About this time two years ago, I watched as on one of the fine betting sites there was a not-so-subtle back and forth of the validity of the so-called zigzag NBA playoff system.
The method simply says go with the team off of a loss. A critic came back after the first week or so gleaming over the fact the technique zagged and sagged more than it zigged. It lost money. Then as the playoffs went on, the proponent got the last laugh while the cynic wrote articles on other topics telling you he is smarter than everyone else.
Having been in the industry since the 1980s and having been a supporter of computer systems since prominent statistician Dr. Mike Orkin wrote his Pointspread Analyzer software, where does Center of the Handicapping Universe stand?
We agree with the theory, but less so the etched-in-stone considerations. First of all, let us give a quick refresher of the difference. A system can be measured objectively because the parameters are concrete. The zigzag is an example. Going with a double digit favorite off a single digit loss would be another hypothetical.
Of course there can be modest variances depending on when and where a database gathers lines, but over any statistically significant period it does not make a huge difference.
A theory is much like a system but does not have objective parameters. Our theory is the better the team is that the zigzag system favors and the bigger the margin the loss was, the more compelling it is to “go with the team off a loss.”
True one could come up with a system to measure our upgrading of the methodology. An example would be going with a team with a winning percentage of .575 or higher off a loss of eight or more. The problem is we believe a mental sliding scale combining and most importantly, weighing the two factors works best. It allows for a mixing and matching of the two parameters.
For example, this year as in most years, it would not apply or would only be weighed slightly if we are talking about the bottom three seeds in each conference off a loss. There is a reason they are called “mismatches”.
No. 4 versus five and the next three rounds of the playoffs (barring huge first round upsets), it is weighed much heavier. Remember we told you the mocker grew conspicuously quieter as the postseason went on. Now you know why.
It’s one of those theories that almost make too much sense. During the regular season of every sport we remind you of the Golden Rule to not merely go with the “team that needs it more” if said team is fighting just to make the playoffs.
We call attention to the fact if a team were proficient at winning “must win” games they would not be playing in must-win games late in the year.
Conversely, a one through five seed, especially as the playoffs go deeper, has shown the ability to rebound from adversity and respond when their backs are to the wall.
To the handicapper there is a titanic difference between desperate elite teams and equally desperate inferior teams playing in a crucial contest. It’s like the difference between seeing Jennifer Lopez and Rosie O’Donnell in a string bikini.
Okay, I don’t follow the analogy myself, but the exemplification of the distinction is infallible. From a handicapping standpoint one can’t measure the success of the zigzag if Phoenix coming off a loss is given the same weight (no pun intended Rosie) as Washington or Golden State following a setback.
Likewise, the margin of the loss is applicable for at least two obvious reasons. As we have said many times, nothing affects public perception more than the last game they have seen. It’s not uncommon for a blowout in the previous game to influence an opening line by 2-3 points and more times than not, the closing line by more.
Plus, no matter how motivated and well-coached a squad is, it defies human nature to approach a game with as much vengeance off a 22-point win as it is for the team off the huge setback.
So to friends and foes alike of zigzag, a .700 or better team off a loss is not even close to being the same as the below .520 teams zigging. Nor is mindset the same for a team that lost a game that went down to the wire the same as one that got humiliated on national television.