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Five Things You Should and Shouldn't Do in NBA DFS: Thunder Dan's 2021 Strategy Guide

The NBA is back! I am stoked for the return of one of my favorite sports and excited to have the daily grind of NBA DFS back! I'd like to welcome you to my personal NBA DFS strategy guide for both FanDuel and DraftKings.

If your reading this article, then you may already be familiar with my work here at RotoBaller or at other various sites over the last few years. I am going to attempt to give you some insight as to what factors you should consider when building your NBA DFS lineups. Whether it's cash games or tournaments, you need to have a process that you follow and you have to "trust the process" - to steal a phrase from Joel Embiid. My goal here is to help you become a better player by streamlining that process. I did a similar article for NFL this season and people seemed to like the new "do this" and "don't do that" format so let's try it again for NBA.

I really hope you consider our NBA DFS Premium membership this season. We will be covering every regular season and postseason slate with our all-inclusive NBA Cheat Sheet and you'll have access to tools such as our NBA Research Station, Matchup Ratings, and Optimizer! Our NBA team brings years of DFS experience and knowledge to the table every day and all premium members have access to our slack chat where we have live Q + A sessions every slate an hour before lineups lock! Use promo code THUNDERDAN to save 10% off your membership!

Featured Promo: Get any DFS Premium Bundle for for 10% off using code BALLER! Win more with expert advice from proven winners and exclusive DFS tools. Get instant access to RotoBaller's Lineup Optimizers, Research Stations, daily picks and VIP chat rooms across 10 sports! Go Premium, Win More!


1. You should...play cash games

I know I said this about NFL, too, but I really mean it for NBA. It's one of the most projectable DFS sports as we have relatively reliable numbers to use on a nightly basis. Sure, there's always going to be variance in the form of bad shooting nights, injuries that end a player's night early, or guys who get into foul trouble - but the NBA is a lot more predictable than sports like MLB or NHL and even NFL. In football, we can try to predict touches, targets, and game scripts but in the NBA we get around 100 possessions per game and we know for the most part who is going to be playing the minutes, taking the shots, and producing the fantasy points.

Whether you play double-ups, 50-50s, or H2Hs (or all of the above), grinding cash games in NBA DFS is a lot more fun than in some of the less predictable sports and a decent way to build your bankroll as long as you have a fairly reliable set of projections and understand some of the basic principles of lineup construction.


2. You should...be honing in on three major stats daily.

In NBA DFS there are three stats that you simply can't live without. The first one in minutes. We obviously want guys who play the most minutes possible because you can't score fantasy points from the bench. When we say "starters' minutes" we are usually talking about players who are slotted to play anywhere from 32-38 minutes. That can vary greatly from team to team with coaches like Thibs who is well-known for playing his core guys closer to 38-4o minutes a night while some teams, especially veteran teams (think vintage Spurs) or really young teams (think current Cavs or Grizzlies) may play their second unit guys more and keep their starters closer to 30-32 minutes.

But minutes aren't the only thing we are concerned with in NBA DFS. Some guys can play 30+ minutes and produce very little (think PJ Tucker) because they are low usage players. Usage is an incredibly important statistic because it measures what percentage of a team's possessions are USED by a specific player while they are on the floor. Every time a player accounts for a shot attempt, free throw attempt, or turnover - they have effectively been USED on that possession and the league average is usually somewhere around 20%. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the NBA with a 36% usage rate last year with James Harden not far behind at 35%. Simply stated, higher usage players are the guys we want to target in DFS and are going to produce more fantasy points than lower usage players more often than not.

But there are plenty of players who are very productive in DFS without having massive usage rates like Giannis and Harden. Players with elite rebounding, passing, or defensive skill sets can still get there on a nightly basis without being ball hogs. That's why our third stat to focus on here is fantasy points-per-minute. The larger the sample size, the better - but we can start to see over time which players are most productive with their minutes using this metric and that's how we build projections - using the number of minutes we expect a player to play and then multiplying it by their average per-minute production.

I like to see that number around one DK/FD point-per-minute or higher and the top guys (Giannis, Harden, Luka) will usually push for 1.5 PPM or higher. If you're considering a guy who's only a .7 PPM player you have to remember that they'd need 35 minutes of playing time just to score you 24 fantasy points. Those are the players to avoid. The real wrinkle comes when we start looking at how players' FPPM production changes when their other teammates are injured and out of the lineup, but that's probably another discussion for another day!


3. You should...make sure you understand the rules/format of the sites you play.

So scoring can vary quite a bit on FanDuel and DraftKings with the way that their rules are set up. DraftKings has player bonuses for double-doubles and triple doubles as well as an extra .5 points for each three-pointer made, FanDuel does not. They also award only two points per steal/block while FanDuel awards three points each. DK only punishes players -.5 points for turnovers while FanDuel takes a full point away.

Besides the scoring differences, the sites also have different roster requirements. You only play eight players on DraftKings and nine on FanDuel. DK uses a G, F, and utility slot that allows a large degree of maneuverability for fitting in the players you want, while FanDuel requires two PG, two SG, two SF, two PF, and only one center.

Now this year, FanDuel has decided to make certain players eligible at multiple positions which is going to allow much greater flexibility in roster construction. Some people are already saying they don't like this and aren't happy about it. I'm not sure where I fall on this just yet, but I will certainly try it out and adapt my process to account for this new wrinkle. If you struggle with it or don't win on FanDuel - you should stop playing on FanDuel and take your money elsewhere - that only makes sense, right? I'm cautiously optimistic at the moment and while it might lead to higher scores, I think it's going to increase the quality of their product long term. Stay tuned!


