Auction draft strategy

Fantasy sports, at their most enlightened and refined, should present a version of team management that is as close to the real thing as possible. And in fantasy, no other format comes as close to simulating the real thing as the auction format. After all, real general managers use real money. So why shouldn't imaginary GMs use imaginary money?

The basics

• You start with $200.

• You have 13 roster spots.

• You start 10 players at the following positions: PG, SG, SF, PF, C, G, F and 3 UTIL (3 bench spots).

• You can pick any categories you like, but we like: field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, 3-pointers made, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and points.

• This is America, so you're still free to choose the scoring system that suits your league best, be it head-to-head, traditional rotisserie, categories, points and so on.

You and a group of nine or so other fantasy basketball elites gather online to hold your draft, powered by the mighty ESPN.com auction engine.

You've upgraded from dial-up. You've successfully quarantined yourself from the rest of your family.

The draft order has been determined at random; the countdown to the first pick is almost at zero. You can cut the tension with a knife. As sports moments go, this one is almost as anxiety-ridden as that moment in June, right before the Wizards improbably slipped from second to fifth in the draft lottery. (But at least that was predictable.)

Your heart is palpitating.

The first key is to calm down. Take a breath, or the sedative of your choosing. Auction drafts are fast and furious. You're not going to get swept up. You're going to stick to your guns. You're going to stick to your plan.

"I have a plan?" you say.

Of course you do.

Making a plan

(A preliminary note: if this were your auction league's second, third or 15th draft, we'd have to talk about a little thing called inflation. But it probably isn't, so we can jump right in.)

Because auction drafts are far, far more exciting than any other fantasy experience The Current Mrs. Cregan will allow at this time, you need to articulate a strategy, either on paper or pixel -- a draft constitution, if you will. And like that other Constitution, it will be a living document, one that maps out a clear strategy but will allow for some amendments as the draft unfolds. Sticking to a mapped-out plan will help you keep a cool head.

"But I did the same thing for my other drafts," you say. "It's the same amount of prep as for a …"

It is not!

Prepping for an auction draft properly requires a level of planning and forethought those other drafts couldn't touch with Pops Mensah-Bonsu holding a 10-foot pole. That sort of smug attitude will get your clock cleaned even more immaculately than whatever timepiece is currently sitting in Chris Wallace's den.

Here's some homework to wipe that smirk off your mug:

• Break down the top 160 players by projected dollar value, position and tier.

• Figure out which position suffers from scarcity and boost those values accordingly (hint: really tall people play this position).

• Make a separate list of players who boost and destroy certain categories.

• Make a list of which players you're going to target.

• Make your sleeper list, followed by your bust list.

• Put a little asterisk next to who you consider to be an injury or suspension risk (I'm looking at you, Rasheed.)

• Finally -- if you have the knowledge -- make a list of other owners' favorite teams and players. This will provide a road map for which players to bid up.

When doing this work, keep in mind the two factors that make auction drafts truly unique:

1. Intricate player valuation

Rather than slotting players in 13 tiers (separated by round), the auction format slots players from anywhere between $1 to $187. That's a lot of wiggle room.

2. You get a shot at every player

Your days of getting scooped on Mehmet Okur are over, my friend. If you really, really want Mehmet Okur, you can have him … as long as you're willing to outbid everyone else for him.

Draft strategy

There are two basic approaches to an auction.

Stars and Scrubs

Stars and Scrubs is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Here, you focus big bucks on three to four ringers, then fill the gaps with cheap role players. Think of it this way. You spend $72 on Chris Paul (he could go even higher in some leagues), followed by $56 on Dirk Nowitzki, topped off by $34 on David West (he has a special relationship with Paul, good for your locker-room chemistry). That's $162 for three players, leaving you with $38 for your remaining 10.

When it's all said and done, your roster could wind up looking like this:

PG: Chris Paul, $72
SG: Jason Richardson, $7
SF: Al Thornton, $2
PF: Dirk Nowitzki, $56
C: Chris Kaman, $3
G: Raymond Felton, $4
F: David West, $34
UTIL: Paul Millsap, $5; Richard Jefferson, $3; Trevor Ariza, $3
BENCH: Rasheed Wallace, $3; Jonny Flynn, $2; Randy Foye, $1

Aside from being somewhat blocks-deficient, this team is incredibly top-heavy. It's wide open to being hit hard by injuries, trades, the pleasures of the French Quarter and scheduling abnormalities (think what will happen when the Hornets have a two-game week.) It also places a lot of pressure on an owner to be resourceful on the waiver wire, since you will undoubtedly be scouring for new scrubs to plug in when other scrubs don't pan out (I don't see Randy Foye lasting on your squad beyond the first week of training camp, for example).

