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Monday, October 8, 2012
Updated: October 11, 9:42 AM ET
Auction league strategy

By John Cregan
Special to

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2010. We are bringing it back in archive form -- with only a few changes with regard to individual players mentioned to discuss the 2012-13 season -- for your convenience.

If you're taking the time to peruse this article, it means you're considering stepping up to the most competitive, most rewarding fantasy basketball format in existence: the auction league.

Don't agree? Ready to defend the honor of your precious snake draft? It's an argument you will most assuredly lose.

Fantasy sports, at their most enlightened and refined, should present a version of team management that is as close to the real thing as possible. You want a version of fantasy that comes closest to the reality. Just probably not the reality where you have to report to James Dolan.

And in fantasy, no other format comes as close to simulating the real thing as the auction format. After all, real GMs use real money. So why shouldn't imaginary GMs use imaginary money?

The Basics

In ESPN's standard auction format, your reign as owner will commence with a wad of cash, and an empty roster to fill.

• You start with $200.

• You have 13 roster spots.

• You start 10 players at the following positions: PG, SG, SF, PF, C, G, F, three UTIL spots (plus three bench spots).

• You can pick any categories you like, but we like: field goal percentage, free throw percentage, 3-pointers made, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and points.

Despite what my in-laws might say, this is still America, so you're still free to chose the scoring system that suits your league best, be it head-to-head, traditional rotisserie, categories, points and so on.

Draft Night

You and a group of nine or so other fantasy basketball elites gather online to hold your draft, powered by the mighty auction engine.

You've upgraded your Internet connection. You've successfully quarantined yourself from the rest of your family.

The draft order has been determined at random; the countdown to the first pick is almost at zero. You can cut the tension with a knife. You're itching to start blowing some serious virtual cash.

The first key is to calm down. Take a breath. Listen to a Bon Iver record. Auction drafts are fast and furious. You're not going to get swept up. You're going to stick to your guns. You're going to stick to your plan.

"I have a plan?" you say.

Of course you do.

Making a Plan

(A preliminary note: If this were your auction league's second, third or 15th draft, we'd have to talk about a little thing called inflation. But it probably isn't, so we can jump right in.)

Because auction drafts are far, far more exciting than any other fantasy experience your life partner will currently allow, you need to articulate a strategy, either upon paper or on pixel. A draft constitution, if you will. And like that other Constitution, it will be a living document, one that maps out a clear strategy, but will allow for some amendments as the draft unfolds. Sticking to a mapped out plan will help you keep a cool head.

"But I did the same thing for my other drafts," you say. "It's the same amount of prep as for a --"

It is not.

Prepping for an auction draft properly requires a level of planning and forethought those other drafts couldn't touch with Tyler Zeller holding a 10-foot pole. That sort of smug attitude will get your clock cleaned. This is one of those situations in life for which it is impossible to overprepare.

Here's some homework to wipe that smirk off your mug:

• Break down the top 160 players by projected dollar value, position and tier.

• Figure out which positions suffer from positional scarcity, then boost those values accordingly.

• Make a separate list of players who boost and destroy certain categories.

• Make a list of which players you're going to target.

• Make your sleeper list. Then make your bust list.

• Put a little asterisk next to who you consider to be an injury or suspension risk (I'm looking at you, Metta).

• Finally (if you can), make a list of other owners' favorite teams and players. That will provide a road map for which players to bid up.

When doing this work, keep in mind the two factors that make auction drafts truly unique:

1. Intricate player valuation: Rather than slotting players in 13 tiers (separated by round), the auction format slots players from anywhere between $1 to $187. That's a lot of wiggle room.

2. You get a shot at every player: Your days of getting scooped on Marc Gasol are over, my friend. If you really, really want Jeremy Lin, you can have him, just as long as you're willing to outbid everyone else for him. Unless, of course, you report to James Dolan. See, now you know just how Glen Grunwald feels!

Draft strategy

There are two basic approaches to an auction.

Stars and Scrubs

This is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Here, you focus big bucks on three to four ringers, then fill the gaps with cheap role players. Think of the Miami Heat. The Los Angeles Lakers. The New York Knicks. As you can see, sometimes it works, and sometimes it really, really doesn't work.

Dirk Nowitzki
The Mavs couldn't pair up Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams, but fantasy owners still can in an auction. However, it will limit the other players you can get to surround them.

In fantasy terms, Stars and Scrubs could go like this: You spend $62 on Deron Williams (he could go even higher in some leagues), followed by $56 on Dirk Nowitzki, topped off by $39 on Paul Pierce. That's $157 for three players, leaving you with $43 for your remaining 10.

