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Evaluating NBA Teams Using Advanced Metrics

We are early in the NBA season, but we have seen enough games play that teams are starting to separate themselves in terms of their records. The challenge for sports handicappers is to determine whether teams with bad records right now are just struggling and having some bad luck, or if they are just bad. Similarly, we have to figure out if teams that have started strong are going to stay that way, or if they are going to come crashing back down to earth. As a sports bettor, there are three things I like to look at at this time of year (or any time) to judge how effectively a NBA team is playing:

Active roster – This one should go without saying, but it is crucially important. Before you can judge how a team is playing you need to look at who is playing. If a team is forced to play a lot of backups because of early injuries then they obviously aren’t giving a performance that is indicative of their real talent. Beyond that, you also need to look if the current starting lineup is what it would ideally be down the stretch, or if it is likely to change soon once young players get more seasoned.

Pythagorean record – From here on out we are going to get into some powerful stats, so be brace to work your math muscles a little bit. Don’t worry, though – this is reasonably simple stuff. The first place we’ll start is the Pythagorean record. This is a formula that determines what the record of a team should be based on how they are performing both offensively and defensively. You can calculate it for yourself, but a few seconds with Google will find several sites which have already done the math part for you. What you are looking for is to see if the expected record of a NBA team is reasonably close to what it actually is. A difference of a win or two isn’t significant if a team has played 10 games, but if the Pythagorean record was five or six games different from the actual record then luck and circumstances have contributed to the difference, and the team is unlikely to continue at the current pace. This is effective both for basketball teams that are playing really badly, and teams that can’t seem to lose.

The four factors – Dean Oliver is like the Bill James of basketball statistics. His book Basketball on Paper is one of the leading forces in bringing more meaningful statistical analysis to basketball. If you haven’t read it and you handicap basketball at any level then you are totally missing out. Oliver has brought forth many useful insights. Among his most effective and useful contributions is his four factors to basketball success. He isolated four statistics, and simply put teams that perform well in these four areas perform well on the scoreboard. If a team is winning a lot of games but doesn’t stack up well in the league in all four of these stats then they are likely to slow down their winning pace. On the flip side, and elite team will be elite in these four categories. A team with a lousy record that performs well in the four factors – or at least performs at an average level – is going to start winning some games. A team with a poor record that is at the bottom of the pile in these four stats is almost certain to be a bad team all year.

The first of the stats, and the most significant of the four for sports bettors is how well the team shoots. Oliver uses effective field goal percentage here. eFG% factors in not only the percentage of shots that go in the basket, but how many points they generate. For example, a guy who sinks five out of 10 shots would have a field goal percentage of 50%, and that be better by standard measures than a guy who sunk just four out of 10 shots and had a 40% field goal percentage. If all of the first shooter’s shots were from two point range while the second shooter only shot from three point range, though, then the first shooter would have generated 10 points, while the second would have put 12 on the board. The second shooter would have the higher eFG% because points are all that ultimately matter.

Second, Oliver focuses on turnover percentages. Simply, NBA teams that win games win the turnover battle – a way in which basketball is a lot like football. Every time you turn the ball over you are ending a possession without adding any points to the board. The fewer possessions a team scores on, the the fewer points they will have, and the harder it will be to win.

The third factor is straight forward – the offensive rebounding percentage. Whenever a shot is missed two things can happen – the team that made the shot can get the rebound, or the defense can get it and start a rebound of their own. When a team makes an offensive rebound they are quite likely to be able to add points right away, so these situations are particularly significant. The more often a team is able to get an offensive rebound, the more likely they are to be able to win games and this is a big factor in moneyline betting.

Finally, and least significantly of the four factors, Oliver looks at free throws. Teams that are more effective at getting to the line are going to have more opportunities to score uncontested points, and are going to have a better chance of winning as a result. I divide free throw attempts by field goal attempts to get a comparable measure for teams.

The further we get into the NBA season, the more likely it is that teams that are succeeding in the standings are doing well in most or all of these four factors, and vice versa. If a team is excelling in these four areas but not yet earning a lot of wins as a result then they are likely to improve. If a team is losing and struggling in these measures then the struggles are likely to continue. Use the handicapping tips outlined here to help you make solid, winning  NBA bets.

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