My mother always told me to try new things. Boy, am I glad I listened. All it took was one attempt at an auction-style draft and I was hooked. I think you will be, too. Sure, it takes a little longer than your traditional snake draft, but there are plenty of benefits that make up for the extra half an hour it might take to complete a draft.
In standard drafts you're always left at the whim of the random draft selection. In auctions, it's all up to you. You have the power to acquire any player you want; that is, if you're willing to pay the price. And if you like strategy, this is the perfect game for you. Snake draft strategy is fairly straightforward: You're picking the best player available for your specific needs. In auctions, you're doing the same, but now you have to consider your budget (and your opponents' budgets) at the same time.
If you're like me, you probably have at least 2-3 leagues per basketball season. Why not try making one of them an auction format? At the very least, you'll make my mother happy.
If you're a beginner, the idea of an auction draft might sound a bit complicated. It's not. In fact, it's quite simple. I'll give you a quick rundown of how it works, but I highly recommend reading your league's draft rules and participating in at least one mock auction to get more comfortable.
In standard ESPN.com leagues, each team is allotted a starting budget of $200 to spend on 13 players. Each team will take turns nominating a player to bid on, and away you go. The highest bidder wins, but be careful, a little quick math tells us that you only have an average of roughly $15.38 per player in your budget. Don't worry if you're not a math major, either: remaining balance figures for all teams are featured prominently in the draft applet. That way you can keep tabs on your opponents' spending habits as well.
You can spend your $200 as you like; that is, as long as you have enough funds to fill out your entire roster. So, in theory, you could spend $188 for LeBron James and fill the rest of your lineup with $1 sleepers if you really wanted to.
See, that's where the strategy comes in. Budget your money wisely, or you'll end up looking like some of these investment banks on Wall Street at the end of the day. But there's no government bailout in the cards for you, my friends. If you falter on draft day, it will be up to you to get yourself out of the hole. So let's get into that strategy, eh?
I typically prepare for an auction the same way I prepare for a snake draft, with only a few exceptions. Matthew Berry's Draft Day Manifesto is obviously a must-read, but don't just stop there. Read everything you can get your hands on: it'll be worth it. My favorite predraft prep tool is to group players into tiers. That way, if you miss out on one player, you still have a list of 4-5 other players available with similar skills. These are my standard draft prep procedures for snake drafts, and there's no reason to change it up for an auction. So where does the preparation differ?
If you're a first-time auction player (which many folks are), it is absolutely imperative that you participate in at least one mock auction here at ESPN.com. You can read all the auction value cheat sheets you like, but nothing substitutes for a little practice. I would throw in an Allen Iverson joke here, but I think that "practice" bit from back in 2002 is a little overplayed by now.
Do your homework on the competition. Knowing your league mates is important in every fantasy league, but it may be even more important in an auction league. How do they spend their money? Are they going to go all out early for studs or will they sit back and try to vulture players once all the big bucks are spent? Which players do they typically like in snake formats and do they have any allegiances to specific teams? This all comes into play when deciding whether you should bid that extra dollar, or enter a bidding war with the opposition.
The problem here is that we are online, and we can't see the poker faces around the room. In old school "live" auctions, it is much easier to tell if an owner is going to trump your bid or fold in the cards. Knowing your competition will help compensate for the fact that you can't see your opponents.
Use tiers and feel it out
All auctions are different, so it's hard to rely on any one set of auction values. You'll want to take a peek at these values prior to your draft just to get an idea of the numbers, but don't, by any means, take it as gospel. Feel things out first, before you go spending all your dough.
Let the market determine the values, and use tiers to do it. The first 10 or so players should determine the market value for the rest. Of course, if a guy you really want is nominated early, you'll have to get in on the bidding. But be sure to track the price of all the players as you go along. For instance, if Vince Carter goes for $24, you should be prepared to bid near that amount when Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Jason Richardson are nominated. You see, VC, JJ, Pierce and J-Rich are all of similar value and, thus, in the same tier. When you use tiers, you will not only be able to determine how much to bid on similar players, but you'll also know when you should set out to win a bid.
Let's say you want to ensure that you have one stud point guard on your roster after the auction is complete. Now let's assume that a bidding war puts you out of the running for Chris Paul and Steve Nash. Well, now you know you're going to need to pony up the dough for either Deron Williams or Baron Davis (two players that I would also consider Tier 1 point guards). You'll also have a good idea as to what type of price it will take to acquire them. Probably slightly less than Paul and Nash, right?
Stars and Scrubs versus Balanced Budget
When employing a "Stars and Scrubs" strategy, the object is to lock up two or three elite performers and work to find values later in the auction. Let's say you go hard after both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and land them at $48 and $47, respectively. You now have $105 left to spend on your remaining 11 players, or roughly $9.54 per player. It's going to be tough to outbid your counterparts with a depleted budget like that so you'll have to rely on your ability to pick out deep sleepers and find diamonds in the rough the rest of the way. Keep in mind that you'll have to be extremely crafty in order for this strategy to work.
I've never been a huge fan of the Stars and Scrubs routine; instead, I typically like to employ the balanced budget approach with a few modifications. In a true balanced budget strategy, you are going to spread your funds around without going all out for one of the elites. In my modified version, I try to view it as a snake draft, and attempt to acquire a player from each round. So I will bid on -- and make sure I win -- a first-rounder, a second-rounder and so on. Sometimes I'll mix it up and grab two second-rounders or two third-rounders and attempt to find a few $1 steals later in the draft. That said, my strategy may not work for you, and you'll have to tailor your strategy based on your personal preferences.
Here's where it gets fun. You may not think there's much strategy to the nomination queue, but you can really deplete your fellow owners' budgets by tossing out names of players you don't want. It's not just any players you don't want, though. We're talking about those players with hefty price tags. Think Marcus Camby is overdue for an injury? Toss his name out first and let some other sucker drain his or her budget. Even if you're wrong, at least you got an opponent to spend money on a player you didn't want to begin with.
As the auction progresses, it gets even more interesting. Once you have a feel for your strengths and weaknesses, you can start nominating players that you no longer have a need for. Already have enough point guards? Start nominating the highest-rated point guards left. Have a stronghold on the blocks category? This is your chance to nominate Samuel Dalembert and the like to force your competitors' hands.
Your nomination strategy will change toward the end of the auction, when money gets tight. When the whole league has $1-5 left, don't get burned nominating a player you don't want for $1. You just might get stuck with him.
Beware of the Hype Machine
Just as the "hype machine" can inflate players' values in snake drafts, it can do the same in auction-style formats. Just watch how many people throw their money in the pot for a player like Rudy Fernandez on auction day. It starts to get a little out of hand at times, and I'll usually sit back and watch the insanity after my fellow owners start bidding numbers that don't make sense. Keep your rankings and tiers in mind, and don't get spend-happy on sleepers who are creating bidding wars.
There's a lot to think about here, but don't lose sight of the fact we're still going to follow the same basic principles of a standard draft when it comes to building teams. You can employ the "Stars and Scrubs" or balanced budget philosophies, but make sure you're still building a team that's based on winning categories.
Also, try to have some fun with this. This is your best shot at assembling your favorite fantasy players on the same squad. So go right ahead and make a list of some guys you definitely want to acquire, and don't hesitate to outbid the rest of the competition.
Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.