The NBA Playoffs’ Most Undervalued Players
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
This collaborative piece looks at the players who have a surprising impact on the on-court performances of their teams. While I break down the undervalued players in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, P.J. Walsh and Mark Gallant add some color from Scott Cooley (an odds consultant) about how those players impact the betting market.
First, we need to measure how each player impacts his team. The easiest way to do that is to see how the offense and defense perform with and without him on the floor. That means a player with a terrible backup might be overvalued, but that’s fine for the purpose of this study. We’re trying to tease out the most valuable players to find betting value in the playoffs. If a player is more important to his squad than his talent level might suggest because a poor player is backing him up, that’s notable. If the starter gets into foul trouble or goes down with an injury, that might be a situation in which to target the spread or even live bet during the game.
Here’s the on/off differential (offense, defense, and total) for each player in the playoffs. Some players at the top of the list you might expect: Minnesota is +14.6 points per 100 possessions with Karl-Anthony Towns. Philadelphia is 14.2 points per 100 better with Joel Embiid. The Warriors are 12.1/100 better with Stephen Curry. But some players are a bit surprising and could provide value in the betting market. Let’s touch on some of those guys.
Robert Covington: +16.1 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: Yes, the above data is correct. In terms of on/off differential, Covington has had the strongest impact on his team’s performance. That doesn’t mean he’s LeBron James or anything; rather, the 76ers are just very poor without him, especially on defense. Per Cleaning the Glass, opponents score 11.2 points per 100 possessions less with him out there vs. off the floor, which is one of the strongest marks in the entire league. There’s some colinearity here in that he plays a lot of his minutes with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who are All-Defense type of players already, but don’t miss his impact on this Philly squad. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and is perhaps the most underrated two-way guy we have. The Heat have intriguing wings in Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington. Covington’s defense will be vital to stopping them.
The Book’s Take: Before the season began, Covington was seen as a role player and, understandably, was not worth anything to the spread. However, given his solid two-way play over the season, Covington’s value to the spread is seen as one point now, making him the third-most valuable player on the 76ers. — Mark Gallant
Victor Oladipo: +14.2 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: It’s amazing the turnaround Oladipo has had in Indiana this season. He has regressed a bit after shooting fireballs in the first part of the year, but the data suggest he’s still as important to his team as any player in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Pacers have been 14.2/100 better with him, and that’s been split fairly evenly on the offensive and defensive end. He’s also a reason they’ve overperformed at the end of games. Indiana has an unreal +17.4 net rating in the clutch (last five minutes), and it’s largely because of Dipo. He’s used a whopping 41.1% of their possessions in the clutch, and he’s posted a silly +22.4 net rating in those minutes. If he’s limited at all, the Pacers have no shot against LeBron.
The Book’s Take: Many folks thought that the Pacers were cooked after the Paul George trade, but Oladipo has proved that he can be a star. After starting the season as a “Tier 5” player worth one point to the spread, as Covington is now, he’s been bumped up to “Tier 4,” worth between one and two points depending on the line and matchup. — Mark Gallant
Jrue Holiday: +12.7 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: The Pelicans are fantastic with Jrue on the floor, and a big part of that is due to his stellar defense: They’ve been 9.6/100 better with him at the point of attack. He is also not a slouch on offense and generally gives the Pels more efficient looks. When he’s been on the floor this year, the Pelicans have taken 5.1% more shots at the rim (92nd percentile of all players) and made 2.4% more of them (75th percentile). Further, 3.1% more of their plays (95th percentile) are in transition. His strengths are pretty much exactly what you want out of a guard against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pels’ first-round opponent. Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis will get most of the buzz in this series, but Holiday might have the most impact.
