How to navigate Fantasy Basketball Category leagues in 2020-21

Yahoo Sports Fantasy Staff
·10 min read

By Alex Rikleen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

For a guide on Points leagues, click here.

Congratulations! You’re doing a category-based fantasy basketball league. Admittedly, it's my favorite format. Let's dive into how to build a competitive squad.

Now that you’re playing in a category-based league, what strategies do you need to know? How can you best prepare yourself for domination? We’re here to help.

Know Your League’s Settings

Almost all category leagues are either “8-cat” (eight default categories) or “9-cat” (nine default categories). The eight default categories are points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, threes, field-goal percentage, and free-throw percentage. Turnovers are the ninth default and are usually the only difference between 8-cat and 9-cat leagues.

Generally speaking, the fantasy community has been shifting towards the use of 8-cat over 9-cat in recent years, but both settings remain very common.

Some analysts recommend ignoring turnovers on draft day, even if you’re in a 9-category league. I think that’s going a step too far, but I agree that they should not be a primary consideration.

A few things to remember if you play in a 9-cat league:

  • High-usage guards tend to be turnover machines. Four players averaged at least 4.0 turnovers per game last season: Trae Young, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Luka Doncic.

  • Rookies tend to be particularly turnover prone — especially rookie ball-handlers. This season, that means LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes, Anthony Edwards, and Cole Anthony are the rookies to watch out for.

Catch-and-shoot specialists (think Duncan Robinson) and big men who don’t pass (think Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Mitchell Robinson) tend to see the biggest boosts in 9-cat value.

Occasionally, league commissioners experiment with some other category options. Some of the most common alternatives are double-doubles, triple-doubles, splitting offensive and defensive rebounds into two categories, or changing the way field goal efficiency is measured (i.e., counting made field goals, made free throws, eFG%, TS%, or some combination thereof). If you play in one of these leagues with atypical categories, the most important thing to remember is that most fantasy advice is not tailored for your leagues. There is still a lot to gain and a lot to be learned from articles, tweets, podcasts, etc., but remember that the vast majority of fantasy advice assumes that you’re playing in either 8-cat or 9-cat.

Weekly vs. Daily Lineups

This isn’t special to category-based leagues, but fantasy managers need to know whether they set lineups every day or once a week, as well as whether or not they have an IR spot. Managers in weekly lineups leagues or leagues without an IR spot need to be more cautious on draft day. Someone like Kawhi Leonard or Kristaps Porzingis, who are more likely than the average player to miss games on short notice, do more damage in a weekly lineup league than a daily lineups league. In a daily lineups league, you still feel their absences, but at least you’re able to plug another player into your lineup.

Similarly, Kyrie Irving is one of the best guards in fantasy basketball, but he usually misses a few weeks — if not more — each season due to injury. That injury is easier to wait out if your roster has an IR spot, where you can stash Irving without having to sacrifice a spot on your active roster. Most leagues only grant one or two IR spots, though, so be sure not to stack your team with too many high-risk-of-injury players.

Roto vs. Head-to-Head

This is the big one. In a H2H (head-to-head) league, you face off against one team per week; it’s your categories against your opponent’s. Whichever side wins the most categories over the course of the week wins the matchup.

In H2H leagues, the teams with the best records qualify for the playoffs, and the champion is the winner of the playoff tournament. In roto (short for rotisserie), teams compete against the entire league throughout the season — there are no individual, weekly matchups. In a 12-team league, for instance, the leader in a given category gains 12 points, second place gets 11, third place gets 10, and so on until last place gets a single point. The champion is the team with the most cumulative points on the final day of the season.

The most important difference between H2H and roto is that punting (deliberately ignoring one or two categories, so that you can build an extra-strong team in the remaining categories) usually leads to different results. In H2H, a well-crafted punt-build can be highly effective. In fact, I actively recommend the strategy. However, in roto, punting successfully is much harder.

Let’s get into specifics, just so you can fully appreciate how difficult it is to win a roto league while punting. In a 12-team nine-category league, the winning team will probably score at least 85 points, if not more. If you’re starting the season by accepting just one point in a category, then you need to average 10.5 points across the other eight categories to score 85 points; 10.5 points is what you get for finishing tied-for-second in a category. It’s not impossible, but it is very, very difficult.

Category Scarcity

Taking a look at each of the traditional categories, here is a basic breakdown:

Very scarce

Blocks and assists tend to be the scarcest categories, and the two hardest to find after the draft. Most of the NBA’s top assists producers are elite point guards, with a few notable exceptions — Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a few others. All of the non-point-guard assists leaders are going to get drafted, and most of them will go in the first couple of rounds. When a point guard becomes worthy of acquisition off the waiver wire, they rarely are high-impact passers.