When it's all said and done, your roster could wind up looking like this:

PG: Deron Williams $62
SG: Jason Terry $5
SF: Paul Pierce $39
PF: Dirk Nowitzki $56
C: Nene Hilario $3
G: Jrue Holiday $18
F: Tristan Thompson $5
UTIL: Dion Waiters $4
UTIL: Shawn Marion $1
UTIL: George Hill $3
BENCH: Metta World Peace $1
BENCH: Jason Kidd $2
BENCH: Chandler Parsons $1

Aside from being somewhat blocks-deficient, this team is incredibly top-heavy. It's wide open to be being hit hard by injuries, trades, slumps and scheduling abnormalities. It also places a lot of pressure on an owner to be resourceful on the waiver wire, since you will undoubtedly be scouring it for new scrubs to plug in when other scrubs don't pan out.

The benefit of having elite superstars anchoring your team is guaranteed big-time production. With Williams and Nowitzki, you'll also have two big names if you need to get into the trade market.

Owners new to auction leagues tend to fall into this strategy by mistake. Many times I've seen new owners get bid-happy and scarf up three of the first eight or nine superstars. Just like in the real NBA, the main issue with Stars and Scrubs is that if you whiff on one of your stars, it's difficult to recover.

Of course, there is another way to go about it.

Fairly balanced

Here, you promise yourself you won't spend more than $28-32 on a single player.

You have to weather the initial storm, napping comfortably while other owners go hog wild for Kevin Durant at $82 and Chris Paul at $68. You wait. Oh, and don't be that guy who bides his time by transparently talking up players they're not interested in. It's annoying, doesn't work and is clearly lacking in roto honor.

Because you've done your homework that I previously assigned -- you will do that -- you will notice that inevitably, some bargains will start to fall through the cracks. The balanced strategy is all about timing and knowing when to jump in.

The key to your timing revolves around carefully monitoring how other owners are spending their money. Conversely, don't wait too long. If a couple of other GMs are also keeping their powder dry, jump in.

Monta Ellis
Monta Ellis may not be the same fantasy superstar he was with the Warriors, but he could be a good part of a balanced team.

A team built with this approach might look like this:

PG: John Wall $27
SG: Monta Ellis $28
SF: Rudy Gay $31
PF: David Lee $24
C: Al Horford $18
G: Arron Afflalo $16
F: Danilo Gallinari $15
UTIL: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist $9
UTIL: Raymond Felton $10
UTIL: Derrick Favors $7
BENCH: Jose Calderon $6
BENCH: Nicolas Batum $6
BENCH: Michael Beasley $3

I agree, this doesn't have the same sizzle as having Deron and Dirk, but it is solid from top to bottom.

The benefits? You are guarding against a single injury destroying your team's prospects. You are building solid foundations across the board in every category. You have more flexibility when setting your lineups. And you have more flexibility when making trades.

Other notes

• As you get a feel for other owners' tendencies, don't be afraid to bid up a player you're uninterested in. It's risky, but unlike only making desperately snarky comments, this does work.

• Track how other owners are managing their money. If you're not using ESPN Fantasy's snappy auction draft engine, I recommend a spreadsheet that tracks available money left by position, and even by category.

• If you're in a keeper league (and I hope you are), keep an eye trained on tomorrow by picking up cheap younger players with upside. Remember that big men take an extra year or two to put it all together, and young point guards tend to shed turnovers as they mature.

• Focus on players with less name recognition: players who play in small markets, perennially losing teams or recent international additions to the NBA. These factors tend to knock a couple of dollars off a player's price.

• On the other hand, beware of players from big-market teams, perennially winning teams and overhyped rookies.

• Another factor that can dent a player's value? If they happen to be a knucklehead. Bad press deflates value. I refer to it as "Laimbeer Economics."

• Remember to leave the draft with at least two serviceable centers, if not more. It will leave you with an extra chip to play in the trade market. Positional scarcity is such a factor in hoops drafts, you could almost make a case for building an entire strategy around it.

• Like Robert DeNiro in "Heat," you have to be willing to walk away from any player at any time. Don't get caught up in a bidding war. There is no single player you simply have to have.

• Don't go into your draft planning on punting a category. Unlike baseball, this tends to be a dead-end strategy when employed upon the imaginary hardwood.

• Pay attention to the percentage categories. They tend to be the silent killers on a losing fantasy team.

• Finally, don't leave any money on the table (at least no more than a couple of dollars). You don't get any bonus points for this. As a matter of fact, you will leave yourself open to widespread and well-deserved ridicule.

That's it. You've taken your first step into a larger world. And don't worry. Even if you draft terribly, in an auction keeper league you can start playing for next year by Thanksgiving. That's the single best thing about auction keeper leagues.