So, you've decided to take the big leap to immerse yourself in the richly rewarding, existentially satisfying and entirely imaginary world of fantasy basketball. Congratulations!
For the uninitiated, fantasy sports, distilled to its simplicity, is thus: You draft real-life NBA players for your fantasy team. How well those players do statistically in real-life NBA games is how they also do for your fantasy team. Your goal is to assemble a collection of players that performs better in a variety of statistical categories than your opponent's collection. That simple.
Say you draft Kevin Durant. And Durant goes for 26 points, 4 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 3-pointers against the Boston Celtics. Well, those 26 points he scores not only count for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they also count for you. See how easy that is? The appeal is that, by either "owning" or competing against every significant player in the NBA, every single game has interest to you. You think you love the NBA now? Wait 'til you play fantasy basketball.
Now, if you have played other fantasy sports before but not basketball, allow me to welcome you with a few tidbits that may help point you toward the league that will best work for you. If you have played before, yet still yearn for more satisfaction in your roto existence, then read on.
As you might know, the most important aspect of any fantasy sport lies in the ability to talk smack to your friends. It's not just about winning your league, but also attaining a rarified air of superiority that you can call upon at any given moment should the need arise. I find it exceptionally useful at parties.
But you can't do that until you choose the right league for you. Let's pose a few essential questions.
Getting started: How many teams?
League play is simply that: a league. You and your buddies/coworkers/Internet strangers form a league. The league almost always has an even number of teams; 10 or 12 is the norm. You hold a draft or auction (more on that later) and each owner forms his or her team, then you compete against one another in a variety of ways (more on that later as well).
Which categories will you be using?
This is darned important. I would use stronger language, but this is a family website. Use too many categories, and you'll end up with a steaming, noncompetitive fantasy basketball glop, with several categories canceling each other out. Use too few and it gets too boring and too vanilla. The standard categories for hoops are:
Field goal percentage
Free throw percentage
If categories were vowels, the " and sometimes Y" would be turnovers. I don't like them personally -- I don't like to negate the value of my point guards -- but it's a perfectly valid category, and you're certainly well within your rights to utilize it. There are some leagues that use exotic categories such as dunks. These leagues are for fantasy Philistines. My advice is to look for a league that sticks close to the basics, and to never stray outside of the confines of ESPN.com. In here, you'll always be safe. And free.
Categories versus points? The choice is yours. Let me explain.
In a classic categorical roto league, it's very simple. You pick your categories, such as those above. First place in a category in a 10-team league gets 10 points, second place gets nine, and so on.
So, say rebounds is one of your categories, and your team has the most rebounds in your 10-team league. You get 10 points. The team with the second-most rebounds gets nine points, etc. Then, you move on to assists. Say your team has the ninth-most assists, next to last in the category. You get two points for assists. Now, your team total is 12 points (10 for rebounds, plus two for assists). You keep doing this for all the categories your league uses. The team with the most total points across all categories wins. It's that simple.
In a points league, you assign a certain point value for each statistic -- a field goal made, a steal, a block. If you get three points for each steal and your team gets a total of 10 steals in a night, that's 30 points. You do this for every category your league uses to come up with a total score.
Both systems are effective and will provide a fine representation of you and your co-owners' collective acumen.
Head-to-Head or Roto?
The Mason-Dixon Line of the fantasy world. Now that you have defined your categories and your scoring system, you need to decide how you are going to compete with one another.
In head-to-head leagues, you're going to play a different owner in your league every week. You need only to outscore your opponent the week you compete. How do you beat your opponent? You can use either a points-based scoring system or category scoring. I personally prefer a points-based system in a head-to-head situation.
Whichever way you keep score, you'll accrue wins and losses as the season goes on. So, say I beat Brian McKitish in the first week of the season. I would be 1-0. Then, I take on "The Talented Mr. Roto" Matthew Berry and I beat him, too -- by a wide, wide margin. Hey, it's my article, and it's a fantasy article. I can beat whomever the heck I want. The next week, I play a team that's co-owned by a group of models from the American Apparel ads. I barely edge out the American Apparel models after Al Jefferson goes all Karl Malone against an undersized Golden State Warriors front line in the late game Sunday night. Team American Apparel is so impressed with my fantasy skill that we all move in together for a "trial run." I am now 3-0 on the season, divorced and living in a house entirely devoid of carbohydrates.
