October 11, 2010
There are generally three types of managers in fantasy basketball: most or either a hardcore roto or a hardcore H2H participant, but there is a third type that doesn’t really have a strong preference one way or the other. Hardcore roto managers are wired differently than hardcore H2H managers. H2H managers thrive off of weekly matchups and the competitiveness (read: trash talking) that results. Roto is more of a marathon, with each player competing against the rest of the pack at all times until the end of the season. In contrast, H2H is like a series of one-on-one sprints, with the last few sprints (playoffs) weighted more heavily than the others. Roto is the fantasy sports purists’ game of choice, as it does a better job of controlling for short-term variance than H2H. Another way of looking at it is the “best” team wins in roto formats more frequently than in H2H.
With such fundamental differences between roto and H2H formats, it is clear that basic strategy differs between the two formats. Let’s examine some of the nuances of roto leagues and see how they shape and influence basic roto strategy.
The roto scoring system is rooted in the concept that all members of the league are competing against each other at all times. Each manager attempts to maximize their total score by accumulating as many counting stats (points, threes, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) on the highest percentages (FG%, FT%) while picking up the fewest turnovers possible. Each manager is ranked against his peers in each scoring category and is assigned a point value inversely proportional to their rank (category leader gets 12 points in a 12 team league, second place gets 11, etc.). The individual scores are then aggregated to populate the league standings. This scoring system generally limits punting (although there are exceptions to the rule), as basic roto strategy discourages conceding any points to your opposition. Scoring one or two points in any one category is very difficult to manage, as it requires higher overall scores in the remaining categories to compensate.
Another nuance of the scoring system worth noting is the concept of statistical overkill. Statistical overkill can be thought of as an excessive statistical lead in any category. Overkill represents wasted statistical contribution, as winning a category by one block nets you the same amount of points as winning a category by 1,000 blocks. As the season progresses, it should be relatively easy to identify any areas of statistical overkill by determining any categories in which you hold an excessive lead. The best course of action when you have statistical overkill is to trade some of the excess to bolster your weaknesses. However, striking the proper balance between statistical overkill and winning a category by a safe margin can often be difficult to manage.
When evaluating players, there is a general tendency to focus on per game statistics without affording as much weight to cumulative statistics. Roto demands fluency in both per game and cumulative statistics. The final standings in roto leagues are directly based upon the cumulative efforts of all of the teams in the league across an entire season. In other words, cumulative statistics are what largely determine the final standings. As will be discussed in more detail later, per game statistics are also important in order to ensure that you are using your limited number of games played wisely.
But what does it take to win a competitive roto league? The is no single answer to this question, as league settings and manager skill level can radically affect what it takes to win a particular league. According to numbers compiled by Matt Buser a few years ago, the average league champion had 79.85 total points, or an average of 8.9 per category. Breaking it down even further, the average stat total of the individual category leaders in standard Yahoo! public roto leagues were as follows:
The bottom row shows each counting stat divided by 820 games, which is the limit for teams in default/public leagues. Note that this data is from the 2006-07 season, so is somewhat dated. That being said, the data can help us set benchmarks for the upcoming season, as the macro numbers are relatively static from season to season.
With the scoring system in mind, the most successful basic draft strategy for roto is a balanced one. The focus of the draft is on selecting the best player available (BPA) with each pick, while also ensuring that your team is competitive in all statistical categories. In contrast to H2H leagues, a BPA strategy allows you to maximize the talent on your roster in all categories. However, any serious imbalances in a roto league can be corrected through trades and waiver wire acquisitions, assuming you’ve successfully assembled attractive assets in your draft. BPA should be followed until the middle stages of the draft. At that point, team weaknesses should be addressed. Finally, specialists should be targeted and positional deficiencies should be corrected during the later rounds of the draft.
Beware of players with poisonous statistical contributions in FG%, FT% and turnovers. In contrast to the traditional counting stats (points, threes, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks), the impact of negatives in these three categories is virtually unlimited. The worst you can do in a counting stat is to not accumulate anything. In other words, the negative impact is capped. In the percentages, however, the negative impact continues to increase as attempts increase and the percentage approaches zero. There is no basement. The same can be said for turnovers – a player can continue to accumulate turnovers until his coach finally decides to bench him or the game ends. Dwight Howard(notes) is the obvious example of an uncapped negative run amok. D12’s negative impact on free throw percentage is the single largest statistical impact on any category, positive or negative, period (although Blake Griffin(notes) may make a run at this dubious honor in the near future). Make sure the positive contributions outweigh the negative benefits before drafting players with significant categorical weaknesses.
