The National Basketball Association has long been one of America’s most popular sports. From the glory days of Jordan and the Bulls to the dominance of the Lakers throughout the late 90s and turn of the century – the NBA now has a new breed of superstars led by the Miami Heat’s LeBron James.
With pre-season games now being played in China each year, the NBA’s product has started to attract new fans from across the globe. Overseas it is by far the most watched American sport and has a massive following throughout Asia, especially in China. In fact if you walk into any games room in China you will find 90% of the seats occupied by people playing one of the many NBA franchise games on Xbox or PS3.
I’m a regular NBA bettor myself, and I always get up for the playoffs. NBA betting is simple to understand, but as the old saying goes, “…difficult to master.” It uses a point spread which like in football has a broad appeal.
I enjoy the NBA because something is always happening. There is a 24-second shot clock which drives the action and makes the end of games especially exciting. In close games late in the 4th quarter, something will happen every 24 seconds that will leave fans – and bettors – on the edge of their seats.
The Association’s sphere of influence expands year by year and with that comes the emergence of more betting markets, available on a nightly basis.
The NBA season normally begins in late October and the Finals end around mid-to-late June. The league has 30 total teams which are all based in US cities, with the exception being the Toronto Raptors of Canada.
The regular season has a total of 82 games per team, and the league has two conferences, the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. Each conference has three divisions, which matter little in playoff seeding but do determine a fair bit of a team’s schedule as they will face divisional opponents more than other conferences. Western and Eastern Conference teams face each other throughout the year, but the teams from opposing conferences won’t play each other more than twice during the regular season.
8 teams from each conference make the playoffs for a total of 16 teams. These teams are seeded from #1 to #8 and face off against each other in a best-of-7 series to decide the winner. Unlike football, there is no first round bye for the teams with the best record. Teams with higher seeding will gain a one game home court advantage in the series.
After several rounds of best-of-7 play, the final two teams from each conference duke it out for the Western and Eastern Conference Championships. The winners from each conference then go on to face each other in the NBA Finals, which uses the same 7-game format to decide a champion.
The league has endured lockouts and player strikes, even betting scandals by referees yet somehow always seems to land on its feet. The NBA’s individual star power is something many other leagues are envious of, as ratings have continued to rise in recent years.
How the Spread Works
Like the NFL, the point spread is the main way of betting on NBA games. The spread is designed to even the playing field between two teams that are not an even match on paper. Team expectations typically present a favorite, changing the question from “who will win?” to “how much will they win by?” A typical spread for an NBA game might look like:
Miami Heat -11 Detroit Pistons +11
This is a sizeable spread and means that the favorite Heat must beat the underdog Pistons by more than 11 points for a bet on the Heat to payout. Conversely, the Pistons must keep the game within 11 points for bets on them to win. Should the score finish with the Heat winning by exactly 11 points, all bets are a push and thus refunded.
Bettors shouldn’t be wagering on who they think will win the game, but instead base it upon the oddsmakers’ line. There are lots of variables I consider when betting an NBA game, but two of the most noteworthy are home and away statistics. Some teams play much better at home versus on the road, but for other teams the effect isn’t so drastic.
You should be looking for numbers where you feel a team has an edge. A team’s recent history, especially over their last 5 or so games should be considered. Also, you should think of the teams as “the Miami Heat on the road versus a good defense, off two days rest…” instead of just Miami vs. Detroit. Rarely are there massive 20+ point spreads in the NBA like in college basketball, but there is a lot of variation in the lines compared to other sports.
Don’t fall into the trap of just thinking: “this team is better than that team, and the spread seems small, so I’ll go ahead and bet it”. If you handicap like this, you will get eaten alive by the sportsbooks.
This type of wager is made by selecting if the total points scored in a game be will over or under a point threshold. The total is determined by adding the scores of both teams together, representing total points scored in the game. When a game finishes 101-95 the total for that game is 196. An NBA total might looks like:
New York Knicks OvUn 197 Brooklyn Nets
The number 197 represents the point threshold that will determine which side of the bet pays out. If the total score of both teams is under 196 or less, the under will collect. When the total score is 198 or greater, the over will be rewarded. Should the combined score of both teams be exactly 197 points, all bets are refunded.
NBA Totals are a good choice when you don’t see value in the point spread. While betting totals is of course tied to the spread, it is more about predicting the pace of a game rather than the eventual winner. Predicting the total number of points scored is something of a science and looking at in-game matchups along with home/road factors are just as important for totals as they are for the point spread.
Picking the Winner Straight Up – Aka The Money Line
Betting on the money line is not very popular in US sports. It is much more common in Europe where soccer is the most bet on sport. It is simply choosing the winner of a match without any point spread involved. Let’s take a look at an example:
Indiana Pacers +200 at San Antonio Spurs -170
The Pacers are considerable 2 to 1 underdogs in this game, and the Spurs are the favorites at -170. A hundred dollar bet on the pacers will return three hundred while you will need to risk one seventy on San Antonio to return two seventy.
