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How to Punt Categories in Fantasy Basketball (2016 Edition)


Draft season is on for the 2016-17 NBA season, and it's time to start thinking about how you're going to win your league.  RotoBaller will be here with rankings, sleepers, and busts like usual.  Before we dive too deep into the nitty gritty this year, though, we should take a look at the broader picture, and the potent strategy of punting categories in fantasy basketball.

I first rolled out this column last year, far too late into the draft season to help a lot of owners.  This year I'm not making the same mistake.  Here's my rehashed overview of the basics of punting, with player names and projected first round updated for the 2016-17 season.

Editor's Note: RotoBaller has the best Premium NBA Subscription, only $29.99 for the full season. We have all the preseason tools to help win your drafts, and in-season tools to win your seasonal and daily leagues: Draft Kit, Premium Rankings, Sleepers List, Late-Round Fliers, Early-Round Avoids, DFS Cheat Sheets, Lineup Picks, Expert Lineups, Stacks and Avoids.

 

Intro

When it comes to head-to-head category leagues, you'll hear a lot of people talk about punting categories.  But that's easier said than done.  I see new and casual players on Reddit's fantasy basketball subreddit asking all the time "How do I punt?" or "What categories should I punt?"  My answer is usually it depends on your league (number of categories, opponents, what players your basing your team around).  But I will try my best here to give a general answer to the question of how in the name of Tress Way's towel-burning mom do you punt?

 

What is punting?

First things first, something that may seem obvious to experienced managers, but isn't so clear if you've never punted before.  Punting is a strategy of completely giving up on one or more categories in a head to head category league in order to select players who maximize your team's strengths in other categories.  For example, by electing to give up on winning FT%, you can build a team that features Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Dwight Howard to absolutely dominate in rebounds, blocks, and FG%.

 

Can I punt if I'm not in a H2H category league?

In roto leagues you should almost never punt.  It's almost always better to try to compete in every category.  Even if you're not great somewhere, getting 4 or 5 points instead of 1 point for a category is a big deal in the final standings.  I did say "almost" in those sentences because I can see a scenario in an extremely strong league where a punting gambit could work.  But I'm talking a god-level expert league where everyone fights and scraps for points in the standings to the bitter end.  High-level roto punting strategies have been famously pulled off in baseball before.  But such strategies absolutely require top-to-bottom active owners to work -- they will backfire spectacularly if just one or two owners get lazy about their teams allowing your domination everywhere else to be not-so-dominant over competitive owners.  It's best to ignore punting as a strategy in 99.99% of roto leagues.

Meanwhile, you literally cannot punt in a points league.  Points leagues may seem like they have lots of "categories" because they use the same stats you see in category leagues (points, assists, steals, etc.) to figure out the scoring.  But really, the only have one category -- fantasy points.  It doesn't matter how you get them, but you obviously should not punt them if you are hoping to achieve winning results.

 

How many categories should I punt?

Advanced owners can tell stories about punting three or four categories in a league, but you should really know what you're doing before trying to pull that off.  Your draft has to be perfect for it.  As a punting beginner, I'd suggest punting just one or two categories, while attempting to be extremely strong in five and at least semi-competitive in the other two or three.

 

How do I decide what categories to punt?

Let's say you are getting ready for your head-to-head category league snake draft this weekend and you want to try to employ a punting strategy.

If you were doing an auction draft, you could practically pick what you wanted to punt before the draft, if you knew other people weren't going to employ the same strategy and bid up key players.  In a snake draft, though, you can't just decide you're going to punt FT% then end up taking DeAndre Jordan 5th overall.  He may technically have have top 5 value to team punting FT%, but it's a massive waste of draft capital.

Even if you aim to punt categories, your goal in the draft is still to maximize the value of your picks by taking guys close to their overall value, then getting surplus value based on how they fit into your punt strategy.  Assuming the first four picks are Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant (in some order), you should still be looking at Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, or Kawhi Leonard with the 5th pick, and not blowing it on DeAndre Jordan.

