LeBron James is the most valuable NBA player when it comes to the point spread, even as the superstar who turned 34 this week plays in his 16th season. He has earned this consensus distinction, in fact, despite often being undervalued in a betting market that tends to overvalue All-Stars.
"He's the greatest player I've ever seen," Las Vegas SuperBook head oddsmaker Ed Salmons told ESPN. Salmons said James means more to a betting line than any other current player "in a vacuum," all things being equal.
James has not played since Christmas Day, when he suffered a groin injury. The four-time MVP's absence reinforces just how complicated the process of adjusting point spreads can be. Players are not merely assessed a blanket numerical value; point spreads incorporate numerous variables.
"Each game is its own universe and its own circumstance," Salmons said. "Everyone's got a different opinion on how it's going to impact a particular game. I don't think there's an exact answer on what it is and why it is. It's just trial and error, basically. You see how the team plays without him."
Since April 12, 2015, James has missed a total of 20 games as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. In those games, his team has posted a 3-17 record both overall and against the point spread. Though that is a relatively small sample size, it does speak to the giant void he leaves, given his versatility, his status as a team's offensive focus and his ability to fill up a stat sheet.
Though the market may adjust poorly in his absence, his teams are still overvalued when he does suit up. Last season, when James played every single game, the Cavaliers finished a putrid 29-50-3 ATS, which ranked fourth worst by any team over the past 20 seasons. This year, the Lakers entered Christmas Day 14-19 ATS, which ranked third worst of any team this season.
"The NBA, almost more than any other sport, values superstars too much. It's a weird phenomenon," professional bettor Erin Rynning told ESPN. Rynning references the enigma of the Golden State Warriors. The two-time defending champions are 26-38 ATS over the past two seasons when Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all start.
So far, the Lakers have managed LeBron's absence better than his former Cavaliers teams did. The Lakers are 2-2 ATS in the four games LeBron has missed, and they are actually outperforming the betting line by .625 points in those four games. That's a stark contrast from the final 16 games James missed for the Cavs, when his team under-performed against the point spread by an average of 10.938 points.
There isn't much comparison between the situations in Cleveland and Los Angeles. Even when LeBron suited up in every game for the Cavs in 2017-18, he had little support.
"Last year was different to me because he didn't have Kyrie [Irving] and there really wasn't places to go [for scoring]," Rynning said. "The Lakers at least have some alternatives."
There is a big difference between a team missing a star for a single game or for an extended period of time. "Sometimes the one-game thing gets overdone because a team will actually rise up and play well for the one game," Salmons said. "The other team says, 'Oh, look, there's no LeBron tonight so this is going to be easy'. That's part of the game and what kind of maturity level the other team has."
With a situation like the one the Lakers are facing, a team is more likely to employ new offensive sets and rotations to overcome a star's extended absence. With a single missed game, however, coaches typically maintain protocol and game plans.
James has company in the top echelon. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and James Harden all make a similar impact on the point spread, especially in situations like Houston's with All-Star Chris Paul also sidelined. But even still, oddsmakers and bettors insist the value lies with the short-handed team.
"We had a guy about three years ago and all he did was basically bet on these teams that had their star players not playing and he would bet the money line and point spread first quarter, first half and full game -- and he cleaned up," Salmons said.
Since losing Paul to a hamstring injury, the Rockets have won and covered six straight games, including last night's upset at Golden State. During this stretch, they were home underdogs twice and never favored by more than 4.5 points.
The Lakers lack the luxury of having a second All-Star. As the point spreads are adjusted more significantly in LeBron's absence, however, they have a smaller hill to climb. Time will tell whether his current running mates are simply undervalued, or if the Lakers' performance will start to trend more toward the distinct pattern LeBron's teams had during his Cleveland days.