- Tom Carpenter, Fantasy and Insider
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I received an e-mail this week from a reader's mother:
Dear Mr. Felon,
Please stop using your Grand Theft Roto column to teach my son how to steal players from other fantasy owners. It's immoral and against the law.
First off, I'm pretty sure it's not illegal to come out on the good side of a trade in fantasy sports, much less a felony. Secondly, as far as I'm concerned, morals are pretty much checked at the draft-room door in fantasy sports, so long as we aren't talking about trade collusion. It's dog eat dog in Fantasyland. Now, I'll admit this alleged e-mail may have been a poorly conceived ruse to make a "Welcome Back Kotter" reference and set up a premise for this fantasy hoops column, but I imagine Epstein's mom, if she were real, would want to know why we should trade at all and whether it's possible to craft trade proposals that will help both teams.
Why should we trade, Epstein's mom? Because we have to in order to win. It's a rare occasion when you can draft a team that's so good it doesn't need to be touched on the way to a championship, especially if you're in an active league where other owners are improving their teams via trades. Unless you pull off that miracle draft, your team will always have room for improvement. You're going to have any number of problems like having too many point guards, not enough centers, a lack of steals, an overabundance of boards, myriad injury-prone players, etc.
Think about the NBA. How many teams essentially win the championship based on draft day? The Chicago Bulls got Michael Jordan and didn't win for years. Did Shaquille O'Neal hoist the trophy for the Orlando Magic? How many titles did the Cleveland Cavaliers win after they got LeBron James in the draft?
How many titles were won through trades? Joe Dumars acquired Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace to build a title team in Motown. Does the Celtics' Big Three ring a bell? Anyone remember Jerry West trading Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for a young Kobe Bryant. Say it out loud: Vlade for Kobe.
Was West immoral? No. He just made good use of the ever-changing trade value of players and made a deal that appeared to help both teams at the time. The Hornets had a pretty good squad and felt that adding a veteran center like Divac might take them all the way to the title. Certainly it would help more in the short term than getting a kid straight out of high school, especially in that era, when kids didn't go straight from high school to the pros. On the other hand, the Lakers could afford to hold onto the young talent of Kobe and wait for him to become a star, in part because West also went out and got Shaq in a trade. In hindsight, this was an epic rip-off, but at the time of the deal both teams were happy with what they got.
The point here is that real rip-off trades don't happen very often in the NBA or fantasy leagues because everyone is paranoid about getting ripped off. The vast majority of the time you pull off a trade, the deal will have to appeal to both owners in tangible ways. Grand Theft Roto usually is subtle at the time of the trade but pays off big later. We want to sell high on Vlade and buy low on Kobe.
Because we're talking about buying low and selling high in terms of a career arc, the Vlade/Kobe example may be better suited for keeper leagues. On the other hand, the concept is relevant in redraft leagues, too, because players have statistical arcs during the season. Few, if any, players will produce the same stats every single month without a peak or a valley. To truly get the most out of your fantasy team, you would trade each player on your roster at his peak for another player who is about to peak -- then trade that guy at his peak for another player who is about to peak, and so on. You would get maximum production in each roster spot all season.
These peaks and valleys also affect trade value and whether you can pull off a trade. What is trade value really but the perceived value of a player by another owner? When a player is doing well, his owner will love him and want to keep him. When a player is in a slump, the owner will despise the player and be more amenable to dealing him. Suppose you need dimes and can take a hit in field goal percentage, and you see another team has Brandon Jennings. You look over your roster and think Andrea Bargnani is of similar value and a player you are willing to deal. Wait to make the offer until Jennings has a bad game and Bargnani has a hot one. Looking back on recent games, you wouldn't have wanted to offer up Bargnani Nov. 16 when he had 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting and Jennings cranked off 31 points on 12-of-26 shooting. Nov. 19 would have been a much better day, when Bargnani hit 11-of-17 shots for 26 points and Jennings was 3-of-13 for 12 points.
Certainly the other owner would be more inclined to accept the offer if the guy he's getting has a hot night and the guy he's dealing had a bad performance. Even the wiliest fantasy veteran will see his perception of a player's trade value affected by the ups and downs of that player's performance from game to game and week to week. On the other hand, people like you and me -- those adept at the craft of Grant Theft Roto -- are confident enough to trade a player when he's playing his best in order to get the next player who is going to play at his best. No player is untradeable, so long as we get the right pieces back in return; the pieces that will form a championship squad.
If that's a crime, Epstein's mom, then I guess we'll just have to build trophy shelves in our prison cells.
I'll be back next Tuesday to feed your fantasy hoops trade habits some more. Same time, same corner, same crime: Grand Theft Roto!
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
Tom Carpenter discusses the importance of timing in making the deals you want to make acceptable to the other owner.