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 is one that has worked for me for years, and I'm not about to abandon it now.
In fact, I owe the point guards and power forwards strategy for a lot more than just success in fantasy hoops. You see, Matthew's original Hoops Draft Manifesto (back when he was writing for $25 an article) was, for me, his defining column back in the day. It was what motivated me not only to follow his content on a regular basis but to eventually follow him when he started up his own site. From there, e-mails led to more e-mails, and eventually I was offered a job writing for the old TMR site. Fast-forward a few years and here I am, writing the very column that started it all for me. So, you see, not only does this strategy produce fantasy success, but it can also land you a pretty sweet job!
For the uninitiated, the point guards/power forwards strategy is fairly simple and straightforward, but it becomes slightly more complicated if you want to do it right. The CliffsNotes version is this: Load 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 and 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 is important to note, however, that the name of the strategy can be misleading. It's far less about the positions (despite the name) and much more about the scarcity of certain categories like assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers, and building on your strengths. Rather than thinking of point guards and power forwards, think of players who act like point guards and power forwards. Joe Johnson isn't technically a point guard, but he acts like one on the court. And more importantly he gets stats like a point guard.
Far too often, I get e-mails from folks who misconstrue the philosophy behind the strategy. In fact, I'd like to change the name, but couldn't come up with something catchy that can be summed up in four words or fewer. Instead of just point guards and power forwards, you want to assemble a team that plays like point guards and power forwards. When you're done 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.
I can't tell you how important it is not to get caught up in the name of the strategy. Don't ignore swing players like Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Brandon Roy and Andre Iguodala just because they aren't point guards or power forwards. In fact, as you'll see a little later, multitalented swingmen like these are the key to making this work.
Now that you have the basic feel for the strategy, let's dig a little deeper into the reasoning behind it and what types of players you should be looking for.
Check out my positional rankings by tier, right here.
Targeting multicategory producers and rare categories
In order 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 (like Kobe Bryant and Joe Johnson) and that's great, but for the most part it's the point guards who are racking up the high assist totals. Consider that among eligible players, only 25 averaged five-plus assists last season. They were:
Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Jose Calderon, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, Baron Davis, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Duhon, Devin Harris, Tony Parker, Raymond Felton, Andre Miller, Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Joe Johnson, Ramon Sessions, Russell Westbrook, T.J. Ford, Andre Iguodala, Rafer Alston, Brandon Roy, Luke Ridnour and Mike Bibby.
Obviously it won't be the same list in 2009-10, but chances are we'll see around 25-30 players average five or more assists this season. Let's say that you get four of those players. You'll be dominant in assists for sure. At least a top-three finish in roto leagues. But what about everything else that we're looking for 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 sake, drop all the players from the above list who failed to average at least 3-pointer and a steal per game last season. That leaves us with:
Deron Williams, Jose Calderon, Jason Kidd, Baron Davis, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chauncey Billups, Joe Johnson, Rafer Alston, Andre Iguodala, Brandon Roy and Mike Bibby.
Just 12 players, folks. Again, that list will likely be different this season (so don't blindly follow the list 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 Russell Westbrook, for instance. Last season, he averaged a very solid 15.3 points, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 81.5 percent from the free throw line. Unfortunately, he doesn't hit too many 3-pointers (just 0.4 per game last season). That being the case, if you draft Westbrook or players like him, you better be sure that you make up the difference in 3-pointers by grabbing a shooting guard or swingman like Jason Terry, J.R. Smith or Ben Gordon at some point in the draft. I mention this because the success of this strategy really depends on how you 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. Only 29 players averaged at least a block per game last season. With that said, we're not all that interested in big guys who don't block shots (apologies to Zach Randolph and Carlos Boozer). 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.
If you are going to draft someone like Boozer who is tremendous in points, boards and field goal percentage, it is imperative that you fill out your roster with some shot-blocking specialists. Boozer can be a great fantasy player if used properly, but most folks find themselves in a big hole in blocks when they draft him and can't make up for the lack of blocks later on.
Going into the draft, it might help to set up some minimum category thresholds. Personally I like my point guards to get me at least 12 points, five assists, a 3-pointer and a steal per game, while keeping their free throw percentage above 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 has the ability to provide 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, seven 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 say, Chris Paul, just because he doesn't technically fit into those rough guidelines. That would be silly. Paul is so dominant in points, assists, steals and the percentages that I'll gladly overlook his small deficiency in 3-point shooting. It also helps that he's not a total drain on the 3-point category with 0.8 3s per game last season.
Bonus points are given to players who can produce those minimums while adding value in categories that we don't expect them to. Take Pau Gasol, 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 a 78.1 percent clip. Since most big men cannot hit their free throws (I'm talking to you, Dwight Howard!), Gasol 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. Deron Williams 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 47.1 percent of his shots from the floor. 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's strengths.
