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.
Your lineups need the right combination of value, upside and safety to be in contention. I'll focus mainly on cash games -- those where half of the field roughly doubles their money -- but you can apply much of this information to guaranteed prize pool (GPP) games too.
Game theory is somewhat (though not entirely) de-emphasized in cash contests, but that doesn't mean there 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 slate of NBA games, there are some general guidelines we can apply.
Because NBA DFS is more predictable than, say, MLB DFS, you have some rough goal in mind for fantasy scoring -- you'd ideally see your DraftKings lineup score around 250-300 fantasy points, depending on the contest and the slate. With eight roster spots to fill, you have $6,250 per player and would be targeting about 35 fantasy points per player.
However, all things are rarely, if ever, equal in a DFS slate, so we'll be spending well above and below the average most nights with shifting point expectations too. In fact, we'll pay up for stars who we can rely on to return about 5X value (so a $10,000 guy should get 50 fantasy points), while we'll hope our value plays can return closer to 7-8X value (so a $4,000 player could go for 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 NBA more than MLB, for sure, and NFL to some extent, your lineup really is only as strong as its weakest player.
The most elite position in basketball is PG, and 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 fantasy points/assists), you need a PG who distributes and scores. If you can target an elite PG on a high-paced team, it's even better, since fantasy points correlate well with pace only for PG and PF.
Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Stephen Curry are the top PGs in the league -- in skill and salary -- and most nights it's difficult to make an argument against them other than price. Note that even in a pace mismatch (e.g., Warriors vs. Memphis), elite point guards produce at their typically high rate fantasy-wise.
The next group of PGs includes guys like Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas, each of whom is priced in a lower tier but has nearly as much upside as the top three. They make excellent tournament plays and are usually a viable alternative to the most elite point guards when you have to spend up elsewhere.
Pay up for safety with upside at the PG slot
Without multiposition eligibility, the SG position can be a nightmare. It often feels like James Harden and ... 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, then a second tier of high-upside/low-floor guys, and then the punt plays.
Every DFS player has had a "why, oh, why did I fade Harden?!" night or 10 -- and with good reason. He's the only SG to rank top five in player efficiency rating (PER) and usage (USG) last season (and top 10 in both over the plast three seasons).
There is actually a pretty solid second tier of SGs, consisting of Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Klay Thompson Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum 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 is more likely coming from the PG or PF position. When I'm secure in my value plays at other positions and Harden isn't an option, any of those players just listed who are in 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 Lou Williams, Seth Curry, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Will Barton/Gary Harris, Evan Fournier and Tyler Johnson, who will be near minimum salary getting starters' minutes in favorable matchups. Try to target guys who shoot 3s often and well. If I'm not using Harden, I will try to find that cheap SG who I think can put up 25-plus fantasy points.
James Harden or bust!
Find value in a minimum priced SG who starts in a good defensive matchup, preferably in a game with a high point total
Small forward is sometimes even worse than shooting guard in terms of positional scarcity. We have Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James at the top of a pretty narrow pyramid. Sometimes Antetokounmpo is SF eligible and I'd include him in the top tier. The thing is that you're only going to be able to pay top dollar for maybe two players in a cash game lineup. In a tournament, you can get three or four if you go true stars and scrubs, but most times you'll want more balance.
In a second tier, Paul George, Gordon Hayward and Carmelo Anthony are available. They are generally high-floor cash game SF plays when there's no one demanding $11K or more on the slate. SF is the most volatile spot in your roster, where a lot of players can either go off or do nothing in the same amount of minutes from night to night.
A few cheap plays to have on your radar to start the season are Justin Anderson, TJ Warren, Joe Ingles, Maurice Harkless and Trevor Ariza. I'm not typically trying to hit a home run with the SF slot -- I want a reasonable 4-6X return on my investment here.
Don't hamstring your lineup with a top-tier SF unless there is ample value on the slate
Find value and safety in a starting SF who contributes steady points, rebounds and assists while being on the floor for his defense
Most of what I said about PG applies to the PF position too -- 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 -- though a case can be made for doing so when he's healthy.
You want to exploit poor-rebounding opponents, target guys who shoot 3s, and lock up a double-double here. Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Julius Randle and Kevin Love all fall into that category most nights and can be had for far less salary than Davis. These are guys who easily get you 30 fantasy points and can get you 50-plus.
You want safety and upside from your PF slot
Because many people start building their lineup from the top down (e.g., in the order I've discussed the positions here), a lot of lineups forego a star center. The salary cap has simply been 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, Karl-Anthony Towns, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, and Nikola Jokic were all top-26 overall players in terms of PER last year (Jokic led all centers in the statistic). Targeting blocks is a good way to increase your score in a hurry, as they're emphasized in DraftKings' scoring (two points for each block). Not surprisingly, all the guys I just mentioned were top 20 in the league in blocks as well.
So I like to take the cheapest of this bunch, provided he's not in a terrible matchup, but there are a few guys to dip down for. Gorgui Dieng, Alex Len, Myles Turner, Turner and DeAndre Jordan are a few cheaper guys who are reliable when starting/healthy.
Center provides great upside if you target the right stats and shouldn't be an afterthought in roster construction
Most nights, your G roster slot should go to a second PG. I like to use a starter on a transitional team like the Nuggets, 76ers, Lakers, Magic, Suns or Timberwolves. Young guys who play heavy minutes for low salaries at a high pace make for a nice way to round out your lineups. Elfrid Payton, Jamal Murray and Lonzo Ball fall into this category, and every season there are others who develop, like Tyler Ulis and Kris Dunn, thanks to injuries to players ahead of them on their depth chart.
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 or centers, which often end up as shared rotations. Examples you can trust include Yogi Ferrell, Ish Smith, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and rookie De'Aaron Fox. This is where paying attention to the last-minute news is critical to building your best lineup.
Get value and upside from a cheap starting PG from a fast-paced team on the rise
Focus on minutes here. A starter who isn't elite might work -- a guy like Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick Favors, Aaron Gordon, Ersan Ilyasova, Ryan Anderson, or Harrison Barnes is a solid play with additional upside in a high-paced game or favorable defensive matchup.
A riskier move is to use a bench forward in a potential blowout game where you can imagine the star starter resting. I don't like to take this strategy until I get a good 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
By default, you're filling the utility spot with the best player available, given the amount of salary cap you have left. Just a couple of thoughts here:
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 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 to maximize your score. It's only as strong as its weakest player.
Whomever you end up with in the utility spot as you build the lineup doesn't necessarily have to stay there. If you can take advantage of a late swap, which is especially valuable in NBA DFS, because the lineups for west coast games come out late, do so. Make sure to give yourself the most flexibility in the event of an unexpected scratch by putting players from late (west coast) games in your utility, G or F slots as much as possible. That doesn't mean you have to target a late-game player on purpose -- just rearrange things so that if you find out your SG isn't playing at 9:45 p.m. ET, you can replace him with more than just an SG-eligible player.
While I've emphasized matchups here several times, be careful at the very beginning of the season. Some players and teams provide good or bad defensive matchups year after year, but many are in flux due to new team compositions, new roles, age, etc.
Beware of the red or green opponent rank (OPRK) code on daily fantasy sites -- it can be very misleading. It's important to do your own research and to take any dramatic stats with a grain of salt for the first few weeks of the season at least.