Fantasy Basketball Draft Guide

The draft is the single most important day of every fantasy owners’ season – this is as true for fantasy basketball as for any other fantasy sport. A mediocre draft doesn’t mean the premature death of a season, but a bad draft truly can.

Even owners that have middle-of-the-road drafts will have to expend a lot of time and energy trading their way out of the middle and praying to the injury gods for assistance on waivers down the line – a good draft means worrying less about short-term management functions like trades and intense lineup shuffling.

Because so many factors affect the outcome of every draft, the concept of a full-fledged “guide” that teaches people everything they need to know to have a perfect draft is ludicrous. This guide is designed to do one thing – give newcomers to daily fantasy (or anyone who wants to understand the game’s basics) enough information to out-perform the other owners in their leagues.

Luckily, most fantasy players already have a below-average understanding of the league and its players – combine opponent ignorance with a little knowledge and anyone can be a more successful fantasy GM. In addition, don’t forget to check out our added guide on the 7 players you should AVOID drafting in DFS basketball.

The Importance of League Size

One of the more significant factors in fantasy basketball draft strategy is the size of the league and the position a player drafts in within that particular size. Veteran fantasy NBA players have their favorite league sizes and draft positions – to debate which is the best is foolish. Better to understand the most popular sizes and positions and how they affect draft strategy.

Outside of custom leagues the minimum league size found on the major commercial fantasy platforms is eight. Again, the maximum can be really high in a custom league (and even on some of the major fantasy platforms), but most fantasy leagues top at around a dozen participants. Even more precisely, most leagues are eight, ten, or twelve teams in size.

Eight-Team Leagues – These are fun on draft day for a few reasons. First of all, the draft moves really quickly. Second, teams end up fairly star-studded, increasing parity between teams a bit, especially compared to leagues with a dozen teams.

And with just eight teams drafting, the snake-style draft lineup means no one is ever more than fifteen picks away from their next selection. The downside? With so few pickers, decisions in the middle rounds get tough. Do you take a B-list Center over an A-list guard? Big men fly off the board in eight team leagues, even faster than they do in larger ones.

Ten-Team Leagues – These are the closest thing to a standard format that fantasy basketball platforms have. Ten team snake-style drafts are the standard-bearer of fantasy NBA play, and they’re a lot of fun.

The draft moves at an average pace, owners have a lot fewer tough decisions to make in terms of player quality (since the pool is thinned out a little), and there are real advantages to certain draft positions starting at the ten-team level, particularly the first, fifth, and last picks.

More on that later though. The downside of a ten team league is mostly that it’s so ordinary – larger leagues make drafting as tough as it can get, while smaller leagues create star-heavy lineups that produce big points.

Twelve-Team Leagues – Not for novices, leagues made up of twelve or more teams require expert draft skills, roster management that fringes on the extreme, and a deep understanding of the league, not to mention an overall high fantasy IQ. Of course, these reasons are also why players are drawn to larger leagues.

Drafting against a large number of other owners requires a draft that fits a long-term strategy perfectly; on the other hand, having eleven other owners to trade with gives fantasy owners that can sweet-talk their way into a trade a big advantage.

The obvious downside of this league is that it’s just plain tough to put together (and maintain) a team with so much competition over such a long period of time.

Draft Position Strategy

On the topic of draft position, this is a trick question, and one for which you’ll find a ton of divergent opinions. The first thing to consider when imagining one’s draft position and attempting to form a draft strategy around that position is the style of the draft. The vast majority of fantasy NBA drafts follow what’s called a snake pattern, in which the picks go in this order:

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, etc.

Notice how the order “snakes” back on itself after the last pick – this is meant to counter-balance the potentially negative impact of drafting “last,” but the structure is such that it can be used to provide other advantages as well.

Assuming your draft follows this snake pattern, there are clear advantages at a few different positions. Let’s take a look at three of our writers’ favorite places to pick in their fantasy basketball drafts.

First Pick

Drafting first means selecting what you believe will be the league’s powerhouse player, and because of small team and league size, choosing an MVP to your roster can make a huge difference. But there’s another benefit to picking first in a snake-style draft. The GM that gets first pick gets three picks in the first twenty-one rounds, a slight advantage over every other position.

In the ten-team league above, this advantage isn’t as pronounced as in an eight-team league, in which the lucky owner in first position gets a pick roughly every 5.5 rounds for the duration of the draft. Position 1 is best in the smallest leagues, but don’t ignore the benefit of selecting a Lebron James or Kevin Durant in even the most monstrously-sized leagues.

A useful strategy for first-pickers is to ignore the hype surrounding what player “should be” the overall pick and think strategically instead – remember that first-pickers won’t have another selection (in a standard ten-team league) until the end of the second round.

This year, we believe big men will play the single biggest role in long-term fantasy success, so waiting until that late second-round pick for a foundational big just doesn’t make sense. In the case of the 2014-2015 season, a player like Anthony Davis could be the way to go, using the 20th and 21st picks to shore up smaller high-scoring position players.

