"Wanna join a Larry Bird League?"
How can you forget a question like that? My father asked it of me sometime in the mid-'80s, back when we named lots of things after Larry Bird. One of Dad's buddies had heard that Boston reporters had started a rotisserie league modeled after Bird's all-around brilliance: They drafted teams of players and added up all their points, rebounds and assists. Highest total won the prize money. Since Bird averaged a startling 45 per game, they named the league after him. Larry even drew their draft order each year—or so they claimed.
We thought the idea was amazing. Yes, we wanted to be in a Larry Bird league. More than two decades later, I'm still playing fantasy hoops. But I'm also wondering why we still haven't figured out a system worthy of His name. Even as the Internet has allowed for more complicated leagues—with waiver wires, free agents, trade offers and nonstop insults—it still feels like something is off. So while you can't go wrong following the wisdom put forth in the NBA fantasy preview that begins on page 72, I think I know how to build a league that will really be a fantasy come true.
(Note: Everything that follows is predicated on a 10-team league, 15 players per roster drafted in boomerang-fashion, with head-to-head matchups each week throughout the season.)
I'm all for more stat categories, but isn't something terribly wrong when points count the same as free throw percentage or three-pointers? How is that realistic? You know things are a little off when Andrei Kirilenko is 25 times more valuable in fantasy than in real life.
Give double weight to the points, rebounds and assists categories. This keeps the spirit of the Bird league alive, knowing full well The Legend probably thinks fantasy players are all dorks.
The best free agents are always available in the first three weeks of the season, as everyone begins to see who's getting minutes and who's decided to mail it in this season. And who gets the best free agents? The incompetent owners who spent two minutes preparing for the draft, that's who; the ones who are bound to ask questions like "Is there a reason no one has taken Josh Childress yet?" Fellas, your reward for a craptastic job is … this year's Hedo Turkoglu!
Everyone gets $50 to spend on waiver-wire deals; highest bid gets the free agent. If you run out of money, too bad. If you want to blow your whole wad on Louis Williams in Week 1, knock yourself out. Imagine the excitement as you reload your transaction report over and over at 2 a.m., waiting to see if your $9 bid is enough to steal Mikki Moore.
If we're trying to be realistic, why do we lump starters into three positions: guard, center and forward? In baseball, we don't categorize everyone as either an infielder, an outfielder or a catcher, right?
Teams have to start a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center, with four extra rotation spots for a guard, swingman (a 2 or a 3), backup big man (a 4 or a 5) and a ninth man (everyone is eligible). The nine-man rotation is just like what you'd see in a real hoops game—unless Isiah Thomas is coaching. No more of this "My starting guards are Kevin Martin, Ray Allen and Kobe" business.
My last three problems are all related. (Isn't this fun?)
Unlike in football or baseball, you cannot survive an injury to a franchise player in fantasy hoops. I lost Dwyane Wade in March and may as well have changed my team name to the Bernie Lomax All-Stars. With Wade out, my season was essentially over, all playoff hopes squashed.
The fantasy playoffs overlap with the most unreliable portion of the NBA season: the final two weeks. When contenders rest stars for the real playoffs. When future free agents start to gun for their own stats and someone like Mike James suddenly turns into Oscar Robertson. When lottery teams shift into tank mode and shelve top players for dubious reasons like "Even though he had 47 last night and was seen dancing at a club until 4 a.m., his knee has been bothering him." Or "He decided to get circumcised; we couldn't talk him out of it."
Fantasy playoffs come down to one question: Which teams' players will get the most games? In the NBA Cares celeb league last year (I know, I know, I'm not a celebrity), I lost in the Finals because Kenny Smith's starters played something like 52 games more than my guys did (all numbers are approximate). This season, LeBron plays only eight games in April; six other teams play nine. So it will actually be a detriment to have Bron-Bron on your team. How does that even make sense?
Extend fantasy through the real NBA playoffs. The weekly head-to-head play goes to the end of the regular season, with the winner taking home 35% of the pot and second place getting 15%. (Note to Josh Howard: "Pot" as in "prize money.") The top four advance to the playoffs (with the same 35/15 payout), keeping six players and filling out their rosters with players from the teams that didn't make it. No boomerang here, though; just the No. 1 team drafting first and every four picks after that.
One twist: The fourth-place team gets only 10 playoff players; third place, 11; second place, 12; and first, 13. There has to be some advantage to winning the regular season. Still, if you suffer a Wade-like injury down the road but scrape into the playoffs anyway, at least you have a fighting chance with your beefed-up roster.
I love this playoff wrinkle because you'll draft your original team differently knowing guys like Kobe and Chris Paul will be playoff keepers but Al Jefferson and Kevin Durant will be lottery guys. The best guys on the best teams should have the most value in a fantasy draft, anyway. And you'd have to put some thought into how you think the season is going to play out as you prepare for the draft. How much do you like the Sixers? Enough to think that Elton Brand is a top-12 pick because he could play three playoff rounds?
I love the playoff wrinkle because, if you're a fourth-place team and you roll the dice by picking Star X from Playoff Sleeper Team Y, how excited will you be if Sleeper Team Y suddenly catches fire like, say, the 2007 Warriors? As my friend Andy once told me, hope is a good thing.
I love the playoff wrinkle because you could do the postseason draft by e-mail or conference call if you wanted, but you could also use it as an excuse to "get together" after work or after school … at Hooters or a strip club. "Sorry, Destiny, I can't go into the VIP room yet, I'm debating between Carl Landry and Rasho Nesterovic."
I love the playoff wrinkle because, as the postseason drags on and teams drop out, by the NBA Finals, it would be like the last scene of Rollerball: just a few fantasy owners heroically skating around and trying not to get struck by a flaming motorcycle. You have three Celtics, I have two Hornets. Let's fight to the death.
But most of all, I love it because my idea gives the NBA the longest fantasy season of any sport—eight solid months—bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: playing fantasy 365 days a year. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
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