In order to win in any daily fantasy sports contest, a lot of things have to come together. You have to read game flow and Vegas information correctly; interpret pace, usage and other stats right; anticipate what others will do with their lineups (game theory); and, of course, the players have to execute! Some of my previous NBA strategy articles -- as well as others written by my ESPN.com colleagues -- have touched on many of these factors and how to approach your lineup-building process. This final installment of our preseason series on NBA DFS is about putting all of the pieces together.
Specifically, your lineups need the right combination of value, upside and safety to be in contention. We'll focus mainly on cash games -- those in which half of the field roughly doubles their money. Game theory will somewhat, although not entirely, take a back seat in such contests, but that doesn't mean there still isn't plenty of strategy involved. How do you mix those elements into your point guard (PG), shooting guard (SG), small forward (SF), power forward (PF), center (C), guard (G), forward (F) and utility (U) lineup slots? While the specifics will shift depending on the particular slate, there are some general guidelines we can apply.
Because NBA DFS is more predictable than, say, MLB DFS, there is a rough goal to have in mind in terms of your fantasy scoring. Ideally, you'd like to see your DraftKings lineup hit around 250 to 300 points, depending on the contest and the slate. With eight roster spots to fill, you have $6,250 to spend per position, and you need to be targeting around 35 fantasy points per player. All things are rarely, if ever, equal in a DFS slate, so you will end up spending both well above and below that average price most nights while also shifting your point expectations.
In fact, we'll pay up for studs we can rely on to return about five times their value -- in other words, a $10,000 player should return 50 fantasy points. Meanwhile, we'll hope our value plays can return closer to seven to eight times their value, with a $4,000 player yielding in the neighborhood of 30 fantasy points. You can already see that value and upside can go hand in hand. The goal is for the entire lineup to exceed value, so it's crucial to fit the pieces together in such a way that you're maximizing each slot in terms of safety, value or upside and not compromising anywhere. In the NBA, more than in MLB for sure and in the NFL to some extent, your lineup really is only as strong as its weakest player.
Point guard: The most elite position in basketball is point guard, and on any given night you will have a bevy of high-priced options from which to choose. I will almost always play a top PG in cash games. They simply have the ball in their hands more than anyone else, and with the emphasis on assists in DraftKings scoring (1.5 points/assist), you need a PG who distributes as well as scores. If you can target an elite PG on a high-pace team, it's even better for you, since fantasy points correlate well with pace only for PG and PF.
Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry are the top PGs in the league -- in skill and salary -- and on most nights, it's difficult to make any arguments against them other than price. Note that even in a pace mismatch, like Golden State versus Memphis, elite point guards will still produce at their typical high rate fantasy-wise. The next grouping of PGs includes guys like Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, and Goran Dragic who are priced in a lower tier but have nearly as much upside as the top three. They make excellent tournament plays and are usually viable alternatives to the elite point guards when you have to spend up elsewhere.
Pay up for safety with upside at the PG slot.
Shooting guard: Without multi-position eligibility, the shooting guard position can be a nightmare. It often feels like there's James Harden and then everyone else. Because most shooting guards are on the floor to score, and shooting can be streaky even for the best players, it's hard to consistently pay up at this position. It's like the tight end position in NFL DFS -- you have Rob Gronkowski, followed by a second tier of high upside-low floor guys, and then the punt plays. Every DFS player has had a "why did I fade Harden" night or two -- or 10 -- and with good reason. He's the only SG to rank top-five in player efficiency rating (PER) and top-eight in usage (USG) last season.
There is actually a pretty solid second tier at SG consisting of Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, Klay Thompson, Victor Oladipo, Monta Ellis and DeMar DeRozan, but it can be hard to pay their salaries knowing that the double-double or triple-double upside that earns you bonus points more likely will come via the PG or PF positions. When I'm secure in my value plays at other positions and Harden isn't an option, any of those second-tier options with a good matchup have nice upside and a pretty high floor. The other alternative at SG is to go cheap. There are always guys like Kyle Korver, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, J.J. Redick, Jordan Clarkson, Courtney Lee and even Nik Stauskas who will be near minimum salary but also getting starters' minutes in favorable matchups. Try to target guys who shoot 3-pointers often and well. If I'm not using Harden, I will try to find that cheap SG who I think can put up 25 or more fantasy points.
James Harden or bust!
Find value in a minimally priced SG starting in a good defensive matchup, preferably in a game with a high point total.
Small forward: Small forward is even worse than shooting guard in terms of positional scarcity. We have Kevin Durant at the top of a very narrow pyramid. The problem is that you'll only be able to pay top dollar for maybe two players in a cash game lineup. In a tournament you can manage three or four, if you go true stars and scrubs, but most of the time you'll want more balance. In a close second tier, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay are available. Leonard is potentially Tier 1, and you might be able to get him at a discount to start the season. James is already being treated with caution, and if he doesn't play 40 minutes per game at this stage of his career, it's hard to pay top dollar for him. Gay and Anthony are tournament-only plays unless they're very affordable, totally healthy and in good matchups.
