NBA Handicapping: Back-to-Back Games
by Trevor Whenham - 02/28/2008
Teams play games on back-to-back days occasionally in the NHL, but it isn't nearly as common as it is in the NBA. Basketball teams play on consecutive nights very frequently. In fact, teams have played two nights in a row a total of 404 times as I write this, and every team has played on consecutive nights at least 11 times. Given that this situation comes up so often during the course of the season, it seems like it is worth a bit of study.
The public's general reaction to back-to-back games tends to be to assume that the team will be tired and less effective in the second game in as many nights. Based on this, you could assume that one of two different situations could occur. Either the public is right in their tendency and teams aren't as effective in their second game, or they are wrong and their betting patterns would create better odds and more value on the team playing on the second night. Strangely enough, neither is true. Or, at least neither is true for the whole league. The ATS record of teams in the second game is 199-200-5 on the season. In other words, it is virtually identical to the ATS record of all games played.
What does that mean? In general, it means that teams perform no better or worse in the second game in a row than the general expectation for the entire season. On the surface, then, this doesn't provide any particular handicapping opportunities. As with most general statements, though, you can find a few interesting elements by looking a little bit closer. Here are three of the more interesting observations:
1) There are 10 teams that are profitable ATS over the course of the season. Eight of those 10 teams are more profitable in the second game in as many nights. That means, then, that in cases of quality the public is actually incorrect in their assumption. If they were to assume that a team would not be at their best in the second game then the odds on that team would be more generous than expected, and the better team would be able to cover more often than normal. The same logic proves true in the other way. Five of the nine worst ATS teams in the league performed worse in the second game in a row. In those cases, then, the public is correct in their assumption.
So what? Well, it shows us the danger of assuming all teams respond in the same way - sweeping generalizations are a quick route to poverty. In this case, we may even need to work with two different sets of assumptions - that good ATS teams are worth a strong look in their second straight games, while the opponents of weak ATS teams are worthy of that look in the same situation.
2) The Eastern Conference performed better in the second games. Teams in the East won 51.9 percent of those second games, while those in the West won just 47.6 percent. This may just be a coincidence, but the sample size is big enough to at least get the first hint that there might be more to it. One possible explanation is that the teams in the West generally have further to travel more often, so the impact of that travel could be more significant for them on consecutive nights.
3) The teams that excel at second games aren't always the ones you would think. The two top teams in the category are the Lakers and Utah. No surprise there. It is surprising, though, that the next best team is Philadelphia. The Sixers have covered 54.6 percent of all of their games, and an impressive 69.2 percent of their second games. That's the biggest improvement (14.6 percent) of any team in the league. Right behind them at 14 percent is another team that isn't exactly tearing it up this year - Indiana. That shows that you don't have to win a lot of games to be able to cover these second games. Indiana is a particularly interesting case - they are far from profitable overall (26-32 ATS), but nicely profitable in the second games (10-7 ATS). They have also played more often twice in a row than any other team.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is San Antonio. They have the second best record in the West and are a very legitimate threat to win it all. No team in the league, though, is more of a disaster against the spread in these second games than the Spurs. They have covered just three times in 11 games. Denver, Golden State and Cleveland are other teams in the heart of the playoff hunt that are far from profitable in these second games.