Commentary

Attention to defensive matchups is key

Updated: February 16, 2012, 5:57 PM ET
By John Cregan | Special to ESPN.com

I took my 3-year-old to last night's Wizards game. No, he hadn't done anything wrong. He's been an early rider on the Trevor Booker bandwagon, and wanted a chance to see his undersized hero battle Blake Griffin in person. The fact that it was also his first Clippers game (being held in the middle of Lob City) portended a dunk-heavy, toddler-friendly brand of basketball.

On the ride over, I tried to get him pumped up with a next-level stat I had just been poring over for this very column:

Me: So, aside from the dunks we're going to see, these teams have two of the worst opponent 3-point field goal percentages in the league, which means we should see lots of open looks from downtown.

Male Heir: Can I play Astrosmash on your phone?

My son's love of vintage Intellivision gaming notwithstanding, this conversation still held some nuggets of fantasy interest. Because if you're looking for an effective and impactful way of improving your fantasy team's prospects, you need to start paying attention to defensive matchups.

When faced with a lineup decision, whether to play one player over another or whether to pick up one player over another for a spot start, I will always look at the NBA team that player is going up against.

For instance, if I were contemplating picking up Randy Foye for Wednesday night's Clippers-Wizards tilt, Foye's being at home versus the Wizards was about as fantasy-friendly an environment as you could hope to find. Foye's accuracy from behind the arc improves by about 15 percent at home (.413 versus .273), and the Wizards post an inviting defensive 3-point percentage of .365. That's a recipe for at least two or three 3-pointers for Randy Foye.

And while Foye responded by canning two deep balls, those cavernous, uncontested looks Nick Young gave him really should have resulted in at least a couple more 3s.

Conversely, it's vital to have a feel for which teams are the stingiest defensively, so as to know who to avoid in certain situations. It would have been a bad night to start JaVale McGee if you were trolling for rebounds, as the Clippers give up the fewest rebounds in the NBA (McGee finished with just five boards).

Playing to situational matchups is one of the most underrated and unexplored areas of fantasy ownerdom. It's important in rotisserie-based leagues, but absolutely vital in head-to-head leagues, where one wrong roster move can doom an entire week & or season.

When considering team defense, I commit these seven areas to Roto-memory. Some of these are self-explanatory, and some require a little extra explanation:

PTS: Opponents' points per game
FG%: Opponents' field goal percentage
3P%: Opponent 3-point field goal percentage
PACE: Not a defensive stat, but vital -- amount of possessions generated per game
DEF EFF: The amount of points a team gives up per 100 possessions
REBR: Rebound rate. Percentage of missed shots a team rebounds.
FT/FGA: Opponents' free throws per field goal attempt, a good way to see which teams have a tendency to send opponents to the line.

By using these seven categories as a guide, you'll get a feel for which teams constitute statistical "dinner" and which ones aren't even a South Beach late-night snack.

[+] EnlargeChris Paul
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe Wizards have had difficulty stopping anyone from going where they want this season.

Teams you pick up at the airport

Washington Wizards
PTS: 25th
FG%: 22nd
3P%: 25th
PACE: 4th
DEF EFF: 26th
REBR: 28th
FT/FGA: 23rd

My Wizards present the perfect storm; they give up a ton of points, defend poorly on the perimeter, defend poorly in the paint, give up a ton of rebounds, foul a lot & and play an up-tempo, high-pace style, so you get all of those attributes in a high-volume concentration. They do seem to be improving with their rotations under Randy Wittman, but at best we're talking microscopic dollops of incremental improvement. Three passes on offense is all you need to send the Wizards molting.

Sacramento Kings
PTS: 30th
FG%: 27th
3P%: 9th
PACE: 5th
DEF EFF: 27th
REBR: 22nd
FT/FGA: 10th

The Kings are tougher on the outside, but are absolute pushovers everywhere else on the floor, compounding their interior issues with another high-pace attack. It seems like upping their foul rate might help stem the tide, but they're already high in that stat, ranking 10th in the NBA. Like the Wizards, the Kings have benefited from a coaching change.

New Jersey Nets
PTS: 27th
FG%: 30th
3P%: 30th
PACE: 27th
DEF EFF: 30th
REBR: 25th
FT/FGA: 18th

The Nets are saved from a No. 1 ranking by their plodding style, which means they're defensively inefficient and boring to watch.

Charlotte Bobcats
PTS: 29th
FG%: 28th
3P%: 22nd
PACE: 17th
DEF EFF: 29th
REBR: 30th
FT/FGA: 12th

The Bobcats do a little bit of everything & badly. Of special interest is their anemic rebound rate, which shows what happens when you're relying on a Bismack Biyombo/Byron Mullens/DeSagana Diop power trio at the 5.

Denver Nuggets
PTS: 26th
FG%: 25th
3P%: 29th
PACE: 1st
DEF EFF: 17th
REBR: 10th
FT/FGA: 3rd

The surprise entry on this list with a 17-13 record. They lead the NBA in pace and give up a ton of points. But they rebound well and rank second in the NBA in scoring, the only team as of this writing that succeeds by turning every game into a track meet.

Teams to avoid

Boston Celtics
PTS: 1st
FG%: 3rd
3P%: 1st
PACE: 28th
DEF EFF: 3rd
REBR: 24th
FT/FGA: 20th

The past few seasons, Boston, San Antonio and Cleveland were always the teams you wanted to meet the least in a dark alley. Coaching changes and the aging process have conspired to send the Spurs and Cavaliers to the middle rungs of the NBA defensive rankings, but the Celtics remain evergreen on this front. No Kendrick Perkins has meant some slippage in rebounding, but most nights, they're still a fantasy buzz saw, and still in a class by themselves.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barnes
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesThe Lakers under Mike Brown offer plenty of resistance at the defensive end.

Los Angeles Lakers
PTS: 4th
FG%: 2nd
3P%: 7th
PACE: 24th
DEF EFF: 9th
REBR: 2nd
FT/FGA: 2nd

Well, it's easy to tell where Mike Brown ended up. The Lakers might not be as much fun to watch during their peak Triangle campaigns, but Brown is certainly maximizing the Lakers' defensive potential.

Chicago Bulls
PTS: 3rd
FG%: 7th
3P%: 10th
PACE: 20th
DEF EFF: 2nd
REBR: 1st
FT/FGA: 4th

A very similar set of numbers to the Lakers; both teams pound you on the inside and grab every rebound in sight. An underrated stat: Both teams are also top-5 in opponents' free throw rate, meaning they don't have to resort to fouling to slow you down.

Philadelphia 76ers
PTS: 2nd
FG%: 4th
3P%: 5th
PACE: 24th
DEF EFF: 1st
REBR: 22nd
FT/FGA: 5th

It's no secret that the resurgent 76ers are winning with a deliberate yet efficient offensive style. But their top-to-bottom stinginess on defense is the real reason they're the third-best team in the Eastern Conference.

Orlando Magic
PTS: 5th
FG%: 10th
3P%: 11th
PACE: 26th
DEF EFF: 13th
REBR: 11th
FT/FGA: 7th

I could have put a couple of other teams at the fifth spot on this list (Mavericks, Hawks), but I wanted to include Orlando here to underscore the singular impact of Dwight Howard, who leads the NBA in defensive win shares at 2.8.

Take a long look at the Magic's team-wide defensive stats, and one thing becomes clear: Remove Howard from the equation and the Magic are reduced to a quivering, wasted piece of jelly. On the other hand, stick Howard on the Lakers & and the Lakers suddenly become the Baltimore Ravens.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JPCregan.

John Cregan

Fantasy Basketball
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

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