BUYING A CHAMPIONSHIP
Last year, I wrote about abolishing trade deadlines in dynasty and some of the common objections against it. One of the objections that I often hear raised is that allowing trades during the playoffs allows teams to essentially “buy championships” by trading for studs right at the end of the year.
My rebuttal was that anything that was possible in week 14 should theoretically still be possible in week 11, so if teams are capable of just buying championships so easily, they should be able to do so even with a deadline in place. So that’s what we’re going to look at today- how to buy a championship in a dynasty league right before the trade deadline.
It turns out that there is, in fact, a foolproof way for a committed owner to effectively purchase a title run in the short term, if all he or she cares about is winning a trophy with little concern for the long-term consequences. The reason most people fail in their attempts is because, quite simply, most people are doing it wrong.
So let’s go over the two ways people try to buy a championship in dynasty leagues. I’ll start with the popular method that rarely works, and then I’ll explain the much less popular method which sports a dramatically higher success rate.
HOW TO BUY A CHAMPIONSHIP (THE WRONG WAY)
The road most people take when attempting to buy a championship is trading assets with little short-term value for assets with more short-term value, regardless of the respective long-term value of each asset. For instance, a future first round pick has lots of long-term value, but very little in the short term. On the other hand, DeAngelo Williams has lots of short-term value, but offers little over a longer horizon.
If all else is equal, a future first round pick possesses more total value than DeAngelo Williams… but if I’m attempting to purchase a championship, I can trade my first for Williams and increase the overall quality of my team with no immediate consequences.
This is actually a smart strategy except for the tiny little problem that it very rarely works.
Why? Well, for starters, I’ve written before about how teams perpetually overestimate their odds of winning a championship. For the typical best team in the league, the odds are somewhere in the neighborhood of 33% once the playoffs start, (provided, of course, that they’ve managed to secure a first-round bye; without the bye, those odds drop closer to 20%).
Based on some rough estimates I’ve made using historical league data, very strong top teams could expect to win a championship about 44% of the time with the bye and 30% of the time without it. Truly elite, league-destroying dynasty teams— the type that come along once a decade— can get their championship odds as high as ~56% with the bye, 42% without it.
For comparison purposes, the “league-destroying dynasty team” that final set of championship odds were calculated based on had three of the top-12 and eight of the top-36 players according to season-ending VBD. To put it into a more understandable context, it would be roughly like a team this season that had Aaron Rodgers, Doug Martin, Mark Ingram II, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree, and Rob Gronkowski.
Looking at these numbers, if a typical “best team” manages to swing enough trades to become an unusually strong “best team”, his championship odds will go up by just about 10%. And if an unusually strong “best team” manages to swing enough trades to become a true juggernaut, his championship odds will go up by a further 12%. This is the best case scenario.
In a more realistic scenario, teams that attempt to “buy” a championship by purchasing short-term stars at the expense of long-term value typically only increase their championship odds by maybe 4%, if they’re lucky. Or, to put it another way, for even the best “win now” trade, you’re looking at maybe a 1-in-25 chance that it makes a difference between winning a championship and not winning a championship.
This makes total sense. After all, one player is rarely the difference between winning and losing in any individual game. And there are other aspects of win-now trades that rarely get considered.
To look at those considerations, let’s break down the four different possible outcomes of a win-now trade.
1.) You win the championship / you would have won it without the trade
2.) You win the championship / you would not have won it without the trade
3.) You do not win the championship / you would have won it without the trade
4.) You do not win the championship / you would not have won it without the trade
In scenario 1 and 4, the win-now trade had no impact on the final outcome of the season. It’s worth noting that these possibility represent the two most likely outcomes, regardless of your team strength or the trade being made.
Scenario 2 is the brass ring of win-now trades, the outcome that everyone dreams of when they’re hitting the “accept” button. Most of the time, as mentioned, you're going to wind up in Scenario 2 maybe 4% of the time, if you're lucky. It would be easy, when analyzing possible outcomes, to merely measure this possibility and end the analysis there.
