- Tom Carpenter, Fantasy and Insider
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Think about it. When you're rapping about fantasy sports with a stranger at the bar or while chattering away on IM with your friends, what do you talk about 99.9 percent of the time? Player rankings, right? This guy is better than that guy. I hate Player X and will never own him. I love Player Y and want to bear his children.
Whether you're new to the fantasy game, a grizzled veteran or a so-called expert, we all do the same thing. It's not without merit, of course. If you don't have a sound opinion on which player is better than another you will have no hope of winning your league.
But ranking your players is just the beginning of the process. What we honestly should be talking about 99.9 percent of the time is pre-draft strategy, because knowing how to construct the best team possible is how you actually win championships. That's why we draft our teams live rather than go straight down a cheat sheet, taking the top player available each turn.
Consider the NBA. How often do we see NBA teams acquire a ton of talented players, only to repeatedly come up short like the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks? Meanwhile a well-constructed team can win championships with less overall talent, like the Detroit Pistons did in 2004. In the NBA, it's often chemistry, too many players with similar skill sets, or a lack of depth at one position that often derails the title hopes of a talented team. Chemistry obviously doesn't play a role in fantasy, but having too many players with the same stat production, a lack of depth at one position, or having too many risky players can derail our title hopes.
Let's take a look at some tried and true methods to help you construct the best team possible during your fantasy hoops drafts.
Know your league rules
This seems about as basic as it gets, but we've all made screwups like thinking a league started two centers, instead of one. One simple mistake like that could wreck your whole roster. Think of the potential ramifications. You could end up reaching for that second center and miss out on a breakout star in the middle rounds, or you could take a decent center with your third pick instead of a sure-fire stud shooting guard.
In fact, you need to think through each rule and the potential ramifications of both good and bad draft-day decisions.
What's your scoring system?
If it's rotisserie, then a guy like Dwight Howard will sink your free throw category. If it's nine-category roto, then the 3.4 turnovers Dwyane Wade averaged last season might make you think twice about taking him third overall. Is this a head-to-head league? In a category-based league (where you get the weekly win if you outperform your opponent in more categories), you can draft Howard, toss out the FT category and focus the rest of your draft on winning the other categories, knowing that you have a great start in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. If it's a points-based system (in which you earn a certain amount of points for each rebound, block, etc.), you'll want to determine what that scoring system stresses and how it affects the stat production of your players. Are shot-blockers rewarded more than 3-point shooters? Are turnovers really costly?
What are your roster size and limits?
If you have eight people in a league and use only 10 roster spots, everyone's rosters will be full of quality players. Because every player on every roster is sure to produce, you'll want to focus on having balanced production in all categories. Odds are, in a small league like that, you'll have to be near the top of every category by season's end to win (i.e., you can't "punt" a category). On the other hand, if you have 14 teams and 13 roster spots, you had better make sure you have a good handle on the values of the top 180-plus players. That's because not every player on every roster will produce, so the more low-end players you have giving you quality stats, the bigger advantage you have overall.
A lot of leagues use rosters that are very loose on positions -- where you have PG, SG, SF, PF and C, but you also have a couple of G spots, a couple of F spots and a couple of flex positions. In this case, you don't need to pay much attention to which positions you are filling during your draft, because the G, F and flex spots give you a lot of leeway.
This is especially true in leagues in which players' position eligibility is defined loosely. You'll have a lot more centers available if guys like Tim Duncan and Amar'e Stoudemire are granted both PF and C eligibility. And there will be a lot more SGs and SFs if all swingman are granted both SG and SF eligibility in your league.
On the other hand, if your league has very strict roster requirements and position eligibility, then you'll have to pay very close attention while filling out your roster during your draft. Say your league requires two each at PG, SG, SF, PF and C and has no flex spots. You'll be in a tight bind if you wait until the middle rounds to address your PG and C positions, especially if few players are granted eligibility at dual positions.
Think about your draft position
Ideally, your commissioner will let you know the draft order well in advance. But even if you let ESPN's system randomize your draft order, you'll find out your draft spot an hour before the draft begins, and that's enough time to at least give it some serious thought.
I believe this is the most important part of your pre-draft strategy. Think through your first pick and then beyond it. Consider what your team should look like after the first four or five rounds. Map it out.