Increasing the Odds with Parlays
NBA parlays are the exact same as parlays in other sports. If I feel exceptionally good about a few games on my card, I’ll bet a 3 game parlay. Standard odds don’t change for the NBA, so I use my same basic parlay strategy. Odds get higher as the number of teams on your card gets higher. While this may increase the amount of money you can win, it also gives the bookie a bigger edge.
A Look into the Future
Remember that time you called the champion on day one of the season? Next time that feeling of inspiration hits, consider looking at futures bets. The most common futures pick is who will win the NBA Championship, but you can also wager on who will win the conference crowns. NBA futures odds might look like:
To Win NBA Championship: Oklahoma City Thunder +600 (6/1), Minnesota Timberwolves +12500 (125/1)
This betting slip shows the futures odds for the team to win the 2013/14 NBA Championship, before the start of the season.
You can see a drastic gap in odds based on team expectations. Betting on a relative favorite like the Thunder will still earn you a 6 to 1 pay out since you are picking them to win against the field. A risk of $100 on the Thunder would result in a $600 payout if the Thunder did in fact propel their way to an NBA title.
Future odds change throughout the season as games are played and almost always include the full list of all 30 NBA teams, especially at the beginning of the season. One word of warning: remember that these bets can tie up your money for a long time. If you back a team at the start of the season to win the title, you will have to wait until June to collect.
You Can Now Bet on Anything! Well, Almost Anything…
Prop bets are a somewhat newer phenomenon. They involve betting on pretty much anything from which team will win the tip off to how many rebounds a certain player will have a in a game. A typical line will look like:
Average First Round Rebounds Per Game – Paul Pierce – OvUn 6
This sets the threshold at 6 for the average per game rebounds for a certain player, Paul Pierce. Should Paul Pierce average 5.9 or fewer rebounds per game in the first round of the playoffs the under bet will pay out. Should he average 6.1 or more rebounds the over bet will pay out. If he averages exactly 6 rebounds it will be a tie and you will get your money back.
If there is any market that has undoubtedly been expanded by sportsbooks in recent years it is propositions. Player and team props are now available every night at sportsbooks, and there are massive lists of markets for the playoffs.
Like props for other sports, NBA props are exploitable for sure, but normally the limits are much smaller than sides and totals. If you can beat the market price on a prop and you feel it has a significant edge from your own handicapping tools – it is usually worth gambling on.
General NBA Handicapping Tips
Now that I’ve gone over the main types of I will discuss some of the basic strategies I use to handicap the NBA.
Defense is Huge
For some teams, defense is a constant, and for others it seems almost voluntary on certain nights. Knowing everything about a team’s defense is one of the keys to handicapping the NBA.
Night in and night out, some teams don’t always give their best efforts on both sides of the ball, but the best defensive teams always seem to put forth a solid effort. Defense wins games not just on the NBA schedule but on the handicappers’ sheet, as well.
While I can understand the appeal of betting on high scoring offensive teams, shooting is prone to slumps. A terrific defensive team brings that same intensity each time they come out to the hardwood.
Know The League
I debated even writing this one because it so obvious. When I’m betting the NBA, (which is most nights) I’m always on the pulse of the league and aware of the big matchups, injuries, news etc. Obviously, we can’t know what is going on inside each locker room, but we can read up as much as we can on each team.
If I’m putting up hundreds or thousands of dollars a night on games, I’m going to want to know as much as possible about the coaches and players. Read recaps of games you missed out on watching to get a feel for the pace of the game – don’t just glance at the box score. You’re not getting a true feel for how a game went if you are just glancing at a box full of numbers for thirty seconds.
And of course make sure to pay attention to the stats as if they are your religion!
Ride the Underdogs
This isn’t to deter bettors from taking favorites, but for me personally I’m almost always more comfortable siding with underdogs. For one, the American in me wants to see the underdog win (or cover!) and of course because they are more profitable long term.
Basketball is certainly a game of skill but is still prone to plenty of short term luck. High price favorites such as -8 points or more aren’t necessarily bad bets, but a lot of things can go wrong in a ball game for the favorite not to cover the spread. Home underdogs that are getting a lot of points are especially attractive because even the worst teams in the NBA get up for their home crowds.
Home and Road Splits
Speaking of home crowds, home and road splits along with travel time and days off between games are decisive factors to consider when handicapping. Especially with older veteran teams, fatigue can be a significant factor late into the season.
NBA handicappers should treat the home and away records of each NBA franchise as two different teams. The difference can be quite stark for many teams, and if you can pinpoint which teams overperform or underperform in these situations, it can go a long way to boosting your profits come the end of the season.