Commentary

Head-to-head versus roto

Different strategies apply, and categorical scarcity is key

Updated: December 6, 2011, 3:38 PM ET
By Josh Whitling | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2010. We are bringing it back in archive form -- with only a few changes with regard to individual players mentioned to specifically discuss the 2011-12 season -- for your convenience.

The debate about which superstar to draft first overall will be waged during this abbreviated preseason, and Kevin Durant and LeBron James will each have their champions. Likewise, there is a divide among fantasy basketball players about which format provides the most enjoyment: roto or head-to-head?

Each school has its loyal proponents, and although the difference seems minute to outsiders, the nuances between roto and head-to-head (H2H) are notable enough to make them feel like different games to a fantasy hoops veteran. And while surface strategies like knowing when to drop and add players are similar, the differences in scoring bestow certain types of players with significantly different values. Being aware of the effect your scoring system has is crucial. Here is a breakdown of the basics of each scoring format and how the scoring format should shape your strategy when assembling a roster.

Roto

Dwight Howard
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDwight Howard's free throw troubles are viewed differently in head-to-head leagues than they are in roto formats.
Roto, or rotisserie, scoring fits the name, because it's all about "cooking from all sides" and being balanced in all categories. The general idea is as follows: Owners accumulate statistics in any number of categories -- usually the standard eight, although many add turnovers, and the possibilities are endless (triple-doubles, assist-to-turnover ratio, etc.). In each category, the leader gets as many points as there are owners in the league, and then points are assigned in descending order. For example, if you have the most steals in a 10-team league, you get 10 points in that category, and the owner with the least gets one. The points in all categories are combined for a total number of points, which determines the standings. The owner with the most total points at the end of the season is deemed the victor.

Roto scoring is perfect for analytical people who play fantasy sports for fun, to watch more sports and to relish the mental challenge, because it's all about balance and big-picture strategy. And, well, more math. Balancing your roster through constant analysis and tweaks, identifying needs, performing strange calculations about the rate at which you've been climbing out of the cellar in free throws … if this sounds fun, roto is for you. Instead of adding 15 guys per week to accumulate as many aggregate stats as possible and checking their teams every 20 minutes, roto owners text themselves notes during the day about player trends and analyze each roster move meticulously to ensure potential new players will complement those already on the roster.

This overall focus on balance, stats and needs applies to draft day, because roto drafts are all about constructing a balanced team, not ensuring you get your favorite player. Your overall draft strategy is shaped around your first few picks, and then you make choices that fill statistical and roster needs from there. During the draft, identifying which players will likely be available for your next pick while making your current pick is key, and making notes about your specific team and picks during the draft will aid later picks. Even though you're focused on categories and your team needs, you shouldn't make poor decisions and not draft a player who has fallen dramatically but doesn't fill your ideal need. Also, your late-round fliers are very important and specific in roto, as they're often used to fill gaps with specialists or add roster stability with "glue" players.

Roto is more of an apples-to-apples game, as each team has the same games-played limit and basic daily expectations, and it should be viewed as a marathon. Trades are much more about categories and filling needs than trading for players you really want or have a feeling about. Overall, roto is all about categories, needs and balance. Repeat these three words to yourself as a pre-draft mantra, as well as every morning during the season, and good roto karma will come your way.

Head-to-head

H2H play often is category-based, although many formats award weekly wins and losses. These are based on either who won more categories during the week or a fantasy point system that assigns values to statistics. H2H leagues that give you a point in each category you win are much closer to roto leagues than those that result in one weekly win or loss per team. For this column, let's assume the H2H league in question is a categorical win-loss one. When deciding how much to tailor your strategy to the scoring system, follow these basic guidelines and tweak them according to your league's settings:

A player's aggregate fantasy value is king in H2H drafts, and you almost can go into a draft with your players ranked from highest to lowest and draft according to positional needs straight from that list. The best draft moves are about grabbing overall talent that has fallen, and late-round fliers are best spent on high-upside picks, without worrying as much about how they fit your team's needs. Ignoring needs is foolish in roto, but allowing overall value to plummet is foolish in H2H. Specialists have less value in H2H, especially in the more common categories like points, 3s and rebounds, so don't overpay for them.

H2H is ideal for those who love the competition of fantasy sports and play them to win. In certain H2H scoring formats (namely noncategory-based ones with daily transactions), you often can win your league through sheer attrition, constantly starting as many players as possible. So if you have a lot of time on your hands and Internet access at all times, this might be for you.

