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Strategy & Advice: Tips for Beginners and Veterans

Kevin Payne

Kevin Payne

Kevin has worked for Rotowire just under a decade and has covered basketball, baseball and football. A glutton for punishment, he roots for his hometown Bills, Sabres and the New York Yankees. He hosts the RotoWire SiriusXM show every Wednesday and Friday and you can follow him on Twitter @KCPayne26.

Fantasy basketball offers the opportunity for NBA fans to appreciate the 82-game season even more. Various types of leagues and rules can accommodate any fantasy player’s preferences. Participating in a fantasy basketball league will allow you to follow other teams and players you might normally not. You will also find meaning and purpose in games you normally wouldn’t. Here are some basic points of playing fantasy basketball and some strategy to use to be successful, whether you are new to fantasy basketball or a veteran owner.

GETTING STARTED

Fantasy basketball offers a variety of leagues in which to participate, but all require similar preparation. First, research your league’s individual rules, and make sure you completely understand the parameters. Next, accumulate a list or lists of player rankings and make any necessary adjustments based on your own research. Be sure to adjust your rankings based on league format as a player can have significantly different value in a Rotisserie League than a Head-to-Head League. Make sure you know which players are hurt or are coming back from an injury as this could impact their value. Be aware of an injured player’s timetable to return but understand that this is just an estimation; it could be longer or shorter than indicated. Also, put together a good sleeper and bust list. And know the players you want to target in your draft, but be prepared to adjust your strategy since drafts are unpredictable.

During the season use the waiver wire or explore a trade to help any categories your team is struggling with. Typically in trades, the owner receiving the best player is on the winning side of the deal, but don’t be afraid to address a needed category even if the trade is slightly uneven. Shop players in categories your strongest in to address your team’s weaker spots.

TYPES OF LEAGUES

There are three basic league formats typically used in fantasy basketball: Rotisserie, Points and Head-to-Head leagues.

Rotisserie Leagues

In a Rotisserie or Roto league, teams accumulate points in various categories based on each player’s statistics. Categories typically used are: points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and three-pointers made. The number of points a team receives in each category depends on the number of teams in the league. If there are 12 teams in the league, the team that leads a category receives 12 points. For example, the team with the most total rebounds would receive 12 points. The team with the second most rebounds receives 11 points and so on until the team with the fewest rebounds receives one point. Points in all categories are totaled for each team to determine the team's league standing. The team with the most total points at year’s end is the league champion. Many fantasy owners prefer this format because it eliminates the randomness inherent in weekly head-to-head matchups.

Roto League Strategy: When drafting your team, it’s best to look for a well-balanced squad that isn’t too weak in any one or two categories. A strategy sometimes used is known as “punting” a category. Basically you acknowledge that you will ignore one category to solidify several other categories. This is not a good strategy as most successful champions have a team that competes in every category.
To ensure you don’t tank any category, be aware of players known as “category killers.” For example, Dwight Howard shoots about 60 percent from the free-throw line, which, over the course of a season, is enough to drag you to the bottom of the free-throw percentage category. Other players have a similar ability to do the same for field-goal percentage. When evaluating players with those two categories in mind, make sure you note how many shots they take, as that’s just as important as the percentage. A player like Chauncey Billups has a lot of value for the free-throw percentage category because he not only shoots 91 percent from the line, but he also makes more than 400 free throws in a season.

Another good strategy is to target players who accumulate statistics outside the norms for their position. For example, look for guards who are strong rebounders or centers who rack up a few assists each game. This will give you a competitive advantage in your league that will pay off over an 82-game season.

Points Leagues

In a Points league, points are assigned for each stat category. For example, rebounds might be worth three points, assists two points and blocks one point. The category points are then totaled for each owner, and the owner with the most cumulative points wins the league championship.

Points League Strategy: A balanced roster is still important in Points leagues -- you want to compete across the categories -- but the points assigned to stats will determine which categories, and therefore players, are most valuable. For example, if rebounds are worth five points and assists are worth one, power forwards will have more value than point guards. This makes “punting” a category that much easier -- you can load up on the categories worth the most points at the expense of a less-valued category.

