Quantifying effect of NBA stars missing games

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One of the most frustrating aspects of following and betting on the NBA is that you often don’t have any idea until shortly before game time which players are unavailable. Whether from injury, a COVID-19 concern or — my personal favorite — load management, the unfortunate reality of the NBA is that no one is trying to break longevity records. When teams’ main players miss games, it becomes a handicapping puzzle. 

This makes it very difficult for those on both sides of the betting counter. Uninformed bettors can lose simply due to lack of knowledge of a situation, while the books can take on unnecessary liability if they aren’t on top of player-availability information the minute it breaks. Knowing who is playing and who isn’t — and, more importantly, what it means — can provide an edge. I’ll demonstrate quantitatively how important the absence of some stars has been for their teams.

I’ve analyzed the game logs of the teams of eight key players who have missed at least six games this season. I have added my Effective Strength numbers to the logs to determine the key statistics in the games the players have played against those they’ve missed. These numbers include all the major adjustments, such as home/road, rest scenarios and opposing lineup changes.

In general I have found that those setting the odds can vary numbers by as much as five points on a team’s power rating for a missing player and up to four points on a total. However, the actual differences as shown here can be much different. In fact, in a couple of cases, the teams have actually proven better without certain high-profile players.

Brooklyn Nets: As strange as it sounds, the Nets have actually performed better without Kevin Durant, as shown by their Effective Strength Rating being 3.3 points higher without him. However, the books price them 4.0 points worse on average, meaning bettors who have backed the Nets when Durant isn’t playing have actually enjoyed better than a seven-point edge. The result has been a 12-6 ATS record in his absence. Brooklyn has played at a slower pace without Durant and has proven to be a much better defensive team.

Houston Rockets: Heading into the season, and mostly based on track record, very few NBA fans would have categorized Christian Wood as a star. However, he had a huge start to the season, averaging 22 points, and since he left the lineup because of an ankle injury, the Rockets have fallen on their faces. The records speak for themselves: 8-9 with Wood and 3-14 without him. Houston has been way worse at both ends of the court in his absence, and though other factors are involved, the Rockets’ Effective Strength Rating has been 13.1 points worse in the 17 games Wood has missed.

Los Angeles Clippers: Another of the most impactful players missing games has been Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers have been 11.1 points per game worse in their Effective Strength Rating without Leonard. The biggest difference is on the defensive end — no surprise, as Leonard’s defense is elite — as they are allowing almost seven more points per game. The common perception is that Leonard is about a 4.5-point line swing when he is on or off the court. But if you take my Bettors Rating at face value, the actual number is closer to 7.5.

Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis has missed 14 games, and the Lakers own an unimpressive 7-7 SU and 5-9 ATS record without him. They are a championship-level team with him in the lineup, having gone 17-6. Paradoxically, even though he is a big forward if not a center, the Lakers actually play faster with him by almost 1.5 possessions per game. They are way more effective offensively as well, by almost six points per game. His injury means a lot to Los Angeles. Oddsmakers have shown it to be about a 4.9-point difference.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns has missed a lot of action for the second straight season. Last year the Timberwolves were actually a little better with him out of the lineup. That is not the case in 2020-21. Despite similar outright records, Minnesota has been far better on both ends of the court, and thus against the spread. I have consistently judged Towns as a 3.5-point line impact, and the actual number is 3.6, according to the Bettors Rating.

Philadelphia 76ers: In terms of wins and losses, the player who has affected his team the most when missing games has been Joel Embiid. The 76ers are a much better team with him in the lineup, going 23-7, as opposed to 1-5 when he is out. The strange thing is that the 76ers actually play a slightly higher pace with Embiid, yet they are typically in lower-scoring games. Why? They have proven to be 8.7 points better per game on the defensive end. This is a perfect example of why injuries in the NBA can often be misunderstood. Bettors typically don’t associate Embiid with being as impactful defensively. However, that is where he seemingly makes a big difference.

Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam has been out often recently, and it hasn’t made much difference to the Raptors’ success. Still, Toronto tends to play a slightly higher pace without him, and the Effective Scores of their games are significantly higher. If you consider a 1.4 pace uptick per contest and 2.9 points better on offense, not much impact is evident on that end of the court. But the Raptors have been 6.7 points per game worse on the defensive end in his absence, something to watch if he continues to miss time.

Washington Wizards: Many analysts and sharp bettors don’t think highly of Russell Westbrook. Typically, he serves the NBA fantasy backer much more rewardingly. For instance, this season Westbrook has missed seven games, and the Wizards are 4-3 SU and 5-2 ATS in his absence. In the games he has played, Washington is 10-17 SU and 13-14 ATS. Oddsmakers typically view him as about a 3-point line and total swinger. The actual stats show his team is not three points worse but actually 7.3 points better without him. The totals are accurate as he amounts to about a three-point lesser combined score, as the Wizards play at a hyper pace when he’s running the show.

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