Note: To celebrate the signings, trades, rumors, roster shuffling, insanity and inevitable hilarity/incompetence of one of the craziest months in NBA history, I unleashed a special series called "The 12 Days of NBA Christmas.
Day 1: The Road to Groundhog Day (and more dumb contracts than ever)
Day 2: The Donut Dilemma (the bubble in the center market)
Day 3: Is Arron Afflalo Really Worth $50 Million?
Day 4: Where the Hell is Chris Paul Going?
Day 5: Inside Grantland Featuring Blake Griffin, Part II
Day 6: The Day the NBA Lost Its Way
The One Day When the Clippers Actually Mattered (VOIDED BY DAVID STERN)
Day 8: The Chris Paul NBA Hostage Crisis Continues
Day 9: The Might of Dwight
Day 10: The Black Sheep Little Brother's Revenge
Day 11: The Day After the Day the Market Crashed
Day 11½: The Two-Part NBA Mega-Preview Podcast
Day 12 (12/22): The Day I Unveiled The Greatest Fantasy League Ever
"I'm in a crazy fantasy hoops league," my friend Chen told me last spring.
"What's so crazy about it?" I asked.
"Well, for one thing, Kobe has been on the waiver wire all year."
That's all he had to say. With those last nine words, I fell in love. Um, not with Chen — with the league. I could operate within a fantasy world that kept Kobe handcuffed to a waiver wire? For the entire season? Tell me more!
Chen spent the next few minutes explaining, in painstaking detail, what has to be the greatest fantasy league ever created. The short version: They use an actual salary cap ($65 million) and the actual salaries for every NBA player. That means you're not just drafting Kobe you're drafting $25.2 million of Kobe (his 2011-12 salary), which means you'd be paying nearly 40 percent of your team's payroll to one guy. Who would want to do that?
"It's pretty funny," Chen said. "You're looking at waiver guys every day and he's just sitting there — Kobe Bryant. And nobody wants him."
Funny? I'd call it glorious. The larger message here: You're trying to build the best team possible by spending your money as shrewdly as possible. (I know, I know what a radical idea.) Let's say you drafted Jimmer Fredette — he'd count for $2.238 million (his actual salary) against this year's cap. If you wanted to keep him next year, you'd have to keep him at next year's salary ($2.339m). And so it goes. The best value guys are always any star still operating under a rookie contract (Blake Griffin: $5.731m), anyone who's underpaid for whatever reason (Marcin Gortat: $6.79m) or any cheap bench player who gets minutes (George Hill: $1.54m). Expensive stars like Kobe and Kevin Garnett ($21.2m)? They spend their season rotting on the waiver wire. Nobody can afford them.
In other words, this really IS a fantasy league — a world in which every basketball team is constructed in a financially prudent way that makes sense. Hold on, it gets weirder. The guy who created this league in 2003? Justin Lin. Yeah, that Justin Lin — the guy who directed the past three The Fast and the Furious movies. You know how I feel about that franchise. And in his spare time, he created the best fantasy league ever? Thank god he's a Lakers fan or I would be counting him among my top three or four heroes in life.
"The league was a reaction to how boring fantasy was getting," Justin explained to me by phone this week. "You know how fantasy basketball goes. By midseason nobody was playing except the guys who were trying to win. I knew there had to be a better way to do it. Besides, regular fantasy isn't real. If you have numbers you can play with, the actual salaries, then it's real."
After eight years, Justin's league has morphed into something that — in the understatement of the year — isn't for everybody. It's a little time-consuming. Your average owner in Justin's league works harder than Elgin Baylor ever did. For one thing, there are seventeen franchises in all. You can have only 11 players on your roster, with 10 of them starting every day. Either check your lineup every day to make sure you have the most possible starters, or suffer the consequences. There's also a 24-hour waiver process, with new cuts landing on there almost every day, and you make up to 65 transactions per season (that includes waiver pickups, free-agent pickups and trades, not starting/benching guys).1 Given that 275 players are sitting on the waiver wire at any given time — including many stars like Kobe, Chris Bosh, Elton Brand, Kevin Garnett, Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson (all available as we speak) — owners jockey for players constantly, especially with everyone trying to make up for ongoing deficiencies in any of the 10 categories (points, assists, steals, blocks, offensive/defensive rebounds, FG%, FT%, 3FG%, turnovers). You have to be ready to cut anyone on your team at any time. And I mean anyone.