Another important factor is turnovers. If a turnover is worth negative points, a player with decent stats but a lot turnovers can end up hurting your team. Note a player’s assist-to-turnover ratio as part of your draft preparation, and be sure to properly consider turnovers when compiling cheatsheets.

Head-to-Head Leagues

Another type of league is known as Head-To-Head. In this style, an owner plays against another owner in a one-on-one matchup across a given period, usually a week. Toward the end of the season, the top few teams as determined by total wins and losses advance to the playoffs to compete for the league championship in another series of one-on-one matchups.

Head-to-head leagues can be scored two ways. The first is Categorical (primary type for baseball) in which wins are given for each category based on which team has better stats (i.e. the team with the most rebounds wins the rebounds category). The second type of Head-to-Head style is Points (primary type for football) in which each team amasses points for stats (four points per rebound, for example), and the team owner with the most total points across all the categories that week wins the matchup.

The downside to a Head-to-Head league is that luck plays a more prominent role. An owner might have a great week statistically but have the misfortune of playing the owner who has the league-high stats for a given week. Likewise, the top team in the league might be bested in the playoffs only because a lesser team gets hot at the right time. On the other hand, Head-to-Head leagues offer the excitement of weekly matchups and end-of-year playoffs that Roto or Points leagues do not.

Head-to-Head League Strategy: There are two schools of thought in Head-to-Head leagues: across-the-board balance and targeting a handful of winnable categories. With the first option, it’s important to understand that a player who, for example, contributes 25 points per game with limited rebounds and assists and a poor shooting percentage is not as good as a 15-point-per-game player who averages 15 total assists/rebounds and has a good shooting percentage. You’re not looking for players who accumulate one or two categories, you want players who have the best stats across the board.

With the other option, you are looking to dominate a handful of categories (usually points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks), which will ensure your team wins its weekly matchup more often than not. You can ignore the percentage categories, and the “category killers” won’t hurt you has badly. Dwight Howard’s 60-percent free-throw shooting won’t hamstring you if you are dominating in the counting stats. Plus, percentages are hard to count on week to week, and a great free-throw shooter, for example, is not going to offer as much of a competitive advantage.

THE DRAFT

There are two basic draft formats in fantasy basketball: a snake or serpentine draft and an auction draft.

Snake Draft

The most common type of draft is known as a snake or serpentine draft. In this format, draft order is randomly assigned to owners who then select players in each round at their draft position. The draft order is reversed in even numbered rounds, so that the owner who has the first pick of the first round has the last pick of the second round, moving the draft in a “snake”-like fashion. The draft continues until each owner’s roster is filled.

Snake Draft Strategy: The goal in the first few rounds is to draft consistent performers, who night in and night out will score the bulk of points for your team. As the draft continues, be aware of the positions you have filled and those you still need to fill. If there’s a run on players at a certain position, don’t panic and think you must also draft a player at that position lest you miss out. Instead, grab a player at another position who has more value. For example, if a point guard is selected in the five picks ahead of you, consider the centers still available. Instead of taking the sixth-best point guard, take a top center and then fill the point-guard spot later. In other words, be the owner who starts the run, not the owner who finishes the run. This will increase the overall value of your team by taking the best available player.

Auction Draft

Another type of draft is an auction in which teams are allocated a salary cap to choose players. In this format, owners bid numeric values on players with the highest bid winning the player. The auction continues until each team has filled its roster.

Auction Draft Strategy: The most common auction strategies are a “value strategy” and “stars and scrubs.” In the former strategy, an owner shops for undervalued players, hoping this will give him more bang for his buck across his roster. Typically, an owner looking for value will wait to bid on players as other owners overspend. This will leave him with extra money later in the auction to win players and find bargains. In the “stars and scrubs” strategy, an owner spends freely to stock his team with a few dominant players (stars) and then adds serviceable players later in the draft (scrubs) with his limited remaining dollars. In either strategy, it’s important to manage your budget well and to know the NBA player pool as well as possible.

