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As the 2020-2021 NBA regular season comes to a close, and with as little as eight games (or less) remaining for each of the 30 teams, there simply won’t be as many profitable side or total spots left to bet on in the association until the start of the playoffs. Most clubs are either currently looking to rest their main players or are busy trying out different rotations they normally wouldn’t try earlier in the year, simply in order to see what they’ll be able to use successfully in the playoffs. That's why it's important to get ready for the playoffs now, and it starts by us truly understanding the basic concepts and fundamentals of the "zig zag theory," a staple of NBA betting strategy amongst both the general public and sharps alike.
I thought it’d be helpful to break down some information below on the zig zag theory and illustrate which aspects are actually profitable, contrary to prior (and public) belief. To make it as short and simple as possible here, the zig zag theory is an approach to handicapping a game in the playoffs where you bet one side for the first game in a series, then you turn around and bet the other side for the second game.
This approach supports the team that lost the first game, of course, because they’re the team that will make most of the adjustments going into the second game and play with more motivation to win to avoid falling down 0-2 in the series. And while going down 0-2 in a series actually means a team has only a 16% chance of winning four games and surviving into the next round, just blindly betting the opposite side from game to game isn’t as profitable as one may think at that point in a given series. In fact, playoff teams coming off an outright loss have covered the next game only 50.2% of the time. So why is the zig zag theory then so popular, and why has it been a staple of NBA strategy for seemingly decades on end?
To make matters worse, teams coming off an ATS loss have covered their next game only 48.8% of the time, and teams that both lost outright and ATS in the next game only covered at a 49.4% rate. While neither approach is profitable at the end of the day, there indeed are ways to parse through the playoff/zig zag theory data and find actionable edges. We'll explore some of those actionable data points below, so that you can enjoy watching the playoffs while earning some profit as well - a win-win for the zig-zag.
- Since 2004, NBA home favorites coming off a loss that didn’t cover have historically been profitable, with an overall record of 87-73-3 (54.4%) in their first game back from their ATS + outright loss.
Now, while that’s almost 20 years ago (which is a very large if not also very inaccurate/incomplete span of time for our data), I made sure to adjust for that sample size and in doing so I dug a little deeper into the numbers to find that these same home favorites have returned an ever bigger profit if they’ve been also undervalued by the public. In our case, this means a specific team getting 55% or fewer of the bets.
- Home NBA Playoff favorites coming off a loss - and are a #1 seed or #3 seed, plus getting 55% of the bets or less, have covered their next game 63% of the time, quite the ATS winning margin/clip.
- Another profitable angle to use the zig zag for is higher-seeded teams (#1 seed to #3 seed) coming off a Game 1 outright and ATS loss - in Game 2 these teams have covered the spread 62% of the time.
The best time to use this zig zag approach, however, is actually in Games 2 & 3 of a given series (regardless of seed), as the team that lost in Game 1 has a 56.2% chance of covering the spread in Game 2. And the team that lost Game 2 has a 54.5% chance of covering the spread in Game 3 - this dates all the way from 1991-2015. By the time a series reaches Game 4 or beyond, the zig zag theory isn’t worth betting any longer because these teams have made all the adjustments they can seemingly make, and the series winner at that point will be decided by simply the better team. Also, do keep in mind that the the best seeded teams to use the zig zag theory approach with are #2 seeds and #8 seeds when it comes to the first round of the NBA Playoffs. And it's the #8 seeds specifically that have the best track record here:
- Since 1996, #2 seeds are 55.1% using the zig zag theory and 8th seeds are 59%.
It comes to no surprise that the potential #8 seeds in each conference this year are two of the hottest teams/superstars in the entire league right now, with Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook leading the way for the Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards, respectively, into their conference's #8 seeds.
Over the next week or so the NBA playoff seeds will become much more clear for us too, and with that we can start to map out our plan of attack for betting these potential #8 seeds (and others who fit the criteria) when it comes to the zig zag theory. Stay tuned for more strategy and analysis on the zig zag theory as we approach the play-in tournament and first round of the playoffs. That's also when we'll break down specific examples of situations to bet on - and back away from - when it comes to the zig zag theory.