How to play: Introduction to fantasy hoops

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 this: 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 who perform better in a variety of statistical categories than your opponents' collection. That simple.

Say you draft LeBron James, and LeBron goes for 30 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals against the Celtics. Well, those 30 points he scores count not only for the Cavaliers but also 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.

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, read on.

The most important thing about any fantasy sport is to be able to talk smack to your friends. 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. 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 everyone forms his team, then you compete against one another in a variety of ways. (More on that later as well.)

A "salary cap" game is just as it sounds. In this format, you are given an imaginary salary cap. Every player in the league has a set "price." And you have a standard lineup 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 on LeBron and CP3? 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'll go with a bunch of solid producers who are not as expensive, maybe a bunch of more affordable Deron Williams types. In these leagues, you usually play against a large group of people from across the country. What's great about these leagues is that you get a shot at every player. Everyone gets a chance to buy Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash.

Salary-cap games are fun; you can play them by yourself, and they generally require less work than other fantasy games. In league play, you may get more of the camaraderie and fun of playing with your buddies. I like knowing that I am the only one in my league who has Antawn Jamison. Granted, ours is a special relationship, one that The Current Mrs. Cregan could not even begin to comprehend.

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

Which categories will you be using?

This is darned important. I would use stronger language, but this is a family Web site. Use too many, and you'll end up canceling out a lot of the categories. Use too few, and it gets boring. The standard categories for ESPN fantasy leagues are:

Field-goal percentage
Free-throw percentage

If categories were vowels, the "… and sometimes Y" would be turnovers. I don't like that category, as turnovers tend to be a "bad vibes" statistic. But it's a perfectly valid category, and you're certainly well within your rights to use it. And now that leagues are fully customizable on ESPN.com, you can.

And that's just the beginning. You'll have the choice of using exotic categories such as double-doubles and even ejections, if you so choose. Now there's no reason to stray outside the confines of ESPN.com. In here, you'll always be safe. And free.

Scoring systems

Categories versus points? Let me explain.

In a classic categorical roto league, it's very simple. You pick your categories, such as those discussed 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 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, or a steal or block, for example. If you get three points for each steal and your team earns 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'll compete with one another in your league.

In head-to-head leagues, you'll play a different owner in your league every week. You need to outscore your opponent only 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'll 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 the former secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. (His team has a decidedly international flavor.) I edge out Kofi after his starting small forward, Josh Childress, decides to quit the NBA that Wednesday to play for the Fighting Five-Year Plan of the Upper Northwest Slovenian League. Now I am 3-0 on the season and celebrate with a particularly tangy large cup of Pinkberry. Pinkberry. This is what my life has become. I'm not proud of it.

In head-to-head play, the regular fantasy basketball season usually ends in late March or so to allow for a playoff between the top teams. The winner is decided in the final couple of 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 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. It's easier to catch up in categories such as 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, 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 portion of the NBA season: the final 10 to 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 never happened to me.

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. But in the sense of full disclosure that has kept me married longer than most of my friends, I do play in both types of leagues every year.

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 a keeper function.

This means that teams will protect a certain number of players from one season to the next, usually with a cap on or a penalty for (loss of draft picks, higher cost of player) 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 gather with your fellow owners in a conference room, a meeting room or in 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 with which to fill out a roster. In ESPN leagues, that budget is $200. 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 generally go for overinflated prices. Some yahoo will blow his or her budget on a $48 Tim Duncan, a $44 Dirk Nowitzki, then have to contend with the cheaper table scraps for which the smarter owners are outmaneuvering him or her.

Auction leagues are common in baseball but a rarity in basketball. Why? It's hard to find reliable data on dollar values for players in fantasy basketball. But each auction is different anyway, and the best way to compile that data is to utilize the mock auction feature right here on ESPN.com. It's great practice to get you ready for the real thing.

As I said, I 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 "recently divorced."

Happy hunting!

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