Are Balanced NBA Teams Better ATS?
by Trevor Whenham - 01/24/2008
When it comes to the NBA, the thing I am fascinated by more than anything else is how teams score points. I am always interested to see if a team relies on a single player to drive the offense (Cleveland, Miami, Lakers), whether it is shared between two stars (Detroit, Denver, Houston), or if scoring is done by committee (Boston, Orlando, San Antonio). There isn't one particular approach that is correct, but each one creates a very different style of team, and each therefore requires a different approach to NBA handicapping.
As I was thinking about the different styles I became curious about how each style affects against the spread performance. Is a team better off to have one star or three? Is it better to bet on balanced teams or outstanding individuals? This needed some study. To do that, I split the league up into three groups - those with one scorer, those with two, and those with three or more (none had more than three by my definition). The way I defined each group was the number of players a team had that had a point total that was within 25 percent of the teams leading scorer. That is to say that if you could take a player's total, add 25 percent of his points to that total and end up with more points than the team's leading scorer, then he qualified. The breakdown was perhaps more spread out than I would have guessed - nine teams relied on one scorer, 15 teams used two, and six had three. From this we were able to discover some interesting conclusions.
First, the groups. Teams with one primary scorer were Toronto, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, Minnesota, Seattle, the Lakers, Phoenix, and Sacramento. Double threats were with New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver, Portland, Utah, Golden State, the Clippers, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. That leaves Boston, Indiana, Orlando, Washington, Memphis and San Antonio as the well-balanced squads.
Straight up - The first conclusion we can draw is that a team is more likely to have a winning record the more scoring threats it has. Four of the nine teams in the first group have a winning record, or 44 percent. In the second group it is eight of 15, or 53 percent. The third group has by far the best percentage, with four of the six member teams, or 67 percent, above .500. There are three teams in the league with just a single digit win total - Miami, Minnesota and Seattle. All three fall into the single scorer group.
Number of profitable teams - In an interesting bit of symmetry, the three groups each have three teams that are profitable against the spread over the course of the season. That's less impressive for the second group, which has 15 teams, than it is for the third group and its six teams. What makes the distribution less equitable, though, is just how profitable the profitable teams are. The three teams in the first group are the three least profitable teams of the nine that have made money. In other words, the Lakers, Sacramento and Toronto have made money, but not a lot. On the other hand, three of the four most profitable teams in the league come from the group with three scorers. It can be concluded, then, that there is a greater likelihood both that a team will be profitable and that the profit will be more significant if the team spreads its scoring out than if it is focused on one or two players.
Overall profitability of groups - The teams with one scorer have a combined ATS record of 176-192-3, for a winning percentage of .478. The dual threat teams have a slightly better mark of 298-314-8, for a .487 winning percentage. That's better but still a quick way to go broke. The group of three scorers really shone - 139-107-3, for a .565 winning percentage. Those numbers are all slightly flawed because the teams in each group have played each other, so several games are counted as both a win and a loss. Still, the general trend is clear - the more scoring threats a team has, the more profitable it's likely to be in the long run.
The middle third - What happens in each group if we ignore the best and worst teams and look at the teams in the middle? That way we can avoid having the record skewed by the runaway successes like Orlando, or the ATS disasters like Miami. Despite that, though, the results pretty much mirror what we have seen before. The first two groups have almost identical, and unprofitable, average ATS records of 19-22 and 19-21 for their middle third of teams. The third group is much better, with an average for the middle group of 23-18. This reinforces again what we have concluded before - a team is more likely to be profitable if it has more serious scoring threats than it is if scoring is concentrated on one or two players.
Individual superstars - It turns out that having a leading scorer on a team does not make it an attractive bet. Only one of the 10 leading scorers in the league, Kobe Bryant, plays for a team with a winning record ATS. The combined ATS record of the teams the 10 top scorers play for is 188-221-3, a paltry .460 winning clip.