So there you are, staring glumly at another bad beat in the fantasy basketball playoffs. Your star has two games this week for some reason, and your lower-seeded opponent snatched your top waiver choice and rode him to victory. Screw this, you think. The best team over the course of the whole season should win.
Welcome to the exciting world of roto!
If you’ve never played it before, roto is pretty simple: instead of adding up category totals each week, you add them up over the course of the entire season. For each category, you get points based on your finish in the category - first place gets as many points as there are teams in the league, with each subsequent place falling off one. So if you’re in a 10 team league, the guy with the most steals over the course of the season gets 10 points, the guy with the second-most gets 9, and so on. The winner is the person with the most cumulative points across all categories. Also, each position is generally limited to 82 games so you can’t just win all the categories by making 400 more starts than the next guy.
So that two-start week? Who cares? You’ve had a whole season to build up a lead over that guy. Barring injuries (and there are always injuries), a roto league is much more likely to crown the actual ‘best’ team than the vagaries of the H2H playoffs. If that sounds appealing to you, jump right in!
First, the bad news: if you’re in fantasy for the trash talk, there’s nothing here to fully replace beating your best friend head to head and rubbing it in his face all offseason. There’s plenty of excitement and drama to be had (I’ll get to that), but you lose the one on one factor.
If that’s not a deal breaker, here’s how to get started:
Make sure you have an active league
I put this first because playing in a non-active roto league is basically guaranteed to put you off the format, and that’s a real shame. Yes, guys who abandon their teams in H2H suck - they gift people weekly wins and there are no bragging rights in beating the guy who started four injured players. But by the time the playoffs roll around, you’re generally going up against other active owners, and the slackers have no way to affect the outcome.
In roto, because totals are cumulative across the entire season, non-active owners can massively skew the results by plummeting to the bottom of categories their teams should be good in just because they don’t make starts (think the guy with Chris Paul getting a 2 in assists).
I’ve spent quite a few nights swearing at people for handing points to the guy making a run at me because they just wouldn’t keep up in starts. This is another area where the lack of 1 on 1 matchups hurts - it’s easy for less invested people to realize they have no shot whatsoever at winning and, lacking “well at least I ruined your playoff hopes in our matchup” as an incentive, give up on the league altogether. But you’re reading this on a fantasy basketball website, so hopefully you have enough buddies who care that this won’t be a problem.
And if you DO have an active league, the end of the season can become an absolute nail biter as you care desperately what four or five teams are doing - not just people close to you. I spent much of my last basketball season deeply invested in a blocks competition between three teams 100+ blocks behind me.
Pick your categories
I recommend 8-cat over 9-cat - because the league is decided by cumulative point totals, there’s no need for a tiebreaking 9th category for the purpose of H2H matchups. And let’s face it - turnovers suck as a category. They’re a tax on ball handlers, and they’re particularly awful for roto because they punish you for actually making your starts - anyone who gives up on the league will suddenly shoot to the top of the turnovers leaderboard because, hey, they aren’t making starts anymore.
This is not behavior you want to reward. Still, up to you.
Figure out the rest of your settings
Honestly, there’s nothing particularly complicated here - set the standard 82 game limit for each position, decide how many bench spots you want, figure out how you want to do waivers (I like FA auction, but you can just do daily waivers easily enough). Most of the settings aren’t any different from your H2H league.
I do recommend adding an injury spot or two - over the course of an 82 game season, everyone’s going to need it, and too many injuries at once can put you in too big a starts hole to climb out of otherwise.
Learn how to draft a roto team
Which brings us to our next section.
How to Draft a Roto Team
If you gain nothing else from this article, please take the following two words to heart: NO. PUNTING.
Seriously, don’t ever do it. I tell people all the time that you couldn’t pay me to roster Dwight, DeAndre or Drummond in a roto league, and I’m not kidding. If I cloned myself nine times and we all played fantasy basketball together, they’d probably go undrafted. And the larger the league, the more important this advice is (at least, until you reach a size where everyone sucks horribly at something).
Here’s the simple, brutal mathematical truth about punting in roto: Your team basically needs to be perfect everywhere else if you want to have a chance to win.
Let’s say you and I are playing a 10-man 8-cat league together and you decide to punt FT because you’ve won your last few H2H leagues on the back of DeAndre and co. I, meanwhile, build my team around James Harden and his ridiculous free throw volume and I win the category.
I now have 10 roto points to your 1 - and you have only 7 other categories to make up that enormous deficit. Well, you got the punt FT guys - maybe you win rebounding. But I make my starts and finish 3rd there, earning an 8 - you’ve only made up 2 points. And meanwhile, your FT punters are generally only great in a few categories - so you’ve got excellent rebounding, FG% and blocks, but where are your assists, steals, threes and points coming from?
You need to be great in ALL of those categories to make up for your atrocious free throw shooting.
