NBA Fantasy Draft Strategies

When someone becomes a contestant on a reality TV show like Survivor, The Apprentice, Big Brother or even The Block, they usually don’t go in without first carefully planning how they will approach the game.

When a professional sports franchise prepares for a new season, the front office and coaching staff will spend countless hours planning, tweaking, brainstorming schemes, styles and personnel to get the best possible result.

And when a salesperson schedules a client meeting to pitch a new product, they’ll also put in the time and effort to prepare and tailor their approach as best they can.

The point here is, whenever you enter any kind of scenario where you are either trying to maximise your outcome or win, you’d be best served to have a strategy.

Fantasy basketball is no different. Whether you’re playing in a head to head or rotisserie league; whether you’re in a 10-team or 30-team league; and whether you’re a novice or an experienced player, you still need a plan heading into that draft room. Here are a few tips for each format to help you prepare.


Rotisserie Formats

When playing in a rotisserie format, it is really important to have a well-rounded team. It is extremely difficult to win a roto league when punting any categories (although it can be done), but punting in roto is not something I would recommend as a planned strategy.

Given the aim is to accumulate as many stats in as many categories as possible; your primary targets should be players who are strong in many areas, rather than specialists in a couple.

That is why players such as Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Rajon Rondo are typically much less sought after in these formats. Their weaknesses in FT%, lack of 3-pt shooting or high turnover rates for example, can be tough to overcome and may mean you end up targeting players to over-compensate in those areas, rather than the best player available.

As in head-to-head formats, your draft strategy should be dictated by your first round pick. Assuming you know who you will target in the first round, you can assess their strengths and weaknesses and build a list of targets for future rounds around that.

For example, say you’re picking 6th in a 12-team, standard 9-cat roto league. If you believe in some order Durant, Davis, James, Curry and Harden will be the first 5 players taken, then you’d be choosing from Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and LaMarcus Aldridge most likely. So you decide you’re going with the proven performer in Chris Paul. He gives you strength in assists, steals, FT% and is solid in 3s and points. With your next pick at #19, you’ll probably target a big man to boost your FG%, rebounds and blocks and start to build strength in those categories. A name like Al Jefferson or Marc Gasol may be in play there.

Some might say you could take Drummond, Howard or say Blake Griffin (if available) in that spot as their poor FT% would be countered by Chris Paul’s strong FT%, however all you are doing there is negating the strength that Paul gives you, so really not helping yourself. I would advocate a better FT shooting big man instead to help keep a potential strength as a strength.

Back to our example; so you have Chris Paul and Marc Gasol. What is your biggest weakness right now? I’d say points. You don’t have a 20+ ppg scorer yet. With your next pick at #30, you want to further build on some of the strengths that Paul and Gasol have given you, but also address the lack of scoring and therefore target a Goran Dragic or Rudy Gay or possibly an Eric Bledsoe depending on your projections. The point being, you want a scorer who will also help in other categories such as assists, 3s or steals.

Once you have a solid base across most (if not all) categories from your first few rounds, there are two ways you can proceed.

  1. Continue to target specific categories each round by taking players with more specialty categories like a Klay Thompson (3s, points) or a Ricky Rubio (assists, steals); or
  2. Target well rounded players who contribute across the board without dominating in any categories or hurting you in any categories. Players such as Kawhi Leonard, Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward and Monta Ellis fit that bill.

Either way forward can work, as long as you are aware throughout your draft of how you are stacking up in each category.

I’m renovating my house currently, so thought we could look at building your team as analogous to constructing a brick wall.

In the first method, you are building up one specific side of the wall each round by targeting different categories with each pick, adding 3s and steals one round; rebounds and blocks the next, for example. You need to be careful not to put too much weight on at once, or your wall (team) could topple over before being complete.

In the second method you are trying to place those bricks across the wall evenly from the ground up, trying to add category strength across the board at a slower rate with each pick. It takes longer to get to the top in any one part, but you have a more stable base at all times.

I’m not advocating one method over the other, but one is clearly a more conservative approach.

At the end of the day, as long as you have that solid base across the board, then having strengths in some categories over others can be an asset when looking to make trades during the season.

The end result should be a team ready to produce from day one, with little need to chase categories to make up ground down the track.


Head-to-Head Formats

The strategy used in a head-to-head format is quite different as the aim here is to be able to win a match-up each week versus an opponent. Given that, there’s less of a need to be solid in all categories, and more of a need to build real strength in particular areas to give yourself the best possible chance to win those categories each and every week.

This is where “punting” categories comes in. For those unfamiliar with the term punting (with respect to fantasy basketball), this refers to ignoring a particular category or categories when constructing your roster; effectively not caring about that category at all.

The aim (taking a standard 9-cat format as an example) is to focus on winning say 5 or 6 categories each week by building strength in those areas and not caring how you do in 2 to 3 of the others. The net result each week should be a 5-4 or 6-3 victory – more than enough to get you into the playoffs – and then all you need to do once you’re in the playoffs is to win 5-4 or 6-3 again.

The most commonly “punted” category is probably FT% due to the number of dominant big men in the NBA who cannot shoot a lick from the charity stripe. It became prevalent during Shaquille O’Neal’s hey-day and gained in popularity when Dwight Howard took over the paint in Orlando.

