Fantasy basketball: Winning roto draft strategies

LaMelo Ball is like a shiny-new toy for fantasy managers, but sometimes you're better off with a boring veteran on your roster. Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Late in the regular season, the lead-up to the NBA playoffs can serve to destabilize the fantasy basketball playoffs in head-to-head (H2H) formats. You've got the best record and top seed in your head-to-head hoops league, and yet you get defeated in the first or second week of the playoffs by the team that barely scraped in, because several of your star players are enjoying some rest as the postseason looms.

The final few weeks of the NBA season -- especially in this rest-conscious era in the face of back-to-backs and arduous road trips -- can feel like one long Week 17 in the NFL.

There is a solution, especially if your intent is for the best overall roster in your league to secure the championship: go old school and play the rotisserie format. The cool kids call it "roto," and a simple explanation of the format is that stats within specific categories are added up throughout the season, as opposed to a weekly slice of statistics like H2H formats.

As for the specific categories your league selects, I often advise going with a traditional eight-category setup (points, rebounds, steals, blocks, assists, 3-pointers and both field goal and free throw percentages) versus including turnovers, which are often a tax on ball-dominant players.

In a 10-team league, the team that has the most steals by the end of the season earns 10 points, while the least larcenous team is left with a single point. Each starting roster spot is afforded an 82-game limit, so maximizing games played isn't an applicable angle in the vein that it fuels success in weekly head-to-head competition.

The team with the highest total of cumulative points across each category takes home the title. There are no playoffs or late-season upsets to consider as in weekly head-to-head leagues, but this doesn't mean the format isn't compelling throughout -- roto merely demands a season-long grind from managers. Finally catching your friend in steals thanks to an awesome surge from Marcus Smart in early April is undeniably rewarding.

Let's delve into some of the key strategies to consider when you are drafting in a roto league.

Balancing act

ESPN Fantasy basketball editor Tom Carpenter -- who likely was all about Rod Strickland's awesome blend of dimes and steals in the mid-90s [editor's note: that's a fact!] -- produced a helpful in-season strategy guide for roto managers. In the article, Carpenter deftly discusses the importance of pacing games played with an aim on statistical balance.

We also want to pursue statistical balance via the draft. In a points league, it's reasonable to chase elite scorers and volume rebounders while disregarding defensive specialists or pure point guards. In roto, however, we covet players who can contribute a consistently diverse collection of statistics, as each category is weighted equally in regards to points. Which is to say, you don't get more points for leading your roto league in points than you do for pacing the competition in steals -- it simply all matters in this format.

Balance is paramount in this fantasy format, thus high-floor players such as Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry can consistently drive value in multiple categories. The lure of LaMelo Ball's tantalizing talents is fun to consider, for instance, but give me mid-round shares of the "boring" pure point guards instead when it comes to roto.

Games played is also a substantial factor. This means riskier assets such as Joel Embiid and Blake Griffin, those prone to "load management," take a value hit in this format. This isn't to say we should avoid these star players outright, but rather to price this into your approach. We can't solely build around supposedly safe players throughout the variance presented to us in draft rooms, yet I do find a more conservative approach to roster construction can pay off in the marathon that is the roto campaign.

Don't punt

Like how Twitter users plea to NFL coaches to stop punting so often at midfield, I advise fantasy managers to avoid punting specific positions or categories in a rotisserie basketball draft. In a head-to-head format it's entirely reasonable to, say, punt free throw percentage and focus on elite defenders and rebounders.

It's true that some of the classically elite shot-blockers and rebounders, such as Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, will tank your free throw rate to unrecoverable depths. The best approach is an appreciation for compromise -- we can instead place a premium on those players who produce blocks and manage respectable free throw rates. We are enjoying a new wave of rim protectors who can sink a respectable clip of their shots from the stripe, as Brook Lopez, Mitchell Robinson and Myles Turner confirm.

There is real risk in systemically avoiding a given player archetype or statistical category, as you need to otherwise prove prolific in other categories to even contend, much less dominate your league. Punting is an extreme investment strategy that requires some extreme fortune in other statistics to pay off.


Instead of completely foregoing a specific statistical category or player archetype in your basketball draft this fall, you can instead pursue some specialists to carry you in a given statistic. You don't need to win every category to take down the league, but it helps to stay competitive in each to be within striking distance down the stretch.

Specialists, or players with atypically elite rates at certain statistics, can help fuel success in roto competition.

Mitchell Robinson is a defensive specialist I'm willing to reach for in roto drafts this season. Robinson can build on a strong finish last spring that saw him average an absurd three blocks per game and nearly a steal in just 25.4 minutes per game after the All-Star break. With an emergent and reasonably priced defensive force like Robinson in the fold, you can spend your upside picks in the middle and twilight rounds on more versatile players, as opposed to chasing hollow block commodities.

Dallas' Tim Hardaway Jr. won't cost much in drafts this season, but he was seventh in the league in made 3-pointers last season and remains a catch-and-shoot fixture as a the key shooter for the Mavericks heading into this season.

As you prepare for your draft, work to identify the players who provide atypically strong production rates across each statistic and within each positional group.

Risk of youth

Rookies traditionally post sluggish shooting rates, claim inflated turnover rates and often battle for consistent minutes. There are certainty exceptions who have proved capable of providing immense fantasy value as professional freshmen, such as Chris Paul, Damian Lillard or, more recently, Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Ja Morant. The issue is that the shiny-new-object factor tends to drive up the draft position of marquee rookies to prices they can rarely live up to in regards to value.

If an exciting prospect like Killian Hayes slides late in your draft, it's fine to take the risk on a player who could assume uniquely valuable workloads from the first tip, but just don't overload on youth. In general, roto is a format that rewards cost certainty and consistency, and this is something rookies rarely offer.

As Embiid might advise, trust your process.