Roto versus head-to-head strategy

Updated: October 11, 2012, 9:33 AM ET
By Josh Whitling | Special to ESPN.com

In an offseason full of superstars changing teams, frequent debates will center on how players like Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Andrew Bynum will perform in their new digs. Among fantasy hoops enthusiasts, however, a common offseason debate surrounds the two prevailing scoring systems -- roto and head-to-head -- and which is the preferred format for playing fantasy basketball.

Each side 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 seem like different games to a fantasy hoops veteran. Although the 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

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett and Dwyane Wade both have great all-around games that play well in the roto format.

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: 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, 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 fewest gets one. The points in all categories are combined for the total number, 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 to have 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 adjustments, 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, then you make choices that fill statistical and roster needs. 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 drastically or doesn't fill your ideal need. Also, your late-round fliers are very important and specific in roto; 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. 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

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireDwight Howard should dominate certain fantasy categories and be a liability in others, whenever he's ready to play.

H2H play is often based on category, although many formats award weekly wins and losses. These are determined either by 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, so you can almost 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 (non-category-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 constant Internet access, 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 the leagues' best quarterback 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, it is crucial to capitalize on misperceptions of overall player value when making roster decisions; stats and needs are important too, just not to the extent they are 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.

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 and blocks, but there are elite ones in the mix.

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

Easiest categories to fill

Points: Scoring is fairly easy to find, and given the overall abundance of contributors in the category, it's important to find scorers who help you elsewhere to maintain roster balance. However, there are just four powerhouses with more than a 3.0 rating in the category on the Player Rater (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook), so having one of these players significantly boosts your chances of being among the top teams in your leagues in points. If you don't get one of these players, don't fret. Just be mindful to fill your roster with several above-average scorers who help in other areas, and surround them with solid contributors in later rounds.

3-pointers: This is the category with the most players with at least a 1.0 rating on the Player Rater, 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 distribution). Don't overpay here, but make sure you're tactful about where you're getting your 3s. Generally avoid guards who don't shoot 3s; as it is with points, it's difficult to win the 3s category with one or two studs: No players had a rating of 4.0 or better in the category. It's smartest to fill out your roster with above-average contributors and target specialists elsewhere.

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

Hardest categories to fill

[+] EnlargeChris Paul
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesChris Paul is an elite fantasy option because he's among the elites at a handful of categories that are hard 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 had a Player Rater rating of 1.0 or better in free throw percentage, and that 80 players did in points, the chart illustrates in which categories dominant contributors are most rare. Percentages are at the top of the list. Pay for them.

Assists: Assists are more limited by position since only a handful of non-point guards 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 opens and the stats start accumulating.

Steals: The biggest change from 2010-11 to 2011-12 in this breakdown is in the steals category. It went from being distributed like points to being one of the more difficult categories to fill. Few fantasy players target this category specifically in drafts; they seem to simply assume that their guards will provide adequate-enough assists to keep them competitive. Don't make this mistake: Be sure to target a top thief in order to have a cornerstone in this category, because a bunch of players who average about one steal per game won't be enough for your team to be above-average in steal totals.

Blocks: There are fewer overall helpers here, so locking up a few big names is important, although a significant number of players have at least a 2.0 rating in the category, 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. This means it's crucial to have one such player on your roster, or you'll be playing catch-up 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 affect 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. Just two players (Kemba Walker and Jamal Crawford) posted a rating below minus-2.0 in field goal percentage, so it especially hurts your team to have such players because they don't exist on most other rosters. Since fewer players really kill your percentages, their negative impact is amplified, and you need to evaluate whether the players' positive contributions are worth the damage they inflict. This is why I stay away from Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin in roto formats, because their monstrous negative contributions in free throw percentage impacts fantasy teams severely. It's not that you can't win a roto league with these players, but you have to tailor the rest of your draft around their weaknesses, and I prefer to have more flexibility in assembling a balanced roster.

Players to watch

Players made for roto: James Harden, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Paul George, Danny Granger, Joe Johnson, Kyrie Irving, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, Gordon Hayward

Players made for H2H: Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, DeMarcus Cousins, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Blake Griffin

Josh Whitling

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