So you want to start a keeper league? Whether you want to convert your redraft league into a keeper league, or start one from scratch, it’s a logical evolution if you’ve been playing the game for any reasonable amount of time. I’ve been the commissioner of the same fantasy basketball league with some of my closest friends for about a decade now. Three seasons ago we decided to take the plunge and make it a keeper league. I’ve loved every minute of it.
What follows is a step-by-step guide to starting a keeper league or converting your redraft league into a keeper league. I’ll cover the basics and some very important things I learned along the way. It took a lot of research between myself and my co-comissioner to assemble this information. Even then, we learned some things from season one to now that will be important for you to keep in mind.
As a responsible fantasy basketball league commissioner, I was appalled that it took so long to find this info. I was surprised a comprehensive guide didn’t already exist. I hope I can save you all the time I wasted.
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Step: 1 Deciding you want to start a keeper league.
If you’ve already done a bit of research, feel free to skip this part. I still think there are plenty of things to consider before you start a keeper league, especially if you’re converting a redraft league with dedicated managers.
What is a keeper league?
Most default fantasy basketball leagues are “redraft” leagues, which means that the entire player pool is available to be drafted after the conclusion of each season.
In a “keeper league,” players remain on the same fantasy team, with the duration ranging from one year to multiple seasons into the future. It can be just one player or an entire roster. Most keeper leagues let their managers keep several players from season to season. If you do the whole roster, it’s called a “dynasty league,” which is a little bit different and not something I’ll be covering in great detail in this guide.
The managers designate which players they will keep from the previous season before the league’s draft of the current season and those players won’t be available for any other team to draft.
Why do a keeper league?
A redraft league is fine and offers the best “even” playing field, provided that you are managing the draft and your managers proactively. The worst manager (by record or otherwise) should be given the first draft pick every year, or at least the best shot at the first draft pick. If you aren’t doing this already, get on it. If you do a snake draft, where the first pick in the first round is the last pick in the second round and then it reverses order each round, consider doing a “third round reversal.” Crack down on collusion between managers with appropriate punishment, kick unattentive managers out, and find new managers to fill empty spots. Coach up poor managers so they stop letting your friend win by fleecing them in trades.
If you’re not doing all that, converting your redraft league into a keeper league isn’t going to help you spice up your league. Do those things above first. Assuming you’re doing all that, a keeper league is an excellent way to up the stakes regardless of buyin amount.
A keeper league adds an extra layer of management. Not only do you have daily, weekly, and season-long choices to make with your roster, you also have to consider long-term impacts. It really increases the stakes in any trade that managers try to execute as well. Draft picks and keepers can be included in a trade, which invites the strategy of a middling team to “tank” and accumulate “assets” for the following season. As a result, a keeper league comes close to replicating real life team management. Imagine if the NBA put all their players up for draft every year. Wouldn’t that be insane?
With a keeper league, you can maintain a core of players and build around them to try and win a fantasy championship. It provides an extra facet that is somewhat predictable, as you’ll see the same three to five guys producing consistent stats. It also makes the draft more predictable and thus more competitive. For example, if I know a manager is hoarding a statistical category like blocks, I’m more likely to take Rudy Gobert higher than I would otherwise have taken him.
Then there’s the real world impact of running a keeper league, as managers will be more invested. Our redraft league was on its last legs before we converted it to a keeper league. It had gotten stale with the same people winning each season, but changing the game’s complexity has led to a learning curve which we all get to experience together. Also, if a manager knows they’re keeping a player and stashes them all season, they’re less likely to quit next season because they want to see if their multi-year plan will pan out. There’s extra incentive to be emotionally invested, and that is a good thing.
Step 2: How will your keepers work?
Okay, so I’ve sold you on the keeper league idea. Great! Now comes the hard part.
There are different schools of thought on how the keeper mechanic should work. Here are four ways I have seen it done:
- Straight up: Players are kept with no draft penalty attached.
- Actual draft cost: Rankings from your chosen platform (Yahoo!, ESPN, etc.) determine cost.
- League draft cost: Original draft selection is the keeper price.
- Ascending league draft cost: Cost increases every season.
Example: Player A keeps LeBron James, Domantas Sabonis, and Bradley Beal. The draft goes from the default 13 rounds to 10 rounds, but each player drafts every round like normal. The kept players are then added to Player A’s roster or assigned to their first three rounds of the draft accordingly.
Pros: The “straight up” approach is the simplest and most hands-off solution for you as a manager. There are no complicated transactions and nothing to explain to other managers. It’s straightforward and your less-involved managers will appreciate that. The lack of confusion will also alleviate some potential issues I’ll cover later that could result from misunderstanding the other methods.
