When there are about 10 games left in the NBA season things change for the serious contenders for the NBA Championship. I’m not talking about teams that are going to make the playoffs and maybe win a round or two. I mean the teams that stand a very solid chance of going all the way and know it. There are typically no more than five or six NBA teams that really belong in this category. As the season ends these teams are intensely focused on their ultimate goal, and will do everything they can to give themselves the best chance to win the title. Here’s a look at five things these teams do to adjust in the final games of the regular season, and what it means for NBA sports bettors:
Teams make sure their best players are ready to be their best – This means different things for different teams based on the shape that they are in. Some NBA stars are banged up, so they need to take it easy down the stretch to get as healthy as they can for the playoffs. Other stars may have a bit of a rut as the long season wore on, so they will be looking to tighten up their play and get back into full intensity for the playoffs. No matter what, the stars aren’t likely to be more interested in being ready for the playoffs than they are for playing optimally down the stretch. It’s important to understand what the status of the star players is on a team and how they are likely to finish out the regular season. There is nothing more frustrating than betting on a team based on what you know they are capable of and then finding that they have no intention of performing at that level.
Teams in the NBA do just as much as they need to do to secure an acceptable playoff seeding – There is a myth that teams down the stretch will be motivated to earn the best possible playoff seeding they can possibly get. Time and again we have seen that that just isn’t true. They want to make sure that they have home court advantage early on – and if they are a serious contender hey will have that. Beyond that they would clearly be interested in being as high as they can be to get as much home court time as possible, but they aren’t going to pursue that at the expense of being ready in the playoffs. Sportsbooks know that the public will assume that teams will play very hard down the stretch to move up the standings. They also know that that’s not the case, and they are more than happy to exploit situations where the public is overstating a situation. In short, be very careful with any assumptions about motivation down the stretch that you make in conjunction with your NBA handicapping.
Coaches will work to let their team know that things are about to be different – NBA Coaches who know they have a contender are going to be doing everything they can down the stretch to make sure that their teams are ready to perform when the playoffs start. The problem for sports bettors, though, is that successful coaches all have very different styles that are unique just to them, so it can be dangerous to make assumptions about what a coach will do down the stretch. Some coaches are almost militaristic in their approach, so they will begin pushing their players particularly hard down the stretch to make sure they are in form. Other coaches are far more laid back, and will be focused on making sure their players are comfortable and confident and feeling strong but loose. As we talked about earlier, it is crucial here that bettors don’t assume that a team will automatically shift into a higher gear down the stretch. They will do whatever the coach thinks they need to do to be at their best.
Teams start tightening up weaknesses – No matter what approach a team takes you can be sure of one thing – they will look to address situations that are clearly lacking. Time and again you can see contending teams that have made a significant move forward statistically in an area of concern in the last 10 games of the season. Teams that aren’t shooting foul shots at a high enough percentage during the season will focus on that and typically show improvement. The same might occur for shot selection, rebounding, number of turnovers, frequency of players fouling out, and so on. Very often, then, you’ll find a situation where the stats for the full season for a strong contender are not as good of an indicator of actual performance than the stats for their most recent games. Shortening the statistical time frame for contenders, then, can create opportunities for the smart gambler.
Teams juggle spare parts – It’s the league stars that will ultimately carry a NBA team to a championship, but they can’t do that without a strong supporting cast around them. In the last games of the season coaches will typically juggle around the supporting players they have to get a good sense of what they have and what they are capable of. That could mean that little used players see more time on the court, or that they are used in different ways. It could mean that teams substitute differently, or manage the clock differently. Chances are strong, though, that there will be experimentation as basketball teams try to get comfortable with the best possible approach.