NBA Handicapping: How To Handle Eliminated Teams Down the Stretch
by Trevor Whenham - 02/26/2009
There are still 25 or so games left in the NBA season, but for at least nine teams the season is all but over. There is no chance for a playoff run, and little reason for hope. Those teams provide a puzzle for sports bettors. With nine teams out of 30 being affected, choosing not to bet these teams would severely limit the playable games. That means that we need to decide how to bet on these teams, and how to determine what kind of effort to expect going forward. Here are five rules to help you in that pursuit:
Don't assume the teams are lousy - At this point in the season, a team can have 15 wins for at least two reasons - because they are a really bad team, or because bad luck or circumstances have conspired against them. You could generally say this year, for example, that Sacramento is where they are at because they have very little talent, no general theme that determines their style of play or the players on the roster, and have lousy coaching and management. On the other hand, Washington isn't much better off, but that's more the result of injuries and challenges than a pervasive, lasting problem. So how does that affect handicapping? Well, a bad team has no real choice but to be bad, but a decent team that has fallen on hard times has the potential to play better than they are. Potential is a tough thing for bettors to deal with, but figuring it out is easier if you know if it's there or not. You basically need to ask and answer two questions - can you explain the reasons for the team's terrible start, and do the factors that caused it still exist?
Look for major changes - A bad team can go on an improved streak if one of the contributing factors to their struggles changes. Most significantly, that would mean the return of a key injured player, or the acquisition of a needed component through a trade. Both of those factors could make the team better quickly. It can work the other way as well. A key injury to an already depleted squad could make their previous bad days look good in comparison. A bad team could also get worse if they trade away decent players to help their salary cap issues. Sacramento is a good example of this - they aren't exactly burning up the league since trading away Brad Miller and John Salmons.
Look for minor changes - Changes don't have to be major to be significant. A change of point guards could adjust the tempo of the team, the pace they move the ball with, and their ability to cover big spreads. The arrival or departure of an assistant coach could change a key component of the team's game. Small changes are likely to be overlooked by the public, but they can create big value for attentive bettors. This is where spending time perusing Web sites and reading newspapers closely can pay off.
Consider the schedule - A bad team can look worse against good teams and better against bad teams. It seems obvious, but I mention it because it's important. A struggling team can play below even meager expectations if they face an extended road trip, or if they play consecutive games against elite teams. On the other hand, a team could grab some momentum if their upcoming schedule contains more soft spots than normal.
Status of coach and core players - This is perhaps the biggest key. The contract status and job security of players and coaches has a far bigger impact on pro athletes these days than is probably ideal. A team that has a coach who is likely to be fired after the season is almost certain not to be motivated or well-led by that coach. A player that is counting the minutes until his free agency is unlikely to go above and beyond the minimum call of duty. On the other hand, a coach who was installed to rebuild a program will have the patience and the latitude to do what is good for the long term, and is much more likely to have a team that shows progress and good effort as the season progresses. Similarly, a team built around young, emerging stars is more likely to improve as the players get more seasoned and comfortable.
Not to pick on Sacramento, but they are a very good example of a team that isn't likely to get better any time soon. They have gutted their team, coach Kenny Natt is an interim coach who is almost certain not to be renewed, and they are showing little progress. I would be hard pressed to come up with a good reason to bet on them most of the time. On the other side of the coin you have a team like Oklahoma City. They have just one more win than the Kings, but their prospects are infinitely better. Kevin Durant is emerging as a megastar in his second year, Russell Westbrook is perhaps the fastest improving rookie in his class, and Jeff Green has taken huge strides forward from last year. Scott Brooks has been somewhat successful with the team as the interim coach, and he has his team covering the spread at the third best rate in the league. It's not unreasonable to assume that Oklahoma City could shine in the right spot. It's foolish to think the same of the Kings.