Fantasy basketball: Auction draft tips and strategies

High volume players such as James Harden can pack your fantasy lineup with stats, but don't forget they can also pile up lots of turnovers, too. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

If you're reading this, it's because you've joined the 1%.

The fantasy 1%.

You've buckled in for a blast with the jet-setting, high-flying ranks of the true fantasy elite. You've bought a one-way ticket for the sweetest six-month joyride fantasy has to offer.

The auction hoops league. Once you've crossed this Rubicon, dear madam or sir? I guarantee you that from here on out, snake drafts will offer the appeal of fantasy meatloaf.

Warmed-over, statistical flotsam. Numerical roadkill. Pseudo-analytic chum.

(To cut to the chase: It will reek of the unsatisfying. You get the point.)

So, congratulations on choosing the high life! The welding of the ultimate fantasy sport to the ultimate fantasy format: auction fantasy basketball.

Fantasy football is duckpin bowling. Fantasy basketball is 10-pin bowling. Auction fantasy basketball is the Professional Bowlers Association. Think I'm biased? I don't care. Because I love this stuff. And soon you will, too.

So let's get busy.

The basics

In ESPN's standard auction format, your reign as manager will commence with a wad of fake cash, a couple of hours to kill and an empty roster to stock.

You start with $200.

You have 13 roster spots.

You start 10 players at the following positions: one point guard, one shooting guard, one small forward, one power forward, one center, one guard, one forward, three utility players -- and draft a three-man bench.

You can pick any categories you like, but we like: field goal percentage, free throw percentage, 3-pointers, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and points.

Head-to-head? Traditional rotisserie? Categories? Points? The decision, my friend, is yours.

Each scoring system presents its own pluses and minuses. If you're a fan of pure numerical, well-balanced fairness, you might want to head over to roto. If you enjoy the ritual humiliation of co-workers and loved ones, you might have a date with a head-to-head format. If you're built for high-speed, high-scoring thrills, you might prefer a points league.

How to win

Above all else, make a plan.

I don't have a plan for retirement. I don't have plans for Thanksgiving. But I sure as hell have a plan for my fantasy basketball auction draft. Don't judge me.

What is my recommended plan? Spoiler: It involves using your calculator app. But because I care, I'm about to do the calculating for you -- both numerical and emotional.

Step 1: When thinking of bidding on a top-five player, calm yourself

I'm jump-starting this with a warning. Before performing all of the other tasks and functions I'm about to recommend, remember one thing: First-round, snake-draft players will require a 150% investment of your imaginary money.

You're paying a premium for statistical peace of mind. You're paying for name value. For the sense of odd self-identification that occurs when your super-duper-star shows up on SportsCenter. Just know going into this that overpaying for stars might not be the way to go.

Step 2: Pre-draft homework

1. Properly valuate your player pool into an easy-to-remember ratio

This is an eggheaded way of saying "figure out how much money your league has to spend on the amount of available value."

I try to figure out how many dollars I have to spend per player rater point. How do I do this? It's a similar calculation to determining auction keeper-league inflation.

First (stick with me), determine the depth of your league's player pool. Let's say you're in a 10-team league with 13-man rosters. That's 130 players.

Second, determine aggregate production, again using player rater points as units of production. And because I have no life, I know that 130 players produce an aggregate 900 player rater points. So, we are spending for 900 points of available production.

Third (keep sticking with me), determine how much money my league has to spend. A 10-team league with $200 budget per team has $2,000 to spend.

So our equation looks like this: $2,000 for 900 player rater points of production. So, that's $2.22 per player rater point.

When you have this ratio in mind, it's a good way to calibrate what a player is actually worth on the fly -- especially in the mid- to late stages of your draft, when managers have overspent on big names.

2. Downgrade certain players if your league counts turnovers

This is a subtle tactic that gets ignored far too often.

Turnover leagues penalize players who tend to rely on volume (points, assists) to produce their fantasy value. When turnovers are factored in, certain players can lose 10-25% of their value.

