Skip to main content
Publish date:

Fantasy Lab: Waiver strategies


As a fantasy basketball enthusiast, you have to love the waiver wire. Where else can you pick up trash and potentially have it morph into gold right in front of your eyes? It's just the best. Except when it's the worst. Cause it was your jettisoned player that's blowing up on your arch rival's squad right about now. That's when the wire cuts you like it was barbed. Either way, the action is intense and the cycling of players into and out of the free agent pool forms the lifeblood of your league.

Even if this is your first season playing, by now you've seen that simply dropping and adding free agents is all well and good -- the hope of hitting the free agent lottery is rekindled with each new acquisition, replacing the most recent failed attempt at striking at rich -- however, there's nothing like the excitement of trying to snatch a guy who just hit the waiver wire unexpectedly. (And yes, it's always unexpectedly because you instantly see that Player X has value and can't for the life of you believe that said player was cut. That's the one sure way to know when to put your claim in.)

This budding excitement starts from the moment before your eyes open when the sheer power of anticipation jolts you awake and you scurry for the quickest way to get online. The surge of adrenaline coursing through your body while scanning your e-mail inbox for that fantasy service notification puts enough pep in your step to make you skip that morning coffee. (If you're not receiving e-mail notifications, it's way past time you stepped up your game, Tyler Hansbrough). Holding your breath when you finally click the message open, in that instant, you simultaneously pray for the "Congratulations, your claim has been accepted" message while desperately trying to ignore the growing dread of a rejected claim. Finally, you learn your fate.

Hopefully you got the player you were seeking, but if not -- more often the case than not -- at least you are now one position higher on the totem pole for next time. But when exactly is the next time? More specifically, when should you cash in on your waiver position?

Fantasy basketball columnists spend so much time discussing players to pick up or acquire via trade, yet we rarely discuss the amount of assets you should be parting with to get these players. Usually we suggest players under the assumption that you'll be cutting the worst player on your team to acquire him in a straight add/drop; we're not thinking about waiver wire claims. There are just too many variables to consider in order to make one broad recommendation. This often leads to questions from the beloved readers inquiring if it's "worth it to add Player X off waivers if I have the Y waiver position?" So here is the Fantasy Lab's attempt to provide some broad guidelines as to when to use your waiver claim as of this point in the season.

There are roughly eight weeks left in the standard fantasy season until the playoffs begin. Before you decide to make a waiver wire claim and give up your spot in line, you'll need to ask yourself a lot of questions to figure out more or less where you stand in this league. These variables will help you better recognize if it is indeed worth making the claim, provided it's not a slam dunk move as mentioned in the introduction.

You'll either know the answers to these already or you'll have to figure the answer to these questions. Notice that the focus of most of the questions isn't on the player, but on your team's relative standing in the league at present:

First, what is your waiver wire position? How many players are rostered on teams? In other words, how deep is the available talent pool? How competitive is the league? How active are the other members of the league? Are people using their waiver pickups routinely or are most transactions done with free agents? What place in the league standings are the people ahead of you? And just behind you? Do you know your leaguemates' tendencies or not? Is this a short-term or long-term move? Are you in a position to stash an injured player? Does your team have more than one "soft" or "rotating" roster spots? What are the players' keeper statuses, if any? What does your playoff game total schedule look like now versus after the claim? Lastly, if you use your waiver claim on a player today thinking that he's going to make a real difference on your team and that player turns out to be a bust, do you believe you will be able to overcome it or will you regret making the move?

SI Recommends

That last question is the real test because in a standard league chances are that any player you acquire on waivers right now through the end of the year will likely be the only player you acquire via waivers since your new position will be too low to make a real difference.

Now you have to take these answers (or variables) and apply them to the following advice. For instance, if you are in a deeper league than the standard 12-team league (such as a 14- or 16-team league) where the talent pool is thin and everyone is trying to catch lightning in a bottle, the wire figures to be more active, meaning there will be more waiver claims made. You actually might be able to climb back up the waiver rankings before the season is done. In a shallower league where the free agent pool is filled with talent, waiver claims are less important so it makes sense that they will happen less frequently, making it more essential for you to preserve your higher ranking for as long as possible until you find someone you can't live without. All of this is relative though to where you stand on the waiver wire rankings.

