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James Davis

What makes a good NBA DFS "punt" or value play?

If you've played NBA DFS for any stretch of time, you've undoubtedly been in the position of trying to evaluate what it means that some relatively unknown (or underplayed) player is joining the starting lineup. Sometimes this happens because a player gets injured, sometimes this happens because a player gets benched or traded, and sometimes it just happens due to a late scratch. But the feeling is the same - it's 20 minutes to lineup lock, and a cheap player is starting for the first time. How do we evaluate whether he's a good play or not?

In DFS, players who are very cheap thanks to a big time recent change in opportunity are known as "punt" plays, and it's our job to figure out which of them are worth it, and which are worth passing on.

This article will explain what our evaluation process is like when we determine which cheap plays are worth it, and which are worth passing on.

Evaluating a player's track record

Not all punts are created equally. Let's start our article with two seemingly similar, but very different situations. In January, the Bucks came out and said that Thon Maker was going to get his very first start thanks to Jabari Parker being benched to start the game for disciplinary reasons. Around the same time, in New Orleans, Anthony Davis had been ruled out thanks to (yet another) injury, and Terrence Jones was going to step into the starting line-up. We played Jones everywhere while ignoring the Maker news completely, and were handsomely rewarded. How did we know who was better, and who was worse? Let's dive into the process.

Here's the quick set of questions we use to evaluate players when they seem to be moving into greater opportunity.

1) How has a player performed on a points-per-minute basis in the past?
2) How is this player currently used within the context of his team?
3) Do we know how he's performed when given the starting role in the past?
4) Does his team have a lot of other options if he gets off to a slow start?
5) How big a hole is being left by the player the punt is replacing?
6) Will the player's role change when he moves into the starting lineup?
7) Is the player even that cheap?
8) Who am I punting away from?

Let's take a look at each of these examples to see what we mean.

1) How has a player performed on a points-per-minute basis in the past?

Jones and Maker are very instructive for this example. Terrence Jones has averaged 23 fantasy points per game this season on an average of 24 minutes per game. When he was first ushered into the starting line-up, he had a fairly well established track record of scoring just under 1 fantasy point per minute, and while he had been playing fewer than 22 minutes per game at the time, it seemed fairly clear that he was maintaining the per-minute production he had established in earlier points during his career. If he jumped from 20 minutes to 30 minutes, or more, it seemed fairly clear that paying a $4,000 price tag on FanDuel would be trivial.

And then there's Thon Maker. When he was called upon to start against the Heat on January 21st he had played a total of 7.5 minutes in the NBA, and 3 points, 5 rebounds, and a steal. Fine production for 7 minutes, but far too small a sample size to determine anything on.

2) How is this player currently used within the context of his team?

I nodded to this in the previous section, but in case it wasn't obvious, Jones had a very active role on the Pelicans before Davis' injury, whereas Maker was almost entirely an afterthought. Why does this matter? Well, it helps to establish what kind of performance and opportunity floor we can expect for each player. If Anthony Davis' 38 minutes a game are coming off the books, and Jones is already playing 22 minutes, it's far-fetched to assume he'll play less than 30 minutes in the game unless something goes crazy. If, as in Maker's case, you're a nightly DNP-CD, there's no telling how many minutes you'll get, starter or not. It's very common in the NBA these days to give some player the "starter" label while playing some other player much more off the bench. Think Andrew Bogut, or Luke Babbit, or any number of guys here. Back-ups who are thrust into the starting role are even more susceptible to this than most, and it's very telling when a player hasn't been entrusted to a solid rotation prior to being called up.

3) Do we know how he's performed when given the starting role in the past?
This one often takes a little digging, but the data is out there. We get ours from Fantasy Data. Maker's case is pretty straightforward of course - he's never started, so we couldn't know. Although now we do, and if he gets a starting nod in the future, we can be rightfully skeptical. Jones, on the other hand, has always been an absolute stud when given the starting role, dating all the way back to his Houston days. Why does this matter if we're frequently just pro-rating per minute performance? Well, different teams will use different players in different roles. Lance Stephenson is a somewhat dated but relevant example, here. When he came off the bench in Indiana his per-minute stats were amazing, but in the starting lineup he was a totally different player. This is because he couldn't just dribble the ball constantly and shoot every possession. So pay attention to your punt plays - Cory Joseph running the second unit free of DeMar DeRozan is going to look very different than Cory Joseph running the first unit alongside DeRozan. On the same token, Channing Frye can't get a lot of looks as a part of the second unit in Cleveland because he doesn't have a distributor on the same level as LeBron James. When he starts with LeBron, he tends to pay his paltry prices and then some. It's mandatory to pay attention to these sorts of things if the data is out there, because you can bet that the sharks will have access to it.