The only possible exception to the rule is turnovers, if you decided to play with them for some reason, just because the best roto teams all tend to suck at turnovers - if nothing else, the most competitive teams are likely to make all their starts, which will naturally push them below teams that don’t. So you probably won’t cripple yourself if you’re bad at turnovers.
Along the same lines, there’s no point in being absurdly dominant in one category if it comes at a real cost elsewhere. You get the same number of roto points if you win blocks by 30 or 130 - don’t invest TOO many resources in the same place unless the players you’re getting help you in a lot of other places as well.
You need a balanced team, so target guys who are good at everything, or at least don’t hurt you anywhere. Someone like Kawhi is a much better roto pick than H2H - in H2H, he’s not elite anywhere but steals, but in roto he’s contributing (or at least not hurting) in all 8 categories. 1/1/1 guys are really helpful here - people like Draymond Green or Danny Green.
A good rule of thumb for snake roto drafting is to take the best player available for at least the first half of the draft. At that point you’re probably down to players who are only really good at a few things, and can target whoever you need to fill in the holes on your team.
Get strong percentages. Because roto lasts the entire season, and because high usage players tend to be rostered, percentages are usually the hardest category to make up ground in - it’s easy to find a waiver guy who hits a ton of threes, but finding someone who has enough shooting volume to really boost your FG% off the waiver wire usually isn’t a thing.
Finally, make sure you’ve drafted a guy or two that you’ll be willing to drop - you don’t want to miss out on the next Draymond Green because you just can’t let go of anyone on your roster.
Now that you’ve drafted, it’s on to the actual season.
How to Manage Your Team
There are three key elements to managing your roto team: starts, trades, and (most importantly) the waiver wire. Each of these has its own roto-specific quirks.
Pace yourself! If you’re coming from H2H, where the number of starts can easily swing a matchup, it can be tremendously tempting to just rotate all your guys in whenever they have a game. This is a mistake - one I’ve seen sink some very good roto teams.
The easiest way to illustrate this: would you prefer 60 games of Russell Westbrook and 22 games of George Hill, or 82 games of Russ? That’s not a particularly hard question, right? Well, if you mismanage your starts, you’ll end up with the first one. You have 82 games per playable roster spot, and when those 82 games are used up - no matter who uses them - you’re locked out. No more guy in the PG slot for you.
Now, if everyone in the league played 82 games, this would be easy - set your roster and be done with it. Unfortunately, they don’t - guys get hurt, Timmy gets a DNP(Old) from Pop, contenders rest their stars down the stretch, and “general soreness” takes out a whole lot of people the last week of the season. H2H does its best to avoid all of this stuff by scheduling the playoffs a few weeks beforehand, but in roto your season isn’t over until the final day, so you’d better be ready for all of these scenarios.
If you have an injury risk, or someone who’s likely to miss a few games to prepare for the playoffs near the end of the season, it usually pays to be a couple of starts ahead of pace so you aren’t caught without a starter the last few days of the season. Don’t get too far ahead, though, and consider not getting ahead at all if you’re riding someone who might play the whole season (for example, a young guy on a rebuilding team who’s likely to get all the minutes they can handle down the stretch).
Keeping a spreadsheet is actually helpful here, since the pace calculators aren’t always accurate and you’re otherwise stuck manually comparing the number of games you have left for the roster spot to the number of games remaining for that player’s team.
Try to keep the same players in the same slots as much as you can to make this easier. If you suddenly switch out Boogie for Aldridge at PF, and the Spurs have played 2 more games than the Kings, you’re now on pace to miss 2 games (probably more, actually, because Pop). If someone misses time with an injury, try to fill their roster spot with someone else for each game they miss to avoid throwing off the pace. If you can, do this from one of your util slots - if you’re playing a standard ESPN line-up, you have 3, and it’s easy to catch up there since anyone can be started in one.
If you have util slots, you want to pace things a little differently, because you can get a couple extra starts out of them. Roto starts aren’t counted at 82 per specific util slot - they are counted as 82*X starts for all of your X util slots combined. So if you have 3 slots, you have 246 starts to play with.
The nice thing is that you can go over this limit as long as all extra starts are made on the day you go over. So let’s say you’ve made 245 util starts by the second to last day of the season. You’re now free to start 3 guys on the last day and make 248 starts in total. Sure, it may not seem like much over the course of a whole season, but a few extra rebounds or points could actually make or break your season. Don’t discount it.
Trading in roto isn’t too different from trading in H2H. Category swaps are still a great thing to target - you need blocks, and your friend needs threes? Maybe you guys can work something out. The difference is you’re more likely to be shoring up your weak spots in roto, not make your strong categories stronger. Once again, you get the same number of roto points if you win a category by 30 or 130 - if you’re blowing away the field in blocks, ship one of those guys for something else you need.
However, there’s one type of trade you should be particularly aiming for if you can: the 2 for 1 or 3 for 1, if you can acquire a superstar.
