Handicapping Long NBA Road Trips
by Trevor Whenham - 02/29/2008
Road trips, and particularly long ones, can create a challenge when handicapping the NBA. It can be very difficult to know how a team is going to respond on a long trip. If things go well, teams can really gel and put together an impressive run. If a trip starts off poorly, though, it can end up as a disaster. Handicapping teams on road trips is one of the many cases where a sports bettor needs to be part psychologist to make a guess on how teams are thinking.
There have been 25 road trips of five games or more so far this year. Two teams - Atlanta and Miami have each been on two. The Hawks had it particularly rough, with both of their long trips (one five games and one six) falling in just over a month between Jan. 23 and Feb. 25. There are seven teams that have yet to go on an extended trip including, coincidentally, four of the five teams from the Southwest Division. The fifth team in that division, San Antonio, shares the distinction of the longest road trip of the year, nine games, with the Lakers.
As is usually the case with these things, a closer look at the data can show us a couple of interesting and even surprising conclusions. A few of the more interesting:
1) Better with age. If I were to guess at the mindset of the typical bettor, the feeling would be that teams would be less effective as the road trips wore on. The longer teams are away from familiar beds and friendly fans, the less likely they would seem to be to perform at their best. You'd guess, then, that a team would struggle later on in a trip.
Because that's the kind of thing that would seem like it would sound logical to the public, and because as a sports bettor I have a deep distrust of the public, I would probably guess that teams would perform a little bit better ATS later in trips than they do over the whole trip. If the public believes that the teams get worse as the trip goes along, they would bet more heavily than usual on the home team, and the road team would have same value later in the trip.
As it turns out, that theory is far more accurate than I could have imagined. The record of all of the teams combined on trips of five or more games is 74-74-1 ATS. To see how teams held up later in the trip, I also looked at the last three games of those trips. The results were stunning - the ATS record jumped to 45-32-1. That tells us a couple of things. First, it's a pretty good indicator that the public overcompensates heavily for long trips. More significantly, it tells us that you could certainly do worse than blindly betting on road teams on the tail end of long trips.
The results are just as compelling when you look at teams individually. Fifteen of the 23 teams who have gone on long road trips had a better winning percentage in their last three games than they did for the whole trip (or trips for the two teams that have had two). Two more teams had the same record in both groups. That means that 17 of the 23 teams, or 74 percent, were as good or better at the end of long road trips. In the sports betting world, a number like 74 percent is enough to make you sit up and take notice.
2) It doesn't take a good team to pay off on the road. Of the five teams with the best ATS record on their long trips, only two - the Lakers and Orlando - have a winning record. The other three - Sacramento, Chicago and the Knicks - are a pretty sorry collection of bad teams. On the other hand, three of the five teams with the best records in the league (that have been on a long trip) had a losing ATS record on the trip. As with so many other parts of sports betting, this is a case where paying more than just passing attention to the overall record of a team could cost you money. Good teams aren't always good bets.
3) West is best. The best division during these trips was the Pacific. They had an overall ATS of 21-10, and 11-4 in the last three. A lot of that success is owed to the Lakers, who finished their recent nine-game road trip at 8-1 ATS after adding Pau Gasol. Of the rest of the teams in the division, though, only the lousy Clippers had a losing ATS record on their road trip. The division with the most road woes was the Atlantic. I mentioned earlier that the Knicks were 4-1 ATS on their trip. That surprising success was the only time a team in the division had a winning road record. Overall, the combined ATS record was a dismal 12-17.