FanDuel Daily Fantasy NBA Snake Drafts: Basics and Strategy

FanDuel's NBA snake draft offering is a very different beast than the traditional daily fantasy product. What are some general strategies we can apply?

Daily fantasy NBA is a pretty unique beast, and that's why it's so much fun.

Sure, we have some players who aren't exactly household names show up in every sport -- a third-string tight end steals a touchdown, a rotation player hits a homer, a third-liner scores a goal -- but in the NBA, we usually get some lesser-known players in the spotlight for much longer.

We know a starter is sitting out, and the minutes have to go somewhere. That's why value -- comparing expected production to a player's salary on FanDuel -- is so vital in NBA daily fantasy.

But what happens when we remove the salary cap and instead have a snake draft to determine which players we roster? What does that do to daily fantasy NBA strategy? Let's dive in so that we can go crush some snake drafts on FanDuel.

The Details

A snake draft is a very common idea in fantasy sports. If you pick first in the first round of a three-person draft, you'd pick third in the second round and then first again in the third round. It's a snake. Get it?

For a FanDuel NBA snake draft, you will have to draft six players: two guards, three forwards/centers, and a utility. That's three fewer players than on a typical FanDuel roster and a lot more positional flexibility.

Unlike with some sports where positions matter more (you'd want to roster more quarterbacks than tight ends if you could in football), basketball is pretty evenly distributed across positions. It depends more on which players are in action for a given slate than it does which position they are.

Looking back at the 2019-20 season and applying some snake draft philosophies, what can we learn?

NBA Daily Fantasy Snake Draft Strategies

Know the Opportunity Cost
Opportunity cost is an economics term that basically just refers to the cost of not doing something because you chose to do something else. In a daily fantasy snake draft sense, it's effectively referring to the cost of not drafting a certain player.

Let's imagine a head-to-head snake draft, which would see (at most) six guards or eight forwards/centers drafted (because four guards and six forwards/centers are required, and there's a utility spot).

Let's say that James Harden is projected to score 60.0 FanDuel points and Giannis Antetokounmpo is projected to score 55.0. If you're picking first and you weren't thinking about opportunity cost, Harden would be the better pick.

But we know there's more to it. Let's now throw in the rest of the imagined player pool and, for simplicity's sake, say that Luka Doncic, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Trae Young, and Bradley Beal are all projected for 50.0 points, as well. Harden would have a 10-point gap on every other guard -- but also only a 10-point gap over the worst guard that could even be rostered for that slate.

Let's now say that Antetokounmpo's biggest competition at forward/center is projected for just 40.0 points because it's not a particularly good slate for those positions (which isn't that uncommon). Antetokounmpo (again, projected for 55.0 points) would have a 15.0-point jump over the next best option.

When factoring in what we miss out on (Antetokounmpo's 15.0-point edge) by making a choice (selecting Harden because he has the highest projection), that's opportunity cost. We can get closer to replacing Harden's expected production than we can get closer to replacing Antetokounmpo's expectation. Giannis would be the better first pick.

Actually Know the Opportunity Cost
In the example we just laid out, we knew the opportunity cost of that situation because it was a head-to-head game. We knew that the sixth guard that night would be the "worst" guard pick we'd have to roster. I'm going to call that G6, similar to the terminology we use in fantasy football when referring to an RB6. It'll keep things tidy.

But if you hop into a three-person draft, we could see 9 guards drafted (or 12 forwards/centers). Let's imagine that everything from that above example was the same aside from the league size, meaning the same projections exist but more players will be drafted.

Now, we'll throw in the wrinkle that after the G6 (projected for 50.0 fantasy points), G7 is projected for something crazy like only 10.0 FanDuel points to help illustrate our point. While FC2 was projected for 40.0 FanDuel points (15.0 fewer than Giannis), what if FC2 through FC12 were all projected for 40.0 FanDuel points?

In that scenario, Giannis would still have a 15.0-point gap on the FC2 but also on the FC12. Meanwhile, Harden would have a 50.0-point gap on the G7. You could get stuck with the G7 if you draft your FCs early. You would be guaranteed not to have to dig below FC12 in this example.

So, your opportunity cost changes based on your league size. You're looking for the "worst" pick you'd have to rely on, given the positional breakdown of the rosters.

