Early lessons from NBA's Orlando bubble

In the time leading up to the return of the NBA, questions arose about the quality of play in Orlando, Fla. Well, bettors now have 31 games under their belts, and plenty can be learned from what we have seen over the last six days.

At center stage for NBA bettors has been the totals. 

Oddsmakers made their thought process clear when they posted these games at the end of June: Scoring would be depressed. Differences were obvious between regular-season totals and those for Orlando, with some totals opening as much as 8.25 points lower than the average regular-season closing number.

The betting market seemed to think otherwise, though, as both totals Thursday night were bet up before tip-off. 

Utah and New Orleans, which opened 219.5, closed 10 points higher at 229.5 but flew well under the opening total, finishing with 210 points. The battle for Los Angeles (in Orlando) reached as low as 215.5 two days before the contest but closed at 220 in multiple shops. That affair finished with 204 points. 

But the market was not deterred. On Friday, four of the six games closed with higher totals than the opener, with two games closing at least seven points higher than the original number. Bettors were rewarded for their stubbornness, as all six games flew Over the total by an average of 34.0 points.

Professional handicapper Erin Rynning did a fantastic job compiling numbers from the regular season, then compared them with the numbers we had seen through Sunday in Orlando. Rynning found that the largest difference between regular-season and bubble contests was the officiating. 

According to his research, Orlando has featured an increase of 10.8 fouls called per game and 11.2 more made free throws. Think about it, and it makes sense. Officials are now in a silent bubble, able to cleanly hear contact made by players. They can also hear the griping about non-calls from benches right behind them. Both could be huge factors in more fouls being called.

However, defense generally has been poor as well. 

In games through Monday, 13 teams had posted higher defensive ratings than their season-long ratings. For the purpose of that exercise, I excluded Washington and Brooklyn, as their rosters have been altered greatly due to unforeseen circumstances. So that means 13 of 20 teams have posted higher defensive ratings in Orlando. If you include the two MASH units, 15 of the 22 teams have been poorer defensively than their season-long numbers.


So we have officials calling more fouls and teams in the bubble playing defense at a lower level than they had all season. Are these factors likely to change?

I can almost guarantee that defensive efforts will get better as the seeding games play out. These athletes had not played competitive basketball since early March. Generally, defense takes more physical effort than offense, and when teams are tired, that side of the game tends to fall off. As these players get their legs back under them, I would expect those defensive ratings to regress back to the mean.

As for the officiating, I’m not sure. Does the league step in and tell officials to swallow their whistles? Over 50 fouls called per game is a lot, and as we saw in the Lakers’ win over the Clippers, it can really suck the flow out of a game. Still, you cannot take away the external factors that have influenced the officiating.

Whether these factors change in the remaining seeding games, bettors can always count on the books adjusting to the circumstances. After the clean sweep of Overs on Friday, totals went 10-7 to the Under through Monday. 

The betting market learned its lesson over the weekend, so now it's the bettors’ turn to do the same.


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