Gary | Fri 14/04/2017 - 11:21 EDT

NBA Playoffs: How Much Do Analytics Matter

NBA Playoffs: How Much Do Analytics Matter
The NBA is more than X's and O's nowadays. Teams are investing heavily into analytics in hopes of giving them an extra edge. With the playoffs about to get underway and the stakes as high as they get, we take a close look at analytics to uncover how important they are.

By Eric Uribe

Every March, hundreds of industry leaders and students flock to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston to unearth what data will improve their performance — on the business end and on the playing court. You’d be hard pressed to find someone here that doesn’t believe analytics is a predictor of performance.

However, the same doesn’t hold true elsewhere. For instance, two years ago, Charles Barkley — perhaps basketball’s most loved analyst — cast his vote in the analytics debate. The Hall of Famer called analytics “crap” and said supporters of the data are “a bunch of guys who aint never played the game and never got the girls in high school.” Quite the incendiary burn.  

It seems those are the only two sides to this debate, either all the numbers excite you or you’re just a nerd. There’s no inbetween — that is, until us. Not only are we big believers in the following statistics, we are convinced they’ll help you win bets during the NBA Playoffs.

Elo Rating


Looking at a team’s regular season record simply isn’t enough anymore. Teams change two-fold from the start of the season in October until the end in April. A better way to evaluate the six-month stretch is via Elo ratings, which are evaluated on FiveThirtyEight, the mecca of sports analytics. 

Elo measures strength based on game-to-game results. The only inputs are the final score of each game, and where it was played. Naturally, a win nets you Elo points, but an upset or blowout victory earns you more points. 

Before the playoffs start, Elo ratings give Golden State a 59 percent chance to win the NBA championship, with San Antonio a distant second at 11 percent.

Most surprisingly, the reigning NBA champions have just a two percent chance at repeating. Cleveland’s hopes are shot because Elo also heavily weighs recent play. And after becoming just the third team in NBA history to blow a 26-point lead in the fourth quarter — as the Cavs did last week against Atlanta — it’s no wonder the computer system hates them.

Point is, avoid Cleveland futures. There’s more betting value and Elo backing in betting Washington (22 percent chance of reaching Finals per Elo), Toronto (25 percent), or Boston (24 percent) to reach the NBA Finals. 

Real-Plus Minus


The NBA, more so than any other league, is driven by superstars. Not just marketability, but wins and losses on the court, too. It’s almost impossible to win at a high level without a pace-setting superstar. Well, real-plus minus measures just how important a player is to his team.

The stat indicates how a team played on both ends of the floor when a certain individual is playing, along with measuring how much of the overall improvement was that individual player’s doing. Let’s take a look at the regular season leaders.

Chris Paul led the way, with LeBron James and Steph Curry trailing close behind. That may not come as surprise, but real-plus minus also measures “wins” — an estimate of the number of victories a player has contributed to his team’s win total.

James and Curry finish one-two in this one, however, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, and Rudy Gobert round out the top five.

Our takeaway here is the Bulls, Thunder, and Jazz are great underdog spread plays in the first round. The three teams are led by a legit superstar, as measured by RPM, and those type of players shine during the postseason. 

Against The Spread Rankings

Enough of the fancy-schmancy stats derived from computers, let’s not forget about one of the classics all bettors should be familiar with. If you consistently prove bookies wrong and beat the spread during the season, then that should carry over in the playoffs.

The top three teams against the spread this year all missed the playoffs, though. However, Oklahoma City and Toronto finished fourth and fifth, respectively. We already advised you to bet Thunder spread earlier and we’re doubling down on that, along with the Raptors.

The difference here is Toronto are favorites against their first-round opponent, while the Thunder aren’t. Nonetheless, expect the Raptors to be underdogs in round two against a likely matchup with Cleveland. If history has any indication, Toronto will be a good bet during the series on onward. 

Results / FixturesNBA

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