Zig Zag Theory Explained

zig zag theory explained

In the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2020 NBA playoffs, something remarkable happened. The heavily favored Clippers were up 3 games to 1 against the Denver Nuggets.

Then the Nuggets won a game. Then another game. Then they took the series.

Where did that energy come from? How did the Nuggets fight back against the Clippers, who were favored to win the series to begin with, when the Clippers only needed to take one game to win?

The answer may just lie in the ethereal things that we, as sports fans, know play a huge factor. Things you can’t easily account for by comparing data. Things like heart, grit, and the willingness to play harder than they’ve ever played before to avoid getting eliminated in the playoffs.

These ethereal factors are at the heart of the betting tactic we’re going to talk about today: Zig Zag Theory.

What is Zig Zag Theory?

Zig Zag Theory was created by Tony Salinas. His idea was simple enough: bookmakers don’t account for the extra motivation that a loss gives to a team in the playoffs. The theory makes sense intuitively – the stakes are higher, so players are going to play better. Zig Zag Theory works in two ways – bookmakers will be more likely to push the spread in favor of the team that last won because they have a winning record. That means they’re both undervaluing the team that lost and overvaluing the team that won.

Zig Zag Theory generally works best for NHL and NBA games, and it only works for playoff games. You can’t use the system at all for NFL games, because NFL playoffs are single elimination. The theory is simple – if a team lost its last game, they’re more likely to win their next game.

Does Zig Zag Theory Still Work?

Zig Zag Theory still has its proponents and advantages, but it’s important to remember that because the theory has been around for a long time, bookies have adjusted to it. In other words, they’re likely to be accounting for Zig Zag themselves when determining lines and odds.

It’s also important to remember that Zig Zag Theory isn’t a betting strategy – it’s a heuristic. In other words, you can’t just blindly bet on the team that lost the last game – there are a ton of other factors to consider. We’re going to cover one of the most important ones now.

Home Advantage 

For those of you who aren’t in the know – home advantage is a very real thing. One of the reasons that Zig Zag Theory works so well in NBA and NHL playoff games is that they both follow a 2-2-1-1-1 format, meaning that home advantage is distributed fairly evenly among the teams. How home advantage plays out in the NBA and the NHL differs pretty wildly – let’s take a look.

Zig Zag Theory and the NBA

To mismatch our sports analogies, when it comes to basketball you want to root, root, root for the home team. In the NBA playoffs, the home team wins a staggering 65% of games. A number of pundits have predicted that, in our current season, this lack of “home” advantage is going to negatively affect the temporarily displaced “Tampa Bay” Raptors.

That means if the road team loses the first game, they’re still likely to lose the second – they’re still on the road. You should probably still bet on the home team in most cases. On the flip side, if the road team loses the second game, they’re very likely to win the third. 

Conversely, if the home team loses the first game, you’d better believe the money’s on them winning the second game. And if they lose the second game, even accounting for Zig Zag Theory, they’re probably not going to win the third.

This all goes to highlight the truth about Zig Zag Theory in the NBA – it’s a factor, but it’s certainly not the most important factor. Treat it as such.

Zig Zag Theory and the NHL

Home ice advantage has a less drastic effect in the NHL – in fact, the NBA has the most important home advantage out of any American league sports. That said, there are certainly home ice advantages in the NHL.

These advantages tend to play out more in the first and final rounds of the NHL playoffs. On average in the NHL, the team with home advantage wins about 55% of games. That means Zig Zag Theory is going to be a lot more relevant in the NHL, and it may well be worth betting on a road team that lost the first round.

Other Factors to Consider

We already alluded to the pandemic with our “Tampa Bay” Raptors remark – and it may be an important factor to keep in mind. With no or smaller crowds, it’s not impossible that we’ll see the home advantage of teams drop significantly. If restrictions continue into the playoffs, this may make Zig Zag Theory a more important factor.

You should also always be looking at how a given team is affected by home advantage – some teams play much better at home, while other teams only play slightly better at home.

Finally, in the NHL there are some in-game consequences to home advantage – namely that the home team gets the final line change during play stoppages, and can thus strategically deploy players to improve matchups against the lineup that the away team sends onto the ice. This may mean that, even without crowds, the home ice advantage won’t be diminished as drastically as it may in NBA games.
What started as a piece on Zig Zag Theory ended up diving pretty deeply into home advantage, but given that the two are very important factors in NBA and NHL playoff games, we figured it was worth talking about. Doing the math yourself with so many different factors can be challenging, so if you’re looking for expert NBA picks, don’t sweat it – Kyle’s got you covered.