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Waiver Priority and FAAB in Fantasy Basketball


Donovan Mitchell went undrafted in the majority of fantasy basketball leagues last season, and finished the season as a top 50 player. How did Mitchell end up on his owner's team? Was he added using a waiver claim? Did the owner have to spend FAAB (free agent acquisition budget) dollars to acquire him? Or, as was the case with the vast majority of players added in fantasy basketball, was Donovan Mitchell picked up as a free agent, freely available to anyone on first-come, first-serve basis?

Now compare how you answered that question to how big breakout players were acquired in your fantasy football league. For example, let's think about Alvin Kamara, who similarly broke out from being a rookie who wasn't expected to do much into becoming a top fantasy performer. Some people may have added him freely off waivers if they snagged him before he broke out for 96 yards and a touchdown on 5 carries and 10 receptions in week 4. But for those owners who acquired him after that big game -- especially after the trade on the following Tuesday which sent Adrian Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals, moving Kamara up a notch on the RB depth chart -- they likely had to have a high waiver priority or be willing to part with a decent chunk of FAAB dollars to obtain the services of the breakout star.

Let's talk about that a little bit. If waivers and FAAB dollars weren't used to pick up a breakout star like Donovan Mitchell, do they have any purpose? Is there a way to tinker with how they work so they'll be more often required to pick up a player like Mitchell? Or are the fundamental differences in how the NBA works in comparison to the NFL that there's no level at which there's much of a point using them in your league?

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Making Waivers and FAAB Work in Fantasy Basketball

Waivers Only After Drops: Taking Advantage of Unlucky, Foolish, and Sabotaging Owners

What is still the default setting in most public leagues is to have players start on waivers after the draft, then become free agents for the rest of the season. From that point on, the only players to go on waivers are those who are dropped by their fantasy teams. That means all the players on waivers were unwanted by at least one team in your league, and the vast majority of those guys were dropped with good reason -- there were available free agents who were equal or greater in value. Only a small fraction of the players who end up on waivers end up being highly desirable commodities, on whom it's worth spending a high waiver priority. That tiny group of players tends to fall into three categories, which will shrink in size the better your league is.

1. Unlucky. An owner has too many injuries, and not enough IR spots. They can't afford to hold onto an injured player and still compete. Perhaps last year you started out trying to stash Nikola Mirotic in your one IR spot. However, you then lost your star C Rudy Gobert to a knee injury a few weeks into the season and got off to a very bad start overall. Instead of wasting a bench spot to hold onto both injured players, you needed all hands on deck to stay competitive and keep yourself within sniffing distance of a playoff spot. So you kept Gobert in your IR spot and dropped Mirotic to add a player who could help you immediately. Mirotic immediately became a desirable add for competitive teams who could wait him out, or for any team that had an open IR spot.

This type of desirable waiver add obviously becomes more prevalent leagues without an IR spot, where some owners may have been faced with the decision of whether to hold onto even a star level player like Gobert.

2. Foolish. Perhaps an impatient fantasy manager lost faith in a good player who got off to a bad start, and dropped him. An example of this was Nikola Jokic in 2016-17. Jokic only averaged 23.5 minutes per game in October and November of 2016, and was poorly misused by head coach Mike Malone. As a result, fantasy owners were staring at a guy who they drafted in the third round averaging only 9.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists, along with next to no contribution in threes, steals, or blocks. His name was appearing on bust lists everywhere. Some of those owners concluded he was a sunk cost and foolishly decided to cut bait if they couldn't find a trade deal. More forward-looking owners with good waiver priority were able to take advantage to the tune of 19.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists along with his usual monstrous percentages from December on.

3. (Listen All Y'All, It's) Sabotage! Sadly, this category describes a decent chunk of the experiences I've had in leagues where waiver priority has suddenly become relevant. Joe Jerkface is tired of losing or tired having the league veto his obviously collusive trades, so he drops all his players in protest. Suddenly it becomes a scramble for the remaining competitive teams to add all those valuable dropped players, and waiver priority can actually tip the balance of the league -- a guy with top priority might grab Kevin Love, while a guy with a mid-to-low priority might only end up with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

This is not something you should plan for, and I hope it doesn't happen in your league. But I find it illustrative to point out as a matter of personal experience. Sabotage represents a not-insignificant percentage of time I've seen waivers come into play, and it certainly represents the situation when waivers end up having the biggest effect on the outcome of a league.

FAAB: All that Cash and Nowhere to Spend It

We've established that in most set-ups, waivers are rarely needed to add a player, and when they are it very rarely matters. FAAB waivers do not do anything to change that -- they just make it all the more obvious. Under FAAB waivers, you receive a set budget (usually something like $100 or $200) to spend adding players off waivers over the course of the season, in each case bidding a number of dollars on a player on waivers. In some systems you can make $0 bids, some systems you have to spend at least $1. Highest bid wins, with waiver priority still existing as a tie-breaker in the case of multiple bids at the same value.

In leagues where players aren't on waivers except right after the draft or when dropped, it's crystal clear when how pointless waivers usually are when you use FAAB dollars. Most of the time you won't want to bid more than the minimum. Maybe up to $2 or $3. Then in those few exceptions above where a useful player is dropped, it's usually worth going all-in, since you probably won't get another chance to make a truly meaningful add. Most of the league will end the season with most of their FAAB dollars unspent, because there won't be enough meaningful adds for all of the teams to spend their money on.

Daily Rolling Waivers: Would that Make a Difference?

Maybe the problem is all those players always being on free agency. In fantasy football, players lock once their games start. Then we watch as players breakout and injuries happen, and react to the effects of those performances and injuries in the next waiver wire cycle. Maybe that would work in basketball? Maybe all players should be on waivers all the time, and we should have to bid against other owners for the right to add a player coming off a breakout game or who may benefit from an injury ahead of him. I believe in this sort of system, you almost have to go FAAB. Using waiver priority would mean you'd have to blow your top priority just to make a single add that no one else might have wanted. You'll want to use FAAB so you can still make small waiver claims, without blowing your chance a big catch later on.

It helps a little, but doesn't truly add meaning to the process. The vast majority of pickups can be made for $0 or $1. Only occasionally, will a single game make the difference and create such a demand for a player that there will be multiple bids and you'll have to reach into your pockets to make a bid. But a single game just isn't that big of a data point when it comes to the NBA, like it is for the NFL. And injuries don't have the same star-making impact in the NBA as they do in the NFL, either.

Weekly Waivers: If Fantasy Football is Our Inspiration, Why Not Make it Once a Week?

Perhaps the best solution, if you want to make the waiver wire have meaning, is to only do it once a week. In this case, you'll get to see a full week's worth of performances and a full week's worth of injuries, before claims process and you add players to your team. People will really have to put thought into their claims and make serious bids against other players. There will be larger sample of new performance to drive demand (for a player) and a lot more people looking to make a move to drive supply (of roster spots and FAAB dollars).

The drawback to this is that you can't fill in for a key injury early in the week. You also can't take advantage of streaming as a strategy -- which someone people will see as a perk, not a drawback, I suppose. And you're especially screwed if you were trying to fill an open roster spot, and you don't fill in enough back-up options in case you get out-bid on your first choices for waiver adds -- you'll have to wait another full week to make a move.

Some platforms -- including ESPN -- allow you to choose which days FAAB waivers run. So you could make them run two or three times a week, which could alleviate some of those concerns. There's an extra cycle for minimal weekend streaming, and you don't have to wait a week to get an injury substitution. But this does come at the cost of lowering the increased need to commit FAAB dollars that making it weekly really imposed -- since you're then back down to seeing just 1 or 2 games of evidence for each player.

Should We Really Care About Waivers?

In the end, maybe we shouldn't care about making waivers meaningful. It's not necessarily a bad thing that fantasy basketball doesn't live or die on the waiver wire like fantasy football does. It's also not a bad thing that the first person to figure out a breakout is happening, or going to happen, should reap rewards from adding that player as a free agent. If you want to reward speedy owners, keep roster flexibility, and encourage streaming, then stay with the standard default free agency set up, where waivers only apply to players dropped.

But if you want to try something different, where waivers actually mean something and give everyone -- not just the quick on the draw -- an equal opportunity to add top players on the waiver wire, then go full hog. Don't mess around with regular waivers processing daily. Make it a weekly or biweekly event using FAAB. There's less streaming and it's less forgiving to those who suffer injuries at key moments. But it means choosing your FAAB bid now requires skill on a weekly basis. It gives you and your league mates more to compete over and more to talk trash about.

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