As fun as it is to write about esoteric gambling topics, the bulk of the articles can feel like encyclopedia entries. That’s not always a barrel o’ laughs for the reader. So before we jump into the topic of left-handed NBA players, how about a fairy tale?
The date was February 14th, 1986. Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were due to face the rival Los Angeles Lakers in 2 days, but first, they were bound for Portland. Trail Blazer fans who visited Memorial Coliseum that night could hardly have known what they were in for.
Larry Bird was playing left-handed. Dribbling, passing, and shooting with his southpaw mitten, the Hall of Fame guard scored a triple-double with 47 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists. The Celtics won in overtime, 120-119.
In a quote for the ages, Bird said he was saving his right hand for the Lakers, whom the Celtics beat in the next game. But Larry wasn’t trying to embarrass the Trail Blazers. He was using a clever strategy. When the “quarterback” of a basketball offense changes from righty to lefty, a defense can have all kinds of problems stopping it.
I’ll offer a quick study on how a left-handed player (or a right-handed genius in green) can cause issues for an NBA opponent, followed by a look at some active and historical southpaws in The Association. And I won’t forget to offer some betting advice for games with lefty point guards or forwards in the mix.
Guarding a southpaw can put a defender in a precarious position. Players prepare to face fellow right-handed cagers, so southpaws on an NBA roster aren’t common enough to warrant special practice time. The dynamics of an athlete’s approach to guarding his man are altered and sometimes even the collective unit has to alter strategies to contain an elite southpaw.
It’s a mental problem as much as it is physical. A defender guarding a lefty has mentally reversed every defensive drill ingrained in his head.
In the majority of scouting reports, a defender will have to force an offensive player to drive left and force them to shoot lay-ups/floaters/hook shots in the paint with their weak hand (usually left). Crafty southpaws who are naturally skilled at dribbling, shooting, and passing with their left hand can be more versatile around the hoop, and punish an opponent in the paint.
For instance, when playing post defense, defenders are accustomed to denying their man the ability to get a clean look with his right hand. The proper footwork forces the dribbler to go in the direction of his weaker shot. If a player tasked with guarding a lefty slips up and gets into his usual guarding position, he will open up the door for the lefty to get a clean look.
This adjustment can be more difficult for some players to make than others. Coaches must be aware of when their roster or an opponent’s roster is in trouble against a lefty.
Many analysts believe that the most important position in basketball is point guard. The point guard serves as an extension of the head coach on the floor, calls plays, and may serve as the leader in the dressing room. The role can be compared to that of a quarterback in football or a pitcher in baseball.
All 3 positions allow the player an opportunity to pick a defense apart. But a southpaw pitcher, point guard or QB must work to avoid making his own side just as uncomfortable as the defense. Passes (and hits) will fly at different angles, and balls will often be spinning the opposite way.
In fact, another reason there are so many great lefty point guards in NBA history could be that successful point guards are smart guys. It takes a smart pro to help guide his unit through the wackiness of a left-handed approach, without losing the unique elements that make his anomalous dexterity into a weapon.
The NBA has produced many excellent southpaw floor generals. One of the most underrated is Memphis Grizzlies’ point guard Michael Conley Jr. The 30-year-old has been like oil keeping the Memphis engine alive.
Conley Jr.’s injury early in the 2017-2018 season had a monumentally negative effect on the team. In January of 2017, the PG posted a 38-point, 9-assist night during a trip to Phoenix. The Grizzlies are a proud franchise, but you don’t kick over a left-handed rock and find that sort of production.
The Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic is a southpaw virtuoso One of the most notable performances from Dragic this past season was when he lit up the New Orleans Pelicans for 30 points, 8 assists, and 9 rebounds in a nail-biting OT clash.
Prop bets aren’t always available for players like Conley Jr. and Dragic. But if you belong to one of those enterprising sportsbooks or exchanges which does, it’s never a bad idea to keep an eye on lefty point guards.
James Harden has been tearing apart defenses in his current tenure with the Houston Rockets, establishing himself as perhaps the best southpaw in the NBA in 2018. Dwight Howard has even called Harden best left-handed player ever. Harden’s numbers make it easy to see why, even though I’m not ready to agree given the legendary players yet to list.
Manu Ginobili is an All-Star lefty who has made his living with guile and physicality in addition to ball skills. The South American’s unorthodox style of play has created chaos for opposing defenders. Ginobili was one of the pivotal pieces in the Spurs magical run of 4 NBA championships. Soon to retire, the 40-year-old will go down in NBA history as one of the greatest lefties to grace us with their presence.
Among youngsters, the left Isaiah Thomas was hobbled by injuries throughout the 2017-2018 season. But Thomas had a phenomenal breakthrough campaign with the Boston Celtics in 2016-17. The 5’9” guard was 3rd in the NBA in scoring during his last healthy campaign and will look to rebound with the Los Angeles Lakers this fall.
The most decorated NBA southpaw of all time is Bill Russell, who claimed more championship rings than he could fit on both hands during his illustrious career with Boston. Russell was an absolute force down low and the centerpiece of a Celtics dynasty.
If you’re talking dominant left-handed big men, David Robinson to be at the top of the list. The Admiral averaged a double-double throughout his career and won 2 championships with the Spurs to close out his career. Robinson excelled in all facets of the game and racked up impressive numbers throughout the 1990s. He produced a quadruple-double in a mid-90s game against Detroit, a feat that has been accomplished only a handful of times on any level.
Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who spent his career with most notably the Cincinnati Royals, Kansas City-Omaha Kings, and Boston Celtics, is thought of as one of the most electrifying lefty floor point guards of all time. At the high point of his production in 1973, Archibald led the NBA in both points and assists.
It would be trite to suggest that the advantages available to left-handed cagers are subtle, and that caution should be used when betting on the lefty factor alone. But for one thing, the advantage often isn’t so subtle – as the statistics above have shown.
Plus, I’ve made it pretty clear that betting with only one factor in mind is foolish, even for mob bosses whose bookies are scared of them.
A better way to describe the “lefty hex” is that it happens occasionally, not all the time. If having a left-handed guard on the team meant certain explosions of offense, then every franchise would invest in one. But when a crafty southpaw leads a talented team against a disorganized opponent, buckets can pour in, spawning favorable over-total points bets and player props.
To sum up, look for smart lefty show-runners like Thomas (not necessarily Harden) when taking on ordinary defensive teams that play man-to-man.
Complex defenses and press-systems are more effective against a lefty, creating a random-luck factor on every possession. Good old fashioned man vs man is more vulnerable – especially when defenders aren’t skilled to world class. Does the opposing team have a losing record or little reason to go the extra mile in the film room? Even better.
Isaiah Thomas could make the Lakers watchable again by Christmas. His southpaw skills could even make them a decent money line team. How’s that for a double-whammy surprise?
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