Handicapping NBA Injuries
by Trevor Whenham - 12/06/2007
In a strange fluke, Tim Duncan and LeBron James, arguably two of the top five players in the NBA, both went down to injuries in the same week. Neither player is out for an extended period of time, but both San Antonio and Cleveland will have to make due without their centerpieces for a while. This proves yet again what we already knew oh so well - even the biggest stars can get injured. When they do, handicapping their teams becomes much more difficult. The Lakers with Kobe are a much different team than they are with him on the bench. The same can be said in many of the homes of the league's top stars - Steve Nash and Phoenix, Dwight Howard in Orlando, Dwyane Wade in Miami, and others. It can be too easy, though, to make handicapping mistakes in reaction to those injuries, and mistakes are almost always costly. Here, then, are five things to keep in mind as you handicap NBA teams that are missing their stars:
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Recent form of stars - The NBA is very much a star driven league. Each team has a big name or two that gets the majority of the headlines and the attention, leaving the majority of the rosters to toil in relative obscurity. The problem, though, is that the big name stars aren't always the best players on a team. Sure, they were at some point, but it is very common to have a situation where a star is not contributing to an extent that matches his reputation. This can be a short-term slump, or more of a long-term aging problem. The loss of Shaq, for example, would have reasonably little impact on the Heat right now. When you first hear that a star is out of action, you need to do a quick analysis of whether that actually matters to a huge extent or not. The one thing you can be certain of is that the public is going to react strongly to the loss of a big name regardless of the reality of the situation. If the loss is not as big a problem as it is perceived to be by the public then a betting opportunity can arise.
Schedule - There are some teams that just aren't good enough to beat another team no matter what happens. Tim Duncan was hurt against Portland. The Trail Blazers have a bright future, but they just aren't very good right now. Despite only getting 10 minutes from Duncan before the injury San Antonio won by 21 and covered the 14 point spread with ease. The Spurs won with little input from Duncan, and would very likely have won almost as easily without their star at all. The loss of a star at a time like that means very little, and the public will likely overreact. If, on the other hand, Duncan were to go down as the team was about to leave for a trip to Phoenix, Dallas and the Lakers then the Spurs probably have a problem. Not all games are created equal in the NBA.
Depth of team - The loss of a star will affect some teams far more than others. The Spurs have so much talent, and play in such a balanced manner, that Duncan's absence can be overcome. James is the only thing that the Cavs have going for them. It's no surprise, then, that the Spurs beat Dallas as underdogs in Duncan's first game out, while the Cavs have lost three in a row and have looked increasingly lost and directionless since LeBron went down. Similarly, Orlando or the Lakers would likely struggle far more without their stars than Phoenix or Boston would. It's also important to look at the style of the team and the role that the star plays. Duncan is just one head of the Spurs monster, so there are others who can fill in almost seamlessly. LeBron is not only the core of the offense, but the spiritual and emotional leader of the Cavs as well. He is as crucial as any player in the league.
First time? - It makes a big difference whether a team is going without their crutch for the first time, or whether they are used to it by now. It's not simply whether a star has been injured before, but whether the core of the current lineup has had to survive without him in the past. Chris Bosh is the heart and soul of the Raptors, but he has missed chunks of most seasons he has played. The Raps are unquestionably better when he plays, but they have learned not to panic without him.
Line movement - Even a team that loses the superstar at the heart of their team can be a good bet. You need to watch the line movement closely in these cases. The public is going to pound the opponent of a team with an injury. The books will likely set the line to accommodate this in the first place, so if the line continues to fall then the value can actually be on the team that is dealing with the loss. This can be seen with both the Cavs and the Spurs. Three games before James went down Cleveland beat Boston in overtime as 3.5-point underdogs. James had a very good game, but the team as a whole played well. The first game without James, the Cavs faced Boston again. Despite the win, they were now 13.5 underdogs. LeBron is valuable, but you could argue that 10 points is too much to compensate for him. Cleveland struggled without their star, but still comfortably covered this huge spread in the loss. In Duncan's first game out, Dallas was favored by 2.5 in San Antonio. The Spurs were undefeated at home, and were 6-3-2 ATS while never being faced by less than six, so the line seemed to be overcompensating for the injury. San Antonio won by two.