As last season's ESPN.com Fantasy Basketball head-to-head grand prize winner, I am here to help you navigate your draft and provide some strategies for this season's game. Keep in mind that ESPN has made an exciting change for this season. Instead of the old limit of 40 games per week, each owner will now be allowed only seven acquisitions per week (and even fewer during the short weeks surrounding the All-Star break). This will inject a lot of strategy. Suddenly, you may be wondering whether you should draft shot-blockers or roll the dice with extra shooters. Or when you should make your acquisitions. Relax. I have you covered. Just keep reading.
Own your draft
Let's start with the draft. Probably the biggest consequence of the new acquisition rule is that your draft will matter more this season. You absolutely, positively must draft a team that can compete in all eight categories. Previously, it was possible to ignore a category (such as blocks) during the draft but survive by rotating Chris Andersen and Ronny Turiaf each day. This year, you'd better draft at least two shot-blockers for your starting lineup because it will be too much of a sacrifice in other categories to sign the "Birdman." So, with balance as your goal, here are five ways to prepare for your draft:
1. Use the ESPN live draft results
Think like Mark McGwire. You are not here to [draft] about the past! So instead of paying strict attention to rankings based on last season's statistics, know where the rest of your league is likely to pick each player. Then apply your draft slot (i.e. fifth out of 10) to plan your picks. As an example, consider last year's case of Brandon Roy. The live draft results showed that Roy was being selected around Round 5 (approximately No. 45 overall). Roy eventually produced at a Round 2 level (No. 16 according to the Player Rater). Therefore, if you had the fifth draft slot and wanted to target Roy, this method would have told you to start targeting him in Round 4 (at No. 36 overall).
2. Consider injury histories
Because you get fewer acquisitions to replace an injured player this season, you should consider the risk of injury before drafting certain players. Ahem, Tracy McGrady, I'm looking at you! Elton Brand and Marcus Camby are also sliding down my draft board. Note that I am not suggesting that you completely avoid players with injury histories. But I am suggesting that you pay more attention to them this season.
3. Avoid reaching in Round 1 and Round 2
One of the most common draft mistakes I see is the Round 1 or Round 2 reach. Often, an owner gets too excited about a player who he thinks will make "The Leap" (in the words of Bill Simmons). At the draft, the owner goes crazy like the fan in "The Naked Gun" who thinks he recognizes Enrico Palazzo, and reaches two rounds too early. Of course, he or she may be right about the breakout, but it ruins you to draft a player in Round 2 whom you still could have had in Round 4. First of all, you cost your team the star you should have drafted. But secondly, and more importantly, a player can leap but still not produce more than the star. For example, consider Brandon Roy again. Let's say that, during last year's draft, you knew that Roy would produce like No. 16 despite still being available around 45th. Nevertheless, you still would have needed to avoid the Enrico Palazzo moment by reaching for Roy in Round 2 at No. 16, for you probably still could have had Roy in Round 4 at No. 36. Also, Roy did not produce more (16th) than your draft slot in Round 2 (No. 16).
4. Watch for positional runs
In the words of Norman Dale from "Hoosiers," "Don't get caught watching the paint dry." Remember that your goal, thanks to the new acquisition rule, is balance. So if a slew of point guards fly off the board early, and you do not have a point guard yet, think about where you will get your point guard. Note that I am not saying you must select a point guard with your next pick, but I am saying you should strongly consider one if it would not be a reach. Also, you should think about which later pick could get you a point guard.
5. Evaluate every four rounds
It is important that you keep track of what you have and what you need in terms of positions and statistics. Granted, drafts are tense, and there never seems to be enough time. But as Ferris Bueller would say, "If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Therefore, my suggestion is that you evaluate your progress after every four rounds. Personally, I try to have my starting lineup (PG, SG, SF, PF, C) filled by the end of Round 8. This way, I do not draft my first center -- presumably, a vital source of blocks -- in Round 11. Furthermore, this system provides time for three extra selections while still helpfully measuring progress.
Manage each week like Red Auerbach
Contrary to popular belief, the season does not end after the draft. There is still much work to do. You will want to sign The Wolf and release Scott Howard as quickly as Scott changed in "Teen Wolf." However, before we get into how and when to make your acquisitions, I want to note that you always should look at your players' weekly schedule before making any moves. This way, you can mix and match the below strategies to maximize the number of games -- and statistics -- that your team accumulates. So, without further ado, here are three strategies for making acquisitions:
1. Acquire free agents for quantity
At the start of each week, look for free agents who play four games that week. Even if they are not as strong as other free agents, they should more than make up the margin. Furthermore, an extra game is an extra chance for a career night. The bottom line is that you are giving yourself more chances to win.
2. Acquire free agents for quality
At the start or middle of each week, look for free agents who play "friendly" opponents. For example, the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks like to play offense. Consequently, there are usually more shots and more scoring in their games. Thus, if you monitor their opponents, you can pick up a player right before he has a big night.
3. Acquire free agents for Sunday
On Saturday, look for free agents who are scheduled to play on Sunday. In fantasy basketball, like many things, it can be advantageous to act last. Therefore, do not be afraid to use some of your seven acquisitions to bolster your Sunday lineup. It does not matter that you were losing on Saturday if you win after Sunday!
Again, I want to underscore the importance of looking at your players' weekly schedule before making any moves. It may not help your team to acquire seven free agents with four-game schedules if their games overlap with your other players'. Likewise, it may not help your team to acquire free agent X, who plays one game against the Warriors on Friday, as much as it would to acquire free agent Y, who plays both Thursday and Friday night. Finally, it may not help your team to wait and acquire seven free agents with Sunday games if your team has played very few games during the previous six days. So, I reiterate that you should mix and match these strategies.
Good luck in 2009-10! (Unless, of course, you happen to join my league.)
Jay T. Cohen was the overall ESPN.com Fantasy Basketball prize-eligible champion in head-to-head leagues last season, and he actually finished with the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. Check out his fan profile here.