PLAYER/ROSTER CONSIDERATIONS

Lineup Changes

Typically, leagues allow either daily or weekly lineup changes. In weekly leagues, lineups are set once a week prior to the first game on Monday. Thereafter, your lineup cannot change until the following week. It is important to know how many games each of your players will play in a given week. It may be beneficial to bench a regular starter if he has only two or three games in favor of a slightly lesser player who has four or even five games. In daily leagues, owners can set lineups based on each day’s games. Most leagues with daily lineup changes, however, have a games-played cap for each position. You can mix and match players for the position, but once your reach the 82-games cap, you will no longer accumulate stats for that spot.

Whether in a weekly or daily league, it’s critical for owners to pay attention to their players’ opponents. Are they facing a solid defense or a team that plays a wide open, high-scoring style? Avoiding tough matchups and exploiting better matchups will lead to fantasy success.

Position Eligibility

While some leagues stick with the standard guard, forward and center positions, many leagues go further with point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center positions. Players qualify for positions based upon league rules. For example, let’s say your league requires 10 games played to qualify for a position. If a power forward plays 10 games at center, he would then be eligible to be rostered as a center in addition to his primary position as a power forward. This is another area where owners can gain a competitive advantage as it gives an owner greater flexibility in setting his lineup. If the player qualifies, an owner can replace a lesser player at a scarce position with a better player from a more abundant position (i.e. playing power forward at center).

Many leagues also use a “flex” position at which any player can be rostered regardless of what position they play, offering additional flexibility to owners.

Free Agents

During the season, owners can acquire players who aren’t already on a team, known as “free agents.” Usually the free agents to consider are players who get an increase in playing time due to performance, an injury to a teammate or some type of trade. Some leagues allow players to be picked up immediately for use the following day or week. Other leagues require a waiting period before these players can be claimed with a waiver order determined by leagues rules. Claiming a free agent is very important as every year an unknown player will exceed expectations. Regularly monitor the status of the top free agents in your league. A player’s fantasy worth isn’t just dependent on his skill, but also his playing time. If you know a free agent is going to see an uptick in minutes, move to acquire him.

Sleepers

Get familiar with potential “sleepers” before drafting. Sleeper lists are supposed to predict which players will outproduce their draft-day value and those who will have breakout seasons. These are typically players who have improved their playing time by becoming a starter or landing a more prominent role on a new team but who are still flying under the radar relative to their perceived value. Another good indicator of a potential sleeper is improved play over the course of the previous season. Be aware that a sleeper list does not guarantee a breakout season. Therefore, don’t take a sleeper list at face value -- use your own due diligence to figure out who you like as a sleeper and why. Not only will you be more prepared for your draft, but you’ll learn the NBA player pool better too, which is important.

Busts

Busts are the flip side of sleepers - players unlikely to live up to draft-day expectations. This can be due to a reduced role or playing time, injury history or diminishing skills. As with sleepers, it’s important to do your homework on busts. Which players are getting up there in age? Who has seen a marked decline in production over the last season or seasons? Who has a sufficient track record of injury to be tagged with the “injury-prone” label? Naming a player a bust doesn’t necessarily mean the player is going to be awful; it simply means he will not return his expected value. Be aware of potential busts and avoid them on draft day.

Rookies

Each year a new crop of rookies enters the NBA, hoping to make an impact on the league. Rookies are filled with uncertainty, but just because a player is a rookie doesn’t mean he should be ignored in fantasy circles. Each year a group of rookies makes a significant fantasy impact and rewards an owner’s faith in them. Collegiate success doesn’t guarantee NBA success, of course, so keep an eye on how a rookie fares during summer league action and his preseason progress with his new team. Also analyze a rookie’s skills, size and role. Does he have the skills necessary to contribute at the NBA level or do his skills still need refining? Is he physical enough to not only survive an NBA pounding but to consistently perform? Will he find himself in a role that offers an opportunity to blossom or will he buried in his team’s rotation? Stay on top of the rookie crop throughout the year and pounce when the situation warrants.

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