You should be deciding what to punt sometime after making that first pick, with your second and third picks really committing you on a punt strategy.  To that effect, let's take a look at a typical first round and what categories you could choose to punt with each player.  Please note that the draft order is based on current Yahoo! default rankings as of 9/14/2016, and second round pick suggestions are made with the default rankings in mind.  This column is to get you into the thought process of punting, and I haven't put a lot of effort into ranking/valuing players.

 

A punting strategy for every first round pick

1) Kevin Durant (SF/PF, OKC)

Sometimes punt: STL, TO
Rarely punt: BLK
Never punt: PTS, AST, REB, 3PM, FT%, FG%

For the same reason Durant's such a roto-friendly guy (across the stat-line contributions), he's also one of the hardest guys to build a punt around.  The easiest punt with him will likely by TO, since he'll produce more than a normal player filling your SF/PF spot.  You could also punt steals, too -- he gets an okay amount of them, but it's one of the lowest totals of any of these projected first rounders.  It's plausible to punt blocks, too, but his 1.2 blocks per game is actually quite nice for a SF-eligible player.  I certainly wouldn't start targeting a punt with him immediately.  It is probably best to roll with a more balanced team if you are building around KD, unless you organically start finding yourself low in one of the defensive categories after a few rounds.

2) Stephen Curry (PG/SG, GSW)

Aim to punt: BLK, FT%
Sometimes punt: TO, REB
Rarely punt: FG%
Never punt: STL, AST, 3PM, PTS

Curry has a lot more interesting punt strategies that work with him than Durant does.  You could punt his one major weaknesses -- blocks.  But, perhaps counter-intuitively, he works well with a FT% punt strategy.  You're wasting a little bit of very good FT shooting for sure, but he doesn't take that many attempts and generally all point guards will give you good free throw shooting you'd have to waste in a punt.  Point guard is usually one of the harder positions to fit into a FT% punting strategy because so many of them are bad FG% shooters who you generally don't want on your roster (if you're punting one percentage, you want to always be winning the other).  Threes can also be hard to amass without hurting your FG%.

Curry fills your PG spot, he can single-handedly keep even a big-man heavy roster competitive in threes, and he can put up a plus FG%.  He also has a high steals rate, which is another hard fought category when you're punting FT%.  He allows for a rare strategy where you're only truly punting FT%, and not also punting assists or threes.  Based on current Yahoo! rankings, you could plausibly combine Curry with Derrick Favors (26) and Blake Griffin (27) in the 2nd and 3rd (note: I'd prefer Blake of the two in a FT% build, for his assists), while still getting DeAndre Jordan (71) and Andre Drummond (73) in 4th and 5th, for an elite FT% punting team.  In practice, due to the popularity of FT% punting, you might have to reach a bit with your second or third rounder to take Jordan, though, and hope to nab Dwight Howard (75) along with Drummond at 4/5.

3) James Harden (SG/SF, HOU)

Aim to punt: TO, FG%, BLK
Sometimes punt: REB
Never punt: PTS, FT%, 3PM, STL, AST

James Harden is one of the most punt-friendly first rounders there is.  The obvious thing to punt in 9 category leagues with Harden is turnovers.  He makes a ton of them, and occupies a wing spot on your team where you don't usually get that many turnovers.  If I get Harden, I like to double-down on high turnover guys throughout the draft -- give me Nicolas Batum, Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Elfrid Payton, and D'Angelo Russell -- knowing I'll crush it in other counting stats with these high usage studs.

Harden also fits extremely well with a FG% punting strategy.  You could stick him at SF in Yahoo! leagues and pile on guards alongside big men who sacrifice FG% for either more threes (Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson, Nikola Mirotic) or even assists (Ben Simmons, who qualifies at SF and PF on Yahoo).  Lining up extremely well for a FG% punt play with Harden are projected late 2nd / early 3rd players like Love (31), Carmelo Anthony (24), and Kristaps Porzingis (28), who would stack up tons of counting stats and a top notch FT%, and allow you to save all your starting guard spots with later round guards you can get cheap because of poor FG%.  Since Harden can fill a SF or F spot, you can also afford to make a luxury pick on a stud PG there, too, with Kemba Walker (33) being a prime candidate for an elite FG% punt.

