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Fantasy basketball strategy ‘Inception’: Dream or reality?

by on Jul.20, 2010, under Quick hits

Inception

What do 'Inception' and fantasy basketball have in common? For starters, they're both cool.

First off, if you haven’t seen “Inception” yet, go and enjoy it. Yes, it’s hard to like the idea of seeing a film that’s been so sickeningly hyped and talked about for so long (paging LeBron James and the Miami Heat), but it’s well worth a viewing — or two.

While I could gladly go off on a tangent and offer my lengthy review of the film, then proceed to justify its relevance because this blog is, after all, focused on fantasy, I’ll take the higher road and instead take the foundational concept of dreams in “Inception” and use it as the basis for a fantasy basketball post. Don’t think it can be done? Read on.

Without giving anything away, the big premise of the film is dreams — diving into them (not just once, but twice, thrice and beyond), discerning them from reality, and stealing/planting ideas while in them. In fantasy basketball, there are many strategies and notions that seem to have taken root in many owners’ imaginations. Some are legit but others aren’t. Let’s take a look at some of these intuitions and tag them as either a “Dream” or a “Reality.”

  1. Two-for-one trades are better for the side that gets the two: I’ve seen too many a team fall for these charming propositions. Don’t get me wrong — there are times when these can work for the team that gives up one to get two. For instance, if your fantasy team has suffered a big injury and you need to shore up your depth, a two-for-one deal can prop up your team and potentially salvage your season. But when it comes to trading away one of your first-round guys for, let’s say, a second- and fifth-rounder, you’re stepping into deep doo-doo. Yes, you’re getting more depth and roster flexibility, but you’re also taking on more volatility. Instead of owning a stud who only hands in a clunker every other week or so, you’re taking on two lesser players who are liable to stink it up way more often. You’re also taking on more injury risk, and you might have to drop a quality/promising bench player in order to make room for the trade. More times than not, the guy getting the one superior player usually ends up on the winning end. There are certainly exceptions — especially in deeper leagues where depth is hard to come by, or when an absurdly stacked team actually makes you an excellent offer of two players for your one that you shouldn’t refuse — but in most leagues, two-for-ones are dirty temptresses that should be ignored. DREAM
  2. Punting categories can work: This is usually a bad idea in roto leagues, but in head-to-head formats it’s a lot more sensible. The turnovers category is usually the first one people punt or ignore, which is quite easy to do. It is, after all, a boring category that is hard to control. In fact, punting cats (oh, what an image) is often required if you want to forge a good strategy in an H2H league. Unless you’ve managed to assemble an incredible team, trying to win every single category in your league each week is borderline arrogant. Disregarding categories can definitely work — just be wise about which ones you choose to ignore and when, given your fantasy roster’s strengths/weaknesses. REALITY
  3. A bad draft spells certain doom: Bad drafts can happen in a lot of ways — you somehow forget about your league’s draft and the dreaded auto-draft goes Isiah Thomas on your squad, you take too much time with an early pick and mistakenly draft the wrong player as the clock hits zero on you, or you just plain mishandle your draft. If you play fantasy basketball long enough, it’s bound to happen a few times. A lot of owners lose hope at this point, but that’s the way of wussies. The season is long, and most leagues will be rife with helpful waiver-wire pickups and trade opportunities that can quickly change your team’s direction. Oh, and other owners’ misfortunes can open big doors for your struggling team to limp all the way to the playoffs, where crazy things can happen. Of all my years playing fantasy basketball, I can only really remember a few solid drafts — the rest left much to desire. But that never discouraged me from maneuvering my way to the top of my standings by way of savvy (and, many times, near-obsessive) waiver-wire watching and trades. The draft is just the beginning, so don’t get too down if you have a bad one (or too comfortable if you have a good one). DREAM
  4. Your last draft pick doesn’t matter: In every draft, there are one or more owners who like making a statement (e.g., by picking a player who hails from their alma mater), stashing away a severely injured player (e.g., Yao Ming last season) or giving everyone a laugh (e.g., Brian Scalabrine) with their last pick. While there’s no harm in this, it’d be wiser to use your last pick to grab a deep sleeper, even if it doesn’t pay off. Sure, it’s fun drafting DJ Mbenga in the last round, but that could’ve cost you the likes of Marc Gasol or Channing Frye last fall. Every pick counts. DREAM
  5. Inception

    Put the gun down, Leo -- that horrible draft isn't the end of your fantasy season! Going to all those Lakers games might actually help you.

