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Handicapping NBA Injuries

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/29/2008

When injuries to key players happen in the NBA, oddsmakers certainly pay attention. No Shaq in Miami? The line most definitely will be adjusted, many times significantly. No Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady in Houston? Absolutely that will cause an adjustment.

However, one needs to analyze each team very carefully when deciding to wager on or against clubs that have key injuries. Last year Miami without Shaq was a disaster. This season, the Heat WITH or WITHOUT Shaq has been a disaster! O'Neal will try to return this season from a hip and quadriceps injury that is expected to keep him out for at least two more weeks.

O'Neal had two of his better games after recent treatment, with 24 points and 10 rebounds against Chicago last week followed by 20 points and 11 rebounds against Portland. But what was the result? Two more losses and non-covers, 98-91 and 126-96. His production tailed off after that, and he had just 10 points and five rebounds in each of the next two games, which they failed to win or cover. You have to wonder if the Miami front office was disappointed that O'Neal indicated that he will not retire before his contract expires at the end of the 2009-2010 season, which pays $20 million annually. Rebuilding or going in a new direction? Not with that price tag hanging over the franchise.

Other times it can make a difference. A year ago, no Yao and T-Mac took 48.7 points per game out of the Houston lineup. That influenced both the side and total. The Rockets played without McGrady earlier in the season and went 2-5. They were 13-38 without McGrady or Yao two years ago and started 1-9 over two seasons when playing without both All-Stars.

Yet, last season they went a dozen games without Yao and posted a 9-3 mark. What happened is role players stepped in and did a credible job, particularly backup center Dikembe Mutmombo. Miami didn’t have that luxury this year, with talented backup center Alonzo Mourning done for the season. And that’s the real key with injuries: Does a team have a decent backup player to throw in there?

The Denver Nuggets recently lost star Carmelo Anthony. But their first game without him was a win and cover, 107-100 over Atlanta, their sixth straight home win. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby stepped up as the Nuggets got more than just five players into the scoring column, led by Allen Iverson's 29 points. Camby's 13 points came with 21 rebounds while Martin played one of his best games of the season, with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

According to Martin, "Everybody has to pick up the production in Anthony's absence. Melo's a great player," Martin said. "We're going to miss him. But everybody has to pick up the slack." In addition, against the Hawks, the Nuggets played one of their better defensive games of the month. They clamped down on Hawks' leading scorer, Joe Johnson, limiting the 22 points-per-game player to 14. He did not score a point in the first quarter, missing all six shots he attempted. Johnson finished 5-of-17 from the field. As a team, Atlanta shot 39.2 percent from the field.

When key players are injured, good teams can adjust, be it the coaching staff asking players to play tougher defense, or talented role players can step in and help out.

A year ago the New Jersey Nets stumbled for a while when center Nenad Krstic and his 16 points, 6 rebounds per game was lost for the season after 26 games. Yet, the Nets then got on a role at 7-2 SU/8-1 ATS over 9 games. Why? Unsung 7-footer Mikki Moore stepped into the breach and was very effective. In seven straight starts, Moore averaged 13.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and is shooting 70.7 percent from the field in 34.4 minutes. The Nets went 5-2 in that stretch.

What's important for handicappers to understand is that each injury affects teams differently. The Celtics, for instance, were banged up badly a year ago and fell apart without star Paul Pierce. They started a miserable 4-13 SU/ATS at home – talk about a go-against team!

This is why depth is so important, along with coaching. Coaches can get the attitude through to players that they are professionals: Get out their and do your job. Some teams handle it better than others. In the world of handicapping, examine each team carefully when major trades take place or when key injuries happen. Different teams respond differently, both straight up and against the number.

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