Matthew Berry will tell you that you can win your league with the help of four simple words: "point guards" and "power forwards." Of course, there are plenty of other successful draft strategies, but the point guards/power forwards philosophy has worked for me for years, and I'm not about to abandon it now.
For the uninitiated, the point guards/power forwards strategy is fairly simple and straightforward, but to better define the strategy, it's all about what one of our editors calls "multicategoricalicity," defined as a player's propensity to contribute in multiple unrelated fantasy categories.
Essentially, the strategy involves loading up on guards who can score, dish, steal and hit 3-pointers (typically point guards) and big men who can score, rebound and block shots (typically power forwards). Fill around them with a few quality swingmen who can score, drain the 3 and create steals, along with a few centers who can bolster your rebounding and shot-blocking numbers, and you'll have yourself a well-rounded squad that can compete in categories across the board.
It's far less about the actual positions and much more about the scarcity of certain categories such as assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers. Rather than thinking of point guards and power forwards, think of players who act like point guards and power forwards. Kobe Bryant technically isn't a point guard, but he acts like one on the court. More importantly, he gets stats like a point guard.
When you're finished assembling your squad, you should have:
• Guards and small forwards who excel in the following categories: points, assists, steals, 3-pointers and free throw percentage
• Forwards and centers who excel in the following categories: points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage
Now that you have a basic feel for the strategy, let's dig a little deeper into the reasoning behind it and specifically what types of players you should be looking for.
Targeting multicategory producers and rare categories
For the strategy to work, it is imperative to place a premium on players who can contribute in the rare categories in fantasy hoops. For the most part, points and rebounds are the most readily available categories. Lots of players score, and plenty grab rebounds. But how many guys get assists? What about steals, blocks and 3-pointers? Not too many. That's why we target these categories, just like we target saves and stolen bases in baseball.
So, who gets assists? Point guards, right? Sure, there are some players who get assists from a non-point-guard slot (think Bryant, Andre Iguodala and Joe Johnson), but for the most part it's the point guards who are racking up the high assist totals. Consider that among eligible players, only 22 averaged five-plus assists last season:
Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Jose Calderon, Deron Williams, Ricky Rubio, John Wall, Tony Parker, Andre Miller, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, Raymond Felton, LeBron James, Monta Ellis, Jameer Nelson, Ramon Sessions, Brandon Jennings, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala, Greivis Vasquez, Goran Dragic and Devin Harris.
Obviously, it won't be the same list in 2012-13, but chances are we'll see around 22-28 players average five or more assists this season. Let's say that you get four players who average five-plus assists in 2012-13. You'll be dominant in assists for sure, at least a top-three finish in roto leagues. But what about everything else that we want from our guard categories? Well, that's why we can't just draft any old guard who gets assists. Preferably, we want to get guards who contribute in more than just one of the rare categories (assists, steals and 3-pointers).
Let's, for argument's sake, drop all the players from the above list who failed to average at least a 3-pointer and a steal per game last season. That leaves us with: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, Mike Conley, Monta Ellis, Andre Iguodala, Brandon Jennings, Goran Dragic and Devin Harris.
Players like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Ricky Rubio just missed the cut by a few 3-pointers, but even if we count them, that's just 13 players, folks. Again, that list likely will be different this season (so don't blindly follow the lists above), but at least it gives you an idea of the type of players we are trying to target with this strategy: those who contribute across the board. Get two or three of these across-the-board type of guards, and you're already looking pretty solid on draft day.
Just to be clear, we're not avoiding all guards who don't contribute across the board. There are some very good guards who don't contribute everywhere. Take Rondo, for instance. Last season, he averaged a brilliant 11.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 11.7 assists and 1.8 steals. Unfortunately, he doesn't hit too many 3-pointers (just 0.2 per game last season). That being the case, if you draft Rondo or players like him, you'd better be sure that you make up the difference in 3-pointers by grabbing a shooting guard or swingman like Klay Thompson or Wesley Matthews at some point in the draft. I mention this because the success of this strategy really depends on how well you cover yourself in each category when you select a player who doesn't fit exactly what we're looking for. (And this is sure to happen, as there are only so many players who contribute everywhere.)
