The fantasy playoffs are fast approaching, which leads to increased scrutiny on each team's upcoming schedule. If you're on the bubble of your league's playoffs, you might not have the luxury of looking too far ahead -- you simply need to keep winning categories and matchups and sort out the rest once you've clinched. For industrious and/or lucky owners cruising toward the postseason, though, the difference between a good and bad schedule can be the difference between a win and a loss.
My colleague Steve Alexander thinks of 'games played' as akin to another fantasy category. If your opponent in the quarterfinals is outplaying you 48 games to 41, you're in trouble before a single player takes the court. Maxing out those games played begins with knowing the league-wide schedule. The NBA has done a good job spreading out games the past few years, reducing back-to-backs and 'four games in five nights' situations, but there are still disparities that can be exploited -- ignore them at your own peril. The full-season schedule grid is available from the launch of Rotoworld's Draft Guide until the bitter end of the season, along with columns detailing strategies and schedule highlights. If you're not already taking advantage of that resource, keep it in mind for next year.
If you are in a head-to-head league with playoffs that run Weeks 21-25, for instance, you'd do well to avoid the Mavs, Pistons and Blazers. Whether you have stars or mid-tier players from those teams, you're starting with a clear disadvantage -- they play a combined 15 games in that span. Compare that to the 13 teams that play 17+ games in the same four weeks and you're giving up 22%-28% value right off the bat. You can look at favorable vs. unfavorable matchups (I write about these in the Season Pass), as well as the likelihood of DNP-rest for specific players, but there's nothing you can do about a lousy schedule. Does playing Tim Hardaway Jr. over Derrick White or Danny Green make sense? On any given day, probably, but if I'm losing three games in a four-week span during head-to-head playoffs, I'll take my chances on White or Green.
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Team schedules aren't quite as important in rotisserie leagues, but there are still advantages to looking ahead. If you have an 82-game limit and are ahead of that pace for shooting guards, but need to catch up with games from centers, you can target trades (if the deadline hasn't passed) or pickups likely to max out your games. As we'll see, the Lakers, Wolves, Spurs, Jazz, Wizards and Celtics are likely options.
Let's look first at games-played for every team over the season's final seven weeks. Note that Week 26 is abbreviated with no more than two games for any team. As I've said before, unless you're in a roto league there's no reason to play until the bitter end of the season. Once we get into April, precautionary rest in endemic, lineups are chaotic, and quite frankly the best team doesn't always win. In head-to-head settings, why decide your league's championship in what is essentially an arbitrary, catch-as-catch-can part of the fantasy schedule? End rant.
The Wizards, Jazz, Spurs, Wolves, Celtics and Nets are on cruise-control no matter which block of weeks constitute your fantasy playoffs. With the exception of the unusual Week 22-25 block, those six teams are all on the higher side for games played across the board. With the exception of the Wolves, all of those teams are also in the thick of the playoff race -- either striving to make the cut or jockeying for a higher seed. I'm pleased to have high exposure to those teams in my own leagues, particularly the Celtics and Spurs (more on San Antonio below). The Celtics have been a fantasy wrecking crew with six guys in the top-100 for 9-cat value, and that late-season schedule promises to be glorious. That late in the season, it seems likely that Kemba Walker will get a few days off to rest his knee for the postseason. Otherwise, though, you can rely on Jayson Tatum as a fantasy stud and there's an inherent boost for Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. I'd love to see a late-season burst of value from Robert Williams, but let's not get too greedy.
On the negative side of the ledger, no team stands out more than Detroit. They're in the red for games played and it's not a minor matter, either. Christian Wood has been a sensational fantasy pickup, but I might even capitalize on his momentum and 'red hot' status with a trade here. After all, if you hold Wood, Bruce Brown, Derrick Rose and other Pistons into your playoffs, you're ceding a huge amount of value by default. In Weeks 21-24, you're down two games compared to nine different teams, and give up three games compared to the Jazz. Would you prefer 12 games from Bruce Brown, or 15 games from Joe Ingles? How about Derrick Rose vs. Mike Conley or Jordan Clarkson? I'm leaning toward the games-played advantage every time.
I'd caution against undue enthusiasm for the Lakers' seemingly excellent schedule for Weeks 21-25. The Week 24 schedule includes a back-to-back set on April 4/5, which could easily result in a DNP-Rest day for key veterans like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dany Green, Avery Bradley...the list goes on. The bigger issue is that in Week 25, L.A. gets a fluky stretch of three games in three nights. It's the result of a re-scheduled game in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant's death, and the result is that those aforementioned veterans will almost certainly miss one game. They could even sit out more if the Lakers are still comfortably atop the Western Conference at that point -- as I write this, they've won six straight and are 5.0 games up on the Nuggets (and 6.5 games up on the Clippers). That doesn't mean the Lakers have a bad schedule in this stretch -- it's just not as good as it looks at first glance.