Cons: The “straight up” approach leads to a few different problems. First, all the best fantasy players will likely never be available to draft. If Zion Williamson is kept, he will remain on a roster for the next half a decade or more. That means one manager gets to have Zion for as long as they want, and it costs that owner nothing. The other problem, which is greater and linked to the first problem, is that parity ceases to exist. If a manager can hoard the best two players (or more) in fantasy basketball, they’re pretty much guaranteed a victory no matter what format you’re playing.
Verdict: If it’s just one keeper, I could see this working. It’s very hands off and may be a good way to dip your toes into the keeper water. However, it isn’t the best option for the longevity of your league. Managers that don’t have good keepers will quit, leaving you with no one to fill the league. In some ways, it might also delegitimize your eventual champion too. You’re likely to have quitting players take a jab at the victor as they head out. Something like “If they didn’t have Anthony Davis every season, I would have smoked ’em.”
Actual Draft Cost
Example: Player A chooses to keep Zach LaVine in a 10-team league. The chosen platform, Yahoo!, has LaVine listed as the number 40 player in their preseason rankings, which is equivalent to third round value. As a result, Player A has no third round pick because that was used to keep LaVine.
Pros: The “actual draft cost” method is an extremely fair way to run a keeper league and may be the best option. By taking a draft pick away from the manager that is relatively in line with their eventual value, everyone is given a fair chance, whether they have good keepers or not. This still leaves room for savvy managers to make their mark too. For example, Yahoo! has likely Most Improved Player, Brandon Ingram, ranked number 24 in 9-cat leagues. He was ranked much lower in the preseason, so whoever drafted him in the middle rounds because of his Yahoo! ranking got incredible value. Guessing which player will break out is a fun and noteworthy way for a smart manager to affect the game.
Cons: Potential for apathy. As the ranking systems continue to improve, the spread between preseason rankings and reality diminishes. As a result, value dissipates, which neuters the keeper element. It’s just not exciting enough for me, but that’s probably more personal preference than anything.
Verdict: This is a safe path, and will work for most. It’s fair, simpler than the following two options, and prevents anyone from dominating. This is the best option for most managers, but not my personal preference.
League Draft Cost
Example: Player A took Bam Adebayo at number 73 in the 2019 draft, which would have been round 8 in a 10-team league. After a great season, if Player A wishes to keep Adebayo, an 8th round pick is forfeited.
Pro: My favorite thing about this option is that it rewards good management. This is the most realistic representation of NBA management, as it doesn’t take into account the growth of a player after being drafted. This method rewards unearthing sleepers, which is the most fun aspect of the game and allows those who put in the time to flourish. Managers are invested in the league due to the amount of preparation required. As soon as the draft is over, managers will begin speculating on future keepers and their values. In the above example, Adebayo would continue to be a round 8 value even though he turns into a first round player.
Con: When a certain behavior is rewarded, the opposite is punished. This method will quickly lead to a top-heavy league that is tough for the bottom managers to overcome. Still, basketball players retire and a new batch of potential sleepers enters the pool every year. Each draft choice is a shot in the dark though. The top managers won’t have to worry about hitting the lottery, but the bottom managers need to study extra hard and find the next big thing. A lot of managers don’t put in the effort.
Verdict: This is my preferred method for a few reasons. First, the league I run has been in operation for nearly a decade and we’re all close friends who use it to keep in touch. There’s a human factor involved that makes this method work: pride. This causes managers to never give up and right the ship if they’re down. Second, we don’t play for anything BUT pride. If this was for money, I probably wouldn’t choose this method because it can give an unfair advantage. We do have a trophy and a minor cost associated with the league to engrave the trophy and send it along to the victor, though.
There’s a mixture of skill level in my fantasy basketball league, and as the commissioner, I offer assistance to those who need it most. I’m careful not to collude, sometimes to my detriment. If you find yourself in a unique situation like this, league draft cost is the way to go.
Ascending League Draft Cost
Example: In the 2018 fantasy league draft, Player A chooses Kemba Walker at number 12, which would have been second round value in a 10-team league. The following season, Player A keeps Walker in the second round. Before the 2020 season, though, the cost to keep Walker increases to the first round.
Pros: The “ascending league draft cost” method ensures some churn of the top players. Some leagues make it impossible to keep a first round player two years in a row, since you can’t go up from round one. It also decreases the value of keepers lower in the draft. A player producing second round value that you drafted in the fourth round looks good the first season you can keep him. The next season he’ll cost a third round pick, and maybe he’ll be worth it. The next season, you’re keeping a player you may draft with the same pick, so keeping him is probably not advisable.
