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NBA Playoff Handicapping

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/18/2009

The NBA playoffs start this weekend, and I want to warn about the dangers of putting too much weight on “recent formâ€쳌 when analyzing each series.

A variety of factors can give you a false read. Among the most important:

*The BEST teams have been trying to save something lately for the games that really matter most. Once the seedings are pretty much in place, there’s no reason to go all out in early April. Coaches want their players to do enough to stay sharp, but they also want to rest up for the true wars coming up in the postseason. Pointspread results just don’t matter for these teams. I wouldn’t say they’re going at half speed. Maybe three-quarter speed. Impressive teams will post some unimpressive results in early April. Once the playoffs start, you need to think of those teams as impressive rather than unimpressive.

*Teams in the bottom half of the brackets really emphasized late March and early April because they wanted to make sure they made the playoffs. They were going all out most nights, and are due to hit a wall very soon. The recent results look impressive, but you can’t assume they’re going to carry into the “secondâ€쳌 season. It’s like exhausting yourself climbing a mountain only to find Sasquatch at the top. Who are you going to like between Sasquatch and an exhausted climber? The quality of the climb really doesn’t matter at that point.

*Many teams outside of the playoffs have barely been going through the motions in recent weeks. Some are losing on purpose to improve their position in the draft lottery. Others are experimenting with new lineups in hopes of finding something that clicks for next season. The point here is that some of the “hotâ€쳌 streaks you saw from mid-level playoff contenders were really just strings of games against opponents who didn’t care. This creates illusions every year!

So, don’t say to yourself, “I’m going against this big name favorite because they haven’t been winning by big margins lately.â€쳌

And, don’t say to yourself, “I’m taking this team because they were on fire down the stretch.â€쳌

History has made it very clear that those things don’t matter all that much. Occasionally a hot team will stay hot. Occasionally a powerhouse really does have some issues that will cause problems. As handicappers, we're trying to play the percentages. Most of the time, teams will return to the form you would expect when everyone is going at 100% intensity. The elite teams will look great again. Those beneath them in the standings will have their weaknesses exposed because they’re not facing soft opposition that doesn’t care.

If you want to pick winners in the opening weekend of the playoffs, and all through the postseason, focus on these keys:

*Defense! It’s always the most important factor in the playoffs. It’s the reason Boston beat the Lakers last year. It’s the reason San Antonio has been a dynasty (when healthy) the past several seasons. You can go all the way back to Bill Russell's days with the Celtics. Defense wins championships in this sport. Look at defensive field goal percentages, forced turnovers, steals, blocked shots, defensive efficiency (points allowed adjusted for possessions), and a knack for preventing the opposing star from getting good looks at the basket (the hidden secret to San Antonio’s dynasty).

*Teamwork! This is important on both sides of the ball. It’s a big part of defense, because so much of modern defense is about rotating properly to make sure opponents don’t get easy shots. And, it’s a big part of offense because you have to work as a team to get your own open looks. Look at assist numbers on offense. Look for a balance of scoring from a variety of weapons. Look for contributions from behind the arc, as most top teams now have guys they can count on to hit three’s from long range. The TV networks tend to focus on the high scorer for each team. Winning handicappers will be looking for balance across the full spectrum of weapons.

*Respect from the Refs! It’s a shame that officiating plays such a big role in this sport. But avid fans know what I’m talking about. The team that’s likely to get more respect from the refs is likely to get a few extra calls go their way in a close game. When the pointspreads are close to pick-em (which they often are when top teams are playing each other), that’s going to heavily influence pointspread results. Use your knowledge of NBA officiating to its fullest. And, watch the early round games to see if any new young stars are starting to get some respect.

*Health! It has to be said this year that injuries are going to loom large over both conferences. San Antonio will miss Manu Ginobili for the playoffs and Tim Duncan is playing on one leg. Andrew Bynum just came back from an injury, probably making the top seeded Lakers even stronger. Kevin Garnett of Boston probably won’t be able to have the impact on this year’s playoffs that he did last year. Time will tell regarding that. If shorthanded teams wear down or give up hope, nothing else is going to matter.

Defense, teamwork, and respect from the refs only wins playoff games if you’re healthy!

Best of luck handicapping the NBA playoffs this year. There are several first round matchups I’m very excited about analyzing. And, if the seedings hold, we’re going to see some truly great basketball in the later rounds. Enter with the right mindset, and you’ll enjoy a very profitable Spring and Summer! We definitely did last playoff season, closing with a 13-1 ATS run, including a perfect 6-0 ATS in the Finals. Good Luck this opening weekend and I'll post my next update on Tuesday, April 21.

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