The NBA playoffs are upon us, which means the NBA DFS landscape is changing. There will still be multi-game slates throughout the early rounds, but eventually, the single-game format is going to take over.
While the scoring system remains the same, the lineup construction is completely different. Instead of filling out a traditional eight- or nine-man roster with the usual positions (guard, forward, center, etc.), both DraftKings and FanDuel feature only utility spots. That means your goal is simply to play the best players that can fit within the salary constructs. You have a $50,000 cap to fill six spots on DraftKings and $60,000 to fill out five spots on FanDuel.
Additionally, both sites feature premium spots that accrue additional fantasy points. On FanDuel, you’ll have to designate one MVP, one STAR, and one PRO to go along with two regular utilities. Each of those premium players has a multiplier applied to their fantasy total – the MVP gets 2x, the STAR gets 1.5x, and the PRO gets 1.2x – with no negative ramifications.
Things are a bit more complicated on DraftKings. You only have one premium spot – the Captain – and he earns a 1.5x multiplier on his fantasy output. However, he also costs an additional 50% towards the salary cap. That means if a player costs $10,000 as a utility, he costs $15,000 at Captain.
That added wrinkle makes the DraftKings format much more exciting (in my humble opinion). It also opens up more strategic angles than the FanDuel format, where the goal is simply to get your highest scoring players in the premium spots.
With that in mind, I wanted to dive into some historical data to see if we can find some edges in the DraftKings single-game format. I ran through an entire month of Showdown contests – 124 in total – and charted the results to see if I could define any definitive trends.
There are a few things to consider, but first, a few caveats:
There is No Surefire Method to Win a Showdown Slate
They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’m not sure if that’s true – I’ve never been much of a cat-skinner myself – but there are definitely multiple ways to win a showdown slate. My goal is to help maximize your chances at winning a slate by letting you know some of the common characteristics of the optimal lineup.
Past Results Don’t Guarantee Future Outcomes
For the sake of full disclosure, I looked at every Showdown slate from January 1 through January 31 of 2022. That comprised 124 total slates, and I picked January because it was before teams were trying to tank down the stretch.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything I observed will hold true in postseason contests. The rotations are shorter and the stars play more minutes, so there might be a slightly different strategy.
If You Don’t Like My Research, Feel Free to Do Your Own
That’s not meant as a dig, but rather, an encouragement. One of the coolest parts of being a FantasyLabs subscriber is that you have access to past slates in the NBA Models. If you want to see what the optimal showdown lineups were during last year’s playoffs, that information is available right at your fingertips!
You can select whatever contests you’re interested in and optimize by “actual points” in the drop-down menu. I’m not claiming that I’ve discovered fire with my research, so feel free to try to one-up me. I’d be very interested in hearing your results.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into five key takeaways from my observation.
The Goal is to Score the Most Points
Ok, so this may seem obvious at first. Of course, the goal is to score the most points; that’s how you win a tournament after all.
However, I would argue that the goal in the single-game format and the goal on a multi-game slate are not the same. Yes, in both formats you want to find yourself at the top of the leaderboard. However, on a multi-game slate, your primary goal should be outscoring your opponents. That means finding your core group of plays, looking for leverage spots, and ultimately utilizing a contrarian approach. You will lose more than you win with this philosophy, but your wins will vault you to the top of the leaderboard. That’s GPP 101.
On a Showdown slate, your goal should be to hit the nuts, aka the optimal lineup. That’s simply not possible on most multi-game slates – there are too many possible lineup configurations for the entire field to cover them – but with very few exceptions, the optimal lineup is going to be required in the Showdown format.
How does that impact your strategy? For starters, it makes the stud options nearly impossible to fade. When talking about the truly elite players, you should be playing them at a nearly 100% clip. Even if they have bad games by their standards, the raw points that they provide are impossible to duplicate. The same is true for elite value options, like when a solid per-minute bench player is drawing a spot start.
There are still a couple of ways to get contrarian in tournaments, but this is not the route I’d recommend.
Spend Up at Captain
This goes along with point No. 1. If you’re trying to score the most points, the most logical starting point is to get your highest-scoring player in the Captain slot. You’ll have to pay a heavy premium to do so, but it has proven to be worth it more often than not.