A similar discussion can take place for your big-man categories. Remember, most guys rebound, but blocks are the rarest category in the game, as only 35 players averaged at least one block per game last season. With that said, we're not all that interested in big guys who don't block shots unless they are able to dominate other categories like Kevin Love or Dirk Nowitzki. We're also not that interested in big men who aren't efficient from the floor. Since we're already loading up on guards who can hit the 3 (and usually have lower field goal percentages), we have to ensure that our field goal percentage stays somewhat stable by surrounding them with big men who shoot at least 48 percent from the floor.
Going into the draft, it might help to set up minimum category thresholds. Personally, I like my point guards to get me at least 12 points, 5 assists, a 3-pointer and a steal per game, while keeping their free throw percentage at more than 80 percent. For swingmen, I'm looking for someone who's going to get at least 15 points, 4-5 rebounds, 3-4 assists and either 1.2 steals or 1.2 3-pointers per game. (Both would be preferable, but there aren't too many players out there like that.) For big men, I'm looking for a minimum of 12 points, 7 rebounds, a block and 48 percent from the floor.
Of course, these are rough guidelines we're talking about here, and I'm not a stickler if a player falls slightly below these marks, particularly if he far exceeds the minimum in a few of the categories that I'm looking to acquire. For example, we're not going to pass on Love just because he doesn't technically fit into those rough guidelines. That would be silly. Love is so dominant in points, rebounds, 3-pointers and the percentages that I'll gladly overlook his deficiencies in steals and blocks.
Bonus points are given to players who can produce those minimums while adding value in categories that we don't expect them to. Take Al Jefferson, for example. He meets and exceeds the requirements of what we're looking for in our big men, but he also hits his free throws at 77.4 percent. Since most big men cannot hit their free throws (I'm talking to you, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee!), Jefferson is that much more valuable, and we should mark him up a few spots on the cheat sheets because of it.
The same can be said for guards who keep a respectable field goal percentage. Lawson is a perfect building block for this type of strategy. Not only does he contribute in all of the traditional guard categories (points, assists, steals, 3-pointers and free throw percentage), but he also connects on 49.9 percent of his shots from the floor for his career. That's pure fantasy gold, particularly for this strategy.
Building on strength
All too often, fantasy owners assemble a team that looks great on paper yet lacks the statistical dominance and diversity to take home a championship. That's what happens when folks simply follow the cheat sheets, drafting the best player available without any real purpose in mind. The most common mistake is when an owner fails to build properly on his or her team strengths.
Let's say, for example, that you draft Andrew Bynum in the first or second round. Think you have rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage locked up? Not so fast. Sure, Bynum gives you a great foundation for those categories, but it's only useful if you build properly on top of that. You want to surround Bynum, therefore, with at least four other players who share his talents. Remember, if you end up having too many rebounds or blocks, or too big of a lead in field goal percentage, you can always trade those away for categories you are lacking later in the season. Many times, owners who draft a player like Bynum will forget about boards and blocks for a while and won't establish the statistical dominance needed to take the category.
Sticking with Bynum for a second, here's a sample of players you might want to select to complement his talents: Jefferson, Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Al Horford, Serge Ibaka, Marcin Gortat, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler, Kris Humphries, JaVale McGee, Brook Lopez, Nikola Pekovic, Tim Duncan, Chris Kaman, and Andrew Bogut.
That's a list of 21 players right there. If you can place at least two or three of them alongside Bynum, you are setting yourself up quite well in the big-man categories. Later in the draft, you'll want to fill in with some shot-blocking or rebounding specialists with upside, and you'll be all set.
While you're building your strength in the big-man categories, you can't forget about the guard categories. We have to build on two fronts here. ESPN standard leagues have eight categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, 3-pointers, blocks, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Through the first eight or nine rounds of any draft, we want to load up on players who contribute in at least four of those eight categories. That's how we ensure statistical diversity and build a solid foundation. Ideally, we'd like to have four players who help in points, assists, steals, 3-pointers and free throw percentage (guards and swingmen), and four big men who help in points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage after the first eight rounds. It doesn't always work out that way, and it doesn't have to, but that's what I typically look for during the first part of the draft.
