Professional poker player Annie Duke wrote a book called the Middle Zone which outlined what the middle zone is in poker and how important it is to avoid uncertainty. In deep stack poker 76 suited is a much better hand than A6 off-suit because 76 can flop straights and flushes, as well as better draws which allow you to semi-bluff. Whereas, A6 off-suit is a better hand unless you are all-in, which is unlikely to happen with those hands in deep stack poker. A6 off-suit is a problem hand on many flops. If you flop an ace it’s difficult to know if you have the best hand or are dominated by a better ace. If you flop a pair of sixes, it’s not a very strong hand. The hand has little chance for straights or flushes. A6 can make a lot of medium strength hands, but not many powerful ones. Whereas, with 7g if you have a flush or straight, particularly a nut straight, well that’s a powerful hand. Most importantly, you know your opponent cannot have a better hand if you are holding the nut straight. Often it is better to play a slightly less powerful hand in the abstract if it makes decisions clearer later down the road.
Now this got me thinking to about fantasy basketball. There are two situations where it’s important to avoid the middle zone:
1) Often it is better to pick to a player who finished lower on the player rater than one who finished higher if the lower rated player takes your draft in a clearer direction; 2) In the later rounds of draft it is often better to pick a boom/bust sleeper with a high ceiling and a low floor than a player who you are certain will barely be above the replacement level player on the waiver wire.
I prefer taking players in the first round who will point my draft in a clear direction. Other than Durant and Curry, most first round picks point me toward punting. Towns, Davis, and Kawhi point me toward punting assists; LeBron and Alphabet point me toward punting FT%; Westbrook, Harden, Wall, and Cousins all point me toward punting FG/TO. This does not mean I stay away from Durant and Curry. Quite the opposite, they are so good you don’t need to punt a category when drafting them.
It’s toward the turn of the first round where things become uncertain. The most common pairing I’ve seen is Jokic and Paul. This is a really cool pairing of a proven veteran and an exciting young player. That is an excellent start to all three efficiency categories, assists, steals, and rebounds. The problem is that a lot of people think that combination covers all categories to the point where you don’t have to punt anything. While you may be doing well in most categories, you are not doing well in every category. If your league is competitive then by the tail end of the third round, most of the blocks specialists (Turner, Kristaps, Horford, Ibaka) will be off the board. Additionally, you are close to punting points. While Jokic may make the leap to just over 20 ppg this season, Chris Paul likely won’t. With that pairing you will be behind league average in both blocks and points, which are scarce categories to make up for later in the draft. You should just punt them rather than scrambling to make up for them later.
I’ve seen a lot of teams with Jokic on them that would be strictly better off with Gobert instead. It’s hard to articulate how dominant Gobert is without going through a ton of mocks and running the numbers yourself. His dominance in FG%, rebounds, and blocks cannot be overstated. While Gobert does score fewer points than Jokic, the result will likely be the same n that you will punt points drafting with either, Gobert simply entails a more aggressive punt. I like Gobert because he takes your draft in a very clear direction. You know that you are either punting points or FT% or both, depending on whether DeAndre Jordan et al make it back to you in the 3rd/4th. The advantage is that you know you are dominating FG%, rebounds, and blocks. If you select he and Paul on the turn, you know you are dominating FG%, TO, assists, steals, rebounds, and blocks. Your draft becomes much clearer.
There are many examples of teams wasting value because they didn’t take their draft in a clear direction. I have seen people draft Harden then they punt FT% big men thinking Harden can make up for their negative FT% impact (hint-he can’t). I have seen punt points teams pick up a player in the 8th/9th round whose primary contribution is in points, without realizing they are so far behind that they can’t make up for it.
A lot of GMs like to stay “open”, but I prefer the opposite. I like taking players in the first round that point me in a clear direction. Then in the second round I take a player who can make up for that player’s weak spots, without negating their positive spots. For example, if I took one of my punt assists big men such as Davis in the first round (whose value is efficiency, stocks, points, and rebounds) then I would be looking at someone like Butler in the second. Butler would provide me with elite steals, points, and FT% while Davis would provide me with elite points, rebounds, and stocks. Then in the third round/fourth rounds I would look for players like Ibaka/Porter. In other words, maintain the elite efficiency that I would base my team on while moving forward in stocks, threes, and rebounds. It may be tempting to take someone like Lowry and a lot of people would do that because they “need assists”. The problem with that reasoning is that even if you take Lowry, you’re still going to be behind anyone who took Westbrook, Harden, Wall, CP3, or anyone who took two point guards. You will be in an uphill battle to get to league average in those categories and hurt other categories to do so. The absolute worst thing you can do in H2H is lose a category by a little because it’s binary. You either win or you lose and if you lose in a category then all the effort you made in that category is wasted.
The second time to stay out of the middle zone is one that is so ingrained in fantasy experts that I will only mention it briefly. Don’t draft players who are barely above waiver wire material. Simple, right? This often means taking boom/bust sleepers over players with proven value around the 100 mark. It also means avoiding spending auction dollars on players around the $10 range. A lot of these players will be dropped to the waiver wire or will barely produce above replacement level. It becomes hugely problematic to have these sorts of players on your roster when someone gets hot for a few weeks. The hot player may exceed your worst player’s value but only temporarily. Due to injury in the starting lineup the bench player becomes a top 75 player for a few weeks. You don’t want to drop your player because you paid $10 for him, which is the sunk cost fallacy. You also know the waiver wire player will only produce for a few weeks while your guy will produce all season long. You don’t pick him up. Your opponent does and crushes you with a guy he got for free.
A lot of people think that when I say I try to be balanced in auction, I mean spending $15 on each of my 13 draft slots. I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that you should draft a starting lineup where you spend most of your $200 across 5 players and the rest on sleepers. I compare this to “stars n scrubs” which is the tactic of spending most of your auction dollars on 3 players and then spend the rest on sleepers. In either case, I don’t recommend saving your money for $10 players. Another pitfall of this is that there tends to be money available in the later end of drafts you often you end up spending $10 on players such as Jeremy Lin and Marvin Williams because you have the money to burn. Don’t do this. You can somewhat evenly distribute your auction dollars and still have room on your team for steaming and waiver wire adds.
In H2H this means taking fliers on players such as Jamal Murray, Teodosic, and Boban if you think there is a chance they could bust out. This is your opportunity to have a little fun and draft your fan favorites. If they pan out-great! If they don’t-great! You can just drop them for the hottest waiver wire addition.
It’s important to avoid taking this to the extreme and to take what your opponents gives you. If everyone else is taking crazy risks then it might be better to take a safer player. As usual, it depends on who the player is. I wouldn’t be concerned about taking a player with a supposedly low floor if I felt it represented good value. Still, you don’t want to fill your bench slots with all low ceiling/high floor players because they will all have similar value, and it will be difficult to determine who to drop when a hot sleeper becomes available on the waiver wire.
In conclusion, try to stay out of the middle zone. You do this by building the base of your team with stars who take your team in a concrete direction. You then build up the sides of your pyramid with players who accentuate the most positive aspects of your star. Avoid drafting players who negate your star’s best attributes. Don’t spend resources trying to improve a category that you are destined to be bad in. Understand that there is an inflection point in drafts when you should go for maximum possible upside. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Mediocre risks build mediocre teams. Stay out of the middle zone.