Let's say, for example, that you draft Dwight Howard in the first round. Think you have rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage locked up? Not so fast. Sure, Howard gives you a great foundation for those categories (plus points and steals), but it's only useful if you build properly on top of that. You're going to want to surround Howard, 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 that you are lacking. Many times, owners who draft a player like Howard will forget about boards and blocks for a while and won't establish the statistical dominance needed to take the category.
Sticking with Howard for a second, here's a sample of players whom you might want to select to complement his talents:
Rounds 2-3: Al Jefferson, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett
Rounds 4-5: David West, Elton Brand, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez
Rounds 6-7: Andris Biedrins, Marcus Camby, Emeka Okafor, Andrew Bynum, Al Horford
There's a list of 14 players right there. If you can get at least two of them to put alongside Howard, 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. By the way, the strategy works the same if you pass on Howard and instead select any of the players listed in the "Rounds 2-3" above as your main big man. You'll build on their strengths -- which are similar to Howard's -- and repeat the process.
Now, 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. 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 look for 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 you should be looking to load up on specialists and high-upside players who complement your statistical base.
Preparing for a fantasy hoops draft is not all that different from preparing for any fantasy draft. You're still going to make sure that you have as much knowledge as possible by keeping on top of all the latest news and depth charts. You're still going to have our sleeper and busts lists ready. The only significant difference is that, rather than simply looking at depth charts, you are going to pay particular attention to minutes. Minutes make the fantasy basketball world go 'round, folks. It's simple, really: The more a player is on the court, the more chances he has to earn fantasy stats for you. It's not a coincidence that almost every breakout season corresponds with a career high in minutes played. Just look take a look at Devin Harris last season.
Here are a couple of tips that are not fantasy hoops-specific but will help you along the way:
Make your own rankings list
There are plenty of rankings lists out there, and if you don't have enough time to do your own homework, you can simply print one of them and go at it. But why leave your fate in the hands of someone else? Look, most fantasy writers or self-proclaimed "experts" have a bit of an ego. You almost have to if you are going to be in this business. But we're not perfect, and after everything is said and done, they're just educated opinions. Go ahead and look at our individual rankings lists, they're fairly similar, but there are a ton of differences amongst the experts. Odds are, our personal rankings will also differ from yours. So go ahead and take a look at the rankings, but at the end of the day you should make your own list and put your fate in your own hands.
If you don't have time to make your own rankings list, you should at least separate your cheat sheets by tiers. This way, you don't get caught up in selecting any one player. How many times have you had your eye on a player only to see him get snatched one pick before you? Then you have to scramble, and the clock is ticking down, and you eventually freak out while taking a player whom you didn't want at all. Happens all the time, right? When you rank players in tiers, you avoid this sort of detrimental behavior.
We'll use point guards as a quick example of how it works:
Tier 1: Chris Paul, Deron Williams
Tier 2: Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, Devin Harris, Jason Kidd, Jose Calderon
Let's say you want to get a least one of the point guards listed above, but you really have your eye on Devin Harris. It would be nice to be able to get Harris, but if he goes a few spots ahead of you, you'll still have four other players from Tier 2 to select from, and trust me, you'll do just fine with Chauncey if you don't land Harris. Not too big of a deal then, right?
Ranking your players in tiers also gives you a better idea of which positions are getting scarce during the draft. Let's say you already have a great base in the guard categories but you are fairly light in big-man stats. Then you glance at your tiered rankings and notice that there are only a few Tier 2 and 3 big men left on the board. Your next pick better be one of the big men you have ranked in Tier 2, and the pick after that might even be another big man in Tier 3.
A few final thoughts before you head into draft day:
Limit risk early: You can't prevent injuries, but you can at least hedge your bets. Perennial injury risks like Baron Davis, Elton Brand and Gilbert Arenas can be a huge boon to your fantasy roster, but they can also ruin a fantasy season quite quickly. If you can, try to hold off on taking risks like that until after the third round. But if the temptation is too great and you wind up with an injury-prone star early, make sure you surround him with some safer options. Hedge your bets by avoiding any other injury risks at least until Round 8 or 9.
Take upside late: I am a firm believer that there is little to no risk at the end of fantasy hoops drafts. Most of the players who are drafted in the final two rounds end up on the waiver wire at some point anyway, so where is the risk? It's also important to note that the waiver wire in fantasy hoops is always filled with talent early in the season, so if your upside pick doesn't pan out, you'll have plenty of options to choose from once the season starts. I recently nabbed Tracy McGrady in the very last round of an expert draft and caught some heat for doing so. What's the big deal? If T-Mac is healthy, I just got myself a big-time talent in the final round. If he's not, I can just drop him and I'll be able to grab a talented player off the wire.
Don't overrate rookies: Although 12 rookies finished last season in the Top 150 in our Player Rater rankings, rookies are often overrated in fantasy leagues. History tells us that last season was the exception to the rule in fantasy hoops. The simple fact is that rookies often have a very hard time living up to their average draft position.
Beware of the hype machine: Don't fall into the trap of hyping sleepers so much that they cease to be sleepers. A friend recently told me that there's no such thing as a sleeper anymore with all of the information available on the Internet. I tend to agree.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.