Here's a quick list of players to downgrade, in rough order of importance (in terms of how much turnovers ding their overall value): James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Devin Booker, Trae Young, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin and Luka Doncic.

Alternately, efficient big-name big men such as Anthony Davis, Clint Capela, Brook Lopez, Rudy Gobert, and Mitchell Robinson get upgraded. Actually, all big men this side of Embiid and James get at least a small bump upward. So do efficient wings and stretch bigs who play more catch-and-shoot, such as Jimmy Butler, Otto Porter Jr., Robert Covington and Danilo Gallinari.

But point guards with high assist-to-turnover ratios, such as Mike Conley, Tomas Satoransky, Ricky Rubio and Kyle Lowry, get the biggest bump. This is because they're producing in assists without hurting you like a Harden or Westbrook would.

3. Break down your player pool by projected dollar value and position into tiers

ESPN will do most of the work for you. Also make sure to take a look at current ADP in terms of dollars to get a sense of who's getting overvalued and who's getting undervalued.

4. Figure out which positions suffer from positional scarcity

Because ESPN is generous with its PF/C classification, centers aren't as scarce as you'd believe. And after years of leading fantasyland in positional scarcity, shooting guard looks comparatively well-stocked.

But after years of being one of fantasy's deepest positions, small forward cratered in 2018-19. The preponderance of multipositional players engineered a player rater drought at the wing.

Looking at the end of last season, distribution of value at small forward was decidedly top-heavy. Three top-five players qualified at SF (Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Paul George). After those three, the position thinned out, with only Tobias Harris and Kawhi Leonard posting early-round value.

Now, with Durant shelved, small forward takes another sizable ding in overall valuation. Meaning: if you're bidding for scarcity, consider going in heavy on Antetokounmpo, James or George. But beware: Leonard and George both enter the 2019-20 campaign saddled with the accursed "load management" red flag.

5. While considering positional scarcity, make sure to prioritize players with multipositional eligibility

Eligibility at several positions is the single most underrated boost of a player's fantasy value. I especially like the players who fold PG/SG eligibility into their value, such as Harden, Jamal Murray, Spencer Dinwiddie, D'Angelo Russell and Satoransky.

Although they are not quite as prized/rare as PG/SG, SG/SFs such as Butler and DeMar DeRozan also get a boost. SF/PFs such as Antetokoumpo and Kyle Kuzma are almost as nice to have in your imaginary rotation.

6. Make a list of players who carry and alternately destroy certain categories

Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond can help dominate blocks. They will help dominate field goal percentage. But all three will absolutely kneecap your free throw percentage with a mafioso's fervor.

In a non-points league, I don't even think about rostering those aforementioned bigs. Instead, I make a list of players who force managers to throw out an entire category. Then, I make sure to bid those guys up (Westbrook, Booker, Whiteside, Capela and Drummond top my auction bid-up list this preseason).

Prioritize players like Davis, Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns who can carry teams in blocks and field goal percentage without hurting their respective squads anywhere else. LaMarcus Aldridge is a nice under-the-radar star who can subtly boost your blocks while remaining efficient. And compared to Gobert, blocks maven Myles Turner looks positively Bill Sharman-esque.

And again, if you're prepping to draft in a turnover league, make sure to fold in which players produce drag.

7. Keep deep-dish stats in mind

I'm talking about the categories that fuel our fantasy categories. Advanced metrics. To make this less imposing to the uninitiated: Start by paying attention to true shooting percentage (TS%) and usage rate (USG%).

True shooting percentage is a metric that folds in 3-point production and free throw production into a player's shooting performance from the floor. Big men tend to dominate this category, but pay heed to high-volume guards and wings who shine in this stat: Harden, Stephen Curry, Joe Harris and Bojan Bogdanovic are good places to start. In an ideal world, your roster will be populated with high-volume starters who average an average (.500 TS%) to excellent (.600 or higher) TS%.

