Fantasy Basketball Blueprint
What draft strategy works best to ensure a successful team?
ESPN senior fantasy analyst 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 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 the spots 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. James Harden 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, while 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 Harden, LeBron James and Andre Iguodala), but it's typically point guards who are racking up the high assist totals. Consider that among eligible players, only the following 28 averaged five-plus assists last season:
Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Greivis Vasquez, Jrue Holiday, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Goran Dragic, Jameer Nelson, Ricky Rubio, LeBron James, Jeff Teague, Jose Calderon, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Jeremy Lin, Monta Ellis, Kobe Bryant, Andre Miller, James Harden, Kemba Walker, Jarrett Jack, Andre Iguodala and Darren Collison.
Obviously, it won't be the same list in 2013-14, but chances are we'll see around 22 to 28 players average five or more assists this season. Let's say that you draft four players who average five-plus assists. 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 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).
For argument's sake, let's 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, Jrue Holiday, Deron Williams, Goran Dragic, Jameer Nelson, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Jeff Teague, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Mike Conley, Monta Ellis, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Kemba Walker, and Andre Iguodala.
Players like Greivis Vasquez and Damian Lillard just missed the cut by a few steals, and Kyrie Irving missed out as a non-qualifier, but even if we count them, that's just 22 players, folks. Again, this 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. I should also note that we are currently in a golden age of sorts for point guards, and this list has steadily grown over the years.
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 Tony Parker, for instance. Last season, he averaged a brilliant 20.3 points and 7.8 assists while shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and 84.5 percent from the line. Unfortunately, he doesn't hit too many 3-pointers (just 0.4 per game last season) and is only mediocre in the steals category (0.8 per game). That being the case, if you draft Parker 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 Danny Green 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 34 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 additional categories like Kevin Love (3-pointers and percentages) or David Lee (percentages). 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 but 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 percent. Since most big men cannot hit their free throws (I'm talking to you, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin!), 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. Ty 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 48.6 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 you 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 Marc Gasol in the first or second round. Think you have rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage locked up? Not so fast. Sure, Gasol 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 Gasol, 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 where you are lacking later in the season. Many times, owners who draft a player like Gasol will forget about boards and blocks for a while and won't establish the statistical dominance needed to take the category.
Sticking with Gasol for a second, here's a sample of players you might want to select to complement his talents over the next 8-9 rounds:
Serge Ibaka, Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Larry Sanders, Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Nikola Vucevic, Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins, Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Derrick Favors, Andre Drummond, JaVale McGee, Jonas Valanciunas, Enes Kanter and Andrew Bogut.
That's a list of 21 players right there. If you can place at least three of them alongside Gasol, 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 2013-14
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 recent trends to consider heading into the 2013-14 season:
Point guard depth: This is a trend that has been developing for a few years now, and we appear to be smack in the middle of a golden age for point guards. With an extremely deep crop of options to choose from, one might be tempted to stock up on big men early and load up on the point guards in the later rounds. Keep in mind, however, that point guards tend to fly off draft boards quickly, and you'd be best served getting your hands on an elite PG early in the draft.
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:
2009-10: Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings
2010-11: Blake Griffin, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins
2011-12: Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Kenneth Faried, Klay Thompson
2012-13: Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal
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, and Beal missed plenty of time due to injury, but the fact remains that talented rookies who see quality minutes are well worth the investment in the fantasy game. With that in mind, Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, and even Trey Burke or Michael Carter-Williams (despite their poor summer league performances), should not be overlooked in fantasy leagues, as all are expected to earn close to 30 minutes per game as rookies in 2013-14.
Block party: Are blocks less scarce than they used to be? Not quite, but as an admitted shot-blocking hoarder, there are seven players that I'm targeting in fantasy leagues this year: Serge Ibaka, Roy Hibbert, JaVale McGee, Larry Sanders, Anthony Davis, Derrick Favors and Andre Drummond. If I can get one or two of these guys, I'll be sitting pretty in the blocks department. Favors and McGee are the most intriguing of the group given their expected increase in minutes this season. McGee averaged 2.0 blocks per game in only 18.1 minutes last season, and has a shot at unseating Ibaka as the league's top shot-blocker this season. Favors, meanwhile, averaged 1.7 blocks in only 23.2 minutes per game behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in the Jazz frontcourt. With Jefferson and Millsap gone, and 30-plus minutes on the way, Favors could wind up with 2.0-2.5 blocks per game this season.
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