4. You should...eat some chalk, even in GPPs.

There are times when you just play a guy like James Harden in tournaments even when he's going to be 50% or more. Usually, those times come on smaller slates when they are fewer options or when a player an already great player is getting an even bigger boost in usage (think Harden on Houston when Westbrook would rest). There is some value in locking in raw points on smaller slates or just going all-in on a great play even when they are chalky and we see that in other sports as well (Derrick Henry, anyone?).

There are always going to be ways to make your lineup different at other positions and spend the rest of your salary differently than the field. Be wary of fading the top guys when they are in great matchups, we see superstars in the winning lineups often.


5. You should...be available the last hour before lock...and ready to pivot.

This is one of the hardest things for me. I'm usually cooking dinner and spending time with my kids so it's incredibly tough for me some nights to be glued to the notifications to see who's in or out of the lineup at the last minute.

The best thing to do is build the best possible lineups you can with the information that you have available during the day and have some contingency plans. Have your pivots ready or some 2 for 2 swaps in mind. And play light (or don't play) if you know you're going to be jammed up around lock.

If player X is out, then I'm going to make player Y and/or player Z a priority as their usage and production increase. We also have late swap on both sites now so if you're waiting on news from players in late games, then you should consider leaving your utility spot open or G and F slots on DraftKings open so they don't lock when the first games tip off.

We also have a new RotoBaller NBA app that can send push notifications to your phone!


1. You shouldn't...go too hard, too soon.

Listen, no one is as excited as the NBA returning this week than me. And there's always a temptation to go big on the first few slates - which of course is exacerbated by the sites offering some massive GPPs with big prize pools. But let's remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. There's a lot more that we don't know about these teams and rotations than what we do know and coaches are still going to be toying with rotations and trying to get their best combinations of players on the floor together, etc.

One of the trends I have seen over the years is that DFS players will dive headlong into NBA as they're anxious to play every day and not have to wait all week for NFL Sunday. If they don't have a lot of success early, they'll move on or just scale way back on how much they play. I would approach it the other way - play lighter earlier and then start to up your entries and layout as we have more data and larger sample sizes this season.


2. You shouldn't...rely too much on DvP (Defense vs. Position).

Personally, I think this is one of the most overrated stats in NBA DFS. How can we really accurately measure how well players at each position do against a certain team when we are now living in an era of position-less basketball? How do you categorize Giannis, LeBron, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, or any of the other dozens of players who can act as the point guard or the center for their team at any point during the game?

We certainly do see trends develop during the season as far as guards or big men performing better against certain teams than others and that is often a product of what defensive strategies each team employs and of course is also affected by their personnel - maybe they are undersized up front or have young guards who can score but not defend, etc.

A much more useful exercise for me is to look at the types of stats that each team is allowing - stats that are easily available at NBA.com if you're willing to put in some work. Which teams allow the most offensive rebounds or three-point attempts? Which teams struggle against pick and roll or are weak against post-up players? I would really try to stop thinking along the lines of "power forwards do really well against Team X." I know some content sites have moved towards creating different archetypes of players and using those classifications for matchup purposes instead of just the traditional PG, SG, SF, PF, C.


3. You shouldn't...be a game log watcher.

Listen, we all do it. Even when we say we don't do it - we still do it. When it comes down to player A or player B as the last click in the lineup, you click on that game log to see which guy has been scoring better lately and you roll with the hot hand. That recent game log can feel like a nice warm blanket that you can wrap yourself up in, feeling confident that that recent production will continue.

But it can be a trap. Situations change from game to game and you should really understand the context for WHY this player has been scoring as well as they have recently. Did they get a recent surge in minutes that is sustainable or were they just filling in for another rotational player while they were out? Was it a several-game surge that was due to an increase in usage with other players being injured? Or maybe it was just a couple of really good matchups in a row?

All I am saying is to ask those questions and do your homework. Let the masses keep clicking on the same players every slate expecting the same production - these players are going to be more popular than they should be sometimes. Don't be a fish!


4. You shouldn't...always chase high Vegas totals.

Yes, the games with higher totals are usually going to produce more volume of fantasy points on average. But you simply can't gravitate towards the higher totals game without considering the teams involved. Does that game have the potential to become a blowout? (not that I am in the business of predicting blowouts either, and we probably do this too often in DFS) Are the teams running deep rotations? Is there a good chance the game could go under its total while others go over theirs?

I've been working for several years now to try to develop a model that helps predict to some degree the value of NBA games for DFS. While the Vegas total is one input for my model, it's not the only one as I also consider the projected pace, offensive ratings, and defensive ratings of each team. There are always going to be some games that have totals a few points lower than the highest projected game that are appealing pivots and there are going to be individual matchups or scenarios we want to target in slower-paced games or games with lower totals. Don't rely ONLY on Vegas to tell you which games to target


5. You shouldn't...try to play everyone and spread yourself too thin.

This is certainly something I preach to most DFS players I talk to on a daily basis - and is pretty universal to all DFS sports. But there's definitely a temptation on bigger NBA slates to grow your player pool larger than it needs to be. If you're an experienced MME player and you're max entering 150 lineups a night then you already know how to set your minimum and maximum exposures in your optimizer and you're probably spreading things around quite a bit.

But for most players who are playing a handful of lineups per night, I think it's a good idea to have a core group of plays that you're going to build most of your lineups around, and then you can mix and match some other plays or value around. I'm not sure how many times I've seen someone say (or said myself) "oh man, player X is going off but he's not in my best lineup." That can be maddening and sometimes unavoidable, but we can perhaps lessen the number of times that we end up in that situation if we play fewer players and make sure we have our conviction plays in most of our lineups.

Thanks for taking a few minutes to read a strategy article - that in itself is likely to make you a better player. It's not just about player picks, it's about how to PLAY the game! Good luck this season and make sure you ride with us at RotoBaller in 2021-2022 for NBA!

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