Attention to defensive matchups is key
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.
Teams you pick up at the airport
DEF EFF: 26th
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.
DEF EFF: 27th
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
DEF EFF: 30th
The Nets are saved from a No. 1 ranking by their plodding style, which means they're defensively inefficient and boring to watch.
DEF EFF: 29th
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.
DEF EFF: 17th
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
DEF EFF: 3rd
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.
Los Angeles Lakers
DEF EFF: 9th
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.
DEF EFF: 2nd
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.
DEF EFF: 1st
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.
DEF EFF: 13th
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.