Finding Daily Fantasy Basketball Matchups That Fit: Transition and Pace

How do uptempo games really affect players' fantasy value?

A big key to success in daily fantasy sports is finding exploitable matchups when targeting players. At this point, daily fantasy sports is so mainstream that almost everyone constructing rosters takes matchups into account. Regardless of which site you prefer, the average daily fantasy player is going to be equipped with a Defense vs. Position Chart (DvP) of some sort to help their research process.

To maintain consistent success, you need to be one step ahead of the average player, though. DvP can offer some insight into finding advantageous matchups, but it can also be misleading. Simply, not all players are the same. Kevin Love and Nerlens Noel possess completely different skill sets, and therefore thrive in different situations. DvP would depict a matchup against a team that struggles to defend stretch-fours as equally beneficial for Noel as Love, when clearly it is not.

So, instead of blindly plugging players in when they draw a matchup with green numbers against their position on the DvP chart, let’s examine how teams defend against certain skills.

In this series, I will take you through and examine how to find matchups that fit players’ skill sets, rather than their position. I’ll use analytics to provide a more accurate look at the types of players teams struggle to defend, and then examine how players who fit that mold have fared against them.

The first skill we’ll look at is effectiveness in transition. By taking a look at the Pace that teams play at, how effectively they defend in transition, and how certain players have fared in uptempo matchups in the past, we can get a better idea of which players truly benefit from uptempo games, and which teams they are likely to be successful against.

The Most Effective Players in Transition

Before we get started, I understand that you could have guessed many names on this list. It doesn't take hours of analyzing numbers to tell you that Russell Westbrook is nearly unstoppable in transition, while Dion Waiters is... not so much. A lot of these names could have been identified by using the eye test. However, there are several names that will surprise you, so hang in there with me.

To begin, let’s examine which players have been the most effective in transition this season. These numbers are up-to-date as of February 28, and are subject to change as the season goes on. If you’re curious, the most recent data can be found  here.

The tables will show each player's points per possession in transition, their total transition points, and their Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) in transition.

Point Guard Games Played Points/Possession Points eFG%
Russell Westbrook 59 1.16 410 62.7
Stephen Curry 56 1.27 367 69.1
John Wall 57 1.06 343 61.3
Isaiah Thomas 60 1.06 314 53.6
Darren Collison 52 1.24 247 64.3
Kyle Lowry 57 1.18 244 60.3
Kemba Walker 56 1.17 174 55.1
Goran Dragic 49 1.09 161 61.1
Brandon Knight 42 1.27 157 71.6
Chris Paul 53 1.07 138 65.3

The top of this list was pretty predictable, but there were two players out of this group that really stuck out to me -- Darren Collison and Goran Dragic.

Sacramento plays at the fastest Pace in the NBA, so it shouldn't have been surprising to see their point guard near the top of the list. But, when you consider the fact that Collison comes off the bench and only plays 28.6 minutes per game, it becomes a lot more impressive that he leads the Kings in transition points and is ninth in the league in that category.

Dragic is a bit surprising considering the Heat play at the third slowest Pace in the NBA. He would appear to be a prime target when Miami is playing in a game in which they'll be forced to push the tempo.

Shooting Guard Games Played Points/Possession Points eFG%
James Harden 59 1.07 362 56.2
Klay Thompson 56 1.26 250 67.5
Will Barton 59 1.15 231 59.2
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 55 1.21 217 61.2
Avery Bradley 54 1.05 176 57.6
Andrew Wiggins 57 1.17 162 63.0

No big surprises here, other than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Detroit ranks in the bottom half of the league in Pace, yet Caldwell-Pope has been able to be one of the most productive shooting guards in transition, thanks to his impressive 1.21 points per possession and a transition eFG% that is 13.1% higher than his season average of 48.1%.

Small Forward Games Played Points/Possession Points eFG%
LeBron James 56 1.27 317 73.2
Paul George 58 1.13 257 61.7
Kevin Durant 52 1.29 257 70.9
Giannis Antetokounmpo 57 1.28 229 70.4
Rudy Gay 50 1.27 212 70.1
Trevor Ariza 58 1.27 201 67.7
Gordon Hayward 58 1.29 195 67.1
Kawhi Leonard 54 1.28 161 67.3
Danilo Gallinari 53 1.54 148 71.1
Chandler Parsons 51 1.31 139 68.8

The names on this list aren't surprising, but it is worth noting how many of these forwards have been able to maintain an eFG% of over 70 percent. For example, Kevin Durant would appear to be a better target in an uptempo game than Paul George, due to how much more efficient he has been in transition. Not to take anything away from the 257 points George has scored in transition, but that is partially a product of playing more games and the Pacers' playing at the eighth fastest Pace in basketball.

