You hear it every time a sports league segues from the grind of a long regular season to the win-or-go-home pressure of the playoffs: It’s a brand-new season.
This is more than a cliché. It’s the truth—a truth that sports bettors should factor in as they start handicapping the upcoming NBA playoffs. In fact, as we transition into the NBA’s second season, my best advice is to focus on in-the-moment skill sets while relying less on betting trends or angles.
This isn’t always easy, especially if you’re a veteran handicapper locked into stale habits, or you’re somebody who bet actively during the regular season and fell in love with certain strategies. However, those bettors who stubbornly refuse to adapt are usually the ones with less money in their pockets come mid-June.
Then there’s the mistake of sticking with NBA playoff strategies that once worked but are now out of date. Take, for instance, the old-school “zigzag theory” that many handicappers relied on for years. There was a time when the zigzag theory—essentially, betting on the team that lost the previous game, presuming they’re going to make adjustments and bounce back—was a big moneymaker, but the game has evolved to the point where the concept is much less consistent. Today, it’s common for elite teams to try to end a series as quickly as possible. And you can usually see with your own eyes when a trailing team has thrown in the towel.
Last year, the only matchups that went the distance in the best-of-7 format were in the first round. After that, it was a matter of Miami dominating the Eastern Conference (beating Brooklyn 4-1 and Indiana 4-2), and San Antonio dominating everybody (the Spurs beat Portland 4-1, Oklahoma City 4-2 and Miami 4-1).
The point: You can no longer kneejerk to a “bounce-back” mindset if you want to finish in the black. Now, there will certainly be occasional bounce-back scenarios in the playoffs (particularly when a superior team is coming off a loss); you can still confidently bet those scenarios aggressively. But anchoring your overall approach to assumptions of coaching adjustments and increased motivation is likely to lead to frustration.
Instead, before getting to the betting window, try to answer these questions: Which teams have the most dynamic offensive talent? Which teams can do damage both inside the paint and outside the arc? Which teams are strong defensively? Which teams are best suited to specifically defend their opponent’s offensive strength?
Rather than be awed by the talents of individual stars such as Steph Curry and LeBron James, study “possession-adjusted” team stats, which you can find on several mainstream websites (Basketball-Reference.com is a good option). This way you’ll get a true sense of strengths and weaknesses.
In breaking down how to handicap March Madness, I talked about focusing on “chess matches” with respect to coaching and team tactics through the first weekend, then more about “rock-paper-scissors” matchups from the Sweet 16 onward. In the NBA playoffs, it’s a mix of both. At the beginning of each series, ask yourself these questions: Which head coach is more likely to win a best-of-7 chess match? Which team is better positioned in a rock-paper-scissors encounter, bringing characteristics to the table that neutralize the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of their opponent?
San Antonio and head coach Gregg Popovich are masters at both metaphors, and became unstoppable in the Finals against the Heat when their 3-pointers were falling from a deep, well-spread offense. Conversely, Miami went with the Bart Simpson approach—“rock beats everything”—which worked in the first three rounds … until their rock (LeBron) was neutralized by the Spurs.
This year, the Spurs are older, and aren’t a sure thing to find that peak form once again. Instead, the Golden State Warriors have been dominant on both sides of the floor. As for LeBron, he and his Cavaliers will likely have to figure out a way to beat “the Spurs of the East” (the Atlanta Hawks) if he wants to win another conference and league title.
Of course, we’re a long way from crowning the Warriors, Cavs or anyone else the next champion, with dozens of games (and wagers!) to be decided in the next two months. It all tips off April 18—a brand-new season, indeed.
Scott Spreitzer is a Las Vegas-based professional handicapper and bettor, and host of Pregame.com’s First Preview sports-betting show, which airs at 10 a.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1100-AM/100.9-FM. Follow him at @ScottWins.