4) Russell Westbrook (PG, OKC)

Aim to punt: FG%, TO
Sometimes punt: BLK
Rarely punt: 3PM
Never punt: PTS, AST, REB, STL, FT%

Last year, I went into the season calling Westbrook an "extremely high volume, low FG% point guard."  He ended up surprising, showing true improvement in his overall game and posting a very solid .452 FG% -- which is about average, and nothing to punt about.  But here we are again, now that Kevin Durant has left.  I wrote about the situation in Oklahoma City a couple months back, and talked about what Westbrook's stats might looks like in a post-Durant world.

The key takeaway was this -- if you're banking on something close to his 31 point / 8.8 rebound / 9.9 assist average from the 2014-15 stretch run after KD went down, you should also be expecting a .417 FG% and 5+ TO, making those categories you are almost locked into punting.  I don't think his FG% and TO will end up being THAT bad, but his counting stats won't be that good, either -- the simple reason for those assumptions is that his teammates this year, even post-Durant, will still be much better than the dumpster-fire supporting cast he was riding with in the 2014-15 stretch run.

Even if his FG% is in the .420s or .430s, it'll still make a nice category to punt due as an overall minus at an extremely high volume.  With him, you're looking at some of the same guys as with Harden in the second round, to fill in your big man spots with elite counting stat guys with sub par FG% -- Love, Carmelo, and Porzingis.  Since Westbrook is already filling a PG spot, and you'll have plenty of PGs to choose from late, you should really try to stick with a couple of those big men, though, and only double-up on PG if they're all off the table.

5) Anthony Davis (PF/C, NOP)

Sometimes punt: AST, 3PM
Rarely punt: STL
Never punt: FG%, FT%, REB, BLK, TO, PTS

AD, like KD, is very difficult to punt with. Unless your league scores "games played" as a category and you're intending to punt that.  You obviously aren't going to be punting FG%, rebounds, or blocks with Brow.  He's a very good FT% shooter for PF/C.  He's a huge scoring threat.  He gets steals and doesn't turn the ball over.  He even projects to be an okay passer and three point shooter for a C eligible player, so he doesn't exactly scream a punt there.

The best possible punt with AD is likely going to be assists.  If you end up with Klay Thompson (23) or a big man like Paul Millsap (18), Al Horford (19), or LaMarcus Aldridge (23) in the 2nd round, you can start thinking about an assist punt to avoid point guards for the most part avoid TO and keep your FG% strong.  If you end up with a point guard like Kyle Lowry (20) or Kyrie Irving (21), though, it's going to hard to come up with a good category for you to punt, and you're better off walking the line as a balanced team.

6) Kawhi Leonard (SG/SF, SAS)

Aim to punt: AST
Sometimes punt: BLK
Rarely punt: PTS, FT%, 3PM, REB
Never punt: FG%, STL, TO

Kawhi is extremely well-rounded, so he's not a great basis for hardcore multi-category punts.  But he is a great fit in a single-category punt of assist.  The reason for this is how much he maximizes the overall value of one of your starting guard spots outside of assists.  If you combine strong two wings with low assists, you've got two of your guard spots filled with all kinds of stats, with only point guard to go.  You can then draft big after big after big to fill the forward, center, and utility spots, while snagging a more shot-happy PG-eligible player like Zach LaVine or Jordan Clarkson in the mid-to-late rounds.

Last year, this strategy worked amazingly well, since you could often get Leonard late in the first round and basically always pair him with one of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Klay Thompson.  This year, you won't be able to get Butler or George on the same team as Kawhi (ironically in large part because they improved their stock in assists).  George doesn't even count as a SG anymore on Yahoo!, so the whole strategy is bust with him.  To do it with Kawhi, you have to be confident in either reaching a bit for Klay Thompson in the middle of 2nd, or putting off your second wing a bit -- perhaps betting on with your 4th round pick on that Andrew Wiggins breakout finally coming (a bit high of a pick for my tastes, but an okay reach in an assists punt).  That's assuming you're not in one those leagues with one of those Canadian lunatics who will take Wiggins in the 2nd or 3rd.

