How to Handicap the NBA’s Unique Restart in Orlando

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Photo credit: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images. Pictured: Disney World in Orlando, FL

Jun 08, 2020, 11:19 AM EDT

The NBA has long been one of the most predictable leagues in terms of crowning a champion.

A big part of that is sample size: The NBA season is long, so we have a good idea of who teams really are, and playoff series are seven games, which mutes the craziness of a March Madness-style tournament.

Those factors still exist this season, but there are other confounding data points — and ones that might supersede the predictability we usually have.

A couple questions that make handicapping the NBA difficult upon the July 31 restart:

  • How much will a lack of home court matter?
  • What will be the effects of playing in Orlando without fans?
  • Which teams will be the least rusty? Which players have been working out the hardest? Which haven’t had the opportunity to do so?

And the huge elephant in the room that feels somewhat crass to discuss because of the human element: COVID-19 and the NBA’s testing policy.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski detailed the current reported policy:

“The NBA is planning to have uniform, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment, sources told ESPN.

If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on, sources said.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, and hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding, sources told Shelburne.”

I hesitate to use the word “luck” when it comes to contracting the dangerous virus, but alas I can’t find a better term. There’s certainly a non-zero chance that an NBA player will have to sit out a playoff series for that reason — and that player may be important enough basketball-wise to shift win probability significantly.

In a regular year, I’d say the betting market is correct: The NBA champion this season is highly likely to come from the trio of the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. Those three teams are vast favorites for a reason.

But it’s not a regular year, and it’s not a regular situation, which creates handicapping problems.

How to Deal with Uncertainty in Betting the NBA Restart

Typically, when there’s uncertainty, it’s wise to take longshots: If it’s a free-for-all, why not maximize your payout? The teams beyond the top-three would be likely undervalued in that tail scenario.

But it’s not quite like that. This uncertainty is wholly due to the fact that the virus is an impossible factor to predict. If the Bucks are healthy against the Magic, they’re nearly certain to win. To bet on the Magic to make a run, you’re essentially betting on a positive COVID-19 test, which is 1) completely unpredictable and 2) feels morally icky (to me personally).

Everyone can make their own decisions, but I’ll be honest on how I’ll be approaching betting on the NBA upon its restart: I’ll likely avoid futures, for the reasons listed above. It feels incredibly unpredictable and in ways I don’t feel I can actively quantify. It also feels somewhat gross.

Rather, I’ll focus my bankroll on games where I have more complete information, notably single games. By tip, we’ll know who is playing, and after a few games into the restart we’ll at least have some sort of idea about the value (or lack thereof) of home court, which teams are more rusty, etc. Even those first games could provide value: I think the long layoff will hurt defense more than offense, which could provide over value.

There are more important things in the world than handicapping the NBA, but if you’d like to bet on it, my best piece of advice is to be cautious. Know that it’s incredibly unpredictable right now; it might be wise to save your money for situations we have the most known variables, like real games come July.

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