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Fantasy Basketball Strategy: Valuing Players Differently in Roto vs. H2H

I spend a lot of time thinking about the underlying structure and theory of almost any game I end up playing.  Fantasy basketball is no exception.  I think that if you want to win in fantasy basketball it's more important to know how the game of fantasy basketball works than it is to understand how real basketball works.  This is why people who win in fantasy basketball are generally somewhat nerdy fans and not NBA players or head coaches (who often don't have a clue how fantasy games work).

In this particular piece of fantasy basketball theory-crafting I'm going to talk about how some of the structural differences between rotisserie (roto) and head-to-head (H2H) leagues can radically affect the value of different types of players.

There are two obvious differences between roto and H2H category-based fantasy basketball leagues.  First, roto leagues count every game of the regular season equally on the same scale, while H2H leagues count games week-by-week, with the games coming in the final few weeks of the fantasy season (the playoffs) taking out-sized importance.  Second, in order to prevent running up counting stats by adding and dropping players every day (streaming), there is usually a games played cap in roto, while there is a weekly transactions cap in H2H.

Each of these differences may be "no duh" to anyone who's played any amount of fantasy basketball. However, they have major implications that I have found fantasy managers are often not following to their logical conclusions when it comes to strategy and player valuation.  The three implications I'll look at today are the effect of playing time, the effect of being good all around or being great in a few categories, and the value of efficiency.


The Power of Playing Time

The first major difference comes in the form of how much injury risk and likelihood of games off due to rest impact a player's value in each format.  In H2H, you can (and should) try to have as many games played by your team in a week.  The more games played, the more counting stats you get, the more categories you win.  Obviously, you will sometimes leave guys on the bench to try to win a close matchup in turnovers or one of the percentages, but for the most part it's all hands on deck in your weekly matchup.  You only the get the games played by the players on your active roster, plus any additional games you can add by using your weekly transactions.

Because of this, any games missed, whether by injury or by rest -- especially by a star player -- will have a big impact on your weekly matchup.  This is especially killer if these games missed are in the fantasy playoffs.  This is why players on super teams who are liable to see rest -- think Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and LaMarcus Aldridge -- have their value hurt in H2H leagues, while players less likely to rest because they have to carry borderline playoff teams -- think Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Andre Drummond -- are more valuable.  Those games missed can't be replaced in your matchups.

Roto leagues, on the other hand, don't have some part of the calendar where you have to worry about losing it all if one of your guys takes a day off.  So guys injured or resting in March don't kill your fantasy championship hopes.  Also, because there are a limited number of games by each starting spot (82 games in default leagues), you aren't using your whole bench every day to max out games played.  Your bench actually becomes the "replacement level" of games that fill in for any time missed by your starters.

Contrast that with H2H leagues.  If you assume 10 man starting lineups with 3 man benches, in a H2H league you're using all 13 guys for every game except on the occasional days where you have more than 10 of your players involved in an NBA game that night.  If a guy rests a game, you're not able to replace it (assuming you don't want to drop him and you were already using your transactions to stream as it was).

In a roto leagues, on the other hand, you're basically using your 10 best players as much as they can play, and if they miss a game, you then can use your 11th best player to fill in.  So you're not only able to replace games missed by your stars, you often can do so with a halfway decent player you've been keeping in reserve (and not just some waiver-wire schlub).  You're also not wasting anything to keep an injured player in a bench spot, because you're not using every player on your bench every game.  Thus games missed in roto tend to have less of an effect.

In roto leagues you should be more willing to take a chance on guys with some risks who are awesome on a per game basis, like Anthony Davis or Eric Bledsoe. You can fill in for them with better talent, and whatever production you get out of them will count to the final standings. In H2H leagues, you should stick with guys without health concerns who rarely get rested, like Paul Millsap or Isaiah Thomas. The production you'd replace injured players with is inferior, and you don't want any additional risk of a guy not being there when it counts in the fantasy playoffs.