SF is the most volatile spot in your roster, where your selection can just as easily go off as do nothing at all in the same amount of minutes from night to night. A few cheap plays to have on your radar to start the season are Doug McDermott, Jae Crowder, Tobias Harris, and Robert Covington. I'm not typically trying to hit a home run with the SF slot. Rather, I want a reasonable return of four to six times on my investment here.
Kevin Durant or bust!
Find value and safety in a starting SF who contributes steady points, rebounds and assists.
Power forward: Most of what I said about point guard also applies to the power forward position, and by that I mean it's not a roster spot I waste on a flier. PF is a key component of your stable floor and high upside roster construction process. That doesn't mean you have to pay up for Anthony Davis every time he plays -- although a case can be made for doing so. You want to exploit poor rebounding opponents, target guys who shoot 3s and lock up a double-double here. Derrick Favors, Blake Griffin, Nerlens Noel, Pau Gasol, Paul Millsap, Kevin Love and Thaddeus Young all fall into that category most nights and can be had for far less salary cap than Davis. These are guys who will easily get you at least 30 fantasy points with the potential for 50-point upside.
You want safety and upside from your PF slot.
Center: Because many people start building their lineup from the top down -- the order I've discussed the positions here -- a lot of lineups end up forgoing a stud center, with the salary cap already spent on the other positions, most likely PG and PF. However, some of the best fantasy players and highest PER guys in the league are centers. DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez and Andre Drummond were all top-25 overall players in terms of PER last season. Targeting blocks is a good way to increase your score in a hurry, as they're emphasized in DraftKings scoring, at two points per successful swat. Not surprisingly, all the guys I just mentioned finished top-15 in blocks. I tend to take the cheapest of this bunch, provided he's not in a terrible matchup. That said, there are also a few guys to potentially dip down for, such as Gorgui Dieng, Alex Len, Myles Turner, Jusuf Nurkic (probably not ready for the opener) and Jahlil Okafor.
Center provides great upside if you target the right stats.
Guard: Most nights, your guard slot should go to a second PG. I like to use a starter on a transitional team like the Nuggets, 76ers, Magic, Celtics or even the Timberwolves. Young guys who play heavy minutes for low salaries make for a nice way to round out your lineups. Elfrid Payton, Emmanuel Mudiay, Isaiah Canaan, Marcus Smart, Zach LaVine, and Langston Galloway fall into this category. It's also possible to go with a backup PG who is starting due to rest, illness or injury. In general, backup guards make better fantasy replacements than backup forwards, who often end up as shared rotations. Examples you can trust include Dennis Schroder, Darren Collison, Jerian Grant (I think, but I'll probably need to see it before I use him) and Aaron Brooks. This is where paying attention to last-minute news is critical to building your best lineup.
Get value and upside from a cheap starting PG on a fast-paced team on the rise.
Forward: Focus on minutes here. A starter who isn't elite may work -- someone like Julius Randle, Kenneth Faried, Ersan Ilyasova, Draymond Green, Paul George (depending on his opening salary) or Meyers Leonard. In a high-paced game or favorable defensive matchup, any of these players could end up being a solid play with additional upside. A riskier move is to use a bench forward in a potential blowout game where you can see the star starter resting late. However, I don't like to take this strategy until I get a read on who the backup really is and what the team/coaching tendencies are toward resting guys in blowouts.
Go for safety with the forward spot by targeting minutes and matchups.
Utility: By default, you're filling the utility spot with the best player available given the amount of salary cap you have left. If you're really reaching for a bench player who will pay off his price only if the game script goes a certain way or if someone gets hurt because that's all you can afford, you need to make adjustments somewhere else. Remember, the idea is for the whole lineup to work together in order to maximize your score. It's only as strong as its weakest player.
Also, the player you end up with in the utility spot when you build your lineup doesn't necessarily have to stay there. DraftKings allows for a late swap. That's especially valuable in the NBA, because the lineups for West Coast games can come out quite late. Make sure to give yourself the most flexibility in the event of an unexpected scratch by putting players from late games in your utility, G, or F slots as frequently as you can. That doesn't mean you have to target a late-game player on purpose, but when possible, you should always rearrange your lineup slots so that if you first find out at 9:45 p.m. ET that your SG isn't playing, you have the opportunity to replace him with more than just an SG-eligible player.
While I've emphasized matchups here several times, be extremely careful at the very beginning of the season. Some players and teams can be consistently relied upon to provide the same level of defensive matchups (good or bad) year after year. However, many are in flux due to new team compositions, new roles, an extra year of experience or, conversely, an extra year of wear and tear. Beware of the red or green opponent rank (OPRK) code on DraftKings, as it can be very misleading. It's important to do your own research and to take any stats with a grain of salt, especially over the first few weeks of the season.