Winter is coming.
While that statement bred fear in Game of Thrones, it means something entirely different for me. If winter is coming, that means that fantasy basketball season is almost upon us!
There's just nothing like basketball. Nothing like the NBA. Fantasy basketball was the first fantasy sport I ever played, and it has always been my favorite. And now, with the legalization of sports betting, there are more options than ever for us to engage with the sport on multiple levels... we can play and win, even as we watch our favorite teams have success on the court.
I've been playing and winning in fantasy basketball for decades now. And like Notorious B.I.G. said back in the day, "I wrote me a manual" on tips for building winning teams. Just some things that I've learned through the years.
Playing fantasy basketball is fun, but like everything else, winning makes the whole experience that much sweeter. Here's how to win.
Tip 1: Set aside some time to prepare for the draft
Sounds obvious, right? Well it never fails, in every fantasy draft I've ever done, one of the people in the league will say, "Yo! Haven't had a chance to look at fantasy much, yet. Let me pull up the rankings real quick." And that's cool, because we fantasy basketball analysts put a lot of time and energy into making our rankings. But keep in mind: a) these rankings lists are public, which means everyone in your league has access to that same information and b) if you really know the subject matter yourself, you can make your own adjustments to my (or any public) rankings and come into the draft with clearer ideas about where you think the value is.
Tip 2: Follow the NBA offseason moves
The best preparation is to follow the offseason moves, because that is where changes in fantasy value take place. NBA veterans on the same team in relatively the same situation tend to produce similarly from year to year. So, pay attention to free agency, offseason trades (Damian Lillard just got traded), the incoming class of rookies and young players that might be ready to make a leap. We have you covered with analysis in all of those areas. So, if you haven't spent your summer following the NBA moves, rest assured we have and can help you get caught up.
Tip 3: Draft to scoring system
It's important to know the scoring system you're playing and draft to that system. A points-based league will have a different set of expectations and necessities than a roto league, which is also different than a roto head-to-head league. Category specialists are more valuable in the roto-style leagues than points-based, whereas efficient volume scorers that don't contribute across the board or that may have a horrible free throw percentage on high volume may be more valuable in points leagues. Draft accordingly.
Tip 4: Draft management: Weigh best player available vs. position scarcity
My strategy on the type of players I pick changes as the draft goes along. I build around best player available more than team fit in the first few rounds, I'm not super worried if two of my first three picks happen to both play small forward. It's more important to maximize the fantasy scoring potential of your best few players, and if need be you can play one or more in flex positions. Worry about team fit later.
Tip 5: Draft management: Team fit and balance in the middle rounds
In the middle rounds of the draft, I typically start paying more attention to team fit and making sure I have strong contributors across the board. If there's a clear BPA then I'll certainly still keep that in mind, but by rounds 5-8 I'm also making sure I don't have any position holes that I don't think I can adequately fill in the later rounds.
Tip 6: Draft management: Shoot your shot late
By the later rounds of the draft, I already have my foundation in place with sufficient positional flexibility, so by then it's time to pull up from 40 feet and go for the bomb like it's Dame Time. I'm going after my sleepers. I'm taking more chances. I'm leaning into more risk-reward type plays, instead of just going with steady contributors. Often, it's the players taken late in drafts that hit that end up being champion-making picks.
Tip 7: Characteristics of winning fantasy hoops producers
Think about where your players of interest are in their careers, and how that might affect their production. You want to draft younger veteran players that are trying to carry their teams into postseason consideration... they tend to be more durable and play more minutes because they already have their NBA legs under them. These players do everything they can to get their teams into the playoffs. On the other side of the coin, maybe you should think twice about bringing in players that may be the best in the game, but are older and playing on teams that are championship-or-bust. Those players will likely have an eye on staying fresh for the postseason as opposed to going all-out every game during the regular season.
Tip 8: Be active early in free agency
Be flexible and ready to make moves, right out the gate. One habit that I had to curve was relying too heavily on my "draft brilliance", once the season began and initial information was different than expectation. If my 13th-round sleeper starts off the season on the bench or playing poorly, but there's an undrafted free agent that's scored 20 points in the first two games, I have to be willing to drop my drafted player to move onto the better prospect. I see those first couple of weeks as crucial, because many underrated players will make themselves known early in the season. You have got to be ready and willing to give them a try early, before your competition does.
Tip 9: Trade to win
No matter how good your fantasy draft goes, and even if you're able to get some good free agents early, you are still going to need to make trades as the season goes along if you want to win. So make trade offers early and often. And I'm not talking lopsided, the-rest-of-your-league-hates-you type trade offers...I mean legit, you know what your team needs but have also paid attention to what their team needs as well type offers. Because here's the thing...if you make win-win trades, and you make them more often than everyone else in your league, then your team should have added more "wins" to the ledger than your opponents. Over time, those extra added trade wins often add up to league championship wins as well.
Tip 10: Watch the games/lean into the NBA
No. 10 could have been No. 1 to me, because it is really the "dirty secret" at the center of all fantasy sports success. Fantasy basketball is, at its core, just another way to enjoy basketball. So, if you want to be good at fantasy hoops, the best thing to do is dig into the NBA and enjoy it. Get the NBA League Pass and watch a bunch of games. Have barber shop arguments about who the best players are, now, and not just about LeBron vs Jordan for GOAT. Watch SportsCenter on the regular and pay attention when Tim Legler breaks down the plays. And yes, read your boy's articles here on ESPN Fantasy on the regular.
The more time you spend enjoying your sport, the more you'll realize that you are up on the latest developments without even trying to be. From there, it's just easier to have a feel for what players might be ready to step up and produce as opposed to players you might want to trade because circumstances down the road suggest their opportunities might diminish.
It's not homework... it's not work at all. It's just hoops, and if you enjoy hoops to the fullest, it makes it that much easier for your fantasy hoops teams to win.