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6 Tips for Fantasy Basketball Neophytes

Big props to anyone who goes to an Orlando Magic game dressed as a chunk of Kryptonite.
Big props to anyone who goes to an Orlando Magic game dressed as a chunk of Kryptonite.

The NBA season is only a month away, and you might be interested in joining a fantasy basketball league for the first time. The only problem is that you've never done it before, and you're apprehensive that you'll be slaughtered in your first go-around, which is keeping you from joining. It's understandable. Half the reason I never got into Counter Strike was that I knew the people playing it were ridiculously good, and I figured I'd never get any enjoyment out of being shot in the head over and over again. Same with Unreal Tournament. Come to think of it, I guess that's why I stay away from first-person shooters in general. (I suuuuck at video games.)

Anywho, you got nothing to fear. Whereas no guide exists to properly prepare you for Counter Strike, I have prepared a beginner's list that should adequately do the job for fantasy basketball, a list of suggestions for any fantasy newb looking to get in on the fun. These tips may not help you win your league, but they may prevent you from making an utter fool of yourself. And really, it doesn't matter whether you win or lose as long as you don't come away looking like the guy in Counter Strike who accidentally shoots the hostages in the head. (And yeah, I've done that before. Again, I suuuuuuuuck.)

So without further ado, here are six tips for fantasy basketball newbies.

Tip #1: Do as many mock drafts as possible

One of the nice things about fantasy basketball is that the time it takes to draft a roster is significantly shorter than it is for either football or baseball -- especially baseball drafts, which can last for a mind-numbing amount of time. So take advantage of basketball's expediency by doing as many mocks as you can before you feel comfortable enough to do the real thing. Ninety percent of you will join leagues in either or Yahoo!, and both sites are fine places to do your mock. (I tend to prefer ESPN for auction mock drafts because, unlike Yahoo!, their interface has a "PASS" button that can significantly speed up the final picks.)

If you're new to the fantasy game, going into an actual draft without a gameplan is a recipe for disaster. Do as many mocks as possible until you have a blueprint for what you want your team to actually look like. Practice makes perfect. If there's anyone in the chatroom, ask them what they think of your team. If they burst out in laughter, that might be a sign that your team needs a little work. If they tell you, "Hey, nice team man," that might be a sign that you're on the right track.

With any luck, your final mock team will be good enough to replicate for the real deal. There's nothing wrong with improvisation of course, but if you go into a real draft without a second of preparation, not only won't you win, you won't even deserve to.

Tip #2: Choose a snake draft over an auction draft

Veterans of the fantasy game tend to prefer auction drafts over the standard snake format. With a snake draft, your roster is entirely dependent on the arbitrary order of the draft, meaning if you happened to have the sixth overall pick, you'd never have a chance of getting LeBron James. With an auction draft, you can choose whoever you want to spend your money on, which would allow you to have both Kevin Durant and LeBron James if you so desired.

However, if you're new to fantasy basketball, I highly recommend joining a league with a standard draft rather than one with an auction format. Fantasy basketball is absolutely the worst fantasy sport to have a top-heavy roster. With football and baseball, it's possible that having one or two elite players can overcome whatever flaws your team might have. But with basketball, where you're trying to compete equally in eight or nine statistical categories, it's vital that you have depth. The difference between the least effective player and the most effective player on a good team is smaller than it is with any other sport.

If you waste $180 of your $200 spending limit on Kevin Love, LeBron James and Chris Paul, unless you are an expert who knows how to stretch those remaining $20, you will be sabotaging your team. Period. If you did what I just described, your other ten players would be bargain-basement nothings -- free-agent trash. It wouldn't matter that your three best players outclassed anyone else's, because the rest of your team would be utterly replacable. The end simply wouldn't justify the means.

And that's not to say that as a fantasy beginner, you'd be unable to allocate your money wisely in an auction draft. But snake drafts limit its owners to having an equal diversity of talent, rather than a staggered roster. It evens the playing field by default, and considering your inexperience, that should help you stay competitive longer than you likely would in an auction draft.

Tip #3: Be aggressive, to a point

As a rookie, you're not going to have the benefit of having an informed strategy like the other owners in your league, so the least you can do is compensate by picking up as many rising commodities as humanly possible. Fit as many of them onto your bench as you can, cut ties with inessential players who aren't working out. Depending on how much you know about basketball, you may not be experienced enough to know which struggling player is worth keeping and which one isn't, so you might as well make whatever cosmetic changes you can that can help you in the short term.

I worked this mentality in a very competitive baseball league I was in last year. Through effort, I was able to build an entire bullpen through the waiver wire after failing to come away with a closer in the draft, adding relievers like Sergio Santos, Javy Guerra, Jason Motte and Frank Francisco. I would have never been able to do as well as I did had I been complacent with my drafted team, and all too often, owners get too content with their initial roster and refuse to make necessary updates.

