Flu Bug Overrated in NBA Handicapping
by Trevor Whenham - 02/05/2008
Having the flu isn't a lot of fun. You probably know that from first hand experience. So do a surprising number of NBA players. Over the last couple of weeks the list of players who have missed time thanks to the flu is long and reasonably distinguished. Just take a look - Dwyane Wade didn't travel to play Orlando, Tracy McGrady didn't play Golden State, Yao Ming couldn't play Utah, Ray Allen missed a game against Miami, Corey Maggette has missed four in a row so far. That's not an all-star roster, but it could be. Other than Allen, each of those players leads their team in points or rebounds, and Allen is no slouch, either. That's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sick players - you know that each of the players who were sick enough to miss a game would be very likely to have infected teammates. It also doesn't account for the players who are sick, but not sick enough to sit out.
There's a strange thing that has happened a couple of times with sick players in the last couple of weeks. Yao Ming was still under the weather the game after he sat out. The Rockets played the Warriors. You'd expect that Yao would struggle with stamina. Instead, he had 36 points and 19 rebounds - both tied for his season high. Al Thornton was fighting the flu as his Clippers met the Hawks last week. He posted 33 points - a career high. When Allen came back he wasn't at 100 percent, but he scored 26 points, his second best total since the beginning of December.
When you look over the boxscores the last few weeks since the flu started hitting teams hard you notice a couple of things. Many teams don't play as badly as the public expects when a star player is out, and several players have played particularly well when they have been sick, or when they have come back from a game off. If that's not just a coincidence then there could be some value there. If the public consistently overestimates the impact of a sickness like this, and that inflates the lines beyond where they should be. In order to be comfortable if that could be a possibility that is worth exploring, though, I would need to be convinced on a logical level that it would make sense both that a team would play better than expected if losing a payer to the flu, and that a player could play better than expected if he is sick. Here's an effort to do just that:
1. We often see a team's first game or two after a star has gone down to an injury look pretty good. They have the adrenaline of having to make due without their star, and they have the determination to overcome the obstacle. In the same way, it could seem reasonable for teams to rally and fight if a star has gone down for a short time because of the flu. Players will step up to fill in the gap. This could even be easier psychologically for players than on a more serious injury because players know the star will only be out for a short time.
2. Unlike a serious injury, the decision to hold a player out because of the flu is often made close to game time. Because of that, players don't have the time to dwell on what missing the player means to them, and the problems that it will cause. If they can't think about it and think of the ways that it will be a problem then perhaps it won't be a problem.
3. If players are feeling sick then there is a good chance that they will feel particularly motivated. They will feel like they are off their game, so they will step up their effort to compensate for whatever else might be lacking. That might not be the common response for all people, but it stands to reason that it would be the response of a player who is both talented and driven enough to be the star of their team.
4. If a player is showing signs of flu then there is a very good chance that they will be given fluids intravenously, along with whatever other treatment the team's doctors see fit. As such, it's quite possible that they will be more hydrated than they would otherwise be. They also will have been forced to relax and rest while the IV is being administered. I'm no doctor, but it would seem very possible that players would actually experience a bit of a boost in energy from the flu.
5. If a player misses a game because of the flu then they will likely be ordered to rest and sleep and relax, and the best possible treatments will be administered. That could give any aches or pains that were nagging a chance to subside. It could also be a good mental break for a player in the middle of the season - think of how much better you felt after you took a sick day from school.
That list is obviously far from conclusive and not scientific, but it does seem logical to me that the impact of the flu on NBA handicapping would be less than people would expect. People panic when they hear stars are sick or injured, and the flu epidemic gives us an opportunity to profit from that panic.