Sports

Fantasy basketball: How to overcome the bite of the injury bug

Fantasyland… I feel your pain.

No. I mean I literally feel your pain. It’s something we empaths do.

And right now, I feel your pain in your questions. Comments. Posts. The occasional DM.

How do we maintain? Compete in the face of mass injury?

2021-22 was supposed to be our return to normalcy. But instead? A single day’s injury report feels like an end-of-week wrap-up. And it’s not the little questionable-to-probable aches and pains (though those are spiking too.) We’re talking high-impact injuries to high-impact fantasy producers. (Michael Porter Jr… we were gonna be beautiful.)

All of those plans we made on Halloween. Our cornerstone stars. Our breakout sure-fire-things. Our sleepers. Our real sleepers (players no one was talking up as a “sleeper.”) Endgame dart throws. All of that mindful construction is getting thwacked by the almighty random.

As a demonstration, I’ll pull up today’s NBA injury report, list the first 10 that have fantasy impact in alphabetical order, and see how far I get:

Bam Adebayo – thumb surgery, out for a month; Kyle Anderson – back, game-time decision (the annoying GTD); OG Anunoby – Hip, maybe back in a couple weeks (hips are tricky); LaMelo Ball – Health & Safety Protocols; Harrison Barnes – foot, should be back in the next game or two (But that foot issue could linger); Patrick Beverley – Groin, GTD; Bogdan Bogdanovic – ankle, with his history assume out until New Year’s Day; Devin Booker – hamstring, GTD; Jaylen Brown – hamstring, GTD

We were just a Thomas Bryant (ACL) and Jimmy Butler (back) away from getting through the Bs. And if I went all the way down to Cody Zeller (quad), I’d be pushing 60 fantasy-worthy injuries.

So… I feel your fantasy pain. I understand your fantasy pain. I honor your fantasy pain… regarding all this real-life NBA pain.

If I were DMing with you, I would advise you that the new normal is normal. (And have a little empathy for these players, coaches, referees and all their families. We are all making our way through a lingering worldwide condition. And it’s the holidays, for crying out loud.)

How does that apply to OG Anunoby’s hip? Well. If you’ve ever dealt with any lingering health issue with yourself or your family, friends, teammates or co-worker… you know that it’s not just about planning for the person with said issue. A mindful manager/spouse/parent/fantasy manager also has to game out the shockwaves of said issue. The effect of others overextending to add bandwith.

In my experience, a painful event arrives like a rock splashing into a pool; the splash gets all our attention, but the little waves caused by all that sudden displacement subtly register with a broader effect.

And that is what we see with the NBA. All of those back-to-back-to-backs last year are bringing us the check. It’s generated a cycle. Because while one player was out of action, other players overproduced to fill the gaps. And so, over time, those people get ground down.

But what can we do? Pack up our spreadsheets and wait a decade?

No. I need my geeky hobbies. (More importantly, I need my cost-effective geeky hobbies. Collecting vintage vinyl heat and grailworthy Sports Specialties caps are not conducive to fortifying one’s savings account.)

So do what I do.

Pretend it’s football.

Cover your ears, Dr. Naismith. I now approach my various fantasy hoops collectives with a fantasy football mindset.

And in fantasy football, I am one of the great masters of in-season roster adjustment.

When I draft in fantasy football? Yeah, I’m present in the moment. Mentally focused. Fully matchafied.

But a good third of my brain is already thinking ahead to my week two waiver wire bids. Identifying the top backup running backs. Tracking the players who possess the highest fantasy upside, at the scarcest positions… but have the least amount of immediate opportunity.

And I don’t sit on my FAAB waiting for the golden ticket. Some magical Week 9 add who costs $99 and sets my league on its ear with my presumed genius. That’s myopic FAAB management — an unwillingness to look ahead. Just wanting to impress, and letting all that get in the way of your optimal result.

In football, I spend fast and hard and early. Because I know that A) random injuries hit teams every week B) byes are guaranteed C) adding the extra game means more injury risk D) it’s better to gamble on difference-makers in the first half of a season, so they add more long-term value and E) I’m still keeping one bench spot open for what I call “my farm team”; off-radar, high-upside adds no one’s even thinking about, who cost me $0.

In football, I view a successful draft as a draft that places my squad in playoff contention… optimally to gain a first-round bye. (The bye, by far, is the most important thing. Because each playoff matchup is a coin flip.)

I’m like Bill Belichick with an extra dog under the dining room table. I inspect my post-draft roster and think, “don’t get too attached.” Because I know 30%-50% of my roster will be different by the end of the season.

In fantasy football, I relish maneuvering on the wire more than anything. Pure natural selection is the approach that’s delivered the most success. In terms of a daily management approach, simply looking at injury reports, the wire, and then applying long-term strategies is the best use of my geek bandwith. And it is working in basketball.

(And yes. Trades also work in my philosophy’s favor. But I don’t approach transactions in terms of fleecing another manager. I like trades to be equitable and mutually beneficial. Because this is a hobby, and IMO making others feel cheated should not be a primary aim. No Roto Honor in that.)

One wrinkle I emphasize in basketball is scarcity because scarcity means so much more on a hoops wire.

There are fewer game-changing adds than in football; there are far fewer cases of a player coming out of nowhere to deliver first or second-round value.

In football, you’re just looking for adds that deliver sudden spikes in touches/targets, regardless of position or category. If there’s a real difference-maker to be had, you will figure out how to fit them into your lineup.

In basketball, finding sudden one-player season-altering spikes like on the wire is tougher because so much attention is drawn to possession and points. Especially early in the season.

If you’re in a points league, think positional scarcity. The way the stats by position are shaking out? If the fantasy point production is equal, go for wing players. SG/SF if possible. In 2021-22, there’s a lack of fantasy depth in both slots.

If you’re in roto, categorical scarcity means much, much more. Certain categories tend to be more available on the wire. Last year, I would have said 3s are devalued too to overabundance, but the rule changes are causing a shift. You see a lot of mid-range, low-post, non-3 dependent producers rise in value.

And you have the time factor. It’s better to build an advantage in the more significant sample-size categories like the percentages. Later in the year, steals and blocks offer more immediate impact.

In terms of “farm team” adds?

In hoops, a “farm team” benefits tend to arrive after All-Star Weekend. Because in basketball, we also have the power of The Process.

Teams that pack it in and start giving medium-upside players high-upside minutes and touches. Each fantasy season will offer 5-10 players who offer game-changing production in the endgame stage.

So that’s one way to plan. Keep the teams who are bound to tank or blow it up (like you’re hearing about the Pacers over the past 24 hours). A rebuild means in-season wire opportunity. Oklahoma City (ironically, the healthiest team in the NBA at present) is a good example. On a contender, Josh Giddey would have trouble cracking the rotation. In OKC, he’s starting and delivering… in an elliptical way, but numbers are numbers.

Don’t get too caught up in the Kawhis and Zions of this dynamic. They are attention-grabbers. But their returns are in the middle distance. Murky.

It’s fun to think about adding a first-rounder to your squad mid-season. But these are high-risk, high-upside uses of your most valuable fantasy asset: your time.

You only have so much time to spend on your fantasy life before reality intrudes. And you’re better off thinking about who stands to gain if Indiana presses down on the plunger and trades Domantas Sabonis and/or Myles Turner (Chris Duarte, btw).

Don’t be the manager who says “injuries crushed my team.” The NBA season is long. There is a great deal of low-cost fun waiting to be had.

It’s like one of my hats tells me: The NBA… it’s Fantastic.

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