Of course you can punt any category you like and it is also quite common to punt turnovers, 3ptm and blocks. It really comes down to the types of players you think will be available when you pick in the draft.

Working through an example again, let’s say you’re lucky enough to land Anthony Davis in the first round of your draft. The Brow is an all-around fantasy stud these days, but his core statistical strengths are in blocks, steals, rebounds, points and FG%. He doesn’t really hurt you in any other area, but is not going to win you assists or FT% in any week, or contribute anything in 3ptm.So now you’re looking to build strength in those core areas. Assuming you took Davis 1st or 2nd this year, then in a 12-team league your next pick will be 23rd or 24th. You could target another big man in Joakim Noah, Al Horford or Chris Bosh and all of a sudden your squad is looking very strong in rebounding (Bosh will be improved on the boards this year), blocks and FG%, while being above average in steals. Noah would also give you a leg-up in assists before you’ve even drafted a point guard.

Let’s assume though that you land Bosh in Round 2. It’s time to assess already and adapt your strategy as the draft evolves. You have no strength in 3ptm or assists at this stage, so those are the categories you punt from here on out. Bosh shoots a nice clip from the FT line for you and doesn’t turn it over much, so those could be areas to address, or basically not ignore totally, even though the traditional big-man and defensive stats, plus points will be your core strengths.

The categories that are neither your core strengths nor your punted categories can be referred to as “floating” categories. Those are categories that you will compete in and may win in some weeks, but don’t expect to win each week. In this example, they would include FT% and turnovers.

So with Davis and Bosh on board, next at 25th or 26th you might grab a point guard or wing player; one who accentuates that strength in steals and scoring such as Mike Conley, Goran Dragic or Eric Bledsoe, while not hurting your FG%. Or you could take it further and look at a Paul Millsap who is strong in steals and solid in rebounding, blocks and scoring. Either way you are adding to your core strengths and building a nice base in your secondary strengths or floating categories.

During these first 3 to 4 rounds, you should still be targeting the best players available, but with a focus on following your strategy in particular categories. At that point, it should be blatantly obvious where your core strengths lie and then your strategy becomes even more prevalent.

While having your pre-ranked list is important, it now becomes about further accentuating those strengths and ignoring the punted categories. So when your 4th and 5th round picks roll around at 47/48 and 49/50, your pre-ranks might be telling you that Klay Thompson is best available, but he does not contribute nearly enough in steals or rebounds to help and his core strength is in 3ptm which you are punting; so he’s not a good fit.

Your next best available per your strategy might be a Thaddeus Young (steals, points, rebounds), Pau Gasol (FG%, rebounds, blocks) or a Jrue Holiday (steals) even though you’re punting assists.

Say DeAndre Jordan is available here, what do you do? You make an assessment as to the impact his poor FT% might have on your squad. If you don’t target any other horrendous free throw shooters, you could still compete in FT% in some weeks as one of your floating categories. If you think you might want to grab Andrew Bogut or Josh Smith later in your draft, then now you’re punting FT% as well as 3ptm and assists.

At least adding Jordan gives you a further boost in 3 core strengths being blocks, rebounds and FG% and he is also handy in steals.

The Lakers did plenty of winning inside of these pillars

Now in rotisserie we looked at the different method of constructing a roster with the brick wall analogy. In head-to-head, there really should be no choice. Similar to the first wall construction method, this is more around constructing “pillars” than a wall by targeting specific categories, ignoring your punted categories and building those pillars of strength to enable you to win a weekly match-up.

As your draft progresses, don’t exclude players whose best strength might be in one of your floating categories, as long as they are helping you execute your strategy. Continue doing just that, and you’ll be the owner of a head-to-head team to be feared.

One word of warning: During your draft, do not be afraid to reach for a player who fills your strategy. Do not listen to others mocking you when you do. If you think Ryan Anderson’s 3s are of more value to your squad than Derrick Favors’ rebounding, then pull the trigger. Be confident in your execution and the results will speak for themselves.


Fantasy Leagues are not often won on draft day, but they can be lost then. So no matter the format, if you go into that draft room prepared, researched and execute your strategy, you’ll come out of it with a well-constructed team.


Follow me on twitter @tomhersz

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Author of the article

When you’re introduced to the NBA as a 6 year old in 1984, staying up late to watch Bird, Magic and Dr. J, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with the game. I became consumed with the Association, and as my own game was developing, I tried to emulate as much as I could at an early age and learn how to play “the right way”. I have memories as a teenager of being glued to Saturday Basketball on TV and spending every spare cent I had on basketball cards and replica jerseys and so began my obsession with NBA knowledge and stats. I played my first season of Fantasy Hoops in 2002, as my serious playing days were slowing down. I now play in 5 or 6 leagues every year. To say I’m obsessed with Fantasy Hoops would be an understatement. To say I love nothing more than sharing my opinion on a player’s value would be entirely accurate, and I guess, the reason why I’m here. Follow me on twitter: @tomhersz @downtownball

One Response

  1. Daniel Levitt at |

    Great post. I think punting is the ONLY way to win H2H, for the reasons you mentioned. Even further, it’s a great trading strategy, because you can offer things to other owners that has value to them but is no loss of value to you. You can fight harder in your “must own” categories (trading for those players), by giving away in your weakest “floating” categories.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

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