There are two types of teams that have been eliminated from NBA playoff contention before the season ends – those that are still playing hard and being competitive, and those that are just mailing it in and waiting for the end of the season to put them out of their misery. Being able to tell which basketball teams fit into which categories is an important skill for NBA sports bettors down the stretch. It can allow them to get some fat moneyline winners if the team is trying hard, and to cash in on betting favorites if they are just mailing it in. Here are five ways you can start to determine which category a given team belongs in:
Statistical comparison of last 10 games to the season – I am a big believer in comparing recent performance to season long performance. The betting public relies heavily on the most easily available statistics, and those are season long ones – the types published in the paper and on popular websites. The problem, though, is that by the end of the season the sample size is quite large, and the earliest games in that sample occurred months earlier. A team could be playiing much better or worse now than they have been overall, but it might not be accurately reflected in that record. To counter that I like to compare some basic statistics from the whole season – shooting percentage, eFG, assists/turnovers and so on – to how the team has performed over their last 10 games. If the numbers are basically the same then the team is probably basically the one we have seen all year. If there is a significant difference, though, then we have an interesting situation. If the last 10 games’ stats are significantly better then we have a situation where the team could quietly be improved recently, and that could lead to value as the team exceeds public expectations. If the recent numbers are well below the season numbers then the team could really be packing it in, and there could be value in betting the favorites – perhaps even in betting them at a big price.
Roster changes – NBA teams that are still trying hard and looking to win even though the playoffs are out of the question are going to be making roster decisions that give them the best chance of winning. Their starters will still be playing fill minutes, and their bench will be used in about the same way that it always has been. Basketball teams that are mailing it in are far more likely to make changes. Star players could be given games off, or could be relegated to the bench much earlier in the game than normal. Young or fringe players could be given much more playing time so teams can assess what they have going forward. Teams that want to win put their best possible roster forward, while teams looking forward to next year usually don’t.
Status of coach – The surest sign of which category a NBA team fits in comes down to how stable the coach in in his job. If the guy is making progress and is clearly popular with his players and well entrenched in his position then there is a good chance that the team will be playing well for him because he will be able to communicate that the struggles now are a step towards progress. If the coach is clearly about to lose his job, or if it even appears likely, then it is far less likely that the players will play well for him because they have no reason to. A pro basketball team with a coach who is about to be fired is very likely a team that is going to struggle down the stretch. There is a rare exception to that, though. If the coach is likely to get fired but is loved by his players then there is a chance that the team will play extra hard down the stretch to try to save him. That can happen, but it is by far the exception to the rule.
Health – If a team is beat up and injured then it will be very hard for them to get motivated down the stretch. Teams that have struggled with injuries all season could be too frustrated to care anymore by the end of the long NBA season. On the other hand, if an injured player finally returns to action then he could give the team a boost down the stretch. You need to look at the overall health of the roster, and at changes in the roster as a result of injuries.
Is there still something to play for? – Sports fans are intensely focused on the playoffs – like that’s the only thing that matters. Sometimes, though, teams know going into the season that they aren’t likely to make the playoffs. If that’s the case but they are moving in a positive direction then they could still have a lot to play for even once the playoff dream is dead. Here are some questions you should ask as a smart NBA handicapper and sports bettor. Can they win more games than they did last year, or more games than they have won in the last five years? Can they double their win total from last year? Do they have a chance to reach significant statistical milestones as a team – like having a top five defense or offense? Is a star player or a team leader on the verge of a major achievement in his career? Any one of these factors can provide major motivation for a NBA team despite the fact that their season will end when the regular season does.