"Because you only have one bench spot, you can't stash injured guys," Justin explained. "If LeBron goes down for two months, I have to drop him or else I can't compete."
Just like with the real NBA, Justin's league adjusts on the fly whenever things happen that screw up the league or compromise its integrity — like the time when a second team funded by Justin (not his own) and operated by one of his cronies dealt Chris Paul in a three-team trade that Justin decided he didn't like, so Justin vetoed the trade, forced his crony to trade Chris Paul somewhere else, then spent the next few weeks publicly defending the trade, twisting the facts about what actually happened and hanging his crony out to dry, and meanwhile, nobody else involved could say anything because Justin had the power to fine them $1 million if they spoke up. Oh wait, that was David Stern, not Justin. My bad. I got confused.
Let's start that again
Just like with the real NBA, Justin's league adjusts on the fly whenever things happen that screw the league up or compromise its integrity. For instance, as a reaction to teams tanking to get the best pick in the following season's draft, they instituted a lottery for the worst four teams. Maybe Ping-Pong balls aren't involved, but the lottery worked beautifully last season; the worst team ended up with the fourth pick in the draft. Another time, there was a dispute over the exact dollars of Carl Landry's salary — some websites had it listed as cheaper than other websites, so they instituted a "Landry Rule" that their published Excel sheet on draft day serves as their "salary bible."2 Heading into this shortened season, they responded to the real-life player movement (ongoing) by giving an "exception" during the draft — every team could pick one unsigned player, but as soon as that player signed, the team had to either keep him at his new salary or drop him immediately. They're calling this "The Crawford Rule," after Jamal Crawford, who signed a few days ago with Portland, only reports vary on what he's actually making. Crawford's owner gets to keep him until the numbers come out.
"The Crawford Rule just happened with Arron Afflalo," Justin said. "The numbers came out — $43 million for five years; his owner ended up keeping him."
Speaking of keepers, that's another thing I love about this league: Everyone keeps three players from the previous season, with no limit on how long you can keep them. You might become attached to the same player for three years, five years, 10 years hell, you could potentially own him for his entire career as long as you're always paying him that season's salary. In other words, the guy who rode Derrick Rose's rookie contract these past few seasons can keep him for three times as much once Rose's five-year, $94 million extension kicks in next season (although he probably won't). The keeper rule allows also-rans to stash injured guys for next season — like the guy who used his only bench spot to stash Blake Griffin (recovering from knee surgery) for the last half of his rookie season, then got rewarded with Season 1 of The Blake Show the following year (and now, he's getting The Blake Show, Season 2: Welcome to Lob City).
As for the draft itself, the four lottery teams get the first four picks of the first three rounds, then it goes in order of record (worst to first) after that. The last five rounds use that same order but go in "snake" fashion. It's not your typical draft. For one thing, Justin's favorite pick this year was Wizards guard Jordan Crawford ($1.122m) and yes, he was Justin's second-round pick. The second round! Jordan Crawford! He kept LeBron ($16.2m), LaMarcus Aldridge ($12.6m) and Nicolas Batum ($2.16m) and added Crawford, first-rounder DeJuan Blair ($986k), Chauncey Billups ($2m), Kendrick Perkins ($7.12m), Anderson Varejao ($7.7m), Mario Chalmers ($854k), Ryan Anderson ($2.4m), and Jose Calderon ($9.7m), leaving himself about $4.39 million of room under the cap. He didn't like the Calderon pick ("There was a run on point guards, I had to get one before they were gone"), but loves having LeBron ("he's underpaid at $16 million").
Meanwhile, last year's winner (Jimmy Tsai) kept Stephen Curry ($3.11m), Eric Gordon ($3.83m) and D.J. Augustin ($3.23m) and added Luis Scola ($8.59m), Amir Johnson ($5.55m), Rudy Fernandez ($2.18m), Evan Turner ($4.97m), Corey Maggette ($10.2m), Grant Hill ($6.5m), Gordon Heyward ($2.53m) and Tony Parker ($12.5m), leaving him less than $3 million to spend. Another guy named Greg is the odds-on favorite: He kept Ty Lawson ($1.65m), Greg Monroe ($3.01m) and Marcin Gortat ($6.79m) and added Jeff Teague ($1.58m), Paul Millsap ($8.10m), Carlos Delfino ($3.5m), Nene ($13m), Jameer Nelson ($8.6m), Paul George ($2.4m), Robin Lopez ($2.86m) and Ty Thomas ($7.31m) and somehow left himself $6.19 million of cap breathing room.
