The majority of fantasy sports fans gravitate towards football (because it’s the biggest American pro sport) and baseball (because of fantasy tradition and an unmatched richness of statistical detail), but there is a growing market for other fantasy sports.
Fantasy basketball is easy to explain – as easy as any fantasy contest – but can be difficult to get “right” – also true of most fantasy sports.
The basic goal of fantasy basketball is to build a personal roster of professional basketball players that compile statistics competitively against other rosters. Points in fantasy basketball are awarded based on real-game performance in the NBA, as is the case for other fantasy sports.
Where fantasy basketball differs from those other games is important for newcomers to fantasy NBA to understand – also important are the way that small variations in league setup and rules formats can affect fantasy play. Below are explanations in plain language on the basic concepts of fantasy basketball.
How Fantasy Basketball Works
The easiest way to understand the basics of fantasy basketball is to look at how leagues are set-up. There are a number of different options in a few different categories available to fantasy basketball owners, with different leagues following different sets of preferences and rules.
For example, the number of teams per fantasy league (when it comes to the NBA) is usually 10, 12, or 14. Smaller leagues exist, as do larger ones, but the majority of fantasy basketball platforms online are set-up to allow leagues of teams in those sizes.
The fewer the teams in the league, the more powerful each team will be, statistically-speaking. That also means that leagues with more teams will have more parity, with the NBA’s best and brightest spread out fairly evenly among the dozen or so teams on the league schedule.
The next feature of a fantasy basketball league to consider is required positions. There is a standard fantasy NBA roster format – it is made up of three guards, three forwards, two centers, and two or more bench spots.
This roster alignment gives owners some wiggle room with injury (a symptom of the modern league paranoia about injuries) and it also expresses the league’s overall roster size, with more guards and shooters than big men and defenders. Roster makeup can vary wildly between leagues, sometimes including spots for “Utility” players that can be of any position, which alters strategy significantly.
Draft format is the next major difference between fantasy NBA leagues. The most common is the traditional snake-style draft used in many fantasy sports, wherein players pick at a different position on the draft board in a pattern that repeats backwards on itself for fairness. The most common alternative to this format would be the fantasy basketball auction league – a more complex way of establishing rosters that involves salary caps and player values determined by fantasy value.
Notes on the Fantasy Basketball Draft
The draft is by far the most critical piece of any fantasy basketball season – this doesn’t mean that a bad draft means a losing season, it just means that the draft sets the stage for the rest of the contest. Draft order is determined randomly, and the standard snake-style is designed to create parity between the different selection positions. For example, the player who picks first won’t have another selection until every other owner has had two.
At the other end of the scale, the owner with the final pick gets to immediately select another player, a situation that can be taken advantage of. Since the modern NBA is all about big men, a late-picker should use one leg of their quick two-fer pick to grab a big (especially a forward who can score in at least three categories) and a supporting piece with contrasting stat contribution.
As is the case in most fantasy sports, the draft is controversial, hilarious, demanding, rewarding, and frustrating all at once. There are many angles to approach a fantasy draft from, and basketball requires slightly different strategy than other fantasy drafts.
How to Score in Fantasy Basketball
In terms of scoring, this is done most commonly in fantasy basketball in what is known as a rotisserie format. Rotisserie (or “roto” for short) simply means adding up a roster’s total stats for a category and comparing that number to his weekly opponent. The player with the better number gets a point, and wins and losses are determined by total points on a weekly and season-long basis.
As for the specific stats used to add up fantasy points in the NBA, these can vary from league to league, and are a customizable options on most fantasy roundball platforms, but there is a standard format used for most leagues. It includes the following eight major statistics:
– 3P Made
– Field Goal %
– Free Throw %
It is uncommon for modern fantasy basketball leagues to use a non-roto format, though some exist using a fantasy point system similar to standard fantasy football, whereby players are rated based on total points scored rather than categorical dominance.
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Pros and Cons of Playing Fantasy Basketball
Every pro sport with a fantasy shadow contest (this includes everything from golf to Olympic events) has its own set of pros and cons – things that are appealing about the sport for fantasy owners and things that make the sport more difficult at times.
The biggest knock against the NBA, in terms of fantasy ownership, is also one of the fantasy game’s biggest pros. The NBA has a long regular season, with teams facing off regularly pretty much every day of the week.
This is in stark contrast to fantasy football, where most games are played on Sunday, with a few on other days. This makes for a different brand of fantasy play than what football fans are used to – and it can teach owners in other fantasy sports a lot of lessons about roster management thanks to the quicker pace.
