A large part of any astute player's success in any fantasy league is exploiting the waiver wire. So much talent presents itself throughout the season, either through the ineptness of your fellow owners as they fail to pounce on a player (or drop one of their own), or through injury and circumstance that bestow the opportunity to make an impact on a previous afterthought of a player. The NBA, though, differs from other fantasy sports in that it is not necessarily skill that dictates fantasy value, but instead minutes. It is a rare exception that any player garnering 30-plus minutes per game isn't at least a low-end starter in the fantasy world. The NBA is an offense-first game, and even those players who make their living off their defense normally contribute something on offense, and fortunately in the fantasy world those somethings normally translate into scarce categories such as steals, blocks and 3-pointers.
To that end, it is much easier to quickly identify which players will have value, and since simply being on the court guarantees you stats, your return on investment is immediate. Unlike in baseball or football, where skill level and the role on a team closely coincide with fantasy value, one doesn't have to be particularly valuable in real life to have immense value on a fantasy scale, so even street free agents can be plugged into a lineup with favorable results, assuming, of course, they accumulate starter's minutes.
Therefore, depending on the waiver wire to supplement your team after you draft becomes less of a risky proposition and more of an art. A smart owner puts himself or herself in position to benefit from that influx of waiver-wire talent which inevitably emerges by keeping it in mind as he or she drafts. Certain positions are much easier to devalue on your draft board if you know you can plug in players of similar value for a much lower cost.
So which positions might those be? Well, we can look at ESPN's Player Rater to find out.
Using a baseline of between 2.50 and -2.50 relative to the Player Rater system, you find there are seven power forwards, nine point guards, 11 centers, 14 shooting guards and 15 small forwards who fit the bill. In other words, shooting guards and small forwards have their production most closely bunched together, with point guards and power forwards separated by distinct tiers. Since it's fairly difficult to have a perfectly well-rounded team as you leave your draft, you want to make it a point to leave yourself vulnerable in the areas which have the most resources available for your improvement: shooting guard, small forward, and to a lesser extent, center.
Quality point guards and power forwards are scarce, and their production cannot easily be replicated through free agency. The skill level needed to be a successful point guard or power forward is incredibly rare, and only a small handful put you ahead of the average production for that position. Understandably, you have to grab those guys early, and you won't get much, if any, chance to pick up a decent replacement from free agency. (Jose Calderon was last year's notable exception.) Take, for example, Beno Udrih, a successful pickup by your normal waiver-wire standards. Udrih shot better than 50 percent from the field with more than five assists per game after the All-Star break, but he didn't do much to alleviate your point guard problems; with a weak showing in 3-pointers and steals, he was a third point guard, at best, on quality fantasy teams. But the baseline for swingmen is much lower, so you're going to have multiple opportunities to fill in blanks on your roster at those positions while still approximating (or exceeding) average production. And even if this season's Mike Dunleavy slips through your hands, it's a common occurrence to be able to zone in on a perennially underrated Shane Battier (84th on the Player Rater, ADP of 111 last season) late in your draft or pick up his next-generation replacement, Jamario Moon (92nd, undrafted) from the waiver wire, underrated players who don't hurt you anywhere until you can find better alternatives.
Such a strategy polarizes your team, which leaves your roster flexible enough to where you can constantly rotate your bench with players who are productive in their own right, but not so productive that you are afraid of dropping them in place of new players with more short- and/or long-term value. This strategy works best in shallower leagues (10- to 12-team leagues) and especially well in head-to-head (H2H) leagues. In rotisserie leagues, the quality of the individual games played and the long-term value of your players take precedence; after all, you have only 82 games to use, and it doesn't matter when you get all 82 of those games played. So the value of a player like the aforementioned Moon is more in the subtle contributions in scarce categories that add up over time, such as his field goal percentage (.485), blocks (1.4 per game) and steals (1.0), while he mitigates his other weaknesses simply by being somewhat decent in a category like 3-pointers (0.5). In roto, that makes him much more valuable in H2H, where you can overcome that jack-of-all-trades production by sheer games played and riding hot streaks on a week-to-week and day-to-day basis. So if an injury presents a newfound opportunity for the next Beno Udrih or John Salmons, a player who, in the short term, will trump Moon's value, but over the course of an 82-game season needs replacement when his production drops off, the fact that you can easily dispose of him for the next hot item means you never handcuff your team's chances to pounce on the next big thing, regardless of position. When some of those players do pan out, you can start exploring the trade market or merely keep them, and when the hourglass runs out, it's of little consequence to you; you just find the next productive player.
There are a couple of statistical trends you can look at to get a hint at which players will be better suited to maximizing an increase in minutes. Probably the single most important stat to keep an eye on, especially for big men, is personal fouls. Nick Collison illustrates this point well: He averaged about 9 points and 9 rebounds in 27 minutes before the All-Star break, averaging 3.2 fouls per game, but saw his minutes increase to 31 after the break while keeping his fouls the same. That resulted in a month like his April, in which he averaged 13.4 points and 12.5 rebounds in 35-plus minutes, fouling just three times a game. A trend like that is promising for his future potential; Paul Millsap, on the other hand, averaged a ridiculous 3.3 fouls in 21 minutes last season, limiting his upside in even the best of circumstances.
Possessions per game is also an important factor in assessing a player's potential upside, particularly at the extremes. Mike Dunleavy was helped tremendously by the Pacers' run-and-gun style; they were third in the NBA with 96.1 possessions per game. It's no coincidence that players like Hedo Turkoglu and the aforementioned Salmons and Udrih were also on teams in the top 10 in possessions per game. Marginal players need every push they can get, and a couple more opportunities per game can translate into an extra 3 or steal. Conversely, the Jazz were last in possessions, a hallmark of Jerry Sloan's grind-it-out style and another reason to be down on Millsap's upside.
Taking advantage of the sport's predictable ebb and flow of the waiver wire is vital to maximizing each position on your team. Swingmen are the most replaceable players on your roster, and there's no worse feeling than to be unable to grab a highly productive player from the waiver wire without handcuffing your team or throwing away value because you committed too many resources to shooting guards and small forwards. Putting yourself in position to capitalize on this season's Turkoglu is not just race-to-the-waiver-wire luck; it's smart planning.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball and baseball analyst for ESPN.com.