Cons: As described above, this doesn’t necessarily reward good management. In fact, it disincentivizes being a good basketball manager since it slowly erodes the value of a player’s draft picks. It’s also a bit of a pain to track since you have to know how long a specific manager has owned that player.
Verdict: I honestly feel like this is a needlessly complicated method. Players producing at a first or second round value aren’t necessarily guaranteed to keep producing at that level. Outside of the top two or three guys, there’s a lot of turnover in the top 10 of fantasy hoops. Injuries are a real concern, as is the natural fall off in a player’s career. There’s also trades and free agency. The natural mechanics of the game of basketball work in the same way as this mechanism. It just feels redundant. Still, this is a reasonable option if you’re willing to put in the effort. Some managers will prefer it.
IMPORTANT: Specific Scenarios to Consider
An undrafted player probably won’t return first round value. However, mid-round value is feasible. It is important to consider how you’re going to handle this before the season starts.
My personal preference is to assign a last round pick to any undrafted player. If there are 13 rounds in the draft and someone scooped up Christian Wood from the free agent pool, then he can be kept in the 13th round, regardless of if he returns 8th or 9th round value.
Any subsequent keepers who were acquired via the waiver wire are assigned the next available round. So, if Wood was kept in the 13th round, then the next player would be kept in the 12th, and so on and so forth. The round designation is determined by the manager, as this has strategic consequences for future keeper status.
Another option that would create more parity or “fairness” in your league would be to make the players cost their “actual draft cost.” If Yahoo! values Christian Wood as an 8th round player, then he’ll cost an 8th round draft pick to keep. There is also the “actual draft cost + 1 round.” In this scenario, Wood would cost a 9th round draft pick. I don’t like this as much because it doesn’t reward scouring the waiver wire, which is something that should be encouraged to keep your league active.
Do NOT treat dropped players like undrafted players. In our first keeper season, savvy managers waited until the end of the season to load up. Towards the end of the season, things get crazy, as bubble teams drop good players to have flexibility in order to grab stats and sneak into the playoffs. If someone is comfortably in the playoffs, or definitely out of the playoffs, they can wait for these drops and stack up on talent. The result is someone being able to keep a 4th or 5th round player with a 13th round pick, potentially. It’s insane.
After our initial year, we changed it to the round they were drafted plus one. If Blake Griffin was drafted in the fourth round, sits the whole year, and is dropped by a manager looking to make the playoffs, picking him up to keep would cost a fifth round draft pick.
Placing same round value is viable, but rewarding savvy management should be encouraged. Another option is to do “round drafted plus <insert number>.” Experiment and find the happy medium, but this will reward the attentive managers.
Keeping a player when no draft pick is available
If a player costs a third round pick, but a manager does not have a third round pick, then keeping that player is not an option. A way to address this would be to allow the manager to keep the player for a second round pick. The manager could also trade for a third round pick.
This defines the maximum number of years a player can be kept. If Kyle Lowry was kept for three seasons, and the limit was three years, then Lowry would not be eligible to be kept for a fourth year. The prevalence of injuries makes mechanisms like this pretty redundant. I was ambivalent about it though, so I put it to a vote. I put a lot of things I’m on the fence about to a vote, and I suggest you do the same. My league decided not to go this route, but yours may decide differently.
Two draft picks
If someone has two (or more) third round draft picks due to a trade and wants to keep a player that costs a third round draft pick, assign their keeper to the lower draft pick. You’d do that for yourself, so do it for them too. Play nice.
Step 3: How many keepers should we do?
As mentioned in the opening, you can do as little as just one keeper or as many as your whole team. It’s really up to you. When deciding how many keepers to do, there are some factors to keep in mind. It all boils down to this: more keepers will lead to certain managers winning multiple seasons with strong teams, while fewer keepers means everyone has a decent shot every season.
The amount of keepers to a manager’s potential “starting point” is inversely related. So, if you do just one keeper it really doesn’t affect anyone’s starting point. The manager that kept Anthony Davis and the player that kept Brandon Ingram are basically just as likely to win the championship of your league, no matter what your other rules may be. Unless they’re ridiculous rules, like you have one player teams or something. On the other end of the spectrum, if an entire roster is kept from season to season, strong teams are going to be the same when they return, so the manager that has a bunch of great players has a much higher “starting point” until his players’ production drops off.
If you can’t tell by now, I’m in favor of more keepers, as I like to reward managers that do a great job. But even I fall short of wanting to make entire rosters keepable. The draft is a fun aspect of any fantasy league, and trimming that down to just rookies and free agents wouldn’t really feel right to me. I like a bit of churn.
My league started with four keepers, and we upped it this past season to five keepers. I put it to a vote initially and then put the one player increase to a vote.
Another note: Make the number of keepers an “up to” situation, so that there is no minimum. Only a maximum. You don’t want to force players to keep players that aren’t valuable. They’re already being punished by not having value to hold onto, so doubling down on that disadvantage isn’t going to work. A manager can choose not to keep anyone if no one is going to give them value. They’re better off drafting players. I have had people keep two or three players season to season so far, but never less than that.
Step 4: Determine roster sizes and number of IR slots.
You may figure this out before this step, which is totally fine. Most sites have a default and sticking with that is fantastic. I’ve played standard roster sizes all the way to deep roto leagues where everyone drafts 30 guys, then chooses who they start week to week. Both were a lot of fun. Getting value from a 30th round pick is a rush!
I mention this though because if you tweak roster sizes, it will tweak everything I’ve mentioned so far. If you have a 30-round draft, someone may get to keep an undrafted player producing mid-round value as a 30th round pick. Odds are that this won’t matter too much, but it might. Just think about it.
Doing five keepers with a 30 round draft is also a lot different than doing five keepers in a 13 round draft. Both are totally doable. Both are affected in the same ways as I mentioned before. It’s just exaggerated. A 30-man roster may sound fun, but there won’t be jack crap for people to draft every year aside from rookies. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Just realize what it will do to the game.
Another thing to strongly consider is HOW MANY IR SLOTS YOU WILL GIVE EACH TEAM. IR, short for “injury reserve,” are slots on your roster where you can put an injured player that qualifies. An example of a qualification would be that Yahoo! makes a player IR eligible if they suffer an injury that will sideline them for seven days or more. Most redraft leagues overlook this slot, and that’s totally acceptable. In a setting where you only have your entire roster for one season, the choice to drop a player that is injured is pretty straightforward.
But in a game where it’s possible to roster an injured player the following season, it’s super important to give your managers ample space. My league has 13-player rosters (standard) and we added an IR slot the first season we converted to a keeper league. We increased to two IR slots recently and it’s been a great call. I feel like adding more slots would be abused, as managers would load up on injured people they can keep next year for cheap. Two out of thirteen is roughly 15%, so that’s probably a pretty good rule of thumb to help you determine how many spots to have.
Also, LOCK THE ROSTERS OF NON-PLAYOFF TEAMS WHEN PLAYOFFS START. You don’t want the teams not in the playoffs to benefit from the tough choices every playoff fantasy team must make. I would suggest unlocking them once the playoffs are over and announcing it to your league. It’s a nice way to stay active over the long offseason, and a nice way for people with waiver priority to snag some nice value. You can certainly keep them locked through the following season though and I wouldn’t judge you at all. Those players will then just be available in the next season’s draft. The downside here is it’s kind of odd to allow offseason trades (if you do that) and not allow offseason “signings.” But that might just be me.
Step 5: Plan to be busier in the offseason.
Partially a joke, but it’s true. You’re going to have to put in some work in the offseason. You’ll have to pester managers a bit more to get them to declare their keepers before your draft. You might have to dig into old draft records to see where people were taken. You may have to go back three or four seasons to determine how much a keeper should cost or whether or not they can even be kept.
If you allow trading draft picks in your league, it can get super complicated too. Most sites will track a lot of this for you, but it never hurts to keep a folder and screen shots, Word documents, spreadsheets, etc. You’ll want to reference them later on. If you mess up and don’t have the information, this is where you earn your commissioner status. You need to make a determination. The league is counting on you.
For this reason, I suggest hiring/appointing at least one other commissioner to be a co-commissioner. You can split up the duties if you want, but mainly you’ll want someone you can bounce ideas off of first before going to the entire league. It helps tremendously if you make a contentious judgment call, especially if you’re also playing in the league and it involves your team. Or your wife’s team. Yikes. I hope she reads this.
Lean on your managers for support too. I do yearly preseason polls to make sure my league rules are reflective of my players and I publish the results. It helps in scenarios where one player may be very vocally upset about a rule but they then see that 9/10 of the league disagrees with them. It also helps where 9/10 of the league disagrees with me and I get to see that, even if I feel a certain way, I have to change for the good of the league.
Running a keeper league takes more work, but it’s worth it. It adds another level of strategy and fun!