Of course, you can take your assertiveness too far, like I did in that very same baseball league. At one point in early April, I had both Lance Berkman and Ian Kennedy on my roster, and I wound up waiving both from a simple case of impatience. And if you're at all familiar with fantasy baseball, you know that there weren't 10 better hitters and 10 better pitchers last season than Berkman and Kennedy. So do as I say, and half as I do. But try not to overdo it. If you can honestly look at your team and be happy with all 13 or 15 players (depending on what kind of league you're in), don't force an add you don't need to make. Sometimes if staying away from a potentially really good player means sticking with a certifiably good player with not as much upside, the smartest move you can make may be no move at all.

(And on the subject of trading, I advise against it for your rookie campaign, unless you know someone who can verbally affirm that you're making a wise decision. In most cases though, your inexperience will work against you, and you'll wind up doing something you'll regret, like trading Kobe Bryant and LeBron James for Brian Scalabrine and Erick Dampier. I know that's a ridiculous example, but you get the idea.)

Tip #4: Sacrifice the block category

So here's where we're going to get into a little bit of strategy. Unless you choose to be in a points league, your goal will be to get as many totals as possible in eight or nine statistical categories. What makes fantasy basketball intriguing is that there isn't a single player in the NBA who will help you in every one. There are less than a handful that won't hurt you in any category (Kevin Durant for example), but for the most part, selecting any player means taking on their strengths as well as their weaknesses, which can make winning multiple categories rather complicated. If you draft Dwight Howard, you're helping out your block, rebound and field-goal percentage totals, but you're also taking on his porous foul-shooting. Greg Monroe is a solid big man with good percentages and an usually high steal average, but his block totals are awful for a starting center.

Whatever strides you may be making in one category could be offset by weaknesses in others. And it's this requirement of balance that leads me to give this piece of advice: don't draft shot-blocking specialists. If you can get someone who can block a shot and do other things, like Amar'e Stoudemire of Dwyane Wade, go for it. But don't waste your time with the Serge Ibaka's of the world -- focus on helping your other categories first.

Why? Well for one, blocks are by far the easiest category to accumulate through free-agency. There are a million guys out there who do nothing but block shots, and last year, a few of them came out of nowhere to become elite swatters: DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee come to mind. Even otherwise lousy players like Ekpe Udoh and Darko Millicic and Greg Oden can get you two or three blocks a game, so why bother drafting one when if you're the least bit diligent, you're just as likely find the next Jordan or McGee on the waiver wire?

The other reason you shouldn't focus on blocks if you're a novice is that the players who are proficient at it are the ones with the most weaknesses in their game. Most shot-blockers are bigmen with major deficiencies in points, assists and foul-shooting. Don't misunderstand me. It's absolutely important to try to have at least one rebounding/blocking enforcer on your squad, like a Tyson Chandler, but there's no reason to overcompensate to get that player in the draft when a player just like Chandler is bound to emerge in free-agency, and blocks are so easy to attain anyway.

Tip #5: Avoid all Celtics and Spurs

One of the things you'll want to do in your first go-around is limit the chance of one of your players disappearing, either from a benching, resting, or getting hurt. That means you'll absolutely want avoid high-risk players with a propensity of getting hurt, like Andrew Bynum, and Devin Harris, and Antawn Jamison, and Brandon Roy.

And that also means you should probably steer clear of any Boston Celtics or San Antonio Spurs player. Yes, there are some awfully good players on those teams. But remember, your ultimate goal is to have the absolute best team in April, when the fantasy playoffs start, and while Paul Pierce and Manu Ginobili will do great things to get you there, there's a definite chance that both of them will vanish when you need them the most. The Celtics and Spurs are veteran teams with a large number of aging players, and they both have coaches who love to randomly rest guys in the final weeks to prepare for the postseason. That's understandable in real life, but it's awful for fake teams, where having your star player sit during the most critical time of the fantasy season could be the difference between winning and losing. So it's best to just avoid the situation altogether, unless you plan on trading one of them in the middle of the season.

The bottom line is that if a player does something in January that he can't do in April, you shouldn't want him on your fantasy team.

Tip #6: Check the schedule

As much as I like fantasy basketball, it has an inherent flaw in its schedule that's completely different from any other form of fantasy. With football and baseball, you basically don't have to worry about your opponent's team playing more often than your players, since everyone has pretty much the same schedule. But with basketball, there are absolutely instances where your best player might only play twice, and your opponent's best player might play four times. It's totally possible that you could lose a matchup simply because your opponent had more games.

It's for that reason that lot of people choose to be in rotisserie leagues, rather than the standard head-to-head.

Now, keep in mind that for the most part, your team and your opponent's team will come away playing basically the same amount of games in a week, and that a bad break in the schedule won't deter any great team from doing well overall. Still, it doesn't hurt to check the advanced schedule, which will tell you which teams have X amount of games in a given week. And due to the crammed schedule brought on by the lockout, it's unknown which teams will play more games than others any at given time. You shouldn't let it deter who you want to draft and why, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

So there you have it!

Six tips that you may or may not vehemently disagree with to help you on your merry way. Now go young Padawan and conquer every league before you in the name of FakeTeams, and do it with style. (Also, if you ever go to a game with Dwight Howard in it, you have my infinite respect if you go to the game dressed as Kryptonite.)