Looking for Value in the 2021-2022 NBA Season

Not long ago, I wrote a post about how to find value in the NFL and about finding value in MLB. Those were such big hits that I wanted to bring you a post about value betting in the NBA.

For the 2021-2022 season, the NBA is returning to a standard 82-game regular season that will run from mid-October through mid-April, with a break for All-Star Game festivities at the end of February. Preparing to bet on the next NBA season isn’t going to be easy. Lots of complicating factors exist – COVID-19 and its various effects chief among them.

Value Bets in NBA Season

I’m looking for value in the 2021-2022 NBA season and I think you should be, too. The league is made up of veterans who haven’t played a full normal 82-game season since 2019 and young guys who haven’t really had a normal season since high school. It’s going to be a big year for value bettors, like any year with big overarching storylines. How am I planning to find value in the next NBA season? I’ve put together a set of stats that are easy to understand and publicly available that I use to help me find places where players or teams are likely to over- or underperform.

I think all basketball fans are ready for a true return to normalcy. The 2020 Finals were in October, usually the time we’re getting ready to start a new season. Then the 2020-2021 season started less than 11 weeks later. A December start after an October finish? It was a long, strange trip. So far, the NBA is sticking with plans to return to a completely standard regular season schedule. I think that’s a very good thing for bettors.

Impact of a Return to Normalcy

If you’ve read even a few of my blog posts before, you know that I put a lot of value on a team’s pace, and more importantly the matchup between the pace of two teams in a given contest. I track pace in most of the sports I bet on, with baseball maybe the least applicable and basketball the most.

I think the league’s return to a traditional season is going to make my favorite set of statistics even more important than in a typical year. Teams haven’t played a full schedule of traditional home and away games for almost three years. Even the incoming class of rookie players had their minutes and exposure limited in their college seasons thanks to the pandemic.

No doubt other side effects of this return to a normal schedule will show themselves. It’s easy to imagine stats trickling down across the board, as players adjust to a more hectic schedule. I think it’s also easy to imagine the opposite happening, at least for some players in limited cases. Finally allowed to play at full tilt, some players may rise to the occasion and be the best version of themselves.

While you’re handicapping the 2021-2022 NBA season, please give the impact of the schedule change as much credence as you can stomach.

Stats to Watch in the 2021-2022 NBA Regular Season

I have no problem sharing the secret sauce I plan to pour all over the next NBA season.

I’m going to look at a combination of four stats to help me find value. I’ve tweaked this a few times, and I reserve the right to tweak it again if I feel like I’m not getting the result I want.

Below you’ll find a guide to each of the four stats going into my preparations for the 2021-2022 NBA season. I’ll also share how I convert this clunky collection of numbers into an easier to read format.

  1. Pace
    I think the new more rigorous schedule is going to make a comparison of two team’s pace extremely important next year. My whole strategy hinges on this being true. So, the first thing I do is compare the pace stats available for two teams in a game.

The easiest way to compare offensive pace is to look at the average number of possessions a team has per game and compare it to their opponent. The team with the higher pace may be at an advantage, depending on the difference between the two stats.

For this post, let’s make up a game between two teams based on their 2020-2021 season performance. I’d like to see the Milwaukee Bucks on the road against the New York Knicks.

Let’s start with their pace stats. In Milwaukee, you have a team that averaged 104.4 possessions per game and eventually won the league title. The Knicks averaged 98.2 possessions per game, made the playoffs, but lost in the first round. Clearly, the Bucks have a faster pace – that gives them an edge from the outset, right?

Remember, the NBA is a league of great parity. On any given night, the Bucks may be off, the Knicks may be hot, and the tables can turn. That’s why we begin with the pace stat, then add considerations for other possibilities.

  1. Offensive Efficiency

Now that we know how many chances each team is likely to get (104.4 vs. 98.2), let’s look at how each team will make use of those chances. The Offensive Efficiency stat does just that, giving you the average number of points a team scores per 100 possessions.

In our Milwaukee vs. New York example from above, you’ve got the Bucks scoring 114.7 points per 100. If they get 104.4 possessions, that means the Bucks are likely to score 109.41 points. Since teams can’t score tenths or hundredths of a point, let’s round down to 109 points. The Knicks are scoring 108.2 points per 100 – but since they’re only likely to get 98.2 possessions, we have to do some math to work out that their expected point total is 106.2, which rounds down to 106.

Okay, now things are getting interesting. At first, it looked like the Bucks might blow New York out of the water based solely on pace. But, with a predicted final score of 109-106, I don’t feel quite so “locked down” on Milwaukee.

  1. Travel

Since the year 2000, home teams in the NBA have won 61% of games, including the regular season and the playoffs. Away teams have a distinct disadvantage in the NBA, even more so than in the storied “cursed away teams” league of the NFL. The effect of being the away team is a little more pronounced in the Western conference, thanks to greater distance and travel times between those cities.

Since we’re looking at a contest between two Eastern conference teams, we don’t necessarily want to give the effect of travel as much weight as if these were Western conference teams. Still, let’s look at the recent travel history as well as the home and away status of this game.

New York went 26-13 at home, 16-22 on the road. They won 66% of their home games but only about 42% on the road.

Compare that to Milwaukee’s away record – the Bucks went 26-22 on the road, winning about 54% of the time. That’s a solid road record for an NBA team, as only ten teams had a higher road win percentage. Is it enough to overcome a Knicks team with a rowdy home court?

Thanks to the Internet, we can dig even deeper, accessing free statistics that blow open the question of travel’s impact on the league. New York was 9-10 last season as a home underdog, about a 47% winning percentage. The Bucks underperformed as road favorites, going 23-17 for a winning percentage of 57.5%.

The picture is starting to become clear. It looks like that predicted 109-106 score may be a little forgiving for New York, a team that didn’t do as well as a home dog as the Bucks did as an away favorite. My prediction is ticking further in the direction of the Bucks in this contest.

  1. Loss Quality

This is the piece of the strategy that I’ve tweaked the most in the lead up to the next NBA season. Rather than looking at the quality of a team’s wins, I want to handicap head-to-head matches in 2021-2022 by looking at the quality of a team’s recent losses.

Here’s how it would work for our made-up Milwaukee at New York game.

I would look at the last ten L results for each team. I add up the point difference for each loss and take an average. For the Bucks, that figure is 10.4. For the Knicks, that number is 7.5 The trend here is clear – when the Bucks lose, they’re losing by a bit more than the Knicks. To me, that means the Knicks have higher-quality losses, at least with no considerations for strength of schedule. It suggests to me that the Bucks are streakier than the Knicks.

Putting it All Together

Honestly, this system is screaming at me to avoid placing a bet on this game.

The trends and numbers and everything are all speaking a different language. I can’t find a consistent trend or anything to give me a confident way to wager. At least not in a straight-up format.

The expected point total is just too close, and the teams’ home-away splits just aren’t enough of a window into this competition. I’m moving on to the next game.

The 2021-2022 NBA Season is going to provide lots of opportunities for value. My technique, the one I’ve been working on since during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, involves looking at just four publicly available stats to try and get a value window into the league.

In this particular contest, my stats told me to skip the game. I might have bet the game without this deeper look – the Bucks on paper just seem so much stronger than the Knicks. It’s only after a slightly deeper dive into the game that I was able to determine that there’s just no value here to bet on.

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