Compared to other popular sports for fantasy contests (mainly football and baseball), the NBA offers a small overall roster size, and the standard setup for fantasy basketball leagues means only 120 or so total players get drafted out of a larger pool of 500 or total eligible players.
The immediate result is a fantasy contest that requires less research. A newcomer to fantasy basketball could cover their first five rounds of picks (the most critical ones) by researching just 50 or 60 players overall. Small rosters make the game a bit easier for fantasy owners.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
7 NBA Players You Should NEVER Draft in Fantasy Basketball
The seven types of players described below can be toxic to an NBA fantasy players’ chances of winning. I will mention specific examples of players, but really these archetypes can be found throughout the modern league’s history and will likely exist well into the future.
Avoid drafting these types of players for a better lineup over the course of a long and often bumpy fantasy season. We also describe in great detail why each type of “doomed” player only makes your team that much crappier over the course of the season – so pay attention!
1. “Mr. Injury”
This one should be obvious, but every year you’ll see high-percentages of ownership on those players we all know are going to have foot, ankle, or knee problems. It’s impossible to predict injury, but remembering that fantasy basketball is a marathon and not a sprint (like fantasy football can be), it makes no sense to draft a guy who has enough of a history of injury to make you suspicious – there are better picks at every position. The trick is to find them.
An example is Brook Lopez, a perennial disappointment because of injury. It’s tough not to pick Lopez because when he’s healthy he’s the best big man in the league – look at the start of his 2013-2014 season for an example. His 57% shooting and best-in-the-league rebound totals continued for a grand total of 17 games before he broke the same bone in his foot that he broke two years earlier. Instead of being tempted by Brook Lopez in the third round, go for a guy like DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond if they’re available, as they’ll put up consistent numbers that will outpace whatever 20-game spurt Lopez has this year.
Another injury-prone player that could give fantasy owners fits is one of the league’s rising stars – Kyrie Irving is hard to pass up, but Goran Dragic may be the better choice at that stage of the draft. Dragic is the veteran leader among a gigantic Suns backcourt that could push his numbers above what Irving’s capable of now that King James is in town ahead of mine.
Don’t forget that Irving broke a half-dozen bones in his body in his first three seasons as a professional. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Mike Conley makes an even better pick than Dragic, provided Conley steps up his defensive ability to earlier levels and can take advantage of his amazing ability to avoid injury.
2. Dud Guards
We’re not talking about duds in the general sense here – dud guards is a code word for a guard that looks good in a few stats but can be a real fantasy sinkhole in terms of field goal percentage. This least-talked-about stat (at least among lightweights) is often the make-or-break stat among an owner’s pool of guards over the course of a season, and can be the dagger in a tight race in the playoffs. Though the temptation to pick guys whose names you know, take a look at that all-important field goal percentage stat.
Brandon Jennings got a lot of coverage at the end of his college career and his name is dropped a lot on SportsCenter, so fantasy managers sometimes stick him in a draft slot because they’ve heard of him before and he produces lots of assists. But the guy has never shot more than 40% from the field, and the 2013-2014 season saw his number drop to lower than during his rookie year.
Better guards that can produce as many or more assists than Jennings are guys like Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight, whose names aren’t that well-known. This is kind of the essence of smart drafting – knowing who to avoid, why to avoid them, and who to substitute them with.
3. Recent Trades
Be very wary when selecting players that have just been traded, generally we’re talking about an off-season trade. But right off the bat, let’s talk about exceptions to this rule. Superstars involved in trades are exempt – it would be unwise to avoid Lebron James just because he moved back to Cleveland. A funny exception is any player traded to a worse team, especially 2nd and 3rd round guys who suddenly find themselves the go-to scorer.
Outside of those examples, a trade can be a real diuretic, in fantasy-stats terms. Look at Thaddeus Young, who put up big numbers in 2013-2014 because he was one of the only NBA-level players on a terrible Philadelphia 76ers team. He is the poster child for an NBA paper tiger and now he’s meant to fit in with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he’ll be one the least-experienced and least-promising options for his teammates.
That means fewer points-per-game, probably between 10 and 12, a huge drop from his inflated pre-trade stat. Some fantasy draft rankings have Young in the fourth round, but the impact of his trade to Minnesota makes a guy like DeMar DeRozan a much better pick, or even a promising rookie gamble pick like the likely-available Jabari Parker. Seriously, Young’s numbers are going to tank, and he’s a perfect example of how a trade can reveal a players’ weak fantasy value.
