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Lessons From My First NBA Fantasy Basketball Season

'I was one Devin Booker roster tweak away from reaching the Finals'
by John Paulo Aguilera | Apr 6, 2017
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I thought that I was close to becoming the ultimate NBA junkie.

From starting out as a fan of Dennis Rodman and eventually LeBron James, I got engrossed in league history, player backstories, organizational upheaval, off-court drama—basically everything that comes with loving the game. That level of interest extended to every time I'd huff and puff on the court, or think of possible basketball stories to write for work.

Then I learned about fantasy basketball.

Having heard about it for the past couple of years, the only idea I had of this burgeoning hobby was that everyone formed their own dream teams as if they were an NBA suit like Warriors super GM Bob Myers and competed against each other. Basically, it was another excuse to engage in trash talk without having to wait for your favorite squad to reach the Finals or jump on the bandwagon of the favored team.

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This, by the way, was the team I wound up with after our draft. 

Before the ongoing NBA season began, the seasoned "GMs" in the office told me of their plan to organize this basketball year's tournament. The idea of playing God—at least in a basketball setting—caught my attention, especially since it involved observing strategies, studying statistics and evaluating their relevance to my team. Not to mention, winning would mean earning those coveted bragging rights.

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Twenty-two weeks of calculated roster tweaking, haunting last-minute decisions, and occasional memory lapses later, I finished in a decent third place, just behind a couple of guys from team FHM (proving once again that FHM takes everything seriously). Not bad for a fantasy NBA rookie, who was lucky enough to get hold of Russell Westbrook using the first pick.

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On the heels of a respectable campaign, I vowed to hoist the imaginary championship trophy next time around. And to do that, I took it upon myself to identify where I went wrong and improve on those occasional lapses.

Here are five major takeaways from my first (nerve-wracking) fantasy league experience that aspiring fantasy basketball executives might want to take note of:

Fantasy news first

I may be a hardcore hoops fan, but I realized I couldn't rely solely on existing knowledge and a gut-feel to win against the veteran players in our league. Facts are essential—from the most basic information (schedule, injury reports) to the slightest game-changing details (good matchups, player regression). And fantasy websites like Rotoworld and—in our league's case—Yahoo! Sports ensure that you are fully equipped with info for your weekly exploits. Be greedy with facts, while you're at it. Go the extra mile if you have to—check out individual team updates, Tweets from beat reporters, and wake up early to apply last-minute roster changes. He who's well-informed almost always wins. 

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Trust your players

This one somewhat contradicts the last entry, particularly the extensive research part. You're bound to commit mistakes and be disgusted at your players' performance due to the random nature of a fantasy league, but give your new free agent acquisitions the chance to prove themselves on the court. A couple of duds should not define a player's overall contribution, especially if he is in an advantageous position to bounce back.

Case in point: I once held on to Jusuf Nurkic even if he was stinking on the Denver Nuggets bench. I had dropped him shortly before he was dealt to the Portland Trailblazers, where he thrived as an offensive and defensive demon. Missed opportunity, right there. 

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Versatility is key

Aside from Mr. Triple-Double, I also had Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, Elfrid Payton, and later, Ricky Rubio—all waiting to put up ridiculous numbers across the board, at least double figures in two of the major statistical categories. This group, which was basically untouchable during the whole campaign, served as the backbone of my all-around onslaught.

Consistency from these players enabled me to bring in new faces, take out ineffective ones, and focus on strengthening the next point...

Little things matter

The eventual champion anchored his dominance in an interesting stat: blocks. Guys like Rudy Gobert, DeMarcus Cousins, and Myles Turner guaranteed him an almost automatic win in a difficult category, not even factoring in their impact on three rebounding departments and field goal percentage. This allowed his other players (Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard) to run wild in other areas of the game.

Having specialists in unsexy categories (steals, 3-PT made, blocks) is power. Acquiring Nick Young mid-season, when he was averaging almost five three-pointers per game, also turned out to be a difference-maker for me.

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Veterans over potential

I was up against the future runner-up during the knockout semifinals bout. He had thrashed me in our previous meetings. For our match, instead of fielding in Devin Booker and Nikola Vucevic (whom I had thought would be rested all week), I opted for Skal Labissiere and Alan Williams, virtual nobodies who were trending because of their high-usage rate late in the season. I thought the lottery-bound Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns would set their young guns loose, not to mention Booker was dealing with an ankle injury.

As you all know, the Suns guard exploded for 70 points, while Vucevic came up with a handful of solid double-doubles that week. Both performances could have finally gotten me over the hump. 

That major lineup boo-boo pushed me out of Finals contention. It's the reason I had the time to write this reflection instead.



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