Fantasy basketball draft strategy: Best ways to build winning teams for this strange NBA season

By Alex Barutha, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

The upcoming NBA season will be the most unique in league history. It’s coming after the shortest offseason in American professional sports, and the season will be condensed (albeit only by 10 games) to get things roughly back to normal by 2021-22. The result is fewer rest days, including more back-to-backs, which is something the NBA has tried to relieve the players of over the past few years.

While the season will be different from most, the general guidelines that hold true in a normal year should still apply here, with a few small wrinkles. Whether you’re an experienced fantasy basketball player or someone new to the experience who doesn’t want to stress about researching every player, hopefully these tips can help put you in a position to win your league.

Don’t overthink your first pick

Every player drafted in the Top 12 is an elite talent. Agonizing over whether to draft Nikola Jokic over Steph Curry or Karl-Anthony Towns over Damian Lillard is probably not worth the mental energy if you’re playing for fun (or even a small wager with some friends). If your first-round pick suffers a serious injury, your chances of taking first are next-to-none anyway. Most drafts are won in the mid-to-late rounds, not to mention the waiver wire. And if you end up with the No. 1 pick, James Harden, Luka Doncic and Anthony Davis should be who you choose from. If you’re feeling bold, Karl-Anthony Towns and Steph Curry can work as well.

Avoid load-managers, injury-prone players, or guys coming off serious injury in early rounds

This is a good rule of thumb in a normal season, but it’s especially important this year. In the squeezed campaign, there will be a slew of back-to-backs for every team and fewer days off in general. Teams that went to the Conference Finals and NBA Finals — Lakers, Nuggets, Heat, Celtics — have an exceptionally short offseason. Here’s a shortlist of early-round players who fit that bill and are worth avoiding if you’re trying to keep your in-season work low:

  • LeBron James: load management possibility given the extremely short offseason for the Lakers; is turning 36 years old in late December.

  • Kawhi Leonard: load management

  • Kevin Durant: coming off torn Achilles

  • Joel Embiid: load management and injury prone

  • Kyrie Irving: injury prone

  • Kemba Walker: persistent knee issues; will miss first month of the season

  • Russell Westbrook: expected to be held out of one game of back-to-backs

  • Chris Paul: suspiciously healthy last season after consistently missing time; is 35 years old.

  • Jimmy Butler: has played 70+ games only twice in his career

  • Kristaps Porzingis: an elite talent when healthy, but Porzingis is still recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him in the bubble. He should be back sometime in January but expect the Mavs to be extremely careful with his workload

  • Jaren Jackson Jr.: missed extensive time in each of his first two seasons and begins 2020-21 on the shelf as he works back from knee surgery

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23)
LeBron James is a multi-dimensional contributor, but his fantasy output could be held back by load management. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Target players who are the focal point of the offense

These types of players are among the safest to draft. There are the obvious options like Luka Doncic, LeBron James, James Harden, etc., but the key is to keep that same idea in mind when in the mid-to-late rounds. Often, this comes in the form of a great player on a bad team. Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox, Blake Griffin (he’s going so late in drafts that his injury-prone tag almost doesn’t matter anymore), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Nikola Vucevic are examples of this. There’s always a place for pure role players on fantasy teams, but those are often the types of players you can find on the waiver wire later in the year.

Beware of rookies

Very few rookies make a true fantasy impact, and it’s rare for the ones who do to be worth an early-round pick. Someone will undoubtedly emerge, but the safest route is to wait as long as possible to draft someone who we have no NBA sample size for.

That’s especially the case this season. There was no summer league and teams have a truncated preseason schedule, so we’re seeing these rookies less than ever before they even play meaningful games. Many first-year players also hit the “rookie wall” due to the extreme increase in workload compared to their previous college seasons. With an even more intense NBA schedule, the rookie wall could hit as hard as ever.

Use Average Draft Position to maximize value

If you follow the Average Draft Position all the way down the board, you’ll probably end up with, well, an average team. A pure ADP-based draft isn’t the way to go, but you can still use ADP to maximize the value you get in your draft.

For example, if you have the 45th pick in your draft and are trying to decide between Kyle Lowry and Clint Capela, you can check their ADPs and see that Lowry’s is 45.2, while Capela’s is 59.7. If you draft Lowry, there’s still a good chance for you to end up with Capela next round. If you draft Capela first, you’ll likely lose out on Lowry next round.

Shoot for upside late in drafts

Once you filled out a starting group that you’re relatively confident in, it’s time to draft for upside. Most of your bench will end up being fluid throughout the year through waivers, so drafting an extremely safe, low-ceiling backup group means you’re losing out on the possibility of getting a late-round steal. So, instead of Goran Dragic, draft DeMarcus Cousins. Instead of Daniel Theis, select Marvin Bagley. Instead of Seth Curry, take Otto Porter. And so on.

Often, guys with upside who slip in drafts — like the three mentioned above — are players who underperformed in the previous season or were in and out of the lineup with injuries. But if they have a bounce-back year, you’ve scored big.

Don’t try to predict coronavirus

There are certain parts of the country that are more affected by COVID-19 than others, but drafting players based on how hard their home market is being hit by the virus isn’t a worthwhile strategy. The same goes for trying to target players that you perceive to be more cautious than others. What teams and players are most affected by the virus is practically impossible to predict — just ask anyone who has had to deal with fantasy football this season.

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