    The waiver wire isn’t that helpful: If you’re in a very deep league, this might be true. But if you’re in a midsized league, the waiver wire can be the lifeblood of your fantasy squad. At the very least, even in big leagues, you should always have your eye on a couple players on waivers who you can pick up in case of an emergency. If you find yourself in a medium-sized league, helpful players will usually be floating on waivers, which is why that list of available players is so key. If you didn’t pay attention last season, you could’ve missed out on the likes of Andray Blatche, Darren Collison and Reggie Williams, to name just a few waiver-wire gems from 2009-10. A helpful habit is to keep an eye on trends in the form of performances during the past month and week. A player who’s been hot during both time frames is probably one to consider picking up if you have some dead weight at the bottom of your roster. Injuries are also key indicators of which available player is about to blow up. Sure, there’s a lot of junk out there, but put in just a few minutes of digging and you might find your diamond. DREAM
  6. Many trades will require you to feel like you’re giving up too much: Let’s face it: we all tend to be selfish and cheap when it comes to fantasy ball, and that means we’re always looking for that next steal of a deal. However, unless you’re playing with a bunch of newbies, it’s going to be very, very difficult pulling a fast one on an opponent. This is why you’ll often have to feel like you’re giving up a bit more than the other guy whenever you propose a deal, or accept one in some cases. When you get this unpleasant sensation, it probably means the deal’s really about even. (A shout out to Basketball Monster’s Trade Analysis tool, which is often helpful in getting a sober take on what a trade will actually do for you.) This doesn’t mean you should actually give up a lot to get a lot less, but only that you’ll often have to feel like you’re getting the slightly shorter end of the stick in order to overcome the thief in you that wants to constantly lowball other owners. When you’re looking to trade for a stud, you might have to actually give up more than you’d like as an incentive to loosen the owner’s grip on his star player. In some cases, especially when you know one of your players’ stock is unsustainably high or when one of your players’ name is bigger than his fantasy value, this might be an easier task to stomach. As with many missions in life, feelings should not trump sensibility in fantasy basketball. REALITY
  7. Rankings are king: Throughout the season, it’s interesting and useful to glance at each day’s player rankings, according to Yahoo, ESPN or whatever fantasy platform you may use. It’s a helpful way to approximate each player’s value, whether based on their total production or averages for any given period — especially since this is a common way to eyeball a player’s trade value. You’re probably familiar with scenarios where, for example, you’re offered a package of two players who are ranked 30 and 40, in exchange for two of your players who are ranked 20 and 60. On a purely rankings-driven thought process, this deal is a win for you — you’re getting a total ranking of 70 and giving up a total of 80. But, as most of us know, rankings are a tricky beast. Yes, they serve as a solid start for assessing players’ values, even in trades, but that doesn’t mean they’re the final say. Not only can rankings be misleading thanks to shooting percentages and inadequate samples (e.g., if a player hits all four of his FTs in a week, he’s a 100 percent shooter from the line — but does that really mean he’s a great FT shooter? or if a player like Terrence Williams is putting up great all-around numbers but struggles at the line, does that mean he and his sub-100 ranking are really not worth your time?), they also overlook categories. Getting a stud rebounder in exchange for one of your one-trick pony three-point bombers isn’t going to help you if you’re already stacked with rebounding monsters and in dire need of threes. Rankings are great (I refer to them very often) but don’t stop there. Go further and look at which categories your team is consistently losing and winning, and act on your instincts and do some research if you’re suspicious about why a scrub is suddenly a top-20 player this week. DREAM
  8. Checking box scores is essential: Sorry, there’s no easy way out of this one. Even if you’re just not a numbers guy, keeping close tabs on box scores is the meat and potatoes of fantasy basketball — and fantasy sports in general. It helps you to pick up on trends and hot/cold players before your opponents do. Need more be said about this? REALITY
  9. Team diversity is important: It might seem appealing to draft the two best players on a team (e.g., Danny Granger and Troy Murphy). After all, it seems like a good fail-safe. If one of those players struggles on a given night, the other player will likely pick up the slack and make up for the other player’s off night, right? While this may actually happen on some nights, there are multiple threats to this strategy. An unfavorable schedule for that NBA team, because of a lack of action or tough opponents, can put a big dent in your team’s production that week. Also, if the team those players are on either gets blown out or blows an opponent out one night, neither are likely to get major minutes/produce big lines. Of course, if you have a point guard/big man combo on the same NBA team who feed off of each other, you might be fine with having those two players rack up huge lines on most nights. Just be prepared for those two-game weeks, especially during fantasy playoffs. REALITY
  10. Watching actual NBA games helps you win fantasy leagues: It’s conceivable to think that one could succeed in fantasy basketball leagues without watching a single second of an NBA game. After all, fantasy ball is based on numbers, trends and timely transactions, which can all be obtained via box scores, game recaps and helpful websites. However, there’s something about actually watching NBA games that has a positive effect on your ability to thrive during a fantasy basketball season. You get to see how players actually play the game, how they jell with their teammates, their body language, their off-the-stat-sheet weaknesses, etc. This helps you to see through statistical facades, which can help fuel better, timelier decisions. Then there’s the intangible aspect of just being in tune with the actual game this hobby is based on. Without sounding too mystical, there’s a real-yet-intangible divide between guys who enjoy playing fantasy basketball and guys who enjoy playing fantasy basketball because they love the game of basketball itself. I can’t say that one will always beat the other, because it’s not true. But I can say with confidence that loving the NBA and watching as much of it as you can will only help you navigate the rough waters of a fantasy basketball season. Plus, it’ll be way more fun. REALITY
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