I'm more optimistic about the Spurs' veterans, though it depends on how the standings are shaped in the coming month. I'm not convinced that Gregg Popovich would ever throw in the towel, and San Antonio is within striking distance of the No. 8 seed Grizzlies. They're currently 3.5 games back, and there are five teams within 4.5 games -- in descending order the Blazers (3.0 back), Pelicans, Spurs, Kings and Suns. Working in the Spurs' favor is a series of injuries for those competing teams. Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee) and Brandon Clarke (right quad) are both out weeks, Damian Lillard (groin) may miss "a couple more games," Marvin Bagley (knee) and Richaun Holmes (shoulder) are out indefinitely, and Kelly Oubre is suddenly dealing with a right knee injury. If you own LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan or (in deep leagues) Rudy Gay, you want to see the Spurs vying for the No. 8 seed until the final day of the regular season.
The color-coded formatting above makes it easy to identify trouble spots in the schedule. There are 11 games afflicted by a two-game dud in the heart of the fantasy playoffs, but if you don't play during Weeks 25 & 25 (and I hope you don't), there are only seven -- the Nets, Pistons, Pacers, Sixers, Suns, Kings and Raptors. Brooklyn is a particularly interesting case, because they run 4-4-2-4-4. It's a great overall schedule, but they're the only team with two games in Week 22. You can probably get around that dud if you own Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert or Jarrett Allen, etc. But if you own multiple Nets players, your season could end Mar. 16-22 if you don't plan carefully by trading one of them and/or maxing out games played elsewhere. Streaming players from teams with four games that week makes sense, and if necessary, you might need to cut lesser Nets like Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and DeAndre Jordan just to stay afloat.
That's not to say you should automatically consider cutting guys with two-game weeks, of course. The Sixers play twice in Week 21, but they follow that up with two four-game weeks. If you have Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz or Alec Burks on your team in a deeper league, would you cut them outright? If there are no compelling options on the waiver wire, you could instead hold them if your playoffs haven't started, you have a bye week, or you're positive you can win Week 21 despite their bad schedule. If those scenarios don't apply, cut them and move along -- after all, there are six teams that play four times that week. If Cody Zeller gives you more than half of Horford's production, per game, you come out ahead in that Week 21 matchup.
The week-to-week impact of fewer games is the focal point of this column, and the impact is enormous. To explore how much it really matters, here's data showing where some top players might fall based on season-long averages. For simplicity's sake, I'm referring to 'fantasy points' data (used by NBA.com, Yahoo and FanDuel).
Devin Booker plays two games in Week 21. That's half as much as six other teams. If you took half of his season average (40.0 fantasy points per game), he plummets outside the top-175. Ignore matchups and other factors, we can assume that Booker's two-game Week 21 will be equal to or lesser than a bunch of low-end guys who play four times -- Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Daniel Theis, Jordan Clarkson, etc. Again, this is a rough cut using fantasy points, rather than 8-cat/9-cat values, but the implications are clear.
It's not usually that stark of a drop-off with up to 50% of a player's value vanishing in a two-game week. If you have Danuel House, for instance, you're looking at a mediocre six games over two weeks in the thick of the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 21 and 22). Assuming a 25% haircut for his value, House drops from a reasonable low-end option in the top-120 range, to barely inside the top-200. Similarly, Goran Dragic (with three straight three-game weeks in 21, 22 and 23), falls from top-100 to barely top-175.
You can't do much about studs with bad schedules, especially this late in the season when the trade deadline has passed. If you have Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons with two games in Week 21, you're stuck with them. You can survive a bad weekly schedule for one star player on your squad, and maybe two, particularly if you stream intelligently and/or make pickups in advance to pad your games-played. Personally, I'm ruthless with my lower-end players. Assuming you have the transactions to do it (another reason it's critical not to max out your moves too early), ditch anyone in the lower third of your roster who doesn't have a good schedule. Nostalgia for the times when Maxi Kleber was on fire won't help you if he's giving up games in Weeks 23-24.
I'll conclude with a link to this data in Google Sheets, where everyone can view and download the tables above. If your fantasy playoffs go from Weeks 21-24, for instance, you can sort that column from largest to smallest for an at-a-glance list of teams to target and avoid. There's a second tab with values for top-200 players Let me know if you have any questions or insights on Twitter @Knaus_RW, and good luck!