It is also worth observing the performances of the bottom four names on the list, all of which play for teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in Pace. Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, Danilo Gallinari, and Chandler Parsons are all prime candidates to target in uptempo games.

Power Forward Games Played Points/Possession Points eFG%
Jabari Parker 53 1.26 155 66.7
Thaddeus Young 59 0.97 155 58.2
Tobias Harris 49 1.21 143 63
Draymond Green 57 0.86 137 57.7
Anthony Davis 51 1.44 125 76.2
Ersan Ilyasova 52 1.27 113 67.4
Paul Millsap 58 1.08 112 62.8
Kenneth Faried 51 1.39 104 75.9
Blake Griffin 30 1.35 100 78.4
Nerlens Noel 51 1.41 97 82.4

My main takeaway from this group is how inefficient Draymond Green has been in transition this season. He easily ranks last in points per possession among these players, and his eFG% in transition is barely higher than his season average of 54.8%. I definitely wouldn't downgrade him in uptempo matchups, but he clearly hasn't benefited from them as much as the public probably thinks.

The former Kentucky big men have been very impressive in transition this season. Noel leads qualified players in transition eFG%, with an absurd 82.4 percent mark, which is a marked improvement over his season eFG% of 53.4 percent. It is worth noting, however, that he has only taken 51 shots in transition this season. Anthony Davis has the highest eFG% of players with at least 60 transition shot attempts.

Center Games Played Points/Possession Points eFG%
DeMarcus Cousins 47 1.14 201 60.4
Al Horford 58 1.33 110 72.5
Kelly Olynyk 54 1.36 99 71.4
Mason Plumlee 58 1.14 81 67.4
Jahlil Okafor 51 1.34 79 70.6

DeMarcus Cousins
has easily led centers in transition points and is a terrific target any time Sacramento draws an uptempo matchup.

If you've followed my "5 Under-the-Radar Plays" series for very long (shameless plug -- you really should if you play tournaments), you remember Al Horford being featured against the Warriors on February 22, and then going on to drop 66.2 FanDuel points, his season high. Horford's performance shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as he's maintained a transition eFG% that can rival anyone in the league.

5 Names That Will Surprise You

So, we know the players who have thrived in transition this season. Not everyone loves to play at such a quick tempo though. Here are five players who have been surprisingly inefficient in transition this season.

Player Games Played Points/Possession Points eFG%
Ish Smith 52 0.91 126 50.4
Rajon Rondo 54 0.67 117 51.5
Derrick Rose 48 0.89 115 48.5
Emmanuel Mudiay 45 0.71 84 39.0
P.J. Tucker 58 0.65 55 32.8

On the year, Ishmael Smith hasn't been atrocious, but his numbers as a member of the 76ers are near the bottom of the league. Philadelphia's sixth-ranked Pace hasn't led to increased efficiency for Smith, as he has maintained a 43.5 eFG% in transition and just 0.81 transition points per possession as a member of the Sixers.

Among players with at least 50 shot attempts, P.J. Tucker and Rajon Rondo rank last and second to last in transition points per possession, while Tucker's 32.8% eFG% is easily the lowest in the league. Sacramento plays at the fastest Pace in the league, while Phoenix is fourth, so these two will be involved in plenty of other uptempo games.

As noted by Russell Peddle, Emmanuel Mudiay is having one of the least efficient seasons ever recorded, and his performance on the fast break is no exception. The raw young rookie has posted the second lowest transition eFG% in the league, as well as the third lowest transition points per possession.

The 10 Worst Transition Defenses

Alright, you now know which players thrive in an uptempo environment, but what matchups should you utilize those players in? While you could just plug them in against teams ranked near the top in Pace, I have taken it a step further and created a list of the least effective transition defenses this season.

The formula for the ranking is as follows, with total points allowed and eFG% slightly weighted: [Rank (Total Pts allowed * 1.5) + Rank (PPP) + Rank (eFG%) * 1.5] / 3 = Score

The teams are listed in order, followed by their league rank in terms of transition points allowed (PA), transition points per possession allowed (PPP), transition Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed (eFG%), and Pace.

These numbers are up-to-date as of February 28 and are subject to change as the season goes on. If you’re reading this article later than the date it was published, the most recent data can be found here.

