Top tips for winning fantasy basketball this season
After another NBA offseason rife with the requisite hype, drama and social media madness, the NBA preseason whets the appetite for the regular season and serves to reveal some potential breakout candidates. Scouting, researching and drafting is clearly a critical part of your journey to imaginary hoops dominance, but now it’s time to get down to the rewarding grind of managing a team to fantasy basketball glory.
In this piece, I identify some of the key management strategies for season-long fantasy basketball we can employ throughout the NBA marathon.
Start your stars
This seems like an easy enough element to convey, as I’m simply advising that you trust your top commodities, even through slumps, if the minutes are there. In fantasy football, we compete in pivotal matchups during a 13-game regular season, so each week represents a 7.7 percent sample of the entire campaign. The gravity afforded each game in football drives us to consider every matchup angle possible and even compels us to rightfully bench star wideouts against the stingy Denver Broncos in order to maximize output.
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Yet playing your high-minute stars in fantasy hoops is the way to go, as we can’t completely account for hot shooting nights or weary defensive opponents. I’d let only injury or the threat of resting on a back-to-back remove a star-caliber player from my lineup. We need to embrace the inherent variance over the long NBA season with our trusted top commodities.
Hit the wire early
Several top-50 commodities are likely floating in fantasy free agency in most leagues after the draft. We don’t know who they are just yet — if you do, please let us know — but the aggressive and proactive manager has the best chance at acquiring these emergent assets. The crowd is likely already woke — as the kids say — to the likes of Bam Adebayo’s breakout potential, but when we see some lesser-known names explode in preseason play, the intent is to audition these and other rising players via the end of your bench.
This isn’t to say you should cut your depth at will, but afford late-round picks a short leash when it comes to evaluating the opportunity cost during the pivotal early weeks when NBA rotations reveal a great deal of new information. Preseason trends can inform us only so much, as meaningful injuries and rotation shifts occur almost every day in this busy league. We tend to prove too loyal to our late-round picks in all fantasy formats, but this tendency can prove costly in the ever-shifting NBA landscape.
Not that long ago, guys like Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Malcolm Brogdon were early-season waiver additions, so there is precedent every autumn for sourcing season-shifting commodities. We honestly don’t yet know who the pivotal pickups are yet, but a willingness to leverage roster spots via fantasy free agency in the early weeks can prove profitable.
Injuries and thin depth charts can open temporary and possibly valuable roles in rotations around the league. Last season, a shallow frontcourt in Phoenix afforded Kelly Oubre Jr. the usage and minutes after the All-Star break to facilitate a league-winning run from the versatile forward that saw him average 20.2 PPG while leading the league in steals during this sample. Some surges are merely fleeting and last a few games, not every waiver addition we make will become an enduring contributor, yet we can develop a productive mesh of numbers by streaming players throughout the season.
Targeting streaming additions facing generous defensive teams like the Cavs or Suns proved profitable last season, and a subset of soft defensive foes will develop again this season.
For weekly leagues, make sure to check out our Fantasy Forecaster each week, as we provide an overview of games played along with matchup ratings for each team. If you are deciding between two streaming options, it’s often wisest to go with the player who nets the most games in a given week.
Sifting through the stats
There is a lot of noise in NBA data. We have tons of advanced information at our disposal, which can prove daunting to interpret. The NBA’s player tracking data relies on a sophisticated series of cameras affixed to the catwalks of arenas in order to produce an awesome array of numbers for us to peruse. I like leveraging volume-driven statistical categories like touches into fantasy decisions, which helps reveal who has the ball in their hand the most. Clearly, point guards will surface at the top of this index, but we can also sort by different positions and in the post and paint to reveal opportunity rates.
Most helpful in the tracking data might be rebounding opportunities, listed as “chances” by the league’s information index. This stat is simply defined as the number of times a player is within 3.5 feet of a rebound per game.
Last season, we saw Jonas Valanciunas — who had hit the wire in many leagues amid a long absence for Toronto before being dealt in the Marc Gasol blockbuster at the deadline — earn an elite rebounding opportunity rate with the Grizzlies. Valanciunas netted an impressive 19.7 rebounding chances per game during this stretch, which ranked fifth in the NBA ahead of the likes of Nikola Jokic and DeAndre Jordan. By simply sifting through some of these opportunity stats the league provides, you can gain an actionable edge over your opponents.
As the samples grow this season, make sure to check out the leader boards in these opportunity rates for a savvy way to sift through promising players.
Another reliable resource is our own advanced arsenal of NBA numbers available to ESPN+ subscribers. I namely rely on usage rate and value added over replacement (VORP) for identifying players. Usage rate is the measure of team plays a player consumes while on the court — so players who are involved in the conclusion of a possession via shots, turnovers, free throws and assists will earn gaudy usage percentages.
It’s not surprising, then, to see the Rockets’ James Harden atop the leader board last season. Russell Westbrook mimicked Michael Jordan’s Space Jam usage in Oklahoma City the past few years, as he has led the league in usage in four of the past five campaigns (finishing second last season). These historic usage patterns make Houston’s gamble on pairing these high-usage superstars so compelling.
Dabble in DFS
You don’t have to become a daily-fantasy savant, but playing each night or several times a week in DFS competitions admittedly helps season-long management. You can even play in free contests, because playing simply keeps you closer to the league’s nightly trends and helps isolate and identify which players and teams are proving productive.
One truly helpful resource for keeping up with the rapid NBA news cycle is Joe Kaiser’s Twitter list of NBA writers and analysts, as it helps for both DFS and redraft management.
Embrace the grind
The NBA season is long. Fantasy basketball is closer to fantasy baseball than anything else, in that the consistently attentive and active managers often rise to the top. My best and most entertaining fantasy hoops seasons haven’t been defined by my best players, but rather rewarding free-agent pickups and finding sleepers who finally woke up with strong stats.
Being on the early edge of Pascal Siakam’s brilliant breakout campaign last season proved memorable and rewarding.
Embrace the long season and stick with your roster, even if your team starts out slowly, as proactive management will enhance your roster and improve your experience.