If you're in the bottom third of the waiver order, and you see a player you might want, go ahead and put in a claim. This gets you one step ahead of the teams preserving their waiver rankings, just waiting for the moment the player goes from on waivers to a free agent. This way you get the player you wanted and it only costs you a spot or two in line. If you're residing in this third, the Lab recommends you make as many moves as you want to potentially catch the burgeoning fantasy superstar. Go crazy with the whole if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again philosophy.

Moving closer to the top, if you're in the middle third (No. 5 through No. 8 in standard 12-team leagues), you might want to use a little more caution or discretion than if you resided in the bottom third, but not much. Chances are the four guys above you are going to be a little conservative with their claims this time of year so any really obvious guy will never make it to you anyway. If you are in a strong enough spot in the team standings to claim a recently injured player, this is a really good time to consider making a move on a player. Recent examples would be claiming a dropped Mo Williams, Eric Gordon or Anthony Randolph for those of you in keeper leagues.

Once you're established in the top four waiver spots, it's time to get selective, with each step closer to the top forcing the owner to be more discerning. The most important thing to realize at this point is that the owners ahead of you have proven to be even pickier than you this season, otherwise they wouldn't be in this position. Attempt to use this knowledge to your advantage. Know first and foremost that they won't make any haphazard claims. Also, realize that the higher they reside in the team standings, the lower the odds are that they'll want to gamble on a player at this time of year. They'll want to wait until it's closer to the playoffs when desperate teams start making desperate moves to pick up extra games.

If you're holding the No. 3 or No. 2 spot, you only have one or two owners in front of you to worry about. At this point in the year, assuming you are projecting to make the playoffs, you should be looking to use this claim only on a no-brainer waiver claim. Taking a risk on a lesser player "hoping" he turns into something valuable is foolish, because odds are this player won't be anything other than who he is right now and then you'll be at the back of the line come playoff time -- when you'll wish you had a high waiver priority. Hold off as long as you can on doing anything until we get closer to the playoffs, or even into the first week of the playoffs, since that's when some big names start hitting the wire as teams try to squeeze into the second season with an extra game or two. This is when you attack with vigor, pressing extra hard on the Enter key when making that claim. And if you go after that slam dunk of a waiver claim and the guy with the top spot takes him, then you're sitting pretty at the top of the heap or one peg below the apex.

Assuming you're not in playoff contention and you're fighting to get in, this is a little trickier. With the No. 2 or 3 waiver spot, you feel like you can't afford to wait for a no-brainer free agent because 1) it may never happen, 2) the owners ahead of you will probably claim the player, and 3) you need help now to make the playoffs. Owning the silver and/or bronze spots is a true balancing act: on one side of the scale you have instant returns that can help you immediately, on the opposite side, there is a chance that an even better player will emerge later down road who can help you even more. So when is it appropriate to pull the trigger? Depending on how strongly you feel that Player X will boost your team into the money tourney, let's say the minimum should be 75 percent more likely to make the playoffs with Player X, then you have permission to use that claim. Otherwise cling to it tight like a 5-year old does to their security blanket.

Now if you're fortunate enough to own the No. 1 waiver spot, you must first recognize the power that it wields. Not only does it afford you first dibs on any player to hit the wire, but it also puts you into position to nab a potentially valuable asset from another team via trade. With the No. 1 spot, feel free to flaunt it's availability to your fellow owners, saying you are willing to make a trade in case someone they want hits waivers. Even if you never intend to trade away the spot, you'll see who is interested, what players they may make available on their team and then you can choose as to how you want to proceed. Trading the priority (or making the claim and then trading the player as part of the deal) is a good way to ensure you'll get something for the top spot. Otherwise you may have waited patiently for someone useful to your team to materialize on the wire, but it never happens.

As for when to use it, the Lab recommends holding off on using it if you only have one soft roster spot available now. Chances are you'll make a claim and then have no free roster space to make any necessary tweaks between now and the playoffs or in the playoffs. So unless it's a slam dunk pickup who renders another player on your team as now droppable, it's better off to save the top priority until later in the season. When fighting for the playoffs, the middling teams often make bold drops in a do-or-die situation to squeak into the postseason tourney. These opportune moments don't happen often and they occur very late in the year, which is precisely why you wait till then to submit your claim and begin the excitement process.