Last Pick

The biggest advantage of having the last pick is being one of only two players that ever get back-to-back selections (along with the first overall picker in later rounds). Unlike picking first, which tends to benefit GMs in smaller leagues, picking last can be of huge benefit to players in ten- or twelve-team leagues (or larger).

A small number of fantasy powerhouses at the PF and C positions in the modern league makes the option to pick a top-rated big and a top-rated guard in the first and second rounds a valuable commodity as the field of competition gets larger. The downside – he who picks last gets some of the lowest-value picks of each round, which can help build a strong bench but tends to produce a team that lacks the big star-power that can mean the difference at seasons’ end.

A solid strategy for last-pickers is to start by drafting pairs of players with opposing talent in early rounds in an attempt to create a balanced team that’s tough to beat on a weekly basis – an example for this year’s draft would be to select Serge Ibaka (or any other dominant high-scoring and block-happy big man) along with the Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, set to take on an even bigger role. That combination gives last pickers the best of both worlds – plenty of points for scoring and percentage as well as a defensive angle that is the foundation of a balanced team.

Second Pick

Having the second pick in any fantasy draft puts players in an intriguing position. In a standard 10-team league, the fantasy owner who picks second will get the 2nd, 19th, and 22nd picks overall. This is a wonderful position for building a flashy set of starters, and depending on what sort of managers you play against, it’s the best position for poaching a potential MVP.

The straight-chalk first pick in the modern NBA is sometimes Lebron James, and as he’s a perennial fan and front-office favorite for MVP, it sort of makes sense for him to hold that spot. However, picking second frees a manager up to draft the top points-producing Center in New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, and with the general lack of big talent in the league, that’s a valuable commodity to have.

If Dirk Nowitzki is available at that 19th pick position, that’s a duo anyone can build a fantasy team around. The benefit of pick two is decreased in larger leagues, if only because the choices between players of equal talent increase in later rounds. An example of smart second pick strategy (in our standard ten-team setup) is to try to outguess the first picker for that one dominant position player that seems to crop up every NBA season (drafting KD in response to his drafting King James, for example), then using those close-together 19th and 22nd picks to support him with consistent veteran role-players.

In the 2014-2015 season, that could mean two high-scoring smaller players or a greedy pick of two other of the league’s best bigs to get a jump on what’s already a small pool of available talent.

Position-Based Strategy

Again, the variety of rules in fantasy basketball leagues makes creating a strategy based entirely on position a difficult matter. To avoid confusion, we’ll use the most common default position settings for fantasy platforms, which includes ten active players (including “utility” players) and a specific number of players available on the bench, somewhere between one and four depending on the league. Each team will have the same lineup requirement, which usually looks like this:

G – 1
SG – 1
PG – 1
F – 1
SF – 1
PF – 1
C – 2
Utility – 2
Bench – 2

In this example, players must start two centers and only have two utility spots, which along with two bench slots means every team is made up of twelve players at a time. This also gives you the size of the draft pool (multiply the number of players per team by the number of teams) and helps you organize your specific draft strategy.

For example, strategy based on the drafting of just 80 players (for an eight-team league with ten players on each side) is vastly different from strategy used to draft a team out of an eventual 196 players (for a roster in a 14-team league made up of 14 players each).

Be Realistic about Available Talent

Building a draft strategy based on player positions means considering the available talent pool and comparing it to your draft position. A perfect example from our modern league is the issue of Centers – players tend to pick Centers “out of order” (meaning at a position higher than their rating) because there are so few fantasy-positive big men in the league, a point we’ll drive into the ground as much as we’d like, thank you very much.

… But Use It to Your Advantage

The opposite side of that coin is understanding what positions are stacked and can be left until later rounds to shore up. Looking at the pool of available players for the 2014-2015 season, and based on the position requirement breakdown noted above for a 10-team league, positional strategy goes something like this.

Since a total of two active Centers and one active Power Forward is required, quality big men are going to be snapped up fast. Players could choose to participate in this frenzy, attempting to compete as other GMs load up on the big boys, or they could take advantage of the situation, accept that they’ll have a weakness at PF/C, and snipe high-value guards and forwards as they’re passed over for the league’s tough guys. The choice of action here would depend also on draft position – a last-picker could easily do both, selecting a top big man and a top shooter in back-to-back selections.

Generally speaking, the modern NBA is dense with both top-rated and consistent mid-range guards, so in modern drafts these choices can sometimes wait until much later in a given draft, depending on the behavior of other GMs. Fantasy players with the most time between their selections could take advantage of this situation by snapping up a powerhouse guard much earlier than the player’s ranking suggests is wise, a particularly good strategy for shoring up shooting percentage stats, if a player like Dwayne Wade slips into the third (or even fourth) round because he’s a guard and because he’s got a little age on him.

The strategies above are based on common-sense and years of experience drafting fantasy basketball rosters based on the NBA. Fantasy players are welcome to ignore what they hate, apply what they love, and come up with their own plans of action as well – usually, the best strategy is the one that’s the most custom-tailored to a particular player’s skill set. Combine the draft knowledge above with research and weekly maintenance and your chances of a successful fantasy basketball season increase significantly.

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