Auction draft strategy

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

The basics

• You start with $200.

• You have 13 roster spots.

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

• This is America, so you're still free to choose the scoring system that best suits your league, 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 ESPN.com auction engine.

You've upgraded from dial-up. You've successfully sequestered 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. As sports moments go, this one is almost as anxiety-ridden as that moment in June, right before the Washington Wizards improbably leapt from fifth to first in the draft lottery (otherwise known in the Cregan household as "the one thing that's gone right all year").

Your heart is palpitating.

The first key is to calm down. Take a breath. Listen to some Nick Drake. 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 The Current Mrs. Cregan will allow at this time, you need to articulate a strategy -- a draft constitution, if you will -- either on paper or pixel. 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 standard draft."

It is not!

Prepping for an auction draft properly requires a level of planning and forethought those other drafts couldn't touch with Hasheem Thabeet holding a 10-foot pole. That sort of smug attitude will get your clock cleaned even more immaculately than whatever timepiece is currently sitting in David Kahn's den.

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, Ron-Ron).

• 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 Mehmet Okur are over, my friend. If you really, really want Mehmet Okur, you can have him … as long as you're willing to outbid everyone else for him.

Draft strategy

There are two basic approaches to an auction.

Stars and Scrubs

Stars and Scrubs 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 it this way. You spend $72 on Chris Paul (he could go even higher in some leagues), followed by $56 on Dirk Nowitzki, topped off by $34 on David West (he has a special relationship with Paul, good for your locker-room chemistry). That's $162 for three players, leaving you with $38 for your remaining 10.

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

PG: Chris Paul $72
SG: Jason Terry $7
SF: Mike Miller $2
PF: Dirk Nowitzki $56
C: Anderson Varejao $3
G: Jrue Holiday $5
F: David West $34
UTIL: John Salmons $4
UTIL: Luis Scola $3
UTIL: Trevor Ariza $3
BENCH: Rodney Stuckey $3
BENCH: Josh Childress $2
BENCH: Brad Miller $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, the pleasures of the French Quarter and scheduling abnormalities (think of what will happen when the Hornets have a two-game week). It also places a lot of pressure on an owner to be resourceful on the waiver wire, since you will undoubtedly be scouring for new scrubs to plug in when other scrubs don't pan out (I don't see Brad Miller lasting on your squad beyond the first week of training camp).

The benefit of having elite superstars anchoring your team is guaranteed big-time production. With Paul 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 a time I've seen new owners get bid happy and scarf up three of the first eight or nine superstars. I remember I did this in my first auction baseball draft and ended up with Sammy Sosa for $67, Juan Pierre for $52 and Jason Isringhausen for $45. Perhaps the worst team ever assembled in the history of fantasy.

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 Deron Williams 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.

A team built with this approach might look like this:

PG: Russell Westbrook $27
SG: Monta Ellis $28
SF: Paul Pierce $31
PF: David Lee $24
C: Al Horford $15
G: Raymond Felton $16 (the Knicks Effect drives up his price)
F: Troy Murphy $15
UTIL: Jeff Green $12
UTIL: Mo Williams $10
UTIL: Samuel Dalembert $7
BENCH: James Harden $6
BENCH: Jonny Flynn $5
BENCH: JaVale McGee $4

I agree, this doesn't have the same sizzle as having CP3 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 random 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 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. Welcome to a newer, bigger 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.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.