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Punting Strategies

by Ryan Knaus
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Free throw percentage (FT%) is perennially the most common category for fantasy basketball 'punting'. By ditching one category, opportunistic owners give a major boost to FT%-anchors such as DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard. The punt-FT% route gets the most attention in this column, but other approaches can be equally effective -- among them punting assists, FG%, 3-pointers, blocks or points. The boldest owners may even build a roster with a two-punt philosophy.


Before examining the nuances of various punting strategies, I'll reiterate my standard warning: intentionally ceding a fantasy category week after week is inherently risky, so 'punting' should not be casually employed as a strategy on draft day. The first consideration should be, does your league's format reward punting?


Rotisserie and Points Leagues


In a head-to-head (H2H) league with eight or nine categories, punting is often a palatable strategy. For owners in rotisserie (roto) leagues, however, punting is rarely viable. Assume that an owner successfully punts FT% in a 12-team, eight-cat roto league. Even if they score a '3' for that category, beating two other owners, the decision to punt will have cost '9' fantasy points out of a maximum of 96 -- even this somewhat optimistic scenario creates an immediate 10.7% disadvantage which must be accounted for across the remaining categories. It's not impossible, by any means, but the margin for error is considerably thinner.


In points leagues, punting takes on a different form. More than half of the fantasy points in FanDuel's scoring system comes from the 'Points' category. It therefore makes sense to assemble teams full of high-scoring players -- and since it's a daily league, to target weak defenses. The default Yahoo! scoring system, on the other hand, rewards 'rebounds' with more than one-third of its total fantasy points, while de-emphasizing steals, blocks and 3-pointers. Points-league owners generally have less at stake on a category-by-category basis, enabling them to 'punt' categories with greater impunity. What to punt, however, depends entirely upon the scoring system.


The remainder of this column will refer to strategies in H2H leagues, which is where the vast majority of punting occurs.


Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan are the modern bedrock of 'punt' discussions. Either can knock your team out of contention for FT%, but with that category excluded their overall value skyrockets. Drummond was a mid-round value in 8-cat and 9-cat leagues last season, but without FT% he leapt into the top-10. DeAndre Jordan took an even bigger leap into the top-3 on a per-game basis. He didn't miss a single game all season, so on a cumulative basis he was the No. 1 fantasy player (8-cat or 9-cat) with FT% excluded. Even Dwight Howard catapulted from near-irrelevance to the top-40.


There may be a temptation to pair a terrible FT shooter with a FT stud like James Harden or Kevin Durant, hoping they will cancel out in FT% -- that could work with Hassan Whiteside or Rudy Gobert, but it's a dubious strategy with someone like DeAndre. The combined FT totals of Harden and DeAndre last season were 902-of-1,295 -- that's equivalent to 69.7%. Since you'd have drafted Harden first, the decision to pair him with DeAndre would have decimated one of Harden's greatest strengths. I'd rather pair one of the aforementioned big men with an elite first-round point guard -- players like Stephen Curry and Chris Paul don't derive as much value from FT% and they provide more of the assists and steals you'll need to build a successful squad.


Beyond DeAndre and Drummond, here are some logical targets if you're building out a punt-FT% team (of course, it's all relative to where you can draft them): LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Terrence Jones, Draymond Green, Nerlens Noel, Derrick Favors, Mason Plumlee, Thaddeus Young, Kenneth Faried, etc. Piling up big men isn't enough by itself, however, so you should also give a rankings-bump to Elfrid Payton, Tony Wroten, Tyreke Evans, Michael Carter-Williams, DeMarre Carroll, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Chandler Parsons, Ty Lawson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and of course Rajon Rondo.


One big caveat, which I mentioned last season, is that a punt-FT% strategy limits managerial flexibility both during the draft and throughout the season. Team needs must be carefully balanced against the impulse to snatch up every poor-FT-shooting player that falls to you in a given round.


Punting any category could also lock you into that strategy long-term, for better or worse. If your FT%-anchor gets hurt, your team will be particularly vulnerable. If you offer a trade to bolster other categories, the FT% poison throughout your lineup may scare away opposing GMs. Also remember that you're not likely to be the only player punting FT% -- if you have DeAndre, the owner who drafted Andre Drummond may snipe players like Tyreke Evans and Thaddeus Young, further complicating your draft.


Other Punting Strategies


Ignoring FT% is not the only way to successfully punt in fantasy basketball. Assists and blocks are two categories which are comparatively 'scarce', in that they are concentrated in a small pool of players. The competition for elite PGs and Cs is fierce in the early rounds, for good reason, but you can also have success by pushing back one or the other position until the middle rounds.


If you were to Klay Thompson, pair him with a few top-tier big men, and then draft an underrated PG like George Hill, whose value isn't reliant upon assists, you're well on the way to a successful punt-assists team. Shooting guards who fit a punt-assists mold include Danny Green, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Redick and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. As for PG-eligible players, you'll want to target someone like Kyrie Irving (who averaged a career-low 5.2 dimes alongside LeBron last year), Isaiah Thomas, Patrick Beverley, Jordan Clarkson, G. Hill, etc.


The same principle applies to blocks -- a big man like Nikola Vucevic, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love or Greg Monroe could put you on the path to a punt-blocks approach. As the draft progresses you can opportunistically add PF/Cs who block few shots, like Zach Randolph, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova or Meyers Leonard.


Punting points is another interesting strategy. Points (and weighted FG%) are heavily concentrated in the early rounds, so if your first few picks are moderate scorers you may consider ceding the PTS category. Centers are usually the best building-blocks for a punt-PTS team, including this year's exciting trio of early-round shot-blockers: Rudy Gobert, Nerlens Noel and Hassan Whiteside. You could build out with Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green, and as the rounds progress you'd be targeting the likes of Kyle Korver, Danny Green, Trevor Ariza, Ricky Rubio, Al-Farouq Aminu and P.J. Tucker.


I've never punted steals but it's feasible, essentially building a team heavy with PF/Cs in addition to PG/SG/SFs who don't rely on steals for overall value. Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick, Tony Parker, Jeff Green and Arron Afflalo are all viable targets to fill out your team in a punt-steal build -- as that list shows, there aren't a ton of value-added players who aren't PF/Cs, which makes this a tricky strategy to employ. A punt-rebound strategy is difficult for the same reason -- there aren't many good PF/Cs who don't rely on rebounds for a significant chunk of their value.


Many H2H owners inherently ignore turnovers in nine-cat leagues. It's rarely a conscious 'punt' of the TO category, but GMs are well aware that the highest-turnover players typically get the most touches and opportunities for offensive production. Factoring in turnovers could also be misleading, causing sparingly-used players with borderline value to leap into the late-middle rounds simply because they don't touch the ball often offensively.


I'll conclude with a warning: entering a draft with a strict 'punt' mentality can be dangerous. Your strategy should­ be flexibly based upon league format and settings, your draft position, and which players fall to you in the early rounds.


From this viewpoint, a punt-FT% approach again emerges as the most obvious tactic. Owners who aren't willing to punt will let DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond fall a few rounds. If you commit to one of them early, you can almost certainly lock up a top-10 fantasy value with a top-25 pick. No matter which approach you take on draft day, I wish all of you the best of luck.*



*Unless we're in the same league.

Ryan Knaus

Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for NBC Sports Edge since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.