Introduction to fantasy basketball

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2010, but has been updated to account for changes in the fantasy landscape.

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!

Trust me, you're getting in at the perfect time. This year is going to be extra-special-awesome.

The 2012-13 NBA season, with its mix of rising young stars (Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant) and established statistical elites (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki), will be the most challenging fantasy campaign in a decade.

So let's dig in.

For the uninitiated, fantasy hoops, distilled to its essence, 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. It's 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 may or may not know, the most important aspect of any fantasy sport lies in the ability to talk smack to your friends. In 2012, it's not just about winning your league, but also attaining a rarefied 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.

League play versus salary cap?

League play is simply that -- a league. You and your buddies/co-workers/Internet strangers form a league. It's almost always an even number of teams, 10 or 12 is the norm. You hold a draft or auction (more on that later), everyone forms their teams and you compete against each other in a variety of ways. (More on that later, as well.)

A "salary cap" game is designed to give you a feel for what it's like to be a real GM using real money. In these types of games, you are given an imaginary salary cap. Let's say it's $100. Every player in the league has a set "price." And you have a standard lineup (usually five players) to fill in. Your job is to put together the best team that fits under the salary cap. Want to blow a big part of your budget and spend $35 each on Steve Nash and Dwight Howard? Then you'll have to fill out the rest of the team with cheaper second-tier players who may not consistently produce. Or, maybe you go with a bunch of solid producers who are not as expensive. Maybe a bunch of $20 Jrue Holiday types. In these leagues, you usually play against a large group of people from across the country.

What's great about these leagues is you get a shot at every player. If you build your draft strategy around, say, getting an elite shot-blocker such as JaVale McGee ... you can have JaVale McGee. As long as you're willing to outbid the competition (and you still have enough money at the point in your draft when his name his submitted for bidding).

Salary-cap games are fun, you can play them by yourself and they generally require less work. In league play, you'll benefit more from the camaraderie and fun of playing with your buddies, and from being the only owner of your individual players, so each team will be unique.

Salary-cap games have set rules, scoring and categories, so the rest of this article discusses all the various kinds of league play.

Which categories will you be using?

This is very important. 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:
points scored, rebounds, blocks, steals, 3-pointers, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, turnovers

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 ejections, dunks, etc. 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.

Scoring systems

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 9, 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 9 points, etc. Then, you move on to assists. Say your team has the ninth-most assists, next to last in the category. You get 2 points for assists. Now, your team total is 12 points (10 for rebounds, plus 2 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, for example. If you get 3 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.

(Tom Carpenter has a more thorough primer on how to approach points leagues.)

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 only need 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 the American Apparel models out after JaVale McGee goes bonkers and swats nine shots on Saturday 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, the fantasy basketball regular 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 game.

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 to play catch-up in. Easier categories to play catch-up in 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. 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 schedule; 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 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.

(For more of roto versus head-to-head play, Josh Whitling delves further into the strategies of both formats.)

For instance, one good argument for head-to-head is that it keeps more teams in contention late into the season. Let me add another wrinkle that will do the same thing:

Keeper leagues

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 together your team.

My favorite? Auction leagues. Now we are cooking with gas, my friend. Every team gets an imaginary budget. Then, players are called out, one by one, and owners ride wild mood swings while 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 LeBron, a $72 Russell Westbrook, 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 2012-13 season, ESPN.com projects that the auction basketball league format will supplant football as the No. 1 fantasy pastime in the world. (OK, I made that last part up. But if fantasy hockey is your fantasy flavor of choice? Please accept my condolences and come on over. After all, the NBA promises to be work-stoppage-free until 2017!)

(For more strategy on auction leagues, check on John Cregan's primer.)

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" or "troubled loner."

Happy hunting!