During the season in H2H play, it's important to identify your strengths and make sure to lock those down weekly. Even though it's not as much about balance, your roster does need some stability. Also, focusing on the players in trades -- not stats and needs -- is critical. If a trade doesn't fit your team perfectly but you believe it will provide a significant leap in overall value, pull the trigger. H2H is more about loading up on players with huge contributions in a few categories, because it's like facing Aaron Rodgers in fantasy football every week. These types of players (think Dwight Howard) bulldoze you with total stats and inflict pain, which is great since doing as much damage as possible to your opponent that particular week is always your primary focus in H2H. Overall during the season, capitalizing upon misperceptions of overall player value when making roster decisions is key; stats and needs are, too, just not to the extent as in roto.

The difference

I'm a roto guy through and through (I throw in turnovers), but I like H2H as well, because you start with a clean slate weekly and there usually are playoffs, which are awesome and emphasize keen late-season strategy. In all, if we had to pinpoint the critical difference between the two formats, it would be placed on the importance and emphasis of statistical categories.

NOTE: Click on the category in the chart above to see the Player Rater rankings from 2010-11.

This table lets us know which categories have the most above-average contributors, specialists and studs. For example, finding dominant rebounders is difficult, but finding solid ones is not. Likewise, fewer players help in assists, but there are several specialists.

Additionally, the Player Rater is a more perfectly applicable tool to roto formats, and although it's still the best one out there to consistently monitor a player's value, it really helps fantasy owners analyze the positive and negative impact a player has on the team in roto formats.

Easiest categories to fill

Points/steals: Both are fairly easy to find, although there are fewer powerhouses in these categories who are more than two standard deviations above average than in the rest of the nonpercentage categories. Having a few of these guys is crucial to establishing viability in these categories, but given the abundance of good players here, it's important to find scorers and thieves who help you in other categories to attain roster balance. Unlike in blocks and assists, don't worry about getting that one player who anchors you here; rather, aim for a few really good ones who help in several other areas and know that you'll be able to surround them with solid contributors in later rounds.

3-pointers: This is the category with the most players at least one standard deviation above average, because several guys drain with relative regularity, while many don't at all (not the case for steals, blocks, assists and boards; even players who struggle in many of these categories will accrue them every so often, which skews the standard deviation spread). Don't overpay here, but make sure you're mindful of where you're getting your 3s. Generally avoid guards who don't shoot 3s, and like in points and steals, it's not possible to win the 3s category with one or two studs, as no players were four or more standard deviations above average. It's smartest to fill out your roster with above-average contributors and target specialists elsewhere.

Rebounds: Like the above categories, it's not hard to find solid rebounders, and the competition in these areas is typically fierce since every team has several contributors. A key way to avoid languishing in the rebound category is by making sure your forward and center spots are locked down with above-average rebounders, as power forwards who average only seven rebounds per game require serious roster compensation elsewhere.

Hardest categories to fill

Field goal percentage/free throw percentage: These categories have a similar breakdown, and the table shows that we should pay for the top players in percentages. It's harder to be above average since they're percentages, not totals, so comparing the fact that only 46 players were above one standard deviation in free throw percentage and 80 were in points, the chart illustrates in which categories dominant contributors are most rare. And percentages are at the top of the list. Pay for them.

Assists: The scarcest aggregate category, assists are more limited by position since there are only a handful of non-point guards who contribute greatly. Feel free to pay heavily for assists in roto leagues, and put it on your list with both percentages as key categories to lock up. You won't be able to fill out your roster with above-average assist contributors in later rounds, so make sure you get your cornerstones with early picks or you'll be doomed when the season starts and the stats start accumulating.

[+] EnlargeSerge Ibaka
AP Photo/Eric GayNo player had a greater impact in the blocks category last season than Serge Ibaka.
Blocks: There are fewer overall helpers here, so locking up a few big names is important, although there were more studs here with at least two standard deviations above average than in all categories other than 3s, so help is out there. With blocks, the players who get them help you immensely, but it's difficult to fill your roster out with above-average shot-blockers. The category is still scarce, but based on the chart, not as much as percentages and assists, especially since there were 13 players last season three standard deviations above average. This means it's crucial to have one such player on your roster, or you'll be playing catchup all season in roto formats and won't be competitive there on a weekly basis in H2H play.

Negative categories

Field goal percentage/free throw percentage: In roto formats, it's critical to be especially mindful of players' negative impact in these categories. They drastically impact team value but can be compensated for. Fewer players hurt you in these categories when compared to those who help you in the rest of the categories, so avoiding the real duds is easier than you might think. And since there are fewer, their negative impact is amplified, and you need to evaluate long and hard whether or not the players' positive contributions are worth the damage they inflict.

Players made for roto: Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili, Danny Granger, Paul Pierce, Rudy Gay, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, David West, James Harden, Grant Hill, Shane Battier

Players made for H2H: Dwight Howard, Kevin Martin, Russell Westbrook, Al Jefferson, Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, John Wall, Chauncey Billups, Andre Miller, Mike Conley

Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

Josh Whitling

Fantasy Basketball
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

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