NBA Handicapping: Road Success Doesn't Equal Betting Success
by Trevor Whenham - 1/14/2010
I'm a fan of the NBA, but it's not a sport that I follow as closely as others, and I don't handicap it very often. When there are sports that I'm not avidly following I find that I like to have little rules in my mind that I can use to quickly get a sense of how a team is performing - a snapshot of where they are at.
In the NFL, for example, I can get a sense of how a team is performing over any time period quickly and reasonably accurately by looking at the quarterback's yards per attempt. In the NBA one of the things I look at to assess if a team is built to last or not is their road record. As a general rule, a team that is successful on the road is a tough, feisty team that could do some damage, while one that can only win at home has some sort of problem that requires a closer look.
It's far from a perfect indicator, but it's a good starting point. Out of curiosity, though, what I want to do is look at how well road success is converting to overall betting success this season. I'm not interested in whether teams that win on the road also cover those road games, but rather whether teams that win on the road are generally overall successful teams to bet on. My guess is that for a lot of different reasons it will be hard to connect road record to betting performance in a useful way, but here's a look:
The best - Cleveland and Boston have both won 16 road games, though the Celtics only have five road losses - two fewer than the Cavs. Neither of these teams have been a good team to bet on at all. The Cavs are at exactly .500 - 20-20 ATS - while the Celtics are 17-20 ATS. Though their road performance is a clear indicator that these are very good teams, and that either could win the championship this spring, there's obviously something more to consider. Both of these teams are very public squads with an established history of recent success, so the betting public is going to be inclined to throw their their money at them pretty much regardless of who they are playing or what the spread is. It's much harder for a team like that to cover consistently than it is for a team the public ignores.
The worst - New Jersey has just one road win, and they are also the worst ATS team in the league at just 13-25 ATS. That would seem to be an argument in favor of road record as an indicator, but it's hardly a fair fight. The Nets are so abysmally, hopelessly bad that you could use any one of 100 different indicators to get a sense that they suck and that they aren't likely to be covering any spreads. A more interesting case is Charlotte, which is tied with four other teams for the second fewest road wins with just three. They have been an impressive 14-4 at home, though, and have the second best betting record in the entire league - 22-14 ATS.
The top teams - We're not quite halfway through the regular season, but already there are just seven teams that have a winning record on the road. Those seven teams have a combined ATS record of 140-129. Just two of the seven teams are among the 11 teams in the league which are profitable ATS on the season, though - the very solid Hawks, which lead the league ATS, and the surprisingly solid Thunder. Those teams have the sixth and seventh best road winning percentage in the league, so if you just look at the top five teams you are left with a dismal ATS record of 92-101 ATS. In other words, a good road record seems to be no guarantee at all that a team is going to be worth betting on.
The bottom teams - There are a lot of bad road teams, but six have struggled particularly, winning three or fewer road games in at least 16 tries. Of the six, Chicago and Charlotte are at least theoretically in the playoff hunt in the East, while the other four are locks for the lottery. You'd expect an ugly group of teams like that to be pretty weak ATS as well. You'd be right - their combined ATS mark is 106-114-5. There are two profitable ATS teams in this group as there were with the good road teams. Charlotte is second best in the league at 22-14 ATS, while Sacramento is fifth best at 19-15-3.
The bottom line - If you are relying upon road record either as an indicator of team strength and likelihood of covering a spread or as part of a formula for spotting winners then you might want to re-assess. It doesn't appear that there is a meaningful correlation.
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