Finding the Edge in a Random NBA Prop: First Team to Score

Finding the Edge in a Random NBA Prop: First Team to Score article feature image

This may become a series in which I look at random props across various sportsbooks and try to find an edge. Mostly, I just got cool data on jump balls in the NBA and wanted to write about it. We’ll see where it goes.

There are sportsbooks that offer odds on teams to score first. The limits are not super high, but for most teams, it’s set at about 50-50 odds plus the juice. That means, if a team has a center who is undervalued in terms of his jump ball skills, there could certainly be an edge with the props. Of course, there are many more factors that go into a team scoring first. If you were going to attempt to create a formula to predict the first team to score, you’d have to account for at least the following dynamics, and probably more smaller ones:

  • The jump ball prowess of each player and the resulting probability of a team gaining first possession
  • Each team’s starting unit’s offensive efficiency
  • Each team’s starting unit’s defensive efficiency

Wednesday’s Games and Prop Odds

Let’s look at Wednesday’s slate as an example. Here are the games and odds for each side to score first.

  • Phoenix Suns (-105) at Indiana Pacers (-125)
  • New Orleans Pelicans (-115) at Charlotte Hornets (-115)
  • Utah Jazz (-105) at Detroit Pistons (-125)
  • Chicago Bulls (-110) at Philadelphia 76ers (-120)
  • Toronto Raptors (-125) at Atlanta Hawks (-105)
  • San Antonio Spurs (-110) at Memphis Grizzlies (-120)
  • Houston Rockets (-130) at Dallas Mavericks (+100)
  • Minnesota Timberwolves (-110) at Portland Trail Blazers (-120)
  • Boston Celtics (-110) at LA Clippers (-120)

Again, the books have these mostly as a toss-up plus the juice. So are some players much better at jump balls than others? You’re darn right. Andre Drummond, for example, has won 71.6 percent of his jump balls in his career, per awesome data provided by Matt Femrite. In fact, Drummond is one of the most prolific jump ballers we’ve seen in the league going back to 1997: His mark is only below Arvydas Sabonis’ (72.7%) and Shaquille O’Neal’s (72.4%) among players with at least 50 jump balls since 1997. Interestingly, Giannis Antetokounmpo is right there, too: Prior to this season, he had gone 38-15 (71.7%). He doesn’t play center, but he should probably jump for the Bucks.

Calculating an Edge

It’s clear that some players are skilled at winning jump balls, for whatever reason, be it height, jumping ability, timing, etc. And since there’s sometimes a large discrepancy in jump ball skill, there could be an edge in the props. Let’s get back to yesterday’s slate and look at the variables I discussed in the first three bullet points above. We have win rate for jump balls since 1997 and we can look up offensive and defensive efficiency for starting lineups. We just need to calculate the probability of one player winning the jump over another, which we can do using a win probability formula invented by baseball stats guru Bill James. Here’s all that data for Wednesday (click to expand):

Of the jump ball situations yesterday, according to past jump ball data, at least four games existed where  — although it should be noted that some sample sizes are very small, like for Maxi Kleber and Domantas Sabonis — one team had at least 69 percent or greater odds of winning the tip. Of course, not all of those teams have efficient offenses, which is absolutely another component. The Suns and Tyson Chandler, for example, had the highest expected win rate on their jump ball, but that starting lineup has also been atrocious in scoring, averaging just 0.96 points per possession. They could very likely win the tip but fail to generate a good attempt on their first possession.

Using the data points above, which are all publicly available, you can gain an edge in this prop. If you want to know how those four top teams did yesterday . . .

  • Pistons: Won the tip and scored first
  • Raptors: Lost the tip but scored first
  • Rockets: Lost the tip and Dallas scored first
  • Suns: Won the tip and Indiana scored first

Dallas came away with the first-team-to-score upset, although the GOAT Drummond held serve.

Tonight’s Props

Here’s a head start for tonight’s slate:

Once again, note that some of these players have a small sample size of jump balls. The Trail Blazers seem to the best bet to score first tonight: Jusuf Nurkic has a large edge over Kleber, and the Trail Blazers’ offense should be able to generate a solid look against an atrocious defensive starting lineup from the Mavs. The Bucks also stand out, although they’re definitely giving up a lot of tip equity by not jumping Giannis. Go win some props.

Photo via Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports