Variance is misunderstood by a lot of daily fantasy NBA team owners. It’s often misconstrued as risk. That is, DFS players tend to think of variance in terms of the odds they’ll lose money in any given contest.
If you’re just playing for fun, that perception is fine even though it’s inaccurate. Variance is an advanced concept and requires time to learn and apply. But if you want to be a profitable daily fantasy player over the long run, it’s worth investing a few minutes to understand how variance influences your results. If you can learn to use it to your advantage, you’ll stand a better chance of cashing.
The best DFS players – the guys and gals who cash in a large percentage of the contests they enter – take variance into account when constructing their NBA rosters. If you hope to compete against them, plan to do the same.
You’ll get a crash course on variance in daily fantasy basketball below. By the time you finish reading, you’ll have a good grasp on how to leverage it in your lineups.
Let’s start with a brief overview. Get your nerd hat ready.
Daily Fantasy NBA Variance: A Bird’s-Eye View
The easiest way to understand variance is to picture a typical bell curve. The shape of the curve reflects the distribution of outcomes for a given set of events. The vast majority of outcomes fall within a limited range of values. That range is the area covered by the upward and downward slopes.
A small minority of outcomes fall on the far left and right sides of the curve. Those outcomes deviate from the average.
Variance is a reflection of randomness. A steep bell curve that shows very little deviation from the norm reflects minimal variance. In contrast, a bell curve with a mild arc over a broad distribution of outcomes reflects a high degree of variance.
The greater the variance, the less predictability in the outcome of a given event. A lack of predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a few moments, I’ll show you how to use it to your advantage in fantasy NBA contests. However, let’s first take a look at the role variance plays in different contest formats.
How Variance Affects Fantasy Basketball H2Hs And 50/50s
Head-to-heads (H2Hs) and double-ups (50/50s), known as cash games, give you a chance to double your entry fee. They pay out to half the field, which increases your likelihood of cashing.
In a head-to-head, it’s you against a single opponent. If you win, you get paid twice your buy-in minus the fantasy site’s rake.
In a double-up, you’re competing against multiple opponents – from a few to a few thousand. If you finish in the top 50% of the field, you’ll get paid twice your buy-in minus the rake.
The payout structure of a cash game limits the level of variance, or randomness, in the outcome of the contest. That’s not to say there’s less risk of losing. Rather, there’s a relatively high degree of predictability with any given lineup. A lineup that cashes in 90 out of 100 cash games can be expected to continue doing so if all other variables remain equal. Expect minimal deviation.
Let’s contrast that to tournaments…
How Variance Affects Daily Fantasy Basketball Tournaments
Large-field tournaments, whether they come with a guaranteed prize pool or not, usually have a top-heavy payout structure. Rather than half the field getting paid, only 10% to 20% of entrants cash. And rather than each winner receiving double his buy-in minus the site’s rake, the amount of the payout depends on how high in the ranks the winner finishes. The top 10 team owners receive the vast majority of the prize pool.
For example, DraftKings is currently hosting a large tournament called the Micro Millions #57: NBA $400K Main Event (it’s one in a long series of tourneys across multiple sports). Nearly 23,000 people are allowed to enter for a $20 buy-in. The prize pool is $400,000 and the top 4,625 entrants receive a payout.
Unlike a head-to-head or double-up, only 20% of the team owners competing in a tournament get paid. And only a tiny percentage of the winners get paid big money. Here’s the top portion of the payout schedule for the Micro Millions NBA tournament:
1st – $100,000
2nd – $40,000
3rd – $20,000
4th – $10,000
5th – $8,000
6th – $6,000
7th – $4,000
8th – $3,000
9th and 10th – $2,000
If you finish in 4,625th place, you’ll still receive a payout. But there’s a rapid decline in the amount you’re receive from 11th place downward. Placing 4,625th will net you $30.
What does that have to do with variance?
The top-heavy payout structure dramatically increases the degree of randomness in the tournament’s outcome. Why? Because there’s a greater chance that a breakout performance from a single NBA player will catapult a team owner’s roster into a cash position.
Keep in mind, only the top 10% to 20% earn a payout. That means there’s a much greater chance that a breakout performance will upset the rankings. In other words, there’s more randomness in the outcome.
Thus far, we’ve talked about variance in the context of how your lineup might finish in a fantasy NBA contest, from cash games to tournaments. But it’s also important to recognize the degree of predictability – or lack thereof – in a player’s performance.
Player And Statistical Variance In Fantasy NBA Contests
You should have an expectation for every player in your roster with regard to the number of points he’ll score. You also want to be reasonably certain he’ll produce as expected.
Variance can play havoc with your ability to make accurate projections for each player’s point production on a given night. It’s important to realize that points are generated by more than just shooting buckets. Your players also earn points with assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.
Field goals are the most predictable variable. There tends to be very little deviation in a scorer’s performance. If Stephen Curry managed to sink half his FG attempts last week, you can count on him doing the same this week.
The other plays – assists, rebounds, etc. – are more problematic. There’s a lot more randomness at work. For example, take a look at the highs and lows in each department for Curry over the last 10 games:
Assists: 0 – 11
Rebounds: 0 – 6
Steals: 1 – 4
Blocks: 0 – 2 (Curry is somewhat predictable with blocks simply because he doesn’t do it very often.)
The takeaway is that a player’s production can deviate considerably from the norm, especially when it comes to non-scoring variables. If you’re competing in a head-to-head or double-up, where a conservative approach can yield great results, less variance is better than more. In a large-field tournament, however, variance can give you a huge advantage over your opponents.
Daily Fantasy Basketball: How To Use Variance To Win
In a cash game, predictability is valuable. Because half the field gets paid, and the amount paid to each winner is the same, there’s no need to beat everyone by a huge margin. There’s no incentive to do so.
That being the case, one strategy is to spend a good chunk of your budget on a reliable scorer. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are good examples. Remember, field goals are more predictable than assists, rebounds and other non-scoring feats. For that reason, that’s where you should focus your cash in head-to-heads and double-ups. That’s where you’re most likely to be able to make accurate projections regarding point production.
Things are different in a large-field tournament. You need a lot more upside potential. With fewer team owners getting paid, and a microscopic percentage of winners receiving most of the prize pool, your lineup needs players who will perform above expectations.
You still want to have a consistent scorer in your roster, of course. He’ll help to ensure you stay even with the rest of the field. But the points you’ll need to spring ahead of your competition will usually come from players who can assist, block, steal and catch rebounds as well as score. There’s a lot more variance in those areas. That means there’s a greater chance of drafting someone who will deliver a stellar performance.
If you can draft a player who is not only an elite scorer, but also productive in other capacities – King James is a good example – all the better.
DraftKings’ $1 Million Daily Fantasy NBA Tournament
Want to see the effects of variance in action? Visit DraftKings. The site is currently hosting a record-breaking $2 million Fantasy Basketball World Championship. The 1st place winner is scheduled to receive a staggering $1 million. An additional $575,000 will be paid out to the 2nd through 5th place winners.
A lot of experienced and sophisticated fantasy NBA players are competing in the event. Given the top-heavy payout structure, there are going to be plenty of surprises in the run-up to the final tip-off later this month.
If you’d like the chance to win a huge cash prize, enter one of the qualifiers through March 16th. Buy-ins are as low as $2.
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