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September 1, 2014

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Betting: Analyzing the shortened season’s effect on NBA totals

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Rick Scuteri/AP

Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns have been particularly under-rific lately.

You know it’s a peculiar NBA season when even the normally taciturn Charles Barkley is moved to let the world know that many of the league’s teams “stink.” “I’m embarrassed at some of these teams,” Barkley said in a radio interview, suggesting that NBA fans deserve an apology.

In his inimitable way, Barkley was echoing some of the widespread criticism of the NBA that has surfaced this year. With each team playing a shortened 66-game regular season after a labor lockout, scoring is down noticeably—and it’s not due to better defense. Offenses throughout the league are playing at a slightly more deliberate pace than last season, but not nearly slowly enough to explain a drop in points scored, foul shots made, field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting. Instead, blame appears to lie with a combination of fatigue, injuries and coaches opting to rest their stars more often because of the demands of the condensed schedule.

The unusual circumstances have kept bettors and oddsmakers on their toes. As you would expect, “unders” have performed well for NBA totals bettors. Through Sunday’s action, 220 games had gone under the total compared with 185 “overs.” (I’m discounting pushes.) That’s 54.3 percent unders, enough to churn out a profit.

It’s more revealing to dig a bit deeper. Unders started off at a torrid pace, going 131-90 (59.3 percent) through January 20 before leveling off substantially. Since January 21, overs have outnumbered unders 95 to 89. The evidence suggests that, despite Sir Charles’ protestations, teams are playing truer to form as the season progresses. In the first week of the season, the average over/under on the betting board was 190.8 points. In the week ending Sunday, the average was 190.2 points—not much of a difference. By comparison, in the week ending February 11 last season the average over/under on the betting board was 199.7 points—a significant difference. That tells me the first four weeks or so of this season were an aberration and the betting market is now in sync with what’s happening on the court.

One outlier, however, might remain in Phoenix. The Suns have confounded their loyalists—and perhaps coach Alvin Gentry—by spurning their familiar up-tempo attack in favor of a patient offensive scheme. Monday’s loss at Golden State was the Suns’ sixth under in their past seven games, and I’m not convinced the market has caught up.

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