A few seasons ago, before LeBron James returned to Cleveland, many NBA bettors were licking their lips when they saw Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving out of the lineup due to injury.
Chicago opened as a 6.5 point home favourite to the Cavs on the NBA betting line. But, after word got out that Irving would miss the game, the Bulls were bet up to 8-point faves.
A similar thing happened the following night, when Cleveland hosted the Raptors. Toronto opened as a 3.5 point favourite but was laying as many as 5.5 points by tipoff.
Obviously, NBA bettors saw extra value in betting against Cleveland without Irving on the floor.
And they were wrong.
The Cavaliers won both games outright, stunning the Bulls by 3 points in Chicago and then rallying from an early 21-7 deficit to defeat the Raps by 11.
Situations like this have become a trend in sports, particularly in the NBA and NHL, as bettors struggle with handicapping injuries to star players.
In January 2013, the Boston Celtics went on a seven-game winning streak immediately after Rajon Rondo was lost for the season and NBA experts said there was no chance they could make the playoffs.
In 2011, the Penguins lost both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to injury, then went on to go 20-11-5 without 2 of the top NHL superstars in their lineup.
It doesn’t always work this way. The Packers went 2-5-1 in 2013 (and 1-7 against the spread) when Aaron Rodgers got hurt, then went 12-4 the following season with him back in the lineup. The Canadiens boasted the best record in the NHL in 2015-16 with Carey Price in goal, but sported the worst record in the NHL after he got injured for the year.
However, both Rodgers and Price are former MVPs who play arguably the 2 most important positions in all of sports. And both didn’t exactly have stud backups who could seamlessly take their place.
In most cases, teams can overcome the loss of star players, especially in the short term. That contradicts our gut instinct that teams are screwed without their top players.
So why might you want to bet ON teams who lose their stars, rather than against them?
Here are 3 reasons:
1. Teammates elevate their play
It’s increasingly common to see other players “step up” their game to compensate for the absence of their star teammate. Many see it as a chance to showcase their skills in a greater role.
“On every team you have your few superstars, and in their case they have two of the best in the league,” the Capitals’ Troy Brouwer told the Washington Post in 2011, referring to Pittsburgh’s success without Malkin and Crosby. “The other guys get overshadowed as a result of it. They got a lot of good guys throughout that lineup, a lot of guys who can score, a great supporting cast.”
Leafs fans might recall the 2002 playoffs when Mats Sundin was injured in the opening round. Toronto went on to win its first two series without its fallen captain. Ironically, when Sundin returned, the Leafs regressed, losing the East Conference final to Carolina.
2. Opponents often let down
If your gut instinct is to think a team is more likely to lose because it’s missing its star player, it makes sense that the opposition tends to think so as well.
Coaches are so paranoid about this, in fact, that they often go overboard in praising how dangerous the teams missing their star players still can be. Like when the Patriots were 8-point road favourites against a Cowboys team missing Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, and Bill Belichick raved about how “explosive” Dallas was. We can’t imagine anyone in the New England locker room actually feared a Dallas passing game without its star QB and top WR.
Even when teams say all the right things about not looking past an opponent because of injuries, it’s still difficult not to. It’s only natural.
3. Oddsmakers already factor injuries into betting lines
The third factor to keep in mind when star players are injured or suspended is that the oddsmakers take this into account when they set or adjust the line. They are handicapping injuries just as much as you are, and possibly overcompensating the injuries because they know what public perception is.
Unless you make your bet before the star player is ruled out of the lineup, you’re almost always going to be betting against an adjusted line that has already factored in that player’s absence.
If anything, it seems like a good strategy to bet on teams who are without their star player.
At least for a few games, when the adrenalin of “stepping up” for fallen teammates wears off and the impact of the star’s absence really begins to be felt.