4) Does his team have a lot of other options if he gets off to a slow start?
The bane of every DFS player is to get a sweet punt in play, only to have him get off to a slow start and lose playing time to some other option. This happened to Maker in his first start when the Bucks just got too tempted and put Parker back in the game. This happened when we played Alec Burks recently as well - he looked poised to see a lot of Rodney Hood's minutes, but started off shooting 1-9 from the field and wound up playing less than 20 minutes. On the flip-side there guys like Yogi Ferrell. The Mavericks have come out and said "Ferrell is the only guy who can dribble the ball up the court on the team when Deron is out." This shows very clearly that they have no intention of sitting Ferrell even if he gets off to a rocky start - they don't perceive that they have any other true point guards on their roster. The Jazz, on the other hand, had Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson, Shelvin Mack - any number of guys who could stand around the perimeter and loosely replicate what Burks could do.

The risk of a punt play losing his "starter's minutes" is particularly in play when a team is just "switching things up." When Biyombo and Augustin were starting for Payton and Vucevic in Orlando, nobody really thought that arrangement would last very long. You got a couple of games out of it, but a lot of people got burned when the Magic turned heel and put the previous guys in. When it comes to punt plays, always remember - positional competition matters.

Now you might not be in the position to choose from a number of excellent punt plays each night, but when you do, determining if the team has a potential back-up plan if things go sour is very important.

5) How big a hole is being left by the player the punt is replacing
This is another of the big mistakes I see newer players make when evaluating a punt play. Anthony Davis going out for New Orleans means 37+ minutes and 20+ shots per game are going back into the Pelicans' offensive ecosystem. This is a ton. If Kosta Koufos sat for the Kings, however, only 5 shots and 19 minutes would be up for grabs. All of this to say - who you're replacing matters. Norman Powell is a great punt play when DeMar DeRozan goes out because DeRozan is such a ball-stopper, but taking over Dante Cunningham's starting role is sort of no big deal.

6) Will the player's role change when he moves into the starting lineup?
I nodded to this when I talked about Lance Stephenson, but let's dig a little deeper. The modern NBA has seen a movement past traditional labels like "Power Forward" to more specific labels, like "stretch 4." While sometimes a role change is obvious - Kevin Love moving from the T-Wolves to play with Irving and James meant he was very obviously going to be doing different things - evaluating changing roles in the context of an individual team can be much more difficult.

The classic case here is the 2nd unit point guard moving into the starting line-up. I already discussed Joseph and Stephenson, but this also applies to guys like Patty Mills, or Brandon Jennings. It doesn't always mean the death-knell of their fantasy value by any stretch, but it does call for a bit of re-evaluation. When Jennings is on the court with Carmelo Anthony he just isn't going to get as many shots in the air - but he might get more assists! The key here is trying to figure out how a player has performed with specific other players on the court. NBA Wowy is our preferred source for this sort of information, and running queries like these (putting Jennings in with all the Knicks' starters, for instance) will help you avoid the common pitfall of just jamming a guy into your line-up assuming he'll replicate his bench per-minute performances.
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7) Is the player even that cheap?
Remember - making good DFS plays isn't just about picking good players, it's about picking good players relative to their prices. In some cases a bench player will simply be overpriced, or will be priced more highly because of a stretch of good luck, or whatever. I've seen no shortage of situations where players assume that Will Barton starting means you can just jam him in there against Utah - but Will Barton was already playing 33 minutes off the bench, and was basically priced efficiently on that opportunity and performance. Now he's starting, but in a bad match-up, and the small increase in minutes does nothing to offset his already high price tag and the tough match-up.

8) Who am I 'punting away' from?
Which is to say, what existing player am I going to get away from in order to make room for my punt play? Another absolutely classic DFS mistake is taking some middling punt over two excellent existing value or big money plays when they could have punted elsewhere.

Take a couple of examples that we've talked about already - Terrence Jones, and Cory Joseph. There have been nights where both of these guys were excellent punt plays, but it was difficult to play both together (say it was a short slate) and still spend your whole cap. Let's say we think Jones is a better play on a strictly points-per-dollar basis, and meets a lot of the above criteria better than Joseph does.

But! On this particular night point guard is very shallow - our optimal line-ups before the news comes out that Joseph is starting feature Patrick Beverley against the Jazz and a banged up Jrue Holiday, whose minutes feel uncertain. At power forward, though, we have Kevin Love at very affordable prices against the Nets, and a rock solid value play in Serge Ibaka at $5,000 against the Nuggets. We view Jones as a solid upgrade over either power forward slot, but Joseph as a huge upgrade over our point guard options. Now we'd like to play both of course, but if we don't have enough payoffs elsewhere (maybe the slate is light on big money guys to invest in), choosing a bigger upgrade at point guard might be better than a smaller upgrade at power forward, even though we'd prefer to play Jones over Joseph if we were strictly picking between the two.

You don't have to pick your punts in the dark

DFS players are far too often perplexed by what to do when picking between punts. I've heard people call it "total luck," or say that it's "random," but I'm here to tell you that it absolutely isn't. Now if you're a subscriber to our line-up optimizer and projection system you'll get access to our up-to-the-minute updates on how we assess these punts, but even the casual player can do a much better job of evaluating this than you might think.

What do you say? Did I miss anything? Open your eyes to the wide possibilities of rocking your punt plays? Let me know in the comments below, and good luck out there!

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1 Visitor Comment

  1. Thanks, James!

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