In head-to-head competition, the regular fantasy basketball season will usually end in late March or so to allow for a playoff between the top teams. The winner is decided in the final couple weeks of the NBA's regular season, depending on whether your league goes one or two weeks per playoff matchup.
In roto leagues, you don't have a different opponent every week. You just follow your team's cumulative categorical totals as the season progresses as described above. There are no playoffs. Just a simple first, second and third place for whichever team has the most total points across all the categories at the end of the season.
(A quick tip: In roto leagues, look to build a lead in the percentage categories early. They're the toughest categories in which to play catch-up. Easier categories in which to play catch-up include blocks and 3s. It's all about sample size.)
Which to do? Each has its pluses and minuses:
In head-to-head play, you get added interpersonal excitement (see the above paragraph on the American Apparel matchup), the thrill of competing against a different team every week and the chance to play matchups versus your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. The playoffs are fun as well; there's nothing as fun in fantasy basketball as seeing one's team suddenly catch fire and stampede toward an imaginary yet utterly rewarding championship.
But it's not always the best representation of which team in your league was actually the best. Why? Here's an example:
Team A drafted well, made smart moves all season and compiled an impressive 18-6 record in the process. It earned the right to play lower-seeded Team B in Round 1 of the playoffs. However, because the weaker Team B had first dibs on the waiver wire, it got lucky and picked up a couple of hot players in the final week of the season. Team B's roster had an incredibly hot week and knocked off the far superior and better put-together Team A. Team A's season ended abruptly. I am just speculating, of course. This clearly has never happened to me and I harbor no bitterness.
You also have to contend with the fact that the fantasy playoffs occur during the silly season of the NBA season; the final 10-12 games of the regular season when many teams tank and others begin to rest their stars (and your stars) for the NBA playoffs. This also has clearly never happened to me and I harbor no bitterness.
That's why I, personally, prefer roto to head-to-head. You're sacrificing a bit of excitement, but it's an inherently fairer way of determining the winner. Let me stress that this is just my opinion, but it's the correct opinion.
One good argument for head-to-head play is that it keeps more teams in contention late into the season. Let me add another wrinkle that will do the same thing.
I generally will not join a league unless it has some sort of keeper function. This means that teams will get to protect a certain number of players from one season to the next, usually with a cap on, or a penalty (loss of draft picks, higher cost of player) for, the kept players.
The cellar-dwelling teams can look forward to next season by trading for quality keepers. This way, everyone has something to look forward to. Good owners can build dynasties. Bad owners learn to hate the good owners. The system for determining how players are kept depends on how your league chooses its rosters, which brings me to my next section.
Above all things, when choosing a league, I recommend doing a real draft. Not one in which you submit a list and players are taken for you, but one in which you're gathered with your fellow owners in a conference room, a meeting room or in the cozy confines of cyberspace. Doesn't matter where, just do a real draft.
Now, what kind of draft? In a straight-up "snake" draft situation, teams will select one player per round, then flip the draft order for the following round. In other words, the picks go 1-10 in the first round, then 10 back down to 1 in the second round. It's a nice, neat, solid way to put your team together.
My favorite? Auction leagues. Now we are cooking with gas, my friends. Every team gets an imaginary budget. Then, players are called out, one by one, and owners go bonkers bidding them up.
It's a system that favors the wise and well-prepared, because the big names will generally go for overinflated prices. It's a given some yahoo will blow his budget on a $78 Dwight Howard, a $72 Dwyane Wade, then have to contend with the cheaper table scraps that the smarter owners are outmaneuvering him for.
Auction leagues are common in baseball, and are becoming more popular in other fantasy sports. As a matter of fact, by the end of the 2010-11 season, ESPN.com projects that the auction basketball league will supplant football as the No. 1 fantasy pastime in the world. (OK, I made that last part up, but if there's an NFL lockout next season, it could happen. Unless, of course, there's an NBA lockout, too. If both happen, let's all agree to meet exactly one year from now at ESPN.com's fantasy hockey page.)
As I said, for me, I will always prefer an auction keeper league that uses either a points or categorical scoring system. But that's just me, and I'm a profoundly troubled person. The good thing about all of this is that you can find a league that's right for you. Because fantasy basketball is, at its heart, a democracy.
And please, please don't take yourself or this game too seriously. It's a fine line between "fantasy sports enthusiast" and "obsessive compulsive" or "troubled loner."
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.