Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM

Playoff Zig-Zag Theory

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Playoff Trends to Watch

Exposing The NBA Zig Zag Theory

By now you've heard about the Zig Zag theorem in the NBA playoffs. In handicapping circles, Zig Zags are trendy applications that are purported moneymakers during the playoffs. The premise is simple: ‘Play On’ a team off a playoff loss in its very next game.

The theory is that in a short series involving imminent elimination, a team in more inclined to bounce back with a good effort off a losing performance than it is to continue it's losing ways.

How have these plays held up of late? You might be surprised.

Here are the pointspread results of NBA Playoff Zig Zags outlined from 1991 through 2018.

Game Breakdown

Overall: 910-832-42 • 52.2%
Game Two: 218-190-13 • 53.4%
Game Three: 227-186-7 • 55.0%
Game Four: 187-192-11 • 49.3%
Game Five: 153-140-7• 52.2%
Game Six: 90-89-2 • 50.3%
Game Seven: 35-35-2 • 50.0%

The moderate strength of NBA Zig Zags appears to be in Games Two and Three where collectively they become better than a 54% point spread proposition on the blind.

Return To The Mean

Like all things that are popular, though, Zig Zags eventually burn out and revert back to the norm.

A combination of the ‘law of averages’ and an adjustment by the oddsmakers has seen the NBA Zig Zags go up in smoke since 2001.

That’s confirmed by the fact that these plays slipped dramatically the last 16 years (2001-2018), going 599-583-32 – or 50.7% - overall as opposed to a 311-249-10 mark – or 55.5% - in games played from 1991-2000.

That’s a decline of almost 5 percentage points. Or in bottom-line terms, they have been major money burners on the blind the last 18 seasons. That’s what I would call a major buzz kill.

Round ‘Em Up

Here is a breakdown of how the Zig Zags have fared during each round of the NBA Playoffs since 1991:

Round One: 440-405-25 • 52.1%
Round Two: 273-237-8 • 53.5%
Round Three: 133-128-6 • 51.0%
Round Four: 64-62-3 • 50.8%

While it appears Round Two holds a scant edge, it should be noted that home teams off a double-digit loss in Round Two have yielded the largest profits, as they are 92-63-4 (59.4%).

Planting The Seeds

Here is a breakdown of how the Zig Zags have fared by seed during NBA Playoffs:

No. 1 Seeds: 135-120-5 • 52.9%
No. 2 Seeds: 129-111-4 • 53.7%
No. 3 Seeds: 109-100-10 • 52.2%
No. 4 Seeds: 89-95-1• 48.4%
No. 5 Seeds: 88-82-4• 51.8%
No. 6 Seeds: 76-64-3 • 54.3%
No. 7 Seeds: 53-74-5• 41.7%
No. 8 Seeds: 70-59-5 • 54.3%

Note these results are since the 1996 season when our database first began charting seeds.

Note the disparate results that abound between No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.

Rocky Mountain High

So when is it we can still expect to catch the best possible result when firing up with these with NBA Zig Zags these days, you ask?

Simple. Look to support double-digit underdogs coming off a loss as these stalwarts are 57-36-2 (61.2%) overall since 1991. And if they scored 88 or fewer points in their last game they’ve gone 34-14-2 ATS over the same span. That’s a pretty high 70.8% winning percentage despite yielding a scant less than two plays a season.

So with Zig Zags confirmed money burners over the past 18 seasons, it might be best to stop zigging when you should be zagging and put this worn out theory to rest.

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