By Robert Ferringo
Motivation is the No. 1 most important aspect of NBA handicapping. Trying to determine how motivated individual teams and players are on any given night or in any given game a fundamental component of trying to make money betting on pro basketball.
Which players spent all night in the strip club? Which ones are too hungover to play? Which teams are jetlagged from a long road trip? Which ones just don’t give a damn about a Tuesday night game in Minnesota?
It can be tricky, nay impossible, to have a firm grasp on the psychology of the mutant children that populate NBA teams. However, there are two situations in which a team’s motivation level is unquestioned. The first is the playoffs. No explanation necessary there. The second is when a star player gets injured and is forced to miss time.
The NBA is built around its superstars. The headline, marquee players have the biggest impact on the games and the biggest impact on NBA lines. lines and therefore our daily NBA picks. When one goes down due to injury it sends aftershocks through the league and causes chaos with the lines on that team’s games.
But bettors have consistently taken the wrong tack when calculating how to bet on teams that just lost a star player. One’s first instinct would be to bet against that team. After all, they just lost their best player, right? But that is a trap. And it overlooks the most important consideration of NBA betting: motivation.
Nothing galvanizes a group of players like losing a leader. Losing a star player kicks in a fight-or-flight mechanism within coaches and players. And pro basketball players are going to fight. You don’t make it to the NBA without developing the ability to meet and exceed challenges through hard work and effort.
Not to get too thick into the weeds with the psychology behind this principal, but there are several very fundamental cognitive responses that work together to increase emotion, motivation and output in situations like this. Some of them are complicated. And some of them are as simple as The Hawthorne Effect.
The Hawthorne Effect, a correlative to the Observer Effect, is the theory that a short-term bump in productivity can be achieved simply through the act of observing a subject. What does that mean? It’s pretty simple. When a star player goes down that puts the focus on every one else on the team. Suddenly there is more responsibility for every one – more shots, more rebounds, more ball handling duties, etc. – and there is more attention and observation being given on the other secondary players who are filling those spots. Everyone is going to work harder, concentrate more, and give more effort as a result of that increase in attention.
It makes sense, right? If you are at work and someone goes out sick everyone else usually steps up to pick up the slack. Over the long term this higher level of output is unsustainable. But in the short term everyone puts in a little bit more effort in order to compensate for the loss.
The same applies to NBA teams. So how do we turn this knowledge into profit? There are three different ways that I look to cash in betting on teams who suffer injuries to star players:
This is a hard-fast rule. The books normally over-adjust the spread and the total to compensate for the loss of a superstar. Bettors usually follow that path and look to bet ‘under’ due to a team losing one of its top scorers. This situation – with the books and public all pointing the same way – is already loaded with value for contrarian bettors.
On top of that, we have our expectation of increased output from the players. Guys are more focused, they play with more energy, and that usually leads to a faster pace and higher scoring game. That means we have a short total suggesting that a team is going to perform worse but the players are primed to overachieve. The result is usually a game that flies over the total.
This is a pretty good rule of thumb in general in the NBA. When a team that is favored is catching less than 40 percent of the betting action you always want to look at that disrespected favorite. When that disrespected favorite recently lost its best player you absolutely want to jump on board.
You have to respect the oddsmakers. If the books have posted a team as a favorite there are numerous reasons why. Furthermore, betting against the public is always a good strategy, regardless of sport. So when the public jumps on an underdog because its opponent just lost a stud performer you always want to throw your money in with the sportsbooks.
Again: the remaining players on the suddenly star-less team are already foaming at the mouth and ready to run through brick walls. If they are playing against an overmatched opponent (hence the reason our team is a favorite to begin with) then our side should be able to beat their spread.
NBA teams will always rally in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic injury or some severe external event. It’s like a shot of adrenaline. That increased effort and motivation, coupled with the sportsbooks’ and general public’s overreaction to the injury, creates a short-term value situation.
However, what happens after your adrenaline spikes? A crash. Teams will usually max out their effort level for between 3-5 games after losing a superstar player. However, eventually the loss of their go-to guy catches up to them. This is when the pendulum usually swings back the other way. After some short-term success the betting public’s opinion may shift from, “This team is screwed without Star Player X” to “Hmm, these guys are getting along just fine without Star Player X”. That is usually the exact moment when it is time to throw things in reverse and start betting against our wounded squad.
Betting on or against teams that recently suffered an injury to a key player is a balancing act. But there is always going to be plenty of value in these situations for intrepid bettors that aren’t afraid of going against the grain.
Carpe diem. Good luck.