4. Rookies from Anywhere but Duke and North Carolina
It’s tempting on some level to draft the big-name rookie player, the guy who won a bunch of awards recently or led a mid-market team to a run for the NCAA title and has declared for the draft. The trouble is, the NBA is a man’s game, and too-often, college players (especially from smaller markets) can’t compete immediately against bigger bodies with better talent. An exception to the no-rookies rule is any player from the rosters the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels. No matter if you’re a Duke lover or hater, the numbers put up by guys fresh from Coach K’s system (and from UNC) make the players attractive fantasy late round selections.
Don’t think about names like William Avery or Bobby Hurley – Avery was a clear bust that no sane fantasy player would have invested in and Hurley’s numbers were softened by unpredictable injuries. Think instead of consistent producers like Carlos Boozer, Shane Battier, and Elton Brand. Heck, even a day-in, day-out workhorse like Johnny Dawkins or Kenny Smith (Duke and UNC respectively) would make solid fantasy late-round picks today. As for other North Carolina rookie greats – Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace had amazing rookie seasons that would justify a selection for any modern fantasy bench.
Since we like to give exceptions for every rule, a sea-change type of player like Lebron James or Tim Duncan necessitates fantasy interest. When a player is clearly ready for professional competition (this is particularly true of big men), this rule is null and void.
The most obvious example is Greg Oden – his rookie season in Portland didn’t exist thanks to a knee injury caused by nothing more than his freakish height and lanky frame. Let’s not forget that another rookie available that year was a guy named Kevin Durant, who averaged 21 points and 5 rebounds.
Oden is one of many examples of how hard the leagues frequent games and lengthy schedule can be on the joints and smooth muscles of its bigs, but Oden’s case highlights a particular example. Not only was Oden in danger of being injury-prone simply because of his size, he was also untested much beyond high school, having played only a single season at the NCAA level.
When considering drafting one of the NBA’s giants, consider the context of their player in the league – do they have experience playing 82 games a season, as many big men in the league are forced to do these days? For every Hakeem Olajuwon there are ten, no, a hundred Yao Ming’s.
6. Guys Who Didn’t Go to College
The most glaring example of a fantasy and real-world high school bust is Kwame Brown, taken first overall on the advice of Michael Jordan, who apparently felt the 18 year old was ready to convert from a scholastic lineup of 18 games or so to a full year of head-to-head competition with grown men. He was wrong, and Brown put up numbers just a few digits higher than my grandmother’s.
The major exception – a time when it is okay to gamble on a guy not involved in the US collegiate system – is a small number of players emerging from outside the US. Obviously these players are more difficult to handicap. Fantasy basketball fans these days can take advantage of the foreign player scouting skills of several NBA coaches who, like the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, constantly find stat-producing stars among the annual flood of players from Serbia, Spain, and Brazil. If Popp thinks the guy with too many consonants in his name is worth adding to his team, the guy’s probably worth a consideration for a very late draft pick.
We sometimes refer to players with inflated value as balloons – get it? Yeah, it’s not funny, but it makes sense as a way to picture how some players’ real-world abilities don’t translate to fantasy success.
It’s easier to pick out players whose fantasy value is inflated in the NBA simply because there are fewer players. Avoid inflated-value guys is all about making fantasy stats-based decisions as opposed to fan- or emotion-based picks. So how can you tell if a guy’s value in the world of fantasy is far less than his real-world league value?
Consider a player like Manu Ginobili – the guy is fun to watch and his value to the Spurs is impossible to overstate. But as a fantasy producer, he’s been unpredictable because of injury and slight changes to coach Popovich’s system that reduce his role. Now with his age a major factor, fantasy GMs should expect continued reductions in both his shot percentages and his defensive stats this year.
Andrew Bogut is another example of the traditional inflated-value player, because he should be so good. The fact is, he hasn’t played a full season since he was a rookie, and when he does play, he’s scoring about half as much as he used to, and his lack of speed makes him a non-factor on defense. The Andrew Bogut of ’07-’08 isn’t coming back, and even then his value was inflated by being on one of the worst teams in the history of the Eastern Conference.
If I were selecting players for my own pickup team, I’d no doubt go for Ginobili, one of the best sixth men in the league’s history – over the course of his career. On a season-by-season and week-by-week basis, his presence on fantasy rosters causes more headaches than hallelujahs.