"That's the great thing about having so many teams," Justin said. "You actually have to go find the gems. My best pick ever was Danny Granger — I had him for his entire rookie contract. I'm always looking for the next Granger."
Of course, if Justin's league REALLY wanted to resemble the NBA, they'd incorporate a luxury tax and allow owners to exceed the cap for expensive waiver guys like Kobe. What if they made a "spending up to $10 million over the cap costs triples your entry fee" rule?
"That can't work," Justin says. "It's ironic because I'm totally for big-market teams outspending the little guys in real life, just not in our league. In any fantasy league, guys are in different financial situations — being able to pay for a tax for better players wouldn't be fair to the owners who didn't make as much money as some of the other owners."
Here's where David Stern would scream, "Unless you had revenue sharing!" But that's getting a little too complicated. Look, Justin's league isn't perfect — it's a little too time-consuming, to say the least (one bench spot, a 24-hour waiver process and SIXTY-FIVE total transactions????), and not everyone has 16 friends who might be interested in starting a psychotically competitive fantasy league. It's also a pain to keep track of everyone's salary cap day after day after day, which is why Justin's league operates on the honor system and if that honor gets violated (someone exceeding the cap without anyone noticing, whether it was intentional or unintentional), there are major penalties (lost draft picks, etc.). That just happened recently to the league's villain, an especially shrewd guy named Sal who dominates in Belichickian fashion with a strategy called "The Triangle" (don't ask). When Sal miscounted his salary total, someone called him on it and Justin had to dole out penalties. Did Sal still win that year? Of course he did.3
"Every league needs someone like Sal," Justin admits. "We're all trying to beat him every year. We call him 'The Machine.'"
Sadly, Sal isn't available to be everyone else's token villain. But let's say you wanted to start a salary-cap league without going full-scale bonkers like Justin, Chen and their buddies. What would it look like? I think you would need
• Twelve teams, a $65 million soft cap, an 11-man roster (10 starting) and a "salary bible" just like with Justin's league.
• A luxury tax line of $70.33 million.4 If you want to spend up to $5.33 million over the cap, knock yourself out just know that it's going to cost three times your entry fee. That's right, three times! Cross that $65 million line even once and you become a tax-paying team for the season. I love this idea for three reasons: It's almost always going to backfire on the wealthier owners (just like in real life); it puts more money in the overall kitty; and it opens the door for someone to drunkenly decide at 2 a.m. that they're crossing the tax line for someone like Kobe, then immediately regret it the next morning.
• Every team gets to keep three players from the previous year (you have to announce those keepers one week before the draft). You can keep these guys for their entire careers if you want.5
• Instead of a 24-hour waiver process, it's a three-day waiver process that goes in order of "guy who hasn't used a waiver move for the longest goes first" and on down from there. That way we're not rewarding the no-lifer, maybe-you-should-spend-a-little-less-time-online guys.
• Instead of 65 transactions, you only get 40 for the season. That's more than enough.
• You can trade draft picks and waiver picks as long as the trade keeps everyone under the cap and/or tax line. Justin's league has this already — last season, Justin traded Durant and five waiver picks for LeBron and a future third-round pick.
• Nobody can ever add Kobe to their team. I love the thought of him rotting away on the waiver wire; it brings me endless amounts of joy.
So on this 12th Day of NBA Christmas, that's my Christmas gift for you, America: the blueprint for the greatest fantasy league ever. You have four days to start your own — so what if it's the holidays? If your family doesn't understand when you're ditching them on Christmas Eve just to make history, then maybe you need a new family.
Coming tomorrow: My favorite NBA wagers for the 2011-12 season along with Week 16 NFL Picks. If you want my extended team-by-team thoughts on the upcoming NBA season, as well as breakdowns of important topics like "Will Jared Dudley's vegan diet affect his prostate?" and "How much weight will Khloe Kardashian gain because of Dallas barbecue?," please listen to my special two-part NBA Mega-Preview "Closest to the Pin" podcast with my buddy House. We taped it on Monday — three days later, I'm three times more optimistic about the Clippers and five times more pessimistic about the Lakers. But that's a story for another time.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.
Previously from Bill Simmons: