Quantifying when NBA stars miss games

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly) 

February 23, 2020 10:16 PM
Anthony Davis
© Imagn

One of the unfortunate realities of the NBA is that it’s hard to know from night to night which players might or might not play. I’m not talking about the guys at the end of the benches. I’m focused on the main players, the stars. The reasons for missing games can range from injury to paternity leave to load management to many other things. 

All of this can make it very difficult for those on both sides of the betting counter. Uninformed bettors can lose simply due to lack of knowledge of a given situation, while the books can take on unnecessary liability if they aren’t on top of player-availability information the minute it breaks. Of course, knowing who is playing and who isn’t — and what it means — can give the person on either side of the counter the edge. I will try to show how to quantify the importance of key players missing games.

I’ve taken the game logs of the teams of seven key players who have missed at least six games in 2019-20. They are players as important as reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. I have inputted my Effective Strength numbers into the logs to determine the teams’ key statistics in the games those players have played against those they haven’t.

In general, I 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 can be much different from that. Let’s go through the list of seven players by teams and analyze the performance with and without that player.

Brooklyn Nets

Analysis: As strange as it sounds, the Nets have performed as a better team without Kyrie Irving, as shown by their Effective Strength Rating being 1.6 points better without him. However, the books price them 1.5 points worse on average, meaning bettors who have backed the Nets when Irving isn’t playing have enjoyed better than a three-point edge. Brooklyn has played a much slower pace without Irving and has been a better defensive team as well, resulting in lower totals.

Dallas Mavericks 

Analysis: The Mavericks have not been better without Luka Doncic, but they haven’t been as bad as the books have penalized them for his absence. The markets have shown his loss meaning about 3.5 points to Dallas, but the Mavs are playing only about 2.1 points worse in actuality. Totals are down only slightly, as the Mavs without Doncic average less than one fewer possession per game.

Los Angeles Clippers

Analysis: Easily the most impactful player missing games has been Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers have been 5.1 points per game worse without Leonard, even though books are allowing only 3.5 points on average for his absence. The Clippers score less and allow more without changing their effective pace, meaning the Clippers are truly worse without Leonard on the court. As a bettor, you can judge his absence accordingly.

Los Angeles Lakers

Analysis: This is by far the strangest situation of all. Anthony Davis has missed seven games, yet the Lakers boast an impressive 5-2 SU and ATS record without him. What’s more is that the offense has been distinctly better without him, averaging 8.1 more points per game. Defensively, they are a little worse, but overall their Effective Strength Rating has been 5.5 points better. Bookmakers are deducting 3.1 PPG when Davis is out, so bettors have enjoyed a huge advantage backing the Lakers when he is out. The pace and totals differences are negligible.

Milwaukee Bucks

Analysis: Bookmakers have given the Bucks the biggest deduction when Antetokounmpo has been out, basically judging them as 4.3 points worse. Milwaukee has played very well without him, perhaps coming together in the MVP’s absence. The Bucks are 5-1 SU and ATS in the six games he has missed, playing effectively just a point per game worse.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Analysis: Karl-Anthony Towns will be out when the Timberwolves are back in play this week, so hopefully the information will help you navigate the team through his continued absence. Minnesota has been far worse for bettors with Towns (10-24 ATS) than without (8-9 ATS). The pace of play doesn’t change much when Towns is out, but the game scores have been much lower. The T’wolves score 9.2 PPG fewer while allowing 7.7 PPG fewer.

Philadelphia 76ers

Analysis: The 76ers are better with Joel Embiid in the lineup, scoring 2.2 points per game more when he plays compared with when he doesn’t. The defensive numbers are identical, meaning the 76ers are essentially 2.2 points worse without the star center. Bookmakers judge them to be 4.1 points worse, meaning Philadelphia has some value when Embiid is out. Regarding totals, bookmakers seem to incorrectly judge that the pace picks up when Embiid is out. They set totals 1.2 points higher, but the half-possession-per-game increase doesn’t make up for the lesser offensive efficiency. 

Charts with this story appear in this week's "Point Spread Weekly"

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