The benefit of having elite superstars anchoring your team is guaranteed big-time production. With Paul and Nowitzki, you'll also have two huge names if you need to get into the trade market.

Owners new to auction leagues tend to fall into this strategy by mistake. Many times I've seen new owners get bid-happy and scarf up three of the first eight or nine superstars. (I remember I did this in my first baseball auction draft and ended up with Sammy Sosa for $67, Juan Pierre for $52 and Jason Isringhausen for $45. Perhaps the worst team ever assembled in the history of fantasy.)

Of course, there is another way to go about it.

Fairly Balanced

Here, you promise yourself you won't spend more than $28-32 on a single player.

You have to weather the initial storm, napping comfortably while other owners go hog wild for LeBron at $82 and Kobe at $68. You wait. (Oh, and don't be that guy who bides his time by transparently talking up players they're not interested in. It's annoying, doesn't work, and is clearly lacking in roto honor.)

Because you've done your homework that I previously assigned (you will do that), you will notice that inevitably, some bargains will start to fall through the cracks. The balanced strategy is all about timing and knowing when to jump in.

The key to your timing revolves around carefully monitoring how other owners are spending their money. Conversely, don't wait too long. If a couple of other GMs are also keeping their powder dry, jump in.

A team built with this approach might look like this:

PG: Chauncey Billups, $27
SG: Vince Carter, $16
SF: Caron Butler, $31
PF: David Lee, $24 (Knicks fans always drive up his price)
C: Marcus Camby, $15
G: Mo Williams, $10
F: Al Harrington, $15
UTIL: Rudy Gay, $28; Nene, $12; Boris Diaw, $7
BENCH: Jason Terry, $6; Andrea Bargnani, $5; James Harden, $4

I agree, this doesn't have the same sizzle as having CP3 and Dirk, but it is more solid from top to bottom.

The benefits? You are guarding against a single injury destroying your team's prospects, while building solid foundations across the board in every single category. In addition, you have more flexibility when setting your lineups, and whenever you're involved in trade talks.

Other random thoughts

• As you get a feel for other owners' tendencies, don't be afraid to bid up a player you're not interested in. It's risky, but unlike only making snarky comments, this does work.

• Track how other owners are managing their money. I recommend a spreadsheet that tracks available money, as well as which positions and categories others need to fill.

• Pay attention to the percentage categories. They tend to be the silent killers on a losing fantasy team.

• Like Robert DeNiro in "Heat," you have to be willing to walk away from any player at any time. Don't get caught up in a bidding war. There is no single player you simply have to have.

• Remember to leave the draft with at least two serviceable centers, if not more. It will leave you with an extra chip to play with in the trade market. (Positional scarcity is such a factor in hoops drafts you could almost make a case on building an entire strategy around it.)

• Don't go into your draft planning on punting a category. Unlike baseball, this tends to be a dead-end strategy when employed upon the imaginary hardwood.

• If you're in a keeper league (and I hope you are), keep an eye trained on tomorrow by picking up a cheap, younger player with upside. Remember that big men take an extra year or two to put it all together.

• Focus on players with less name recognition: players who play in small markets, perennially losing teams, or recent international additions to the NBA. These factors tend to knock a couple of dollars off a player's price.

• On the other hand, beware of players from big-market teams, perennially winning teams and overhyped rookies.

• Another thing that can dent a player's value: the knucklehead factor. Bad press deflates value. I refer to it as "Laimbeer economics."

• Finally, don't leave any money on the table (at least no more than a couple of dollars). You don't get any bonus points for this. As a matter of fact, you will leave yourself open to widespread and well-deserved ridicule.

And don't worry. Even if you draft terribly, in an auction keeper league, you can start playing for next year by Thanksgiving. That's the single best thing about auction keeper leagues.

That's it. Welcome to a newer, bigger world.

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