NBA Handicapping: Just How Bad is the Eastern Conference?
by Trevor Whenham - 2/12/2014
The Eastern Conference of the NBA is so weak this year that it is pathetic. That’s the storyline that has been established since the start of the year, and it is what casual bettors base a lot of their handicapping decisions on. Assumptions like this can be dangerous for bettors over the long term. If the underlying situation changes but bettors don’t adjust and just keep making the same assumptions then they can make bad betting decisions. So, is the east as bad now as it was earlier in the year? Let’s take a look from a few different angles:
Western comparisons: The comparison between the two conferences is striking. The ninth-place team in the west, Memphis, has a .549 winning percentage. That has them two games out of the playoffs, yet only Indiana and Miami have a better record in the east. Only the top two plus Chicago and Toronto are above .500, and Atlanta sits right at even. Minnesota sits 11th in the west and is all but eliminated from playoff contention. In the east they would comfortably hold down the eighth spot. Indiana and Miami would be the first- and third-place teams in the west, respectively, but third-place Toronto would be 10th in the west. Another way to say that is that of the Top 11 records in the NBA, only two belong to Eastern teams. Given that Eastern teams are, by circumstance, playing a weaker schedule, the difference between the two conferences is particularly striking.
Against the other conference: The Top 12 teams in the Western Conference have a winning record against teams from the Eastern Conference on the season. Just think about that for a second. It shouldn’t be possible. Ten of those 12 teams have won at least five more games against eastern opponents than they have lost, so the domination is nearly total. On the other hand, Indiana and Miami are the only teams with a winning record against the West. A third, Brooklyn, sits at 9-9. When you look at things this way you realize just how much stronger the west is.
Recent form: After a lot of bleak comparisons, here is one way in which things are finally a little optimistic. In the last 10 games played, Atlanta and Cleveland, both at 4-6, are the only two teams among the Top 13 in the east that aren’t at 5-5 or better. Six of the 11 are at .500, Toronto, Brooklyn and Charlotte are 6-4, and the two elite teams are 7-3. That’s not particularly unique. The Top 9 teams in the west are all .500 or better over their last 10. For a conference that has struggled so badly to win games, though, it is a very good sign of progress. They aren’t redefining excellence as a conference by any means, but they are at least living up to their expectations, and many teams are far exceeding them. While it is too soon to say that the east is on the road to respectability, it is more important now than ever this year to carefully assess how a team is currently performing and how that matches up with public perceptions.
Betting performance: There is some good news here from a betting perspective as well. Indiana, Toronto and Charlotte are three of the five most profitable teams in the league over the whole season ATS. Washington is also nicely profitable. It’s on the other side of the ledger that things get bleak — or good depending upon your perspective. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New York, Cleveland, Orlando and Miami are the six worst teams to bet on over the course of this season, and they all play in the east. Betting against any of those teams all year would have delivered a nice profit, though, so if you are a pessimist you could be doing well. Betting against Detroit and Chicago has also been profitable.
Point differential: At the heart of it, whether you are a stats junkie or a feel player, there is one statistical truth you can’t argue with — if a team consistently scores more points than their opponents they are going to win a lot of games. Point differential isn’t necessarily a good indicator of future performance, but it is a good way to get a sense of how teams have been playing up to this point. To do well here a team needs to be able to score well, and they need to have reasonable defense. They need balance, in other words, and balance is a very good thing in basketball. Again here the picture is bleak. Indiana tops the league standings in this statistical category, and Miami sits fifth. Those are the only two eastern teams in the Top 10. Fourteen teams have a positive point differential on the season. Just four — the Top 2 plus Atlanta and Toronto — are from the east. Meanwhile, the two worst teams in the league in this regard, and eight of the bottom 11, toil in the east. Given that, it’s not surprising that the east just hasn’t been very good.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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