1. Phoenix Suns -- PA (1st), PPP (2nd), eFG% (1st), Pace (4th)
2. Sacramento Kings -- PA (2nd), PPP (6th), eFG% (3rd), Pace (1st)
3. Los Angeles Lakers -- PA (4th), PPP (3rd), eFG% (6th), Pace (14th)
4. Houston Rockets -- PA (5th), PPP (8th), eFG% (5th), Pace (7th)
5. Milwaukee Bucks -- PA (7th), PPP (1st), eFG% (9th), Pace (22nd)
6. Orlando Magic -- PA (12th), PPP (5th), eFG% (4th), Pace (19th)
7. Minnesota Timberwolves -- PA (15th), PPP (7th), eFG% (2nd), Pace (20th)
8. Brooklyn Nets -- PA (8th), PPP (11th), eFG% (8th), Pace (21st)
9. Golden State Warriors -- PA (6th), PPP (11th), eFG% (12th), Pace (2nd)
10. Philadelphia 76ers -- PA (3rd), PPP (16th), eFG% (16th), Pace (6th)

The first thing to take away from these numbers is that a matchup with an uptempo team isn’t necessarily a good thing. For instance, the Boston Celtics play at the third fastest Pace in the NBA but have allowed just the 18th most points in transition and the 25th most transition points per possession.

Likewise, a matchup with a slow-paced team doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a player who thrives in transition, as evidenced by the fact that four of the 10 worst transition defenses rank in the bottom half of the league in Pace. The Magic, Timberwolves, Nets, and Bucks all prefer to play at a slow tempo and have really struggled when forced to play out of their element.

Putting It All Together

This is all interesting, but how do we actually use this information to improve?

We just examined which teams present favorable matchups, so I'll stick with that theme. While breaking down the numbers, I was very surprised to find that 40 percent of the favorable matchups were teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in Pace.

I decided to take a deeper look and go through those four teams' game logs. I compared how players featured in this article that play for fast-paced teams (top 15 in Pace) performed against these four defenses and compared it to how players featured in this article that play for slow-paced teams (bottom 15 in Pace) performed.

My thought process was that, while these teams were very ineffective at defending in transition, perhaps they were able to mask it in games they weren't forced to push the tempo, and the results backed up my hypothesis.

The players who played on slow-paced teams averaged 1.2 fewer FanDuel points per game, while players from the fast teams outscored their FanDuel averages by 0.76 FanDuel points per game. Even more telling is the fact that only 28.57% of the players on slow-paced teams exceeded expectations in these matchups, while 59.3% of the players on fast-paced teams exceeded expectations.

My takeaway from this information is that just because a player is effective in transition and draws a matchup against a team that struggles to defend in transition doesn't mean he is guaranteed to perform exceptionally if both teams prefer to play at a slow tempo, which leads me to my next point.

While studying how players performed in transition, I began to notice a reoccurring theme -- players who play for slow-paced teams yet put up elite numbers in terms of transition efficiency. I decided to examine how these players performed in games against the six teams among the 10 worst transition defenses who play at a fast tempo. In these scenarios, the players from the slow-paced teams outscored their season average by 1.7 FanDuel points per game.

A few players from this group performed notably better in uptempo games. Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example, averaged 37.2 FanDuel points per game against the opponents who both struggle to defend transition and play at a fast Pace, including monster games of 69.4, 43, and 42.4. In games against the teams who struggle to defend transition but play at a slow Pace, he averaged 30.5 FanDuel points.

Below is a list of other players who also play for slow-paced teams and performed significantly better when their team was forced to increase the tempo than against slow-paced teams that who struggle to defend in transition. All numbers represent FanDuel points per game.

Player Slow-Paced Fast-Paced Difference
Will Barton 22.3 33.1 10.8
Jabari Parker 16.5 24.4 7.9
Thaddeus Young 27.8 35.0 7.2
Mason Plumlee 17.1 23.9 6.8
Giannis Antetokounmpo 30.5 37.2 6.7
Gordon Hayward 27.8 34.0 6.2
Kyle Lowry 36.7 40.5 3.8

While some players are reliant on uptempo matchups to realize their potential, others play in an uptempo environment every night, and are therefore safe to target against teams that struggle to defend in transition, regardless of Pace. Here are the players that have benefited the most from matchups with the top 10 teams listed previously.

Player Season Avg   Plus Matchup Avg   Difference
Brandon Knight 31.6 35.6 4.0
John Wall 41.8 45.7 3.9
Nerlens Noel 27.1 30.1 3.0
Al Horford 32.1 35.1 3.0
Paul Millsap 37.0 39.5 2.5
Anthony Davis 44.2 46.7 2.5
Darren Collison 22.3 24.1 1.8

Going forward, be sure to take into account which players are effective in transition, which teams struggle to defend in transition, and how they fit together.

The next part of the series will focus on players who excel in the pick and roll and which teams to target them against.