7) Chris Paul (PG, LAC)

Aim to punt: REB, BLK, PTS, 3PM, FT%
Rarely punt: FG%
Never punt: AST, STL, TO

Chris Paul is one of my favorites for a number of punt strategies.  He's such a valuable team-building piece.  I might be the only person in the world who's not convinced that Russell Westbrook's going to be a better fantasy player than him yet.  There's really only three categories where it never makes sense to punt with CP3 -- assists, steals, and turnovers.  It rarely makes sense to punt FG%, either, because like Curry, he's such a big plus there as a PG.

You can have fun, elsewhere though.  He can be the basis of a dominant pass-score-steal-shoot-FT% team that punts rebounds and/or blocks.  He can fit into a FT% punt team in the same counter-intuitive way as Curry (see above).  He is also one of the only two projected first round picks who averaged under 20 points per game last year, so you could punt points with him.  In that case, you could target Draymond Green (16) or Al Horford (19) in the second round.  Finally, he doesn't shoot a ton of threes, so he can pair well with a bunch of big men and other guards who don't shoot a ton of threes (like Jeff Teague or Dwyane Wade).  If it somehow lines up that you can pair Paul with Hassan Whiteside (14) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (15) -- which can happen in 10 team leagues or if other owners let Paul slide closer to the end of the first -- then punting treys would start looking pretty amazing.

8) Karl-Anthony Towns (C, MIN)

Aim to punt: STL
Sometimes punt: 3PM, AST
Rarely punt: PTS
Never punt: FG%, FT%, REB, BLK, TO

The prognosis on punting with Towns is similar to doing so with Anthony Davis (see above), with one exception -- Towns is below average when it comes to grabbing steals, with a rate of only 0.7 steals per game last year.  Pairing him with Hassan Whiteside would give you a dominant blocks / low steals team.  You can fill it out from there to become competitive in assists and threes.  Lining him up with Antetokuonmpo would make sense to turn into a 3PM punt, as well.

9) Jimmy Butler (SG/SF, CHI)

Aim to punt: AST, BLK, FG%
Sometimes punt: 3PM, REB, PTS
Never punt: FT%, STL, TO

Butler makes a nice option as a guy to fill your SF spot on a team punting BLKs and/or FG%. Pairing him with an elite PG like John Wall, Damian Lillard, or Giannis Antetokounmpo would lend itself to this strategy.  Butler does pass exceptionally well for a wing, but he's still not going to get elite level assists on a team with Rajon Rondo sucking all the air out of the passing game.  You could pair him with a big like Whiteside or DeMarcus Cousins to get a strong start on an assists punt play, similar to what I described above with Kawhi Leonard.

10) Paul George (SF/PF, IND)

Aim to punt: FG%
Sometimes punt: TO, BLK, REB
Rarely punt: AST
Never punt: PTS, FT%, 3PM, STL

It's amazing how much position eligibility matters.  As a guard eligible player, his 4 assists a game were easy to punt for how much else he could provide at the guard position.  In a SF or PF spot, those assists are now much more of an asset.  Not to mention his low FG% there becomes an even bigger deal than it was at a guard spot, making it such an obvious punt that you'll be swimming in guards getting you assists.

Best case scenario with George is you can pair him with one of John Wall or Damian Lillard for a monster FG% punt.  DeMarcus Cousins makes an excellent consolation prize if you miss out on one of those two guys.  I don't see a lot of other obvious punts here.  I will say if you take either of the other obvious top of the 2nd round guys to pair with George -- Whiteside or Giannis -- you're better off not punting anything.