Usage rate is a metric that estimates the amount of possessions controlled by said player. A high rate of possession equals categorical volume. Think of usage rate as the hardwood equivalent of targets in fantasy football.

Star point guards tend to rule this stat, but pay attention to the non-PGs who post usage rates higher than 25.0. Embiid, Harden, James, Leonard, Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Griffin and Davis are examples of non-PGs who dominate in usage rate.

Another stat I'm paying attention to: steals plus blocks. Looking for players who might not dominate in either individual category but contribute in the aggregate is an understated way to goose your defensive numbers. Draymond Green and Dewayne Dedmon are players whose fantasy portfolios benefit from this perspective.

8. Make a list of players you will target at different stages of your draft

If you want to go stars and scrubs, build a plan around the stars you want. The single best aspect of an auction draft is that every player is available. You can't get "snaked" out of a targeted player.

If you want Antetokounmpo, you can have him. You just might not have a lot of depth at other positions. If you plan to bid $70 on the Greek Freak -- be prepared. You might have to go even higher.

Just make sure you don't get sucked into too much hype around a single guy. Also list backup options for if the price gets too high on said guy. As the Current Mrs. Cregan says: "An auction draft, like marriage, is all about options."

If you want to forgo $60-plus players and go more for across-the-board depth, you can get a little more precise in your planning up and down the roster.

This is where the tier system pays a lot of dividends. Ideally, you're sporting a spreadsheet that builds in the dynamic effect of how your tiers are being hit at various stages of your draft. For example: If point guards are getting overbid, that will create deflation at other positions. Suddenly, a $30 Tier 2 SG becomes available at a $20 Tier 3 price.

It boils down to this maxim: In auction drafts, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Periods of overbidding lead to periods of underbidding. A run at one position creates value at another position. A run on one category creates value in other categories.

9. Make a list of endgame sleepers

These are guys who might be worth an extra buck or two at the end of a draft, when everyone's punchy.

Here are some of my favorite endgame picks so far: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges and Troy Brown Jr.

10. Make a list of players to ultimately avoid, but bid up

Auction drafts allow you the flexibility to also pinpoint players you definitely don't want.

This is more important than you'd think. In the heat of a draft, I've gotten sucked into drafting a player who was off my brand because I couldn't believe he was going for so cheap. I still get night sweats thinking about the time I paid $12 for Kris Dunn.

At the same time, as I said before, keep the same players in mind for bidding up. When you know a player you want to avoid is lingering $10 to $20 below what he'll eventually go for, jump in and raise the ante.

Every dollar you can bleed out of a fellow manager for one of his or her targets means there's aggregate value being left on the table. It will really come in handy late in your draft when you're hoarding players in the $2 to $9 range.

Just don't get too cute and be left hanging on the hook for a player you were only trying to bid up. If it's down to you and one other owner, and you're just trying to bleed him or her ... pull the heck out. Remember Robert De Niro in "Heat": Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat.

11. Make a list of your fellow managers' favorite NBA teams

Know that managers tend to overpay for players from their favorite NBA squads, because they want to see their players in the games they watch. Also know that Knicks fans, Warriors fans and Lakers fans tend to really suffer in this area. (Don't believe me? "Lakers exceptionalism" is now an accepted term in the NBA lexicon.)

Again, this helps when figuring out which players to bid up.

12. Don't punt

I can't stress this enough. Don't go into your draft thinking you can ignore a single category. You win by building depth across all positions and categories.

Step 3: Making your actual plan

You can probably tell I'm not a fan of "stars and scrubs."

Stars and scrubs is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Here, you focus big bucks on three to four ringers, then fill the gaps with cheap role players.

