Early-Season Trends: After So Many Moves, Will They Matter?

Jay Pryce

Thursday, October 12, 2017 1:45 PM UTC

Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 1:45 PM UTC

Sports bettors witnessed a host of significant NBA player moves this offseason; more than in recent memory. How will it affect your handicapping? Will meaningful trends matter?

The 2017 NBA offseason transaction tracker is miles long and reads like a who’s who of future Hall of Fame candidates. The league witnessed some of the most significant player movement in decades. All-Stars such as Kyrie Irving (Celtics), Isaiah Thomas (Cavaliers), Paul George (Thunder), Chris Paul (Rockets), Jimmy Butler (Timberwolves), Gordon Haywood (Celtics), Carmelo Anthony (Thunder), Dwayne Wade (Cavaliers), and others are each representing new cities this upcoming season. What does this mean to your handicapping? Will early season trends matter much? Our take: Let the dust settle and invest cautiously early on. Expect plenty of volatility in the betting market through the first few months as changes shake out, and don’t be afraid to jump on the hot hand.


Five-Man Squad Importance & Expected Outcomes

Many metrics are available that evaluate a player’s quality and contributions to a team. Handicappers can use past play-by-play and box score stats like Plus/Minus, end of season VORP (value over replacement player) calculations, and others to build models for expected outcomes of the player moves. Nevertheless, until they hit the floor with their new teammates, in new systems, and in new surroundings, it is anyone’s guess as to how significant their additions will be and what it means in the betting market.

The major difficulty in evaluating individual player performance in basketball, and applying a handicap to it, is adjusting for interaction effects by teammates. Many models struggle to gauge two key aspects in this regard: the importance of a player’s role to his five-man units or squads, and whether his contribution is over or underperforming to expectations.

Plus/Minus describes a player’s point differential or the difference between points scored and points allowed while on the court. However, given the other four teammates in play, how important is that player in relation to his peers? How does he perform statistically in a specific role? These interaction effects provide a complete analysis of a player’s ability and his importance to a team. It will take a while to decipher in 2017 with all the pending player moves.


The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors

Let’s revisit the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors to explore the power of five-man units, expectations, and the market. What turned a 51-win team from the previous season into title winners and arguably the best team ever assembled? A new system, interchangeable in parts, which fit its personnel perfectly.

The only significant change for the franchise headed into the new season was the addition of Steve Kerr as coach. The rookie leader installed a system that highlighted the roles of his lineup, allowing Steph Curry to blossom into the league’s top scorer and capture the MVP award. Budding stars Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and veterans such as Andre Iguodala and David Lee, adopted specific roles and sacrificed parts of their game for the greater good of the group. The franchise shattered the myth that championship contenders need a big-three superteam to win it all. A proper system with interchangeable five-man units that exploit key talents of specific personnel is key to the Warriors’ success. A strong and tailored supporting cast can bring out the best of any player and team.

Which, if any, of the new player moves in 2017 can make as significant of an impact is yet to be determined. But expect the market to take months to catch up. Few figured such drastic changes with the 2014-15 Warriors. They entered the season with an over/under 52.5 wins total and were +2800 to win the title prior to the regular-season opener. Their average scoring margin the year before was 4.8 and played at a -4.2 average betting line. It seemed fair the Warriors closed as 4.5-point chalk for their road opener at the Kings. They routed Sacramento 94-77, which foreshadowed a trend of Golden State routinely beating opponents by double digits. They closed out the regular season with a franchise high 10.1 average points differential, tipping off to a -8.0 per game line. It took half the season for the market to catch up. The Warriors jumped out to a 35-6 SU record, beating a -7.6 average line by 4.5 points per game. In the second half of the season, the team played right at a -8.3 line, going 32-9 SU with a 8.1 margin of victory.

Will we see a “new” Warriors team emerge from all of the offseason changes? I’m not betting against it. Nonetheless, don’t get too wrapped up in past trends and last year’s data early in the season. A lot is about to change.

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