11) LeBron James (SF/PF, CLE)

Aim to punt: BLK, FT%
Sometimes punt: REB, 3PM, TO
Rarely punt: STL
Never punt: PTS, FG%, AST

LeBron works well out of a PF/F spot when you're punting blocks (or even rebounds if you're going all-in on small stats).  Pair him with one Wall or Lillard and you're on your way.  He'd be a better FT% punt if he could play a G spot with these stats, but he's a decent fit into the SF spot.  I like the idea of pairing him with Antetokuonmpo this year for massive assists with a good FG%. With their so-so FT%, you can try to grab a couple of the DeAndre-Drummond-Howard group in the 3rd and 4th for a full FT% punt. You could also end up punting 3PM in the process, which is no big loss for LeBron's 3PM totals.  A turnover punt is not as great as it once was for LeBron as his offensive load has lessened, but if you're in love with the idea of having a LeBron-Boogie starting duo, a turnover punt is probably the way to go.

12) Damian Lillard (PG, POR)

Aim to punt: STL, FG%
Sometimes punt: REB, BLK, TO
Never punt: FT%, PTS, AST, 3PM

The default rankings currently have Lillard and John Wall at 12-13, which would seem to make an ideal FG% punt pairing.  The trouble, in practice, is filling out the rest of your lineup.  You won't have as many spots you can use for the late round steals you can get in the "point guard with a crappy FG%" department.  Plus there's the question of how you're going to compete in rebounds or blocks, and if you'll also completely tank in turnovers.  A much safer, and much cleaner, pairing at the end of the first is Lillard and 14th ranked Hassan Whiteside.  They perfectly balance each other's strengths and weaknesses in 8 of the 9 categories, while each brings below average production for their position in steals, so you can punt to your heart's content.

 

Okay, I have my 1st rounder and a complementary 2nd rounder -- now what?

In the mid rounds, you generally attack players at the core positions who fit your strategies.  If you're not finding a great value based on ADP at a given pick, don't be afraid to reach on someone a little higher than their rank suggests.  Players that fit your punt are worth more to you in this strategy and the absolute difference in value between picks gets lower the later you get in the draft.

Here is a list of some mid-round (3rd - 8th round) players whose values rise significantly when punting each stat:

Points

Nikola Jokic, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, Trevor Ariza, Rudy Gobert, Nerlens Noel, Andrew Bogut

Threes

DeMar DeRozan, Thaddeus Young, Jabari Parker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ben Simmons, Dwyane Wade, Evan Turner, most PF/C

Rebounds

Khris Middleton, Evan Fournier, Danilo Gallinari, Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons, Serge Ibaka, Rodney Hood, Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki, most PG

Assists

Jordan Clarkson, Avery Bradley, Zach LaVine, Jae Crowder, Marvin Williams, Gary Harris, Danny Green, Robert Covington, J.J. Redick, most PF/C

Steals

Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol, Enes Kanter, Kevin Love, Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick, Danilo Gallinari, Reggie Jackson, Devin Booker, Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez

Blocks

Blake Griffin, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Evan Fournier, Khris Middleton, Enes Kanter, Harrison Barnes, Ryan Anderson, most PG/SG

FG%

Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Love, Nikola Mirotic, Jae Crowder, Gordon Hayward, Ryan Anderson, Nicolas Batum, Dirk Nowitzki, Danilo Gallinari, DeMar DeRozan, Robert Covington, Jeremy Lin, Emmanuel Mudiay

FT%

Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Rudy Gobert, Elfrid Payton, Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Clint Capela, Steven Adams, Aaron Gordon

Turnovers

Nicolas Batum, Khris Middleton, Victor Oladipo, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay, Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins, most PG

Once you have the basis of your team, you can either fill empty spots with specialists in the weakest categories you're still competing in, or snag those late round studs who are worthless if you aren't punting (ie, Mason Plumlee in a FT% punt or Marcus Smart in a FG% punt).  But the bottom of your roster isn't a big deal in the draft, since you'll be using it to snag breakout stars or stream players in good match-ups.  You can even still draft for maximum upside regardless of how well a guy fits in your punt system, in hope you'll get someone valuable in a potential trade.

So that's it!  You've got a team built to punt.  You can't just rest on your laurels to win -- you still have to game the waiver wire and watch your matchup for opportunities to steal a category throughout the year.  But this is a good start on the rewarding road to losing a little a bit to win a lot in fantasy basketball.