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NBA: Substance vs. Filler

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/01/2007

It's amazing how big a difference there is between the media coverage of the NBA playoffs, and what’s actually important in terms of who wins and loses postseason games.

I've been reminded of this again during the first round games this season. The networks keep hyping the marquee players, and billing each game as a "battle of the stars." It's Kobe this, Iverson that, Yao this, Nowitzki that. The newspaper write-ups are just as lame as they were 30 years ago. If you read the lead from an NBA playoff game last week, and a lead from the 1970's, you'd think the same guy wrote it.

Here's an example from the other night. This was the lead paragraph from the Associated Press about a Detroit/Orlando game:

"Tayshaun Prince scored 23 points, Chauncey Billups added 21, and the Pistons defeated Orlando 93-77 Thursday night to take a 3-0 lead in the first round playoff series."

Folks, the big news about a final score of 93-77 is not the "93," it's the "77!"

The Vegas line that night was Detroit by 2.5, with a total of 183. The projected final score for that combo would be Detroit 93.75, Orlando 90.25. Detroit scored what they were supposed to score. There's nothing newsworthy about that. Orlando missed their projection by double digits. That had to be the key to the game.

In other words, Detroit didn't win because Prince and Billups were scoring points. Somebody was going to be scoring points for Detroit. The most important thing was that nobody was scoring for Orlando!

Detroit's strong defense held Grant Hill to 2-of-10 from the floor, while Hedo Turkoglu was an invisible 4-of-10. That's 30% shooting from two key weapons. They also forced 13 turnovers while only committing eight themselves. Also of note, Detroit owned the rebounding category with a 47-39 edge. Every missed Orlando shot that got rebounded by Detroit is the same thing as a turnover in the big picture.

Now, I'm not making this fuss today because I want to blast the media. The important thing is that YOU realize that you can't handicap based on what you hear the pundits saying on TV, or what you're reading in the newspaper. We talked about this back during the college basketball season. It's just as relevant in the pros. You want to invest your money on teams that play defense, and teams that rebound (champions do both!). If you bet on star players, you'll constantly be disappointed by their bad games.

Defense is always there. Good defenses don't blow hot and cold the way shooters do. Same thing with rebounding. Teams that box out and chase down lose balls put themselves in position to win much more often than not. Nobody covers all of their games. Teams that are strong in these key areas will put the percentages in your favor.

Grab a pen and your sports section from today. Draw a line through the wire service write-up and any commentary from your local columnist. IGNORE IT! Go to the boxscore and circle the shooting percentages. Then, circle the rebounding totals. Look at the turnover category and circle anything that jumps out at you. This is how to handicap basketball!

If you want, write your own lead paragraph to the game. Something like this would have worked for the game we've been studying:

"Detroit's strong defense held Orlando to 42% shooting while the big men owned the boards in a stifling 93-77 victory Thursday night as the Pistons took a 3-0 lead in the first round playoff series.â€쳌

Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups are great players. Don't get me wrong. But their individual point totals were trivial in that game. Detroit was supposed to score 93 points! The difference in expectations that mattered was that Orlando scored 77 instead of 90. Credit that to the defense forcing bad shots, and the rebounders denying second chance opportunities.

This is always the story of the NBA playoffs, and it will be again this year. It's not a TV series where stars are trying to win awards for "best dunk." It’s a test of basketball where defense and rebounding rule the day. Make sure your handicapping is in line with that reality, not the fluff the media is feeding you.

Once you understand the substance from the filler, I predict your handicapping will improve dramatically.

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