After the first eight or nine rounds, you'll want to take a quick moment to review your team's strengths and weaknesses. By that time, you should have a great foundation across the board if you're following the strategy. Of course, it gets harder from here, as you'll be hard-pressed to find many players who will contribute in multiple categories. But later in the draft, you should be looking to load up on specialists and high-upside players who complement your statistical base.
Trends to consider for 2012-13
The above strategy has worked for me for years, but as the NBA evolves, fantasy owners must adapt to the changing landscape. Here are some key changes to think about heading into the 2012-13 season:
Point guard depth: With an extremely deep crop of point guards to choose from, one might be tempted to stock up on big men early and load up on them in the later rounds. Keep in mind, however, that point guards tend to fly off draft boards quickly, and injuries to Derrick Rose, Rubio and Wall really put a damper on the whole "point guard is deep" mantra we've been hearing over the past few seasons. With Rose and Rubio expected to miss large chunks of the season and Wall missing about the first month, you'd be best served getting your hands on an elite PG early in the draft. And yes, just so we're clear, I am considering Kyrie Irving an elite point this year.
Rookies matter: Aside from a few outliers, it used to take rookies a few seasons to get their feet wet before we could seriously consider them as fantasy prospects, but recent trends show that rookies in the right situation can do some serious damage in the fantasy game. Let's take a look at some recent rookies who paid immediate dividends for fantasy owners:
The above list of players didn't just contribute in the fantasy game as first-year players; they dominated. To be fair, Faried and Thompson were valuable only in the second half of their rookie seasons, but the fact remains that talented rookies who see quality minutes are well worth the investment in the fantasy game. With that in mind, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should not be overlooked in fantasy leagues, as all three should earn 30-plus minutes per game as rookies 2012-13.
Block party: Are blocks less scarce than they used to be? Not quite, but as an admitted shot-blocking hoarder, four players in particular are changing the fantasy landscape as we speak. Let's look at them briefly:
1. Serge Ibaka: All you need to know about Serge is that he swatted more shots than Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum COMBINED last season. With 241 blocks on the year, he outblocked his closest competitor (DeAndre Jordan) by a whopping 106 blocks. What's even more impressive is that he did all of this in just 27.2 minutes per game. Talk about dominance. Imagine how many shots he'll block once he starts seeing 30-plus minutes per night?
2. JaVale McGee: McGee finished the 2011-12 season third in the shot-blocking race with 132 blocks. Most impressive about this feat was that he did it in just 25.2 minutes per game, finishing with a ridiculous 4.13 blocks per 48 minutes. It's not quite Serge Ibaka territory, but with more minutes on the way in 2012-13, McGee should be able to manage 2.5-3.0 blocks per game.
3. Anthony Davis: One of the best pure shot-blocking prospects the NBA has seen in years, Davis swatted an unheard of 4.7 shots per game at Kentucky last season. With his physical tools and impeccable timing on the defensive end, Davis is a lock to dominate defense as early as this season. Do not be surprised if he finishes alongside Ibaka and McGee at the top of the league in blocks this season.
4. Bismack Biyombo: Biyombo has a long way to go before he's able to contribute on offense, but he's a big-time shot-blocker with 115 blocks in only 23.1 minutes per game as a rookie. That's 3.79 blocks per 48 minutes, folks. With an expected increase in minutes on the horizon, Biyombo should join the 2-plus blocks per game club in 2012-13.
So what does this all mean for fantasy owners? For me, it means that Dwight Howard is now making his first appearance on my "do not draft" list. Fantasy owners used to tolerate Howard's poor free throw shooting because of his dominance in blocks (among other things), but Howard is no longer the league's premier shot-blocker. In fact, he might even finish outside the top three this year. Add in some questions about his back and how he'll mesh with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash in L.A., and fantasy owners now have to seriously question whether his poor free throw shooting is worth the trouble in the early rounds.