Punting is Powerful; Punting is Deadly

Even if you're playing with the same nine categories in a H2H league as you might be in a roto league, the way a player contributes in those categories can have radically different values in each format. Most fantasy owners have heard of punting, which is a strategy of completely giving up one category every week in a H2H league in order to have incredible strength in many of the other categories.

Punting does not work at all in any normal roto league, where you can't afford to completely disregard a player's contributions any one category. The reasons for this are rooted in the very structure of the formats. Punting a category in a H2H league costs you just one category a week, while your gains elsewhere can make up for it.  Punting a category in roto costs you 1/9 of the possible points in the standings, with the gains elsewhere not doing nearly enough.

Consider the incentive structure, too.  In a roto league, you have to finish with the most total roto points to win the league.  Surrendering any roto points in a certain category is never worth it.  You have to fight for every last point.  Even if you're not great in a certain category, it's still better to get 2 or 3 points there instead of just 1.  Meanwhile, in a head-to-head league, all you have to do is make the playoffs and be capable of beating any team you face there.  It doesn't matter if you were only winning 5-4 every week because your team is all big men and you're punting FT%, 3PM, and AST.  As long as you squeak into the playoffs and keep winning 5-4 there, you'll earn yourself a trophy.

Players who see a boost in roto are guys who have well-rounded value with few outright weaknesses, like Kawhi Leonard or Marvin Williams. Players significantly more valuable in H2H are players who have gaping holes in categories you can punt, or who otherwise bring high value concentrated in a few categories, like Andre Drummond or Ricky Rubio.


Percentage Prince or Percentage Pauper?

The percentages -- FG% and FT% -- in particular are two categories it is doubly important never to sacrifice in roto leagues.  This comes from an unfortunate reality of any roto league you'll ever play in.  By the second half of the season, if an owner's team is stuck way down in last place with little hope to crawl out of the basement, they'll spend a little less time on their team.  They might not work hard on maxing out their games played or fighting for close categories.  They might just abandon their team with a bunch of injured guys in their lineup.

At the end of the year, all the competitive teams will be able to pass these cellar dwellers in all or most of the counting stats.  That results in a spread of only 4 or 5 points in the standings between the top teams in the counting stats, since they're all bunched together ahead of the cellar dwellers.

However, those bad teams at the bottom are still often going to have okay percentages.  Fewer games played aren't going to affect that.  As a result, the spread between competitive teams in those categories will end up much wider.  You don't want to be the guy trailing even the cellar dwellers in one or both of the percentages and giving up 9 or 10 points there to competitive teams that have put a focus on having good percentages.  You want to be the guy who strove for great percentages for the whole time, where you can really build up an edge against the other competitive teams.

Meanwhile, I would make the argument that the percentages are less important than other categories in H2H leagues.  For one thing, it doesn't really matter if you're doing worse than the bad teams in a category, so long as you're still winning matchups against the good teams.  See the section on punting.  But more than that, the flipside of the popularity of punting in H2H is that you're often being handed one of percentages for free by good opponents anyway.  You can scrimp a little on your percentages even if you're not punting them. It's worth it to build up more strength in the categories that are tricky to punt which are the ones swinging close matchups -- categories like points or steals, for example.

Guys who are much more valuable in roto because of the value of hoarding good percentages are LaMarcus Aldridge, Gorgui Dieng, and J.J. Redick.  Guys who are borderline unusable because of their percentages in roto who become quite useful in H2H leagues are Elfrid Payton, Emmanuel Mudiay, J.R. Smith, and the obvious terrible FT% trio of Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Dwight Howard.


I could really keep going about this, but this will have to do as a primer on some of the theory behind why I treat H2H and roto fantasy basketball like two different games.  In upcoming strategy pieces I hope to revisit punting strategy for the 2016-17 season (an update on a piece I did last year) and to discuss how to counter effective punting from other teams.


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