In addition, roto calls for other draft day considerations when dealing with FG%, FT% and turnovers. When dealing with the percentages, it is important to establish good percentages early on. Remember that players with higher attempts have greater influence on your overall percentages, so your scorers will have an inordinate impact on where your final percentages end up. In regards to turnovers, they should be considered throughout the draft but not overly stressed. While it is true that there is the same amount of points up for grabs in the turnovers category as other categories, in reality it is much more difficult to win in relation to other categories. This reason is due to inactive managers. No matter how active a particular league is, there is inevitably a couple of managers who are mathematically eliminated from contention about two-thirds of the way into the season and fail to maximize their games played. As a result, their turnovers remain artificially deflated, preventing you from passing them in turnovers as you continue to set your roster and maximize games played. Pay attention to turnovers but don’t stress them too much.
Maximum Games Played
One of the nuances of roto is the maximum games played limitation assigned to each roster spot, which creates a finite amount of games over the course of the season. The general standard is 82 games played per roster spot, although this is not always the case. The games played limit prevents churning and equalizes the playing field. In addition, it adds another wrinkle to roster management, as games not used at the end of the season are wasted games. To prevent wasted games at the end of the season, it is generally a good idea to run a bit ahead on games played for each roster spot, especially if you have lots of guys playing well out of the gates. Injuries happen, and running up your games can help alleviate the sting of injuries to key players later on in the season. Outside of exceptional circumstances, you generally want to be about three or four games ahead on your games played at each position until the tail end of the season, at which point you should manage your remaining games very carefully to maximize your point totals when the season ends without wasting any games.
Considering the finite nature of the games played in roto, it is critical that you are extracting positive statistical contributions towards your season-long bottom line with each game played. A good rule of thumb is to try and only play guys who are putting up top 100 per game value (although in a perfect world it would be top 80 or better). Granted, this may not always be possible due to injuries and individual league settings, but the general concept is universally applicable.
Due to the games played limitation, injuries are handled differently in roto than in H2H. In H2H, depth is at a premium because you are generally only limited by the availability of an open roster spot. In roto, cumulative value is the key to winning, as roto is scored across an entire season instead of in weekly snapshots. Thus, it is important to secure the most number of games played out of your key players in roto leagues. Quality starters trump excellent depth and injury-prone players should be avoided (or at least down-graded on draft day). Also, tread cautiously when drafting already injured players (such as Carlos Boozer(notes)), as their cumulative impact will be limited by their games played.
There is one main caveat when dealing with already injured players and injury-prone players in roto leagues: handcuffing. Handcuffing is the practice of drafting an injured or injury-prone player in the early rounds and then selecting his backup in the later rounds to stash on your bench. Handcuffing allows you to hedge against risk, as any injury to the starter positively affects the fantasy value of the backup player (if you’ve identified the player to be handcuffed correctly). The backup player absorbs the minutes of the injured starter, allowing you to weather the injury until he returns to full strength. There is likely some drop-off in production from the starter to the backup, but it is better than having to plug in a waiver wire pickup, especially in leagues with a thin waiver wire.
With the emphasis on quality starters versus quality depth, conducting imbalanced trades (two-for-one, three-for-two, etc.) is generally a good idea if you have decent depth. Moving two mid-level players to acquire a stud allows you to use your valuable games on players with better per game value and thus more valuable statistical contributions. Another trade strategy in roto leagues is the effective use of the blockbuster trade. While basic roto strategy calls for a balanced approach, achieving total balance is impractical and unrealistic. Teams inevitably end up with strengths and weaknesses. You should be regularly assessing your team’s strengths and weaknesses throughout the season. However, prior to the trade deadline in your league (if applicable), you should conduct a thorough analysis of your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Once complete, you should trade away any statistical overkill in order to address weaknesses by trading impact players. The result can often propel your team up the standings during the stretch run.
This discussion of basic roto strategy has really only hit upon the key issues, highlighting many of the strategic differences between roto and H2H formats. Some of the more exciting aspects of roto strategy are generally more advanced. The most discussed and debated roto strategy by far is punting, and was only mentioned here because it requires a more rigorous discussion. Contrary to many roto purists’ beliefs, punting can be an extremely effective roto strategy but is generally more effective in extremely competitive leagues, as the standings tend to be more closely bunched together than in less-competitive leagues.
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