Similarly, there will be some shot-blocking big men who emerge off waivers as the season rolls along. But, as with assists, those players rarely block enough shots to make a major impact. As with assists, most of the best shot-blockers will all get drafted in the first couple of rounds. In category leagues, it’s especially important to be mindful of these two statistics.

Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (15)
Nikola Jokic is one of the true unicorns of fantasy basketball. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Less scarce

Rebounds and three-pointers are on the opposite end of the spectrum, especially as the league continues to attempt more and more threes each season. While the list of elite rebounders tends to remain pretty steady from year to year, there are always several big men who emerge early in the season as reliable sources of boards. Furthermore, as big men get hurt, their backups usually step in and provide a decent facsimile of the starter’s rebounding load.

Threes are a slightly different story, but the results are the same. As the total number of threes continues to increase year over year, finding quality three-point shooters later in drafts has become easier and easier. Every season, a few players emerge as semi-surprising additions to the threes-per-game leaderboard. Last year, it was Duncan Robinson and Devonte’ Graham, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in total made threes.

Perhaps more importantly, due to the streaky nature of long-range shooting, managers who remain active on the waiver wire can usually find a few players going through a hot streak and averaging several made threes per game. While the near-constant presence of these waiver wire pickups is helpful, there is still a lot of value in drafting potential league-leaders like Damian Lillard or Buddy Hield. Rather, the depth of the category should impact your decisions later in drafts.

Points

Points are tricky. On the one hand, all the best scorers are going to get drafted early. Unless you are deliberately punting the category, you’ll probably need to draft at least one 20-plus-point scorer early to stay competitive.

On the other hand, points are often overvalued by fantasy managers. Low scorers like Brook Lopez and Al Horford always get drafted much later than they should. High scorers get picked up off waivers much quicker, even if they provide little value in the other categories. Furthermore, as NBA offenses have changed, there are more high scorers available in the later rounds of drafts than ever before.

Points do become available on waivers throughout the season, but most of the time, it’s only players who score between 13 and 18 points per game. Those guys can help, but unlike in points leagues where all statistics lead to a value of total fantasy points, they really only help you in one category.

Steals

Steals are always available on waivers. The problem? Most of those players don’t provide enough help in the other categories to be worth rostering. That means managers in daily lineups leagues can find meaningful help off of waivers, especially late in the week in a close H2H matchup, but managers in weekly lineups leagues will have a harder time using the waiver wire to bolster their rosters.

The best way to stay competitive in steals is to try to draft players who average close to a steal per game. For every player you expect to average 0.5 per game, try to find one who averages 1.5. If you can do that, you should be in the top half of your league in the category. Last season, 75 qualified players averaged at least 1.0 steal per game, with Ben Simmons (2.1) and Kris Dunn (2.0) leading the way as the only two to reach the 2.0 per game threshold.

FG% and FT%

The shooting efficiency categories are the most commonly punted categories, and with good reason. Many very good fantasy picks immediately escalate to great picks if you can ignore their weakness in one category or the other. Andre Drummond has long been the most famous of these, as he becomes a top-10 player if you can ignore his dreadful free throw percentage. The same became true for Giannis Antetokounmpo last season, as his free throw percentage tanked to a career-worst 63.3 percent. Considering he took 10.0 free throws per game, that was especially damaging.

There’s another great reason to punt these categories, though some don’t even know this when they decide to punt: FG% and FT% are two of the least “sticky” categories (i.e., players’ FG% and FT% are more variable, and therefore harder to predict, than most other categories). Antetokounmpo, for instance, shot better than 75 percent at the line over his previous three seasons. There was little, if any, evidence suggesting he would suddenly drop down to the low-60s.

For that reason, managers should remain careful when trying to build strength in these two categories. If you think your team is good, but not great, in either FG% or FT%, then remember that your margin for error may be small.

One last note: There are also some well-founded strategic arguments against punting either shooting efficiency category. Foremost among them is that it is likely another manager in your league may attempt the same build and that a punt-percentages team suffers more than other roster builds when their team has fewer games than their opponent in a given week.

Final notes

If you’ve played in points leagues before, and this is your first time playing in a category-based league, make sure to compare last season’s final ranks in points leagues to last season’s final ranks in category leagues. This should help you get a sense of which players rise in value, and which players fall.

Remember that category scarcity is now much more important than positional scarcity. Positions still matter, but they matter a lot less, especially as many leagues shift toward broader positional constraints.

Lastly, and this applies to points leagues as well as category leagues: Remember that your last few picks are probably going to be dropped a few weeks later anyway. Take a few risks on upside, or focus on players who could help fill some specific categorical weakness — there is no such thing as “reaching” at the end of a draft.

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