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trends

GAME THEORY

Better B-Ball Bettors Daily fantasy sports wagering algorithms are nailing the tangibles, but missing some intangibles

J

ames Harden brings the ball past half-court with five seconds left. He dribbles once, twice, moves left and crosses back right to give himself space for a game winning jumper—he lets it fly as the buzzer sounds and drains it! The crowd goes wild, and the Houston Rockets win! The bucket brings the total game score to 250 points, just above the projected over-under, and Harden’s fantasy point total of 55.2 beats his projection of 45. It’s not surprising given the opponent’s high-paced offense and weak overall defense against opposing ball handlers like Harden. Those factors give Harden the perfect landscape to crush not only his projection, but his salary, too. The exhilarating world of daily fantasy sports (DFS) is relatively new compared with the traditional over-under bets that fans have been placing for years. DFS provides online games where participants assemble imaginary teams of real professional players to compete based on statistical performance in actual games. Sites like FanDuel and DraftKings offer daily tournaments that DFS players can enter for a chance to win thousands of dollars for a small $5-$10 entry fee for most large guaranteed prize pool (GPP) tournaments. People don’t see that type of return on capital on a regular basis even in the tournament poker world, and it’s why so many are drawn to DFS. DFS also gives players an emotional tie to the game they’re

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watching, which is part of the reason it’s exploded in popularity recently. DFS also gives players an emotional tie to the game they’re watching, which is part of the reason it’s exploded in popularity recently. DFS also requires that its participants become more knowledgeable. Now, players care about the individual player stats rather than just who wins the game. Online DFS betting is also legal in most parts of the United States—something that can’t be said about online poker. With so much opportunity out there, readers might assume that people are crunching numbers left and right, and they’re correct— plenty of sites that focus on projecting player points have come to light, and plenty of them project very accurately—there’s something to be said about intangible pieces of the puzzle, though, and that’s the topic at hand— how do players use these projections, and are they the be-all-end-all? Basketball tangibles—MPG Basketball’s popular in the DFS community, not only because games are played almost every day during the season but also because the outcomes are very predictable. Data’s abundant in the sport, and it’s spliced on a per-game basis to determine projections like pace, minutes played per player and fantasy points per player. The list goes on and on. With basketball, many DFS players are in the same camp, agreeing that minutes played is a high-tier stat. A fully healthy Harden playing 35 mpg

is different than if he were coming off a fresh injury and was limited to 15 mpg to 20 mpg for the next few outings. The more time a player is in the game, the more opportunities arise for points scored, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, which are the main categories that contribute to a player’s total fantasy output. Not only is Harden’s fantasy point ceiling much higher when playing more minutes, but his fantasy point floor is higher too—he’s much more of a “safe play” playing a full complement of minutes, compared with a 15- to 20-minute restriction (see “The minutiae,” p. 39). To exceed his salary on a restriction, he’d have to have an insane game with a massive fantasy point-per-minute output.

Stars like Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Stephen Curry (30) of Golden State drive crowds wild in both in reality and in daily fantasy sports.

PHOTOGRAPH: TROY TAORMINA/USA TODAY SPORTS

By Mike Butler

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