Investment Opportunities in the NBA – What Happens When a High Scoring Team Faces a Good Defense?

Today the ScoreMetrics lab is evaluating investment cases for situations where the highest scoring teams are matching up against the best defenses in the NBA. 

Do the best offenses have a hard time covering the spread, or do bookmakers adjust accordingly? Is the Under a good investment in these cases? Or is there perhaps a different type of edge to be found?

As is always the case, The ScoreMetrics labs looks to spot statistically relevant long-term patterns and not just current trends with a good ROI to support your investment decisions. Keep on reading to find out if we came up with something interesting!

The methodology

To find an answer to our questions, we looked at what happened when top scoring teams from the past 5 seasons in the NBA faced the best defensive teams during the regular season. We looked at each season individually and then compiled a summary of the data. 

We used Team Defensive Efficiency for determining the best defensive teams from each season and Team Points per Game to find out who the top scorers were. Top 3 teams from both categories were picked and we looked at matchups between them. 

Here’s a list of the top scoring offenses and the most effective defenses from each included season:

2019-2020

Top scoring teams: Milwaukee, Houston, Dallas

Most effective defenses: Milwaukee, Toronto, LA Lakers, Boston

2018-2019

Top scoring teams: Milwaukee, Golden State, New Orleans

Most effective defenses: Milwaukee, Utah, Indiana, Toronto

2017-2018

Top scoring teams: Golden State, New Orleans, Toronto

Most effective defenses: Utah, Boston, Philadelphia

2016-2017

Top scoring teams: Golden State, Houston, Denver

Most effective defenses: Golden State, San Antonio, Atlanta, Utah

2015-2016

Top scoring teams: Golden State, Oklahoma City, Sacramento

Most effective defenses: San Antonio, Atlanta, Indiana

As you can see, during the seasons when a team ranked top 3 in both categories (Milwaukee twice and Golden State once) we added the 4th most effective defense of that season to their sample. 

The results

This exercise resulted in a sample of 114 games played between the top scoring offensive teams against the most effective defenses since the beginning of the 2015-2016 season. What did we discover?

Well, that there has been a small edge for investors who’ve put their money down on games going under – with a 55.26% rate to be exact. The over has been a bad investment with 42.98% of the games ending up going over. 

This feels like something that’s intuitively easy to explain. Playing against the best defenses in the league equal scoring less, and the bookmakers can’t quite find the correct line. 

The ATS stats for the full sample don’t give us anything to cheer about. Top scoring teams in the league covered the spread 48.25% of the time against the best defenses. Disappointing!

A couple of interesting trends from within the sample:

The Bucks are 71.43% ATS and 64.29% Under (14 games, this and previous season)

The Rockets are 35.71% ATS and 57.14% Under (14 games, this and previous season)

Worth exploring further? Perhaps. 

Interestingly, the Warriors went 41.94% ATS against the best defenses during their dynastical run from 2015 to 2019. 

Conclusions

This was an interesting start for research and evaluation into the case for investment opportunities in matchups where the top-scoring teams face the best defensive teams in the NBA. 

Should we believe that the Under is a good long-term sports investment in these matchups? The ScoreMetrics labs will definitely look further into it to see if there’s a case that meets our rigorous investment criteria. 

It should be noted that the method we used for this particular exercise is by no means perfect. Teams might not be ranked top among these categories for the full season – slumps happen, and at times the offensive or defensive rhythm of a team is found only later on during the season. Then there’s the small sample size of teams included, and the fact that we experienced one of the most dominant teams in the history of the game in the Golden State Warriors during the period we looked at. Their games from 2015 to 2019 amount to almost a third of the sample used in our research.

But when we start extending the number of teams included, looking back farther into history, start taking into account month-by-month offensive and defensive rankings, etc., we’ll come up with a clearer picture of the investment opportunities. 

Watch out for that!

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