<
>

Why early waiver-wire aggression is advised

11/21/2008

Once upon a time, I received an invitation from the future Talented Mr. Roto -- back when he was riding high off the success that was and still is "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles" -- to participate in my very first fantasy draft.

I soon discovered that being an NBA junkie has little correlation with whether or not you will be a successful fantasy owner. Whomever I picked was met with scorn, derision and a dollop of mild condescension. I walked into the draft an excited, newborn, fantasy enthusiast; I walked out doubting my right to exist.

The first week confirmed my lack of execution, and I soon found myself entrenched in last place. My reward? A first-class seat at the head of the waiver wire.

I picked up Brent Barry and went on to win my league.

Really, that was all it took.

Why?
Because I had the discipline to be ready when it happened for me.

Now, this isn't fantasy football, in which you can screw up your draft, wake up with a NyQuil and Cinnamon Crispa hangover, switch on your laptop, stumble onto Maurice Jones-Drew on the wire and win your league by cosmic accident. The lotto mentality doesn't apply in hoops.

What all this impressed on me early in my fantasy career was that you need to extend your draft mindset throughout the first month of the NBA season. I've learned over the years that one of the uniquely great things about fantasy hoops is that fostering an aggressive approach to the wire allows you to continue to do some heavy squad building even after your draft recedes into misty-eyed memory.

And you've got to do it early.

When you strike oil on the waiver wire early in the season, you essentially are giving yourself a bonus high draft pick. This is one sorely underrated reason to attack the wire with gusto right out of the gate -- the earlier the impact pickup, the more dramatic the long-term effect. If I'd picked up Barry over All-Star weekend, it still would have been marvelous, but then I'd have been looking at only a couple months of production. If you do it early, you maximize the player's value.

By and large, the first month of the season, I try to stay away from big trades. If "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" has yet to air, it's waiver-wire season.

Because for all our late nights expended, and for all our due diligence, season previews, predictions and draft prep, you just can't win them all. It's impossible to pick every winner going into the season. The first few weeks are going to produce some unforeseen gems and expose others as fantasy pyrite.

It's a simple truism: Instability creates opportunity. It's worked for Vic Mackey for seven seasons, and it can work for you! (Actually, I get the feeling it's about to radically stop working for him.)

This instability is due to several factors:

Preseason rotations are a mockery of a sham
Coaches, by and large, are seemingly impervious to my fantasy needs. And I'm not bitter; I suppose it's their right. But every season, you can count on a player who had a minimal preseason role suddenly getting 30-plus minutes per game. Wilson Chandler would be a mild example of this phenomenon.

Medical school isn't as tough as you think

I have little patience for owners who try to blame their fantasy woes on injuries. Hey, buck up. After all, this is the business we chose. But what is frustrating is a poorly set preseason timetable for a player's return. After a while, you learn to trust the words of certain training staffs (Phoenix) over those of others (Washington).

Think of Deron Williams' ankle problems this season. His status went from out weeks to out days to day-to-day to Magic 8-Ball. And then, of course, there are in-season injuries. These problems can give fresh young players with upside opportunities. Think Roger Mason or Kelenna Azubuike.

Forced vacations
Due to the mass societal move away from the Athenian concept of citizenship, there seems to be a rash of players opening the season with suspensions. Again, this can give a lesser-known player a shot at establishing himself in the rotation. Think Spencer Hawes.

Real GMs panic, too
In recent years, there's been an uptick in late-preseason or early regular-season deal-making. Think of the earth-shattering ramifications of the Chauncey Billups-for-Allen Iverson swap. OK, Rodney Stuckey might not be a household name as of yet, but I can assure you The Current Mrs. Cregan certainly knows who he is.

Things are getting warmer
Sometimes, it takes only eight to 10 games for a coach to realize he is occupying a rapidly heating seat. My Wizards would be an ideal, personally painful example (on a positive note, if they start 1-10, there is a little-known codicil in the NBA bylaws that will force the "Wizards" to revert back to being the Bullets; start 1-15, and they have to move back to Baltimore.) The upside to this futility is that Eddie Jordan has plugged lone ray of hope JaVale McGee into the starting lineup at center. If you move fast, you might be able to get yourself a nice future No. 2 center.

The tactical retreat
The next stage of the grief process for many struggling teams is to defer their playoff dreams until at least after the next NBA draft lottery. Memphis recently has entered this stage. Oklahoma City entered it in August.

This usually is accompanied by giving heavy minutes to the one thing most bad teams accrue over time: unproven young players with upside. Darrell Arthur, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green all are beneficiaries of this defeatist attitude.

Udonis Haslem now is officially a double threat
A month ago, Haslem was just a power forward with the superhuman ability to average almost a double-double while simultaneously having not blocked a shot since April 2003. Now, he's a center who hasn't blocked a shot since April 2003, which means he's well worth owning! Anyway, positional shifts are important to track. ESPN.com does a great job of following these developments (Drew Gooden also has gained center eligibility in-season, for example), so you should reward these players by making sure their diligence doesn't go unnoticed.

Don Nelson
The fantasy equivalent of "Oprah's Big Give," Nelson will show up in the dead of night and suddenly tell the 12th man on the bench that he's the new starting point guard and the future of the franchise. Don't believe me? Ask Anthony Morrow. Just ask him quick, before Nelson has some bad shellfish and sends him down to the D-League (or trades for Jamal Crawford, of course).

How does being aggressive with pickups allow me to rebuild a team?

For me, I always try to think of the players who stick as draft picks, by equating their production by round. If Morrow averages 20 points, five rebounds and two 3s the rest of the season, that's third-round value … a virtual supplemental draft choice.

That extra pick allows you to make other moves. Hopefully, it gives you a surplus of talent at one position, which opens things up for trades. Early in the season, other owners will get cantankerous if you offer them someone, no matter how valuable, they know you just plucked off the wire. Not because the player isn't valuable; they don't like it because they didn't think to do it themselves.

What it lets you do is trade the other guy, the player with name value, the player everyone had on their radar in your still-recent draft. Ideally, it lets you pull off a two-for-one. In a perfect world, I'm finding new talent on the wire and creating space for the new player with two-for-ones. That way, I'm constantly upgrading by being more aggressive on the wire than my fellow owners. It's something of a risk, but it's a good strategy if you're in a competitive league.

What all this adds up to is that there is always -- always -- a way to improve your team. You shouldn't coast if you're in first, and you shouldn't throw in the towel if you're in last. A slothful owner is a poor league mate.

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