Here's a typical stars-and-scrubs roster for a 13-man, $200 budget. I'm using actual, current, average auction value. Note that $182, or 91% of the budget, is spent on three players:

PG: James Harden $63
SG: JJ Redick $1
SF: Kawhi Leonard $52
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo $67
C: Enes Kanter $2
G: Josh Richardson $1
F: Gordon Hayward $1
Util: Caris LeVert $1
Util: Serge Ibaka $3
Util: RJ Barrett $6
Bench: Jaylen Brown $1
Bench: Tim Hardaway Jr. $1
Bench: Jarrett Culver $1

This team is way too top-heavy. Remember, the top player overall generally generates 20 to 24 player rater points. Which means a 24-player rater-point player would be worth only about $52 in terms of hard value. That's for an off-the-charts, historic type of statistical performance, along the lines of 2015-16 Curry or 1974-75 Bob McAdoo.

But the truth is that we pay more for the big names because (A) we're suckers for marquee value, and (B) we want peace of mind. You're paying a markup because you know that Harden, Damian Lillard and Davis will anchor your team. And it's also just fun to roster those guys.

Just keep in mind that using our $2.22 per player rater point ratio, even the top players in fantasy end up with around 20 player points -- meaning even the best of the best produces only $45 in actual value.

When you're paying that kind of markup across multiple players, you're left wide open to injuries, trades, slumps and scheduling abnormalities. It also places a lot of pressure on a manager to be resourceful on the waiver wire, since you will undoubtedly be scouring for new scrubs to plug in when other scrubs don't pan out.

Managers new to auction leagues tend to fall into this strategy by mistake. Many a time, I've seen new managers get bid-happy and scarf up three of the first eight or nine superstars. Just like in the real NBA, the main issue with stars and scrubs is that if you whiff on one of your stars, it's difficult to recover.

This isn't fantasy football. In fantasy football, you can whiff on a pick or two in your draft and recover on the wire. Fantasy basketball doesn't offer a whole lot of free-agent depth -- especially after the first month of the season.

With apologies to our fantasyland, pigskin-pushing brethren, a fantasy basketball draft holds a lot more season-long significance.

Of course, there is another way to go about all of this.

You can promise yourself you won't spend more than $28 to $32 on a single player. You have to weather the initial storm, napping comfortably while other managers go hog wild for James at $61 and Harden at $63.

Because you've done the homework I previously assigned -- you will do that -- you will notice bargains starting to fall through the cracks.

A team built with this approach might look like this:

PG: Jrue Holiday $25
SG: Luka Doncic $25
SF: DeMar DeRozan
$26 PF: Pascal Siakam
$18 C: Hassan Whiteside
$16 G: Ja Morant $10
F: Draymond Green $11
Util: Kevin Love $21
Util: Tobias Harris $27
Util: Domantas Sabonis $16
Bench: Rudy Gay $3
Bench: Jeremy Lamb $1
Bench: Troy Brown Jr. $1

I agree, this doesn't have the same sizzle as having Harden and Leonard, but this is a winning roster that gives you tons of options.

The benefits? You are guarding against a single injury destroying your team's prospects. You are building solid foundations across the board in every category. You have more flexibility when setting your lineups. And you have more flexibility when making trades.

Step 4: Draft night!

1. Track how other managers are spending their money

If you're not using ESPN Fantasy's snappy auction draft engine, I recommend a spreadsheet that tracks available money left by position, and even by category.

2. Don't get sucked into bidding wars

Don't let draft ebullience suck you into a mano-a-mano test of mettle. Be prepared to exhale, look at who else is available, and walk away. No one in your real life is going to think worse of you for getting outbid on Robert Covington (at least, unless you know me).

3. Bid up players you don't want and/or need

Again, even if it's a player you disdain, don't be shy about jumping in early and bidding a player up a few bucks -- as long as you're confident that the price will keep soaring. You'll never forget the moments when the floor drops out from beneath your feet and you're holding the bag.

4. Don't reach for "hot sleepers"

These are players who are referred to as sleepers in draft guides to the point at which they reach a tipping point and become the existential opposite of "hot sleeper," the "I'm trying to look smart post-draft regret malaise" pick.