The Book’s Take: Although Holiday has been great for the Pelicans this season, he didn’t quite make the list of players worth anything to the spread. That doesn’t mean the line wouldn’t move if he were ruled out of a game. The market can still react accordingly depending on how people feel, causing the line to move any number of points, but, for the most part, a sportsbook would not adjust the line on their own. — Mark Gallant
Otto Porter: +12.6 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: We have some immediate ramifications here, as Porter is questionable to suit up in Game 1 with a strained calf. He’s been vital to the Wizards’ success this season, as they’ve been 12.6/100 better with him on vs. off. He’s one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league, and Washington’s effective field goal mark goes up by a ridiculous 4.8% with him playing (96th percentile of players this season). The Wiz have increased their field goal mark at the rim by 5.2% and behind the arc by 4.3% with him. His offensive gravity is absolutely devastating, especially when the Wizards have other good shooters like Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre on the floor. It’ll be hard to back the underdog Wizards if he ends up missing Game 1.
The Book’s Take: Like Holiday, Porter didn’t quite make the cut. I imagine the market may move the line a half-point to a point depending on the game, but oddsmakers wouldn’t do so on their own. — Mark Gallant
Kelly Olynyk: +12.1 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: This is probably the most surprising one of the group, but Olynyk has had an astounding impact on the Heat’s on/off numbers this season. It’s been almost entirely on offense: Miami has been a whopping 10.4/100 better with him on the floor. Traditional bigs like Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo get their share of run, but it’s clear that Miami is simply a better team when it goes five-out and lets its talented wings operate with gravity set at 10. The argument for the traditional bigs over Olynyk has always been defense and rim protection, but the data don’t support that: The Heat have actually been slightly better with Olynyk on the floor and better than they’ve been with Whiteside and Bam. The frontcourt has a brutal matchup in the first round vs. Embiid, but dragging him out of the paint isn’t the worst idea.
The Book’s Take: Of all the names in this article, Olynyk probably carries the least importance to the line. He was not seen as being worth anything to the spread, and I doubt the market would think so either. However, given the data above, perhaps you should pay attention to the Canadian big. — Mark Gallant
Eric Bledsoe: +12.0 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: Bledsoe is similar to Covington in that his stats might be inflated since he plays a majority of his minutes alongside superstar teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, you can’t argue with those numbers, and they’re ridiculous: The Bucks have been 12.0/100 better with him on the floor — 8.6 on offense and 4.2 on defense. He has been great at penetrating, and the Bucks have taken 4.1% more shots at the rim with him leading the way. He’s also been a monster in transition along with Giannis: The Bucks have added 8.6/100 in transition this season with Bledsoe on the floor, and that will really be tested in Round 1 against a Boston squad that is first in transition defense. If the Bucks want to take down the No. 2 seed, Bledsoe will have to win his matchup against Terry Rozier.
The Book’s Take: Before the season began, Bledsoe was worth 1-2 points on the Phoenix Suns, a team going nowhere anytime soon. After the trade, his value did not change. Even though he has a much better cast around him led by the Greek Freak, his value to the Bucks as their point guard is still worth 1-2 points to the spread. — Mark Gallant
Kyle Korver: +11.8 On/Off Differential
What the metrics say: Death. Taxes. LeBron James as an unstoppable point guard surrounded by elite 3-point shooters. Korver certainly qualifies, and he’s been a crucial piece around the King since he joined Cleveland. The Cavs have shot 5.5% better at the rim with him on the floor, which is a testament to the gravity he brings in the offense. But what’s surprising about Korver is how impactful he’s been defensively: Per Cleaning the Glass, the Cavs have been 8.0/100 better on that end of the floor with him. That’s likely because he replaces J.R. Smith, who has been disastrous on defense; the Cavs have been 7.4/100 worse with him. Korver isn’t known as a two-way player, but he’ll have to be for the Cavs in their playoff run.
The Book’s Take: Perhaps if this were written back when Korver was an All-Star for the Hawks, he would be seen as a “Tier 5” player. However, given his current role and the fact that LeBron is running the show, he bears no value to the spread. — Mark Gallant
When we talked with Cooley, he confirmed that most of the players listed above impact the spread, but only by a couple of points at the most. I’m not one to argue with bookmakers, but the data suggest that these players could be undervalued considering how much better their teams play with them on the floor. If one of these players is ruled out in advance of (or maybe even during) a game, you might have an opportunity for a sharp bet.
Pictured above: Robert Covington