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Hoop Pointers
Fantasy Strategy Ideas from the Guru

Same Game, Different Feeling
January 20, 1999

After initially reviewing the framework for this season's Smallworld Hoops (SWH) game, I'm struck by the combination of striking similarities to last year's game and the dramatic differences in how it will probably feel to manage a team.

The scoring formula is almost the same as last year's SWP formula. The 25 point "bonus" for a triple-double has been eliminated, but all other SWP factors are identical. This will help by providing for a more intuitive starting point for those managers who played last year's game. And I thought last year's formula worked pretty well.

Trading will be less constrained than last season. Last year, a single 50 trade limit applied to the entire season. By the All-Star break, many of the most competitive managers had very few trades left in their arsenal, and the game transitioned into a "watch and wait" mode. A 5-per-week allocation will offer more total trades over a shorter season, and will preserve player tradability throughout the season.

But the trading motivations will be no different than in last year's game. In fact, the incentive for generating financial gains will be stronger, and will last longer. The reason for this is the change in draft prices relative to the initial $50 million salary cap.

It doesn't take long to notice the rampant price inflation that has occurred. Stars are starting the year at prices that they didn't even reach by the end of last year's full season. And scrubs are priced no lower than $1 million. These salaries are looking more and more like REAL NBA salaries. What a concept.

Let's put these prices into some perspective. I did a simple calculation of the draft value of each of the 29 "real world" NBA teams. For this exercise, I populated each team with it's properly configured roster (by position), choosing the ten best players for each team from the initial listing. The average value of an NBA franchise works out to be around $77 million, and ranges from a low of $64 million (for a Drexler-less Houston) to a high of $89 million for - get this - the Milwaukee Bucks! This implies that your initial SW roster will probably be of lower quality (from top to bottom) than a real NBA team. No more all-star rosters. No more populating your initial draft with nothing but NBA starters. Even most of the rookies look to be pretty fully priced.

So your initial roster is probably going to include some players that you'd really rather not have. It will certainly have some players that you hope not to have to keep for very long. The more stars you draft, the more benchwarmers you'll need. The average price of the roughly 525 listed players is around $5 million, which is also going be the maximum average price of your draft roster. But that's not the story. If you take a look at the players who are priced below $5 million, you won't find many household names. In fact, as I scanned down the list of cheap players, my initial reaction was "Who are these guys?" Well guess what? You're probably going to need at least 5 of them. You'll need more than 5 of them if you also want some superstars like Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, or Shaq.

So clearly, the first ingredient to a competitive season will be the ability to discern talent from within the low priced end of the spectrum. I'd like to think that some of these players will be the best sources of early season price gains - but that may be unrealistic. After all, prices rise the most in response to widespread buying. Now, can you imagine hoards of managers flocking to someone like, say, Marty Conlon if he starts out averaging 5 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and a 0.5 blocks per game? Those numbers, if they happen (and I doubt they will - I'm just speaking hypothetically), would represent pretty good production for a $1 million outlay. But how many managers are likely to notice? He won't be obvious on the top 50 leaderboards. In fact, the best gains prospects will probably be the cheapest players who DO appear on the early top 50 lists. The sooner you can land those guys, the better off you'll be. Ride 'em for a week or two, then flip 'em for a gain and trade up to the next soon-to-be-discovered undervalued talent.

If the recent SW Football experience is relevant, it will take about a month for the better traders to achieve an NBA-quality roster. Not an All-Star roster, mind you. A Boston Celtics-quality roster, or a Vancouver Grizzlies-quality roster. So obviously, there will still be plenty of incentive to keep on striving for gains.

It will take $150 million or more in draft dollars to assemble the ultimate "Dream Team" which is capable of averaging better than 40 SWP per game. And if the time comes that any manager can afford that, the price tag will undoubtedly be higher, since those players will gradually be getting bought throughout the season. Will anyone be able to attain an All-Star team before the end of the shortened season? It's possible, but I have my doubts. Paradoxically, the more successful managers are at generating gains, the more expensive those prime-time players will become. We'll be chasing a moving target. It's not inconceivable that it could take $200 million to have the ten best producers by season's end.

Using last year's stats as a general indicator, a $50 million roster should be able to produce 20-25 SWP per game per player, on average. With each $5 million in gains, you should be able to pick up and additional 1 SWP per game per player. This relationship is likely to hold for the first $75 million (or so) in gains, so the motivation for generating price gains will be strong and consistent for quite awhile - and maybe throughout the entire season.

Is it better to draft a "barbelled" roster of high priced stars mixed with the cheapest fillers, or to start with a more homogeneous mix of average priced players? Excellent question. If the initial pricing is reasonably efficient, then I'd guess that the likelihood of early price appreciation is probably greatest for the players priced near the average. They will have the best combination of affordability and recognizability. But if there are some players who are mispriced on the low side - and these would likely come from among the rookies, or players rebounding from an injury, or players assuming a new role (either through trade or "promotion") - then these will undoubtedly be the "Best Buys", possibly regardless of absolute price level. Who are those guys? I have a few ideas, but I'm not going to tell you. My stats tables should point out a few clues, but don't rely solely on the numbers. NBA players' stats can change dramatically from year to year, and you should regard the statistical analysis as not much more than a screening tool. Some intuition would be helpful, but with five trades per week, you won't be stuck with underproducing draftees (i.e., mistakes) for very long. My best advice is to pay attention to the cheapest players who you easily notice during the first several weeks. If you have to dig deep to find value, then many other managers probably won't find it. And the key is to find the players who are going to be bought the most - not the players who are the most undervalued statistically. Look for the obvious. Even if you think an early statistical burst is likely to be unsustainable over the long term, your most important objective in the early game is to buy low, sell high. In fact, if you're right, you'll be a lot more comfortable selling a suspected overachiever than you will be in selling a player who you think still represents good fundamental bang for the buck.

Five trades a week sounds very ample, and I don't think there's much reason to conserve trades for a rainy day. Once you come to grips with what your initial roster has to look like, you'll feel like it's pouring already! You'll always have five more trades next week to fix next week's problems.

Some have expressed resentment at the ability to generate a $10,000 gain merely by clicking on an ad at the SW site. Actually, I think it's a pretty ingenious way for Smallworld to prop up its revenues while preserving a free game. It's not too difficult to click on a few ads each day. And even if you don't, $10,000 per day isn't a particularly meaningful sum. It would take 100 days - a whole season - of winnings just to be able to afford a "free" Marty Conlon! So even if you don't bother to click once, you won't be at a very significant disadvantage vs. those who do whatever it takes to get their daily winnings (and there will be some managers who do just that).

Perhaps my safest preseason prediction is that while the game is mostly the same, it's going to feel vastly different. As in any game, the best way to improve is to learn by doing. In fact, I'm fairly certain that some of my preseason assessments will turn out to be "off track" at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. Just do what I plan to do - pay attention to the daily boxscores, the sports highlight shows, the stats leaderboards, the RotoGuru Daily Blurbs - in short, pay attention to the obvious things, and you'll probably adapt pretty well. After all - Barkley, Pippen, and Olajuwon notwithstanding - this isn't "Rocket" science!

RotoGuru is produced by Dave Hall (a.k.a. the Guru), an avid fantasy sports player. He is neither employed by nor compensated by any of the fantasy sports games discussed within this site, and all opinions expressed are solely his own. Questions or comments are welcome, and should be emailed to Guru<>.

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