Remember, you have limited starts - so you’re not trading the production of 3 guys for 1, you’re trading the production of 3 guys for the production of the superstar plus the 2 guys you bring off your bench to plug the holes in the line-up. The drop-off in per-game value from the very best players in fantasy basketball to the tier below tends to be enormous, and chances are your 3 for 1 will bring you better overall value from your roster spots even if you lose a little from spots 2 and 3.
Note that this also depends on the size of your league - the smaller the league, the better this type of trade is because of the kind of player you’re likely to bring in to fill the empty spots. If you’re in a 16 man league and trading three starters for a star and a couple guys who play 15 minutes a game, that’s probably not worth it.
And that brings us to the single most important management element in roto: the waiver wire.
3. The Wire
Ah, the waiver wire. I love the waiver wire. Want to know if you’re a great roto manager or merely a good one? Tell me what you did on the wire. I won a league I should have lost last year because of the wire, and if I’d been managing his team instead, I’m pretty sure I’d have won that too.
Early season, you’re doing what everyone in fantasy basketball is doing: looking for the breakout stars. You don’t always get someone like Draymond Green or Hassan Whiteside, but you can damn well give yourself a shot at it. Remember what I said about making sure you have a player you’re willing to drop on your roster? Yeah, you don’t want to be the guy who tries to pick someone up a day late. No, you’re not always going to be right, but it’s better to pull the trigger too early. After all, if you’re wrong, you can always drop the guy you just picked up.
Do your usual homework - is there real talent here? Are you seeing a possible breakout? Is this a temporary thing while the starter is nursing a bruised knee, or is your guy here to stay? Is he getting minutes for the Sixers, in which case most of this is irrelevant and complete assholes like Spencer Hawes can become temporary stars?
Hopefully you’ll get a starter or two this way. But that’s not the fun part. The fun part comes in the second half of the season.
Somewhere in the second half of the season, your league’s settled down a bit. The contenders know who they are, teams have started to separate themselves, and most people have a pretty good sense of where they’ll finish in most categories. Here’s where you can make your move.
Are you pretty locked into a position in one of the categories? Way up in blocks? Stuck in third in points? Excellent. It’s time to find some one-category studs and run people down.
In most leagues, the wire at this point will be full of people who are only good at a couple of things. Think Ed Davis, getting you 8-10 rebounds and 1-2 blocks in 20 minutes a game. Or Anthony Morrow, averaging 3 threes a game in March and April while doing basically nothing else. Normally, you wouldn’t waste a roster spot on these guys - but now’s your chance.
If you’re not in danger of losing ground in a category, you should be able to afford a couple of roster spots that contribute absolutely nothing to it (or even hurt it a little - if your FT% lead is dominant enough, you can run a guy who goes 2 for 4 from the line for a bit). And this allows you to come out of absolute nowhere in some categories, especially threes. I’ve seen a guy make up a deficit of more than 100 threes in less than a month - if you start playing a couple assholes who do nothing but hit three point shots, it’s astonishing how fast they pile up. There are ALWAYS three point assholes on the waiver wire late in the season.
You can also use this to lock in a tight race. Someone is right behind you in rebounds but you’re 300 up in points? Well, how about you start playing Omer Asik - so what if he doesn’t score? The closer to the end of the season you get, the more your fantasy fortunes get narrowed down to a specific few categories and the more aggressive you should get about ignoring everything else. Last season, for example, I actually benched Boogie for a couple of his April games - the ones where he averaged 25/18/9/1.7/3.3.
Why? Well, for some reason he decided to shoot sub-50% from the line despite being around 80% most of the year. Locked in a tight battle there, I simply couldn’t afford the risk, not with my finish in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks all basically assured. Boogie could drop 30/20/10 and it wouldn’t matter to me if he missed five freebies.
Be smart, and pay attention to what the other owners are doing. Is there a guy 120 rebounds up on you who have stopped paying attention to his roster? You might be able to catch up to him even if he looks out of reach on the surface. Similarly, if you notice somebody making countermoves, or you lose a key player, don’t be afraid to drop it and try something else - I thought I’d be able to steal the top spot in assists last year, but Rubio went down again and the other guy grabbed some waiver insurance (plus Chris Paul decided to play 82 for him). So I gave up and went for a FG% point instead.
Also, if you need to make up starts, don’t be afraid to churn through players to grab guys on days when there are only a couple of games just because they’re the only ones playing.
If you play the wire right, I guarantee you can steal yourself at least a few roto points that you wouldn’t have sniffed otherwise. And that can make all the difference.
- Build a balanced team
- Don’t be afraid to make 2 for 1 trades
- Dominate the waiver wire
- Feel free to mercilessly mock your friend who ran out of starts three weeks before the end of the season and had nowhere to play Steph Curry while you ran him down in threes (see, there is still trash talk in roto!)
I hope you enjoy the format as much as I do!