Grand Theft Roto: Thinkin' keeper strategy

Every fantasy basketball season, I look forward to the end of December.

Fantasy football is finally over, and for one little window every year -– Jan. 1 to March 1 -- fantasy basketball receives our undivided attention.

So now is the time to take a long look at those teams you drafted in October. Your players missed you. They're wondering why you've left Luis Scola in so long at power forward. And they're wondering why you haven't been overly excited about your late pick of Mike Bibby back in October. He's about to come back. And he'll be backing up someone named Beno Udrih.

Anyway, I'd like to open 2008 by talking a little bit about the future. I promise next week we'll be back to our regularly scheduled format, but indulge me while I stray from it this week:

Keeper league trade strategy

In my vision of an ideal world, every league would be a keeper league. Yes, there probably would be other aspects involved in this utopia, but it would begin with the keeper league issue.

I love keeper leagues because they keep everyone involved, regardless of their place in the standings.

Keeper leagues are all about the future, hope for tomorrow … even if that hope doesn't begin until 2009.

I love keeper leagues because I love to rebuild. Within the confines of a keeper league, I can easily while away several months doing deal after deal while watching my team sink into a Timberwolves-like state of despair.

If you're in one of those keeper leagues in which teams simply keep their best player or two, there isn't a lot at stake. You'll probably swing one huge deal near the trade deadline for the best player you can get.

I personally prefer leagues that sport more complex keeper rules. At the top of the list: auction keeper leagues. This is a somewhat exotic format in fantasy basketball (it's the standard for baseball). You have a salary cap and your draft involves bidding for players at an auction. Players have long-term contracts, and you get to keep usually around four to seven players.

In this setup, trade strategies involve one of two motives: (1) contending teams who deal low-priced keepers for high-priced stars in order to make a run at the title; (2) sinking teams looking for cheap keepers for next season.

Next down the list would be the leagues that assign keeper value to what round a player was originally drafted in. Say you took Kevin Durant in the sixth round. Next season, you get to keep him for your sixth-round pick. Again, these leagues usually let you keep four to seven players, and most of the same principles of auction keeper leagues apply.

When you make a deal in a keeper league, you're forced to consider a longer slate of ramifications. Am I blowing next season and all my cheap keepers for an outside shot a second place? Or, by trading high-priced players for bargain keepers, am I giving up too early?

Let's use one of my sadder fantasy teams as an example. This is an auction keeper team from a competitive, Los Angeles-based league.

Last season, I traded some primo low-priced talent (Rudy Gay, for instance) for a bunch of players who promptly hurt themselves in grand, season-ending fashion (Ray Allen, for instance). As a result, my cupboard was bare going into 2007-08. Nearly every team had stronger keepers than me. This was, more likely than not, going to be a rebuilding year for yours truly, but I've given it my best shot in the hopes of getting lucky and getting into contention.

Well, it's almost mid-January, and this team is going nowhere fast. It's 24 points out of first place and sinking.

The first thing I ask myself is, "How high in the standings is good enough?" Does a third-place finish allow me to hold my head up high going into next year's draft?

Maybe in non-keeper leagues, this would be the case. But in a keeper league, I am always dealing to win a championship. If I don't feel like I have a shot at first place, I'm looking toward next year.

Now, does this seem like it's too soon to think about going in the tank? No! It's never too early. Again, it's the joy of a keeper league. It's more interesting for me to trade for the best five keepers I can than to take an outside shot at third place.

And we want to strike first in the tanking department. We want to do this because, first and foremost, we want to set the market.

I cannot stress the importance of this enough. This applies to both keeper and non-keeper leagues, first-place and last-place teams.

If you're in a competitive league, you'll see, for the most part, that the first team to tank usually gets the best keepers in return. If you strike first, you are setting the standards for your league. I prefer this to having to use someone else's trade as the measuring stick for what's fair.

I like to set the market because it creates a ripple effect.

The ripple effect is important because I'm not "one and done" in the trade department. I want to make the first deal, set the market, then deal with other teams as they begin to swing into action. As the trade deadline nears, I'll make additional deals, but deals that are more to my liking because of that first deal way back in late January. I keep at it because I want to consolidate keeper value.

There probably will come a point when keeper league owners take a look at their rosters and think they're all set for next season. This should never, ever be the norm. There is always a way to improve a roster, especially in a keeper setting.

If you're putting together keepers, you want to keep dealing, keep boiling down your roster, until you have the best crew in your league. If you can't win the race for first, you can at least win the race for best keepers.

Several good trades can set your team up for years to come. In one league, I'm still enjoying the effect of three deals I made back in January 2003.

And if you haven't tried a keeper league as of yet, give it a shot next year or think about converting your league as we work toward the second half. In my experience, an active keeper league with savvy ownership is the best way to enjoy a long, happy fantasy sports life.

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