Scenario 3, however, is also a real possibility. I have seen teams that won championships that, paradoxically enough, they would not have won if they’d made a win-now trade. The most dramatic example came in 2011, when the worst team in one of my leagues, (by total points scored), managed to sneak into the playoffs because of some extreme schedule luck. The team had weaknesses everywhere, but two of the most glaring were at WR, where he was forced to start noted bust Darrius Heyward-Bey and mediocre rookie Julio Jones, and at TE, where he was relying on the underperforming Brent Celek.
The owner easily could have acquired a stopgap to replace Heyward-Bey or Celek, and in doing so likely would have thought he was improving his championship odds. Instead, a funny thing happened. During the regular season, Jones and Heyward-Bey were the 44th- and 49th-best wide receivers, respectively, and Celek ranked 20th at tight end; in the fantasy playoffs, though, Jones was the top receiver, Heyward-Bey ranked 10th at the position, and Celek was 2nd only to the record-setting Rob Gronkowski. The result was one of the most surprising and unexpected title runs I have ever seen, a run that ironically enough would have been derailed by any attempt to improve his championship odds.
The old saying, of course, is that the plural of anecdote isn’t data. So I compiled some data. I looked up the top 24 running backs through 13 weeks last year, and charted where they ranked over weeks 14-16. I did the same for the top 36 wide receivers. The results? The correlation between wide receiver performance in the fantasy regular season and the fantasy playoffs was 42%- a relatively robust correlation. At running back, however, the correlation was 29%. (In 2013, the totals were 43% and 15%, respectively.)
Much of that poor correlation owed to injury, but that’s partly the point. Many teams traded for a short-term fill-in only for that fill-in to get hurt. Even worse, the players most likely to retain their value in the fantasy playoffs were also the players least likely to be available for trade.
Let’s take a look at receiver, for example— the more predictable of the two positions. The only receivers to rank in the top 12 over both the regular season and the fantasy playoffs were Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, and Julio Jones. Extending that to receivers that ranked in the top 18 over both periods adds Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Randall Cobb, T.Y. Hilton, and Alshon Jeffery. Jordy Nelson was 29, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were both 27, and every other receiver was 26 or younger.
For the most part, these receivers wouldn't have been available for a win-now trade. They were young, talented, and had a strong history of production; even a team in a complete rebuild would have been inclined to hold on to them.
Meanwhile, the guys who would have been available for trade— aging veterans or early-season surprises— did not fare nearly so well. Only three receivers over the age of 30 ranked in the top 24 through 13 weeks last year. The first, Brandon Marshall, missed the entire playoffs to injury. Steve Smith declined from WR19 to WR33. Anquan Boldin declined from WR23 to WR62.
Again, much of this is anecdotal, but it should really reinforce the idea that, over small enough sample sizes, we’re going to see wild swings in the data. Teams that trade future assets for short-term help are usually guilty of overrating how much help they will really get, as well as how much that help will impact their championship odds. Especially since the most predictable assets typically aren't available for trade.
Now, this isn’t to say that we can’t do anything to improve our odds of winning a title before the trade deadline. Looking at the four possible outcomes above, scenario 2 will always be more common than scenario 3 in win-now trades, (provided we’re better at predicting the future than a random number generator would be, which I’ll admit sometimes feels like quite a stretch).
This is just to say that, before we attempt to “buy a championship” through a series of win-now trades, we should seriously examine the risks and rewards. It can make a lot of sense to trade expendable assets, (late 2nd or 3rd round draft picks, for instance), to acquire some short-term help.
But when the cost of a win-now trade includes quality long-term building blocks, such as promising rookies or future 1st round draft picks, I think you’ll find that the cost is rarely worth the marginal gains it provides.
HOW TO BUY A CHAMPIONSHIP (THE RIGHT WAY)
Okay, so the most common method of buying a championship, (trading long-term assets for short-term assets), rarely works. I believe at the top I promised a much less common method for buying a championship that was virtually foolproof. So here it is: the 100% guaranteed method for buying a championship, provided you are willing to live with the long-term consequences.
Step 1: Contact every other playoff team in your league.
Step 2: Pay them money to not set starting lineups.
Short of that, you’re just going to have to live with the fact that winning a championship is always a long-shot. Personally, I’d recommend making peace with that realization and working on building the kind of team that will be in the hunt every year, maximizing the number of cracks you get at the prize.
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