Is Revenge A Handicapping Factor in the NBA?
by Trevor Whenham - 02/01/2007
Monday night set up like a dream betting night in the NBA. The previous Friday, Orlando had been embarrassed at home by the lowly Atlanta Hawks. The Magic had been nine point favorites, but Atlanta won by three after Orlando blew a 14-point lead. Orlando hadn't exactly been playing like world beaters of late, having lost more than they won over the last three weeks or so, but then Atlanta is Atlanta, so the Magic should have done better than they did. Orlando got a chance for revenge on Monday. They were playing Atlanta again, they were favored by a smaller and more manageable three points this time, and they would surely be keen to come out and prove that they are better than the Hawks. Or so you would think. Instead, the Magic looked terrible and lost by a wider margin, 10 points, than they had in the previous game. So much for the revenge factor.
That brings to mind the question of whether there really is a revenge factor in the NBA. Anecdotally, you can see it both ways. For every game like the one above that doesn't support the theory, there are others, like the Knicks beating the Heat on Friday after getting crushed in Miami on Monday, that would suggest that revenge is a factor. Then again the Wizards beat the Pistons twice in the span of four days recently. The more you look at it, the more you come to the same conclusion - sometimes there is a revenge factor and sometimes there isn't. In an uncertain situation like that, betting on the basis of a factor like this can get expensive. If you pick the right spots you can do very well, but if you blindly bet on every revenge situation you would probably go broke. To avoid the latter situation, here's an attempt to develop a few rules to determine if revenge is actually going to be a factor:
1) Emotional involvement - Revenge is all about emotion. That's why it is such a big factor in college - every game matters, and there are so few games that every one seems crucial, so it isn't hard to get up for a game. With so many games in the NBA, though, it's way too easy for a team to take off a game or two without any real consequences. Teams also see each other more during the season in the NBA than they do in college. It's very easy, then, for a team to just drift through a game or a stretch of games. That's where things went wrong with the Orlando game. Orlando was already struggling, there is no real rivalry between the two teams and beating the Hawks isn't impressive to anyone, so there was no particular reason for the Magic to get up for the game than they normally would. On the other hand, the Knicks would be fired up about the Heat because they are defending champs, and because there is probably still some lingering resentment over how Pat Riley left the Knicks, even if that was more than a decade ago. The other difference is that the Magic are reasonably entrenched in a playoff position with little threat from below and nowhere to go above them, while the Knicks are fighting an uphill battle for a playoff spot. That means the Knicks could be more motivated. All of those factors mean that the Knicks were likely to be more involved in the game, and would therefore be a better bet based on the revenge consideration.
Ask yourself if the game really matters. If you can't come up with several reasons to explain why winning the rematch would be important for the loser of the first game then revenge likely isn't a factor.
2) Multiple losses - In college basketball a team is going to remember every loss, especially if it is against a conference team. Losses in the NBA are far less significant in and of themselves, so it is often likely that a team doesn't attach any significance to a single loss, or feel any resentment towards a team that beats them. The one circumstance where losses would mean more, and when revenge would likely become a factor, is if one team has beaten another team twice in a row. When that happens, especially if it happens over a reasonably short span of time, then it would seem more likely that the team that has been losing the match-ups would look to win this time. It would seem, and a cursory look supports this thought, that a team that has lost two in a row against an opponent would become a good bet against the spread in the third game. In the case that the team with the winning streak is significantly better than the team that has been losing then it might not mean that the losing team becomes a bet, but it would often seem that the game would become one to avoid betting on.
3) Margin of loss - Though it is fairly easy to think that NBA players are, for the most part, spoiled babies who are most concerned about themselves, there is one thing that you can pretty much be certain of: every player in the league has a huge ego. Because of that it would make sense that a team that has been embarrassed in one game would be looking to avenge that loss the next time they get a chance. That would seem to be especially true if the star of the losing team didn't play particularly well in the bad loss. That would seem to be the error in looking at the Orlando-Atlanta game as a revenge situation - the Magic had only lost by three the first time, so there wasn't a lot of reason for their pride to step up and lead them to a win. The Knicks, on the other hand, had lost by 18, they were down by 28 after the first quarter, and Stephon Marbury and Quentin Richardson were both held to just six points, so the team would be looking to prove that they are better than they appeared in that game.