If you have the first overall pick, you aren't just deciding whether you want LeBron James or Chris Paul. You are deciding what the next few players you draft should look like. The beauty of taking LeBron is that he gives you stats in every category, with FTs being his only risk. That means you have a lot of versatility with your second and third picks on the turn, though you'll want to make sure they can shoot free throws. You might consider Kevin Martin, who drains a ton of FTs at a great clip to cover LeBron's risk at the stripe. For your third pick, you could just take the best player available, since you have a good backbone with your first two picks.
If you take CP3, you won't have to worry about dimes or steals for a while, but you'll want to add some scoring, treys and blocks. Maybe take a swing at Josh Smith or Duncan with your second pick and Martin or Paul Pierce with your third pick.
If you're drafting last in the first round of a snake draft, you'll get two picks in a row. This gives you a nice advantage, because you can pair up two players to make the foundation of your team. If you can get Deron Williams and Al Jefferson, you'll have a good base of stats for your team in every category except threes and steals. But maybe Stoudemire and Chris Bosh are clearly the two best players remaining, in your opinion. Nothing wrong with taking them, but it will affect your next few rounds, as you'll have little need for big men after that.
You should literally map it out. Get your cheat sheet set and mark off where your first-, second-, third- and fourth-round picks will fall. Then you'll see which players you can get with each pick (e.g., if you draft first of 12 teams, you know you will get three of your top 25 ranked players). Examine the players ranked just ahead of your draft spots carefully, so that when it's your turn to draft, you're just deciding between two or three players whom you've already studied carefully. Then it's just a matter of determining whether you want to take the best player of that group or set your roster up in a certain way.
Know your fellow owners
If you're in a number of different leagues, you know that some owners trade and some don't. In the fantasy sports industry, most of us have a slew of leagues. With limited time to spend on each of them, many industry leagues have few, if any, trades. So when you draft your team, you know that aside from waiver-wire work, that's probably going to be your team for the season.
In leagues in which you know you have little chance of trading, you need to construct your team during the draft. You can't have a big hole in rebounds and blocks, or you probably can't win. You also can't have a complete dud starting at point guard and no depth at that position, or you'll have a brutal time making any headway in your assists column.
On the other hand, if everyone in your league loves to trade, you can lean more toward drafting the best player available each round, because you know you can tweak your roster by selling from your strong categories or positions to fill out your weak ones.
If you really know your owners personally, you can take advantage of that, too. Suppose a guy in your league is known for overpaying in trades, and you also know his favorite player in the world is Monta Ellis. You might need a power forward, but you could draft the guard Ellis, because you can be reasonably sure you can flip Ellis in a trade for a better player than the power forwards left in the draft.
Also consider drafting extra players at one position to trade them, especially in leagues with tight roster settings, like two-center leagues.
Filling out your roster
While you really must set up a quality backbone to your team in the first four or five rounds, leagues are won and lost in the final third of your draft. Did you take Brook Lopez or Greg Oden last season? Did you take Troy Murphy or Michael Beasley? Did you win? Did you lose? Admittedly, there's a lot of luck involved, but the better you're prepared ahead of time, the smaller the role luck plays and the better your odds of winning.
I pay far less attention to rankings in the latter rounds of drafts and far more attention to players I am targeting. I recommend going through the bottom third of your cheat sheet and highlighting players you would like to have on your team. While there are reasons why you might rank Randy Foye below Peja Stojakovic in a vacuum, I will be targeting the younger Foye. He still has a lot of potential for a big season, unlike the old, broken down Stojakovic, who has nearly no chance to have a big season.
In the latter rounds, I'm focused primarily on upside; players who have a shot at exploding, whether through natural development of their talent, or because the only thing stopping their explosion is a brittle or overrated guy ahead of them on the depth chart.
Don't get cute, though. If every player you take in the bottom third of your draft is just as likely to do nothing as to explode, you're probably going to be in trouble. Make sure you have at least two or three guys you can bank on to give you some production every week, and surround them with skilled guys who can outperform their draft spot.
I'm certain that if you heed my advice on pre-draft strategy, you'll have your best drafts to date. The more prepared you are before a draft, the fewer mistakes and more correct decisions you'll make during the draft. Think about it.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.