An Actual Example
Now that we have a working idea of opportunity cost, let's look at an actual slate (from March 6th, 2020). It was a 10-game slate, meaning we had plenty of options to work with, and it featured some stars.

Projection Rank Guards
(Projected FanDuel Points)
(Projected FanDuel Points)
1 Luka Doncic
Giannis Antetokounmpo
2 Bradley Beal
Anthony Davis
3 Damian Lillard
LeBron James
4 Devin Booker
Domantas Sabonis
5 Jimmy Butler
Jayson Tatum
6 D'Angelo Russell
Nikola Vucevic
7 DeMar DeRozan
Kristaps Porzingis
8 Jrue Holiday
Hassan Whiteside
9 Ricky Rubio
John Collins
10 Chris Paul
Bam Adebayo
11 Donovan Mitchell
Brandon Ingram
12 Spencer Dinwiddie
Zion Williamson

Okay, so while it's easy to see Antetokounmpo projected for the most FanDuel points, the FC12 (Zion Williamson) was projected to be better than the G12 (Spencer Dinwiddie) and even the G9 (Ricky Rubio).

But we need to run those projections against the baseline or "replacement-level" or "last-pick" or "worst option" or -- you get it. I mean the lowest projected pick possible at each position on a given slate. Here's how a few of the top projected players' rankings change in a head-to-head, three-entry, and six-entry draft.

This table is sorted by projected FanDuel points. The ranks indicate the gap of a player's projection compared to the last pick (so Doncic, as G1, is compared to the G6 in the head-to-head but G18 in the six-entry list because all six teams could draft three guards each).

Player Projected
FanDuel Points
Giannis Antetokounmpo 58.70 2 1 1
Luka Doncic 56.27 1 2 3
Anthony Davis 51.45 4 4 2
Bradley Beal 50.56 3 3 9
LeBron James 50.26 5 5 4
Domantas Sabonis 47.47 8 7 5
Jayson Tatum 46.68 10 8 6
Damian Lillard 46.56 6 6 13
Nikola Vucevic 45.53 11 11 7
Kristaps Porzingis 45.25 12 12 8
Devin Booker 43.99 7 9 17
Jimmy Butler 43.69 9 10 18
Hassan Whiteside 43.26 13 13 10
John Collins 43.02 15 14 11
Bam Adebayo 41.64 18 17 12
Brandon Ingram 39.82 23 19 14
D'Angelo Russell 39.67 13 15 22
Zion Williamson 39.40 25 20 15

Let's examine Beal, who is the third-best pick overall in two- and three-entry drafts but ninth in the six-entry draft. Beal (projected for 50.56 points) has a sizable gap over the G6 (D'Angelo Russell; 39.67 projected points) giving him a lot of value over the "worst-pick" guard in small drafts. However, the G18 (Elfrid Payton; 33.58) showed that there was a pretty good amount of depth on this slate, reducing the impact Beal provided.

Conversely, Jayson Tatum vaulted from 10th overall in head-to-head value to 6th in a six-entry draft. Tatum's projected total of 46.68 as FC5 was barely better than the FC6 (Nikola Vucevic; 45.53), but in the event that your draft went 24 deep at forward/center, you'd be looking at Tatum's teammate, Daniel Theis, projected for only 27.81 FanDuel points. That gives Tatum more value.

Of course, the value would be different if we compare the baseline to the FC18 in case all utility picks are guards, but we can't fully predict how a draft will go.

General NBA Snake-Draft Tips

You don't have to generate a ton of projections to figure out how best to draft, but here are a few things you can do to pick a strong team.

Know the Projections: By knowing the projections of total fantasy points (not value), you'll get a good grasp of the top plays on the slate.
Know How Deep Your Draft Can Go: Again, you don't have to generate a bunch of numbers to figure out the best picks, but peek at the lowest possible projection you'd need to draft (e.g. the G6 in a head-to-head draft) and see how the top picks at the position compare to the bottom picks. That'll help you know where to prioritize.
Have a Plan, but Be Flexible: Knowing your draft's depth and the projections will help you form an idea, but drafts go crazy all the time.
Don't Get Cute: Daily fantasy NBA relies a lot on low-salaried players thrust into bigger roles so that you can afford higher-salaried players. In a snake draft, you can draft the best of the best. A star in a bad matchup will still generally be a better play than a mid-level pick in a perfect matchup. The fantasy points are all that matter.