Once players are touted? The "sleeper" prefix becomes an oxymoron. A true sleeper is a player who produces far more value than his price. Nothing more. That's my kind of hot.

5. Don't panic when you've hit a point at which managers believe established fantasy starters at a certain position are all almost off the board

The final mid-round point guard, the final center who gets 2.0 blocks per game -- these moments inspire overbidding. That's why it's important to note the second-to-last player in each tier. The second-to-last player in a tier usually ends up as the bargain.

They show up in the lull. The hangover period before the panic that accompanies that "oh, #*$@, this is the last good shooting guard left" stage.

6. Don't engage in craven attempts at Gordon Gekko/post-Season 2 Walter White gamesmanship

Don't say things designed to get into other manager's minds. Don't crow. Don't claim every pick you snare is an absolute steal while everyone else is overpaying. Those of us who travel in polite fantasy society secretly hate you.

We see your half-baked polemic coming from a mile away. Don't draft "like a boss." You're not a boss. R.C. Buford is a boss. Pat Riley is the boss of bosses. You are, at best, a James Dolan.

7. Don't offer stupid trades during the draft

Don't be "That Guy."

"That Guy" is the guy who offers you Russell and Siakam for Antetokounmpo. (Coincidentally, "That Guy" tends to drive a BMW 3 Series or rides an electric skateboard.)

8. Identify when your draft is entering what I call "hangover periods"

These are the pockets of relative inactivity after managers have hit "hot spots" at which they've spent a large amount of their budgets.

Hot spots of overspending usually occur with the top 12 players, so-called "hot sleepers," and when the final surefire starters at certain positions (especially center and point guard) are almost off the board.

After these frenzies, lulls appear. That's the hangover period. There is less money available for larger projected value.

That's when you sneak in and get those players in the $5 to $25 range at a discount. And that's how you win a league.

9. Just as the top 25 players go for too much money, players 26-130 go for too little

Last season, the players who finished in the 110-120 range on the player rater still averaged about 3.0 player rater points in production. Which means that those players are actually worth $6 to $7 dollars. In our live results, 110-120 is $1 territory.

10. Gird yourself for the endgame

The endgame is often the most important part of your auction draft. It's definitely the part of the draft that produces the highest ratio of aggregate profanity per pick.

The profanity is produced by your fellow managers, swearing at the heavens that a valuable producer just went for a couple of bucks. (For example, "Lauri Markkanen for $3? @*#&$^#, dude.")

I like to sit on just enough money to have the ability to go to $3 on a couple of endgame guys. I don't like to save too much more than that though, because there's nothing more lacking in fantasy honor than being the guy or gal who leaves ...

11. Money on the table

Don't leave money on the table. Don't leave any more than a buck at the absolute most. Any more than that, and your fellow managers should feel free to mock you to their hearts' content.

Leaving money on the table means you thought you could get a little cute. And trust me, if you were even a little cute, you'd be doing more interesting things than participating in an auction basketball draft.

One final note

Deep breaths before the first throw, green tea at the halfway mark, then a cold brew for the endgame.

Before the draft? Exhale. Mediate. Medicate. Have a Manhattan. A matcha. A Manhattan with matcha. A cold brew. A Guinness. A nap. (Now you're me!)

Stretch. Whatever you can do to relax, do it. An overabundance of adrenaline will fuel the first half-hour. Players will go for way too much. Keep your cool.

Halfway through, get up and walk around the table. Start ramping up your energy intake as the other managers begin to flag.

When you're at the precipice of $1 territory?

Jumping jacks. Cold brew. "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC. (My preferred draft soundtrack is "Bongo Rock" by the Incredible Bongo Band. Or I just play this on a loop.)

Whatever you need to do to make sure you're not as punchy as your fellow managers. This is where you sneakily bring your A-game, friend.

Because in the end? The very end of the endgame is where imaginary champions are forged.

And that, fellow fake basketball enthusiasts, is as profound as I get.