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Trades and Injuries -- Impact on NBA Teams

   by Scott Spreitzer - 02/26/2009

How do you make picks in a sport where the starting lineups keep changing from game-to-game?

It seems like every day brings a new set of injuries to deal with. And, I'm not talking about minor role players either. Phoenix lost Amare Stoudemire last week to a serious eye injury. Kevin Garnett injured his knee midway through a road trip for Boston. Tracy McGrady called it a season so he could have microsurgery on his troubled knee.

Big IMPACT players are going down, making it very challenging to handicap the teams and the games.

Let's not forget about all the trades last week either. A few teams created whole new looks for themselves by shuttling talent across the country. Others had to deal with one new face in the lineup…and they had to deal with it immediately because he was on the floor that night.

How should we handle this kind of bedlam?

Well, the worst idea is just to give up on the NBA. Situations of confusion like this actually create a "player's market" in Las Vegas. Oddsmakers have to put up numbers on every single NBA game. That means they have to come up with something to go on the board. Bettors can do their homework, think through the ramifications of personnel changes, then pick their spots to fire at.

Bedlam guarantees that oddsmakers will make mistakes. It's hard enough to be right about every team during a time of personnel stability. Right now, sportsbooks are crossing their fingers and hoping to weather the storm.

It's our job to be a tornado!

Here are some strategies I use for evaluating how a team is likely to perform over a series of games with a new lineup. The biggest key is to wait until they play one game together, then to monitor important stats to get a sense of chemisty (or the lack thereof) so you can take advantage before the pointspreads of future games adjust.

*Defense is the straw that stirs the drink in the NBA, regardless of how many highlights you see of guys dunking or swishing jumpers. Defense wins championships. New lineups won't succeed if teams aren't playing well on defense. Study overall shooting percentage allowed, and two-point shooting percentages allowed to get a sense of how the players are working together to prevent baskets. You will see very quickly which teams will succeed, and which will flounder because the players don't have the instincts yet to make the proper rotations.

*Chemistry is best measured on offense by assists. Look for teams who have a high percentage of their baskets assisted…or at least for teams who have ONE GUY who gets a lot of assists because he's the distributor. I've seen some trades work out very well from the get-go because the players are unselfish and work well to get each other open looks. If everyone within a new collection of talent is trying to go one-on-one, it's going to be a disaster.

*Hustle stats are always valuable in the NBA because attitude is such a big part of covering spreads. Look at performances in rebounds, steals, blocked shots. Watch the games on TV to read the body language of the players. This stuff is always important. But it's particularly important right after a key injury or a trade involving starters.

*Look at what happens in the FIRST quarter of a game, and the FOURTH quarter of a close game. This is where you get "starters vs. starters" for the most part. Teams who start quickly…then execute well late in close games have already incorporated new players into the schematics. Things have clicked, and you can expect the good times to continue. Teams who start poorly are still going through a learning process. You can automatically assume they won't be able to execute late in a close game either. The players just aren't on the same page yet.

I think too many people get caught up in the individual athletes. How is so-and-so going to score in his new environment? How will such-and-such do as a starter now that he's replacing an injured superstar? Don't worry about the individual stats. Look at the TEAM stats to get a sense of attitude, chemistry, confidence, and teamwork. The successes and failures will announce themselves very quickly in a way you can use immediately when evaluating the pointspread the next time they play.

Assume that both you and the oddsmaker will just be guessing in that first game with the new starters. Both of you will be adjusting your perceptions of the teams after the results come in. If you can stay ahead of the learning curve by studying these stats, you'll be able to nail winner after winner against the lagging lines. Vegas will eventually catch up. You'll be up three or four winners PER TEAM by the time they do…and new injuries will probably keep happening in a way that lets you continue profiting from this approach all the way through the rest of the season.

This is not a time to throw in the towel on pro basketball because of all the new lineups. This is a time to attack soft pointspreads in what is very clearly a player's market!

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