In the 124 slates that I charted, the average price at Captain was just over $13,500. That’s a pretty sizable number, but I would argue that number undersells the importance of paying up at Captain. That figure is going to be dragged down by slates where there wasn’t a true superstar available or there was a value player who provided massive value. Those are not going to be available all that often during the postseason.
Overall, 28 of the 124 slates featured an optimal Captain that cost at least $17,100 (22.6%), and 11 slates were at $19,500 or greater ($11.3%). Most of those slates featured a mega-stud – Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, etc. – and getting that player into the top spot was extremely important. There will obviously be plenty of those guys to choose from in the postseason.
Additionally, punting the Captain slot is almost never advised. Just one lineup featured a true minimum-priced player at Captain, and only 15 were below $8,100. That means that even if you’re trying to save a bit, you shouldn’t go down too low. I would expect that trend to hold even more weight during the playoffs.
Lean on Stars and Scrubs
After spending up for your Captain, the next question is how should you fill out the rest of your lineup? Should you go with a balanced approach or load up on more studs?
In general, it appears as though you want to continue to spend up for the top players. The average cost for the top utility player in the optimal lineup was just over $10,600, while the second utility was approximately $8,600. That means the top three players are taking up nearly two-thirds of the cap space.
Again, I would lean even harder into this trend during the postseason. These slates are going to feature tons of studs, and it’s simply not possible to replicate their production.
This is especially true when you consider the value available with the punt plays. Those players can be tough to predict, but there are typically a handful of players to choose from in the $1-3k range in each Showdown slate. Those players don’t have as much safety as the players in the $4-6k range, but we’re not looking for safety.
I would argue that those players have similar ceilings when everything breaks right for them, so going with a punt play is almost always the preferred strategy if it allows you to get to another stud.
Overall, 46 of the 124 slates featured an optimal lineup where your second utility cost at least $9,000. Nearly 63% spent at least $8,000 on two different utility players. Keep in mind: our goal is to score as many points as possible. Rostering as many players as possible with the potential for 50+ fantasy points is a great start.
Get Contrarian With Your Pay Downs
This is where things start to get fun. If you’re paying up at the Captain spot and for at least two utilities, you’re going to need to pay down for some value options to complement them.
This is where I think we should be looking to gain leverage on the field. Most DFS players are going to look at the low-priced players, and there will typically be one or two that feel somewhat “comfortable.” Guys who maybe aren’t the best per-minute producers but who are expected to see a reasonable number of minutes.
In general, those players are your enemy in the single-game format. They are going to be owned at a disproportionate rate compared to the other players in this price range. They might be the “safest” plays, but safety isn’t going to win you a GPP.
Instead, take a flyer on some wild cards. The backup center who plays 10-12 minutes per game? Absolutely. The wing player with the ability to get hot from the perimeter? Sure thing. The guard who has upside for multiple steals? Sign me up.
Rostering those types of players may not make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but that’s why you should roster them. They’ll make your opponents feel the same way, which is why you can grab them at lower ownership. They might bust at a higher rate than the “safer” plays in that price range, but they’re going to help you win a GPP when they hit their ceiling.
Don’t Spend The Full Cap
This is the other big way to gain leverage on the field. More than in any other sport, spending as much of the salary cap as possible is typically a good thing in the NBA. There are many more scoring events than there are in sports like baseball and football, so the scoring is much more predictable. That makes the pricing a bit more efficient, so sacrificing salary cap space is a good way to cap your upside in traditional DFS.
That all goes out the window in the single-game format. The optimal lineup in the 124 slates I analyzed checked in at just under $47,900. That figure is a bit skewed by some outlier performances, but the optimal lineup only used the full $50,000 salary cap in seven instances. It featured more than $49,500 in just 42 contests (33.9%), and between $49,000 and $49,500 in 20 more. That means that the optimal lineup was less than $49,000 on a full 50% of the slates.
Leaving that much salary on the table is not something that DFS players like to do. They might not spend the full $50k in each lineup, but they’re not going to leave more than $1,000 on the table very often.
For every additional dollar you leave on the table, your chances of having your lineup duplicated decrease exponentially. The data shows you aren’t necessarily giving up a ton of win equity by saving a few extra bucks, so I’ll make that trade every single time.
I still wouldn’t go too low – especially during the postseason – but don’t be afraid to leave somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 on the table. If you do happen to hit the optimal that way, you’re much more likely to pocket all the cash instead of having to chop it up with 500 of your closest friends.
Good luck in the Showdown streets!