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Paying Attention to Defense in DFS Lineup Building (Fantasy Basketball)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
Jul 4, 2020

Whether you’re new to daily fantasy basketball or a seasoned professional, be sure to check out our Daily Fantasy Basketball Glossary. You can get started with Why “Points Per Minute” is the Single Most Important Stat in DFS or head to more advanced strategy — like The Do’s and Don’ts of Building a Contrarian DFS Lineup — to learn more.

Setting NBA DFS lineups requires plenty of research, and effectively setting a winning lineup means paying close attention to matchup. Obviously, it’s nearly impossible to count out Luka Doncic, Russell Westbrook, or Giannis Antetokounmpo no matter the matchup, but the opponent your player of choice is facing should be at the front of your mind when building a lineup and setting your budget appropriately. How important is defense when setting NBA DFS lineups, which stats should you pay attention to, and which ones should you fade?

Defensive Rating

Player Season Avg Matchup vs top-5 DEFRAT Difference Matchup vs bottom-5 DEFRAT Difference
James Harden 56.4 47.9 -8.5 61.1 +4.7
LeBron James 52.3 46.3 -6.0 52.7 +0.4
Giannis Antetokounmpo 57.3 61.8 +4.5 52.8 -4.5
Anthony Davis 52.0 48.1 -3.9 60.0 +8.0
Luka Doncic 52.5 51.3 -1.2 56.9 +4.9

Here, I’ve selected five of the top scorers in NBA DFS contests for the 2019-20 season. The table above compares season average in FanDuel points with all matchups against the top-5 teams based on Defensive Rating (Bucks, Raptors, Lakers, Celtics, Clippers) and the bottom-5 teams based on Defensive Rating (Wizards, Cavs, Hawks, Warriors, Trail Blazers). The results are as we would expect, save for Giannis. All other players performed worse against teams within the top-5 of Defensive Rating while performing better against teams within the bottom-5 of Defensive Rating. The difference in performance, on average, was fairly significant across the board, but it’s worth examining the outlier.

Antetokounmpo plays on the Bucks – a team which sported the best Net Rating in the NBA by a comfortable margin. His Bucks were so dominant that he actually performed better against the top-5 teams in Defensive Rating (likely due to playing up to the competition). The reason he performed worse against bottom-5 teams in this category is almost certainly due to the blowout factor associated with playing for such a dominant team. In blowouts, stars from the favored team typically perform worse than average because minutes are limited when the game is comfortably in hand.

Otherwise, there are no surprises here. Defensive Rating is a statistic indicative of an individual’s fantasy performance, and the results above add some validation to that thought.

Team Fantasy Points Allowed

Fantasy points vs position is a popular way to measure a player’s expected performance based on matchup, though fantasy points allowed overall is also tracked. This stat keeps track of how many fantasy points per game are allowed on average per player regardless of position. It’s a valuable practice to pay attention to this statistic because so many players in the NBA play multiple positions. This is a small sample size from the 2019-20 season:

Player Season AVG vs LEAST Difference vs MOST  Difference 
James Harden 56.4 52.1 -4.3 63.7 +7.3
LeBron James 52.3 49.7 -2.6 53.1 +0.8
Giannis Antetokounmpo 57.3 60.3 +3.0 50.9 -6.4
Anthony Davis 52.0 51.8 -0.2 52.6 +0.6
Luka Doncic 52.5 49.4 -3.1 53.2 +0.7

Here, I used the same five players as above. This table compares season average in FanDuel points with all matchups against the top-5 teams based on least fantasy points allowed (76ers, Lakers, Celtics, Jazz, Thunder) and the top-5 teams based on most points allowed (Wizards, Cavs, Hawks, Warriors, Timberwolves). We come away with the same results as the Defensive Rating statics listed above, though the differences are more negligible here. Pay attention to Defensive Rating when setting NBA DFS lineups.

Defense vs Position

This one is tough to quantify. While tools like our NBA Defense vs Position are an excellent resource and a great place to begin your research, they should not be an end-all be-all. There are a couple of reasons why you shouldn’t blindly use a defense vs position tool. First, these tools categorize players into one position only, and a lot of players in the league could be categorized in more than one position. For example, LeBron James is often referred to as a point-forward. That’s because he handles the ball a lot and typically runs his team’s offense, yet he has the physical build and many of the skills traditionally associated with a forward. Draymond Green famously played center for long stretches in Golden State’s “Death Lineup.” This is also true of big men who rotate between center and power forward and combo guards who play on the wing as SG or SF (Jimmy Butler, anyone?).

Second, any reputable fantasy website has its own version of the defense vs position tool. The availability alone makes it a tool to fade for popular targets. Casual DFS players may have a tendency to look at tools like this, see a quality matchup, and spend up for guys in a good position. This leads to high ownership, and if you’re playing in GPPs, you want to go after guys who might be flying a bit under the radar. In that regard, these types of tools are a good starting point for contrarian plays. You can look at less-than-ideal matchups and go for players who may not be highly owned based on the numbers.

Individual Matchups

You should certainly be cognizant of individual matchups, as they can be telling of a player’s value on a given slate. For example, Bam Adebayo has been a defensive revelation for Miami this season, using his athleticism and versatility to defend multiple positions and shut down opposing players. In the Heat’s lone matchup with Milwaukee this season, Adebayo held Giannis Antetokounmpo to a season-low 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting. The same can be said of guards who drive to the basket or big men playing in the paint when matched up against Rudy Gobert. His enormous defensive impact has to be accounted for when setting lineups utilizing players facing Utah.


Team defensive rating plays a part in determining a player’s outlook and fantasy value on a given slate, though it’s not an automatic predictor of success or failure. Individual matchups come into play, too, butno defensive stat is going to give you a guaranteed formula for players to target and players to fade. The sample sizes I’ve provided in this article are small, though they offer an insight into basic lineup-building theory for DFS lineups as it pertains to defense.

Thanks for reading, and best of luck in your DFS contests!

Zachary Hanshew is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster.

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