without salary adjustments. In my experience, it is generally wise to have heavy exposure to these players. It can also be part of a strong strategy to include exposure to a deeper set of players on a team impacted by injuries than most of the field, as a teams rotation may change in unexpected ways that can benefit off-the-radar cheaper players and sink target values. The more fresh the injury and less data that exists on the resulting usage distribution, the more aggressive I will be in spreading my exposure around to potential beneficiaries of an injury.
Beyond questionable tags, high fantasy points-per-minute players, and injuries, the place I look most for an ownership edge is the high end of the salary spectrum. Depending on the depth of high-end options available on a given slate, many expensive players can go overlooked despite their propensity to post big fantasy lines. Popular optimal NBA DFS strategy is heavily centered on median projection value, which can make some expensive players appear unappealing compared to other available options. However, we all know the importance of ownership in GPPs.
Unlike a minimum-priced popular value option compared to a basically irrelevant minimum-priced bench player, the likelihood of success for a popular high-end player versus an unpopular one often isnt as different as it seems. Consider last seasons Jan. 25th main slate on FanDuel. In their biggest GPP, James Harden and DAngelo Russell were two of the most expensive and most popular shooting guard options. At $14,000 and 50.6-percent ownership, Harden completely flopped with 46.9 fantasy points. Russell was even worse, scoring just 17.6 fantasy points at $8,800 and 41.7-percent ownership. In the winning lineup, Luka Doncic was played at shooting guard for $9,000 at only 3.5-percent ownership. He scored 58.6 fantasy points.
This staggering scenario illustrates my point: The NBA DFS market is still highly inefficient and beatable if you can identify the soft spots.
Aaron White graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Economics. He has played DFS professionally for several years and has won featured NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and golf GPPs on both FanDuel and DraftKings.