NBA Handicapping: Long Road Trips
by Trevor Whenham - 02/05/2009
Inevitably, NBA teams are going to be forced on the road for extended road trips during the season. So far this season, only San Antonio and Minnesota have yet to go on a trip of at least four games. Some teams do well on these trips, while others struggle badly. These trips are obviously important for bettors. Successful handicappers need to be able to determine when a team isn't likely to be at their best so that they can exploit the situation. They also need to know of cases where the public is likely to overcompensate for the effects of the road trips and provide some value. To look at the impact of these extended trips this season I have looked at teams once they are well into their trips - after they have played at least three games. Here's what we have seen so far:
So far, teams have played 76 games that have taken place as the fourth, fifth, or sixth game of a road trip. We have to keep in mind, then, that the sample size is small here. That means that we can look for basic trends, but we can't assume them to be solid or repeatable. In other words, this is one of the many cases where handicapping is more of an art than a science. With that in mind, the results - the road teams are 34-40-2 ATS in these games. That means that betting against them has been profitable, but only barely. Certainly not enough to pique my interest.
You might assume that the better teams would be better in these situations because they are better in general. That certainly makes sense. The problem is that it hasn't been true this year. Teams above .500 have been 16-22 ATS, while teams below are actually quite a bit better at 18-18-2. The teams above .500 would actually be nicely profitable if you had been betting against them all year, but it is counter-intuitive to assume that that would continue at that rate all season given the comparative success of lesser teams.
If we tighten up our definition of a good team to better than .600 we see that the good teams still aren't particularly successful - they are 8-11 ATS. That means that teams below .600 are 26-29-2 ATS. You can find some small success with teams on long road trips if you look at the squads that are above .700. Those teams are 5-2 ATS, a winning record of over 71 percent. The problem is that that's not particularly useful, either. There are only four teams with records above .700 - Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and the Lakers. Only two of those teams have a profitable record, and the Lakers are just 1-0 ATS, so they aren't very meaningful either. In other words, we can have no certainty that this success will continue based on what has happened.
So what have we learned so far? Teams aren't particularly successful at the tail end of long road trips, but their struggles aren't significant enough to make a profit. Further, we can't make these situations usefully profitable by limiting the teams based on their records. No help so far. How about if we look at the teams based on geography?
As a general rule, teams in the Western Conference face far uglier road trips than teams in the East. Cities are further apart in the west. That means that western teams have to travel further, take longer trips, and deal with more difficult time zone changes. The effects of traveling from west to east was clearly in evidence in the NFL this year, and it is also in evidence in the NBA. Western Conference teams have been 11-22 ATS late in road trips. That's still a small sample size, but it is certainly promising. Eastern teams, on the other hand, are 23-18-2 ATS. That's also interesting, but not as compelling as the results from the west.
These results are further confirmed by looking at the teams that have been successful. Seven teams have been profitable in these situations while having played more than one such game. Of those seven teams, only one - Phoenix at 3-1 ATS - is from the west. The other six - New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Miami and Orlando - all face easier travel schedules and fewer time changes. It would seem, then, that jet lag and distance from home are a far better determinant of road trip success than the record of the team.
Again, we can confirm the difference in performance between the conferences by looking at the five worst teams. Of those teams, only one - Detroit - is from the east. Utah, Portland, Golden State and Sacramento are all out west. Portland and Utah are the best two teams from that group, yet they are the only two to have failed to cover four games.