One Rule For Betting The NBA
By Jason McIntyre
It sounds like something out of an infomercial, but hear me out: a historic gambling opportunity is on the horizon!
Betting sides on the NBA in the regular season can be a fool’s errand — although I’ve done it almost daily the much of the last two seasons and found some success. But for the NBA restart, what if you strictly focused on one aspect of wagering?
Unders, to be precise.
There’s never been an NBA season like this one. We all know it. Nearly six months of basketball, a four month break, and then play resumes for eight games. Twenty-two teams tossed into a bubble in Disney World, playing at odd hours, in unfamiliar gyms, with no fans, no friends and no family.
So when you hear people say the games will look like the NBA preseason — uh, no. Leading into the preseason, players play pick-up in the summer, stay in shape for the upcoming season, train, all of the normal things they do in the offseason.
The quarantine has meant limited access to courts, and some players were unable to workout. Take Khris Middleton of the Bucks. He said that he didn’t *touch a basketball* for two or three months. Yeah, there will be rust.
And remember, these eight games don’t matter all that much for playoff seeding — not to mention there’s zero benefit to home court advantage, so stars are extraordinarily unlikely to play their regular minutes.
Perhaps the closest comparison to this season in the last 15 years is 2011-2012. Due to a lockout, the league was only able to play a 66-game regular season starting on Christmas Day. Thatseason was memorable for two things:
1) LeBron James won his first title with the Heat, taking down the OKC Thunder.
2) It was historically bad for offense. Take a look:
And now, the kicker: a friend of mine, Ross Filice, a data scientist who in the past has built a successful college basketball prediction model, scraped all the NBA gambling data from the 2011-2012 season. And in the first 226 games of that lockout-shortened campaign, unders hit at an aburd 60% clip.
Of course, markets tend toward efficiency, so that edge began to evaporate as the sports books adjusted. According to the data, by approximately the 500-game mark, things had effectively normalized — but the NBA bubble will see fewer than 100 total regular-season games.
So was all that bad offense because of the layoff? Correlation does not imply causation, but there are other signs of a massive drop in scoring this summer in Orlando. Let’s start here: Sportsbooks have already significantly adjusted totals for the first games of the season restart.
By about 20 points.
And I still don’t think that’s enough.
Take the first game, Utah vs. New Orleans. The total opened at 222.5, was bet down to 219.5, then ran back up to 220.5.
Here's the thing, though — that appears criminally low when you look at Pelicans scores in the week before the league shutdown in March. From March 1-8, the Pelicans played five games with an average score of 240 and a range from 214-273. So oddsmakers have had to move the number down from a rough expectation of 240 points per game to the 220 range.
Is that 20+ point adjustment for Pelicans/Jazz enough? I’d argue no. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus back in March; there’s no telling how their bodies will react in the first games back. Utah will be without its second leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist surgery), who averaged 20.2 ppg this season, and 29.7 against the Pelicans in the last three meetings.
The Jazz are locks for the playoffs, so it’s difficult to imagine Quinn Snyder playing either of his best two players 30+ minutes. The same minutes restriction could apply to Zion Williamson, who has a total of 19 career games under his belt. The Pelicans, though, are chasing a playoff spot.
Lakers vs. Clippers on opening night also saw an adjustment, opening at 220.5. and being bet down to 217.5. Meanwhile, the three previous meetings this season between the two teams closed at 224, 223 and 226; the under hit in all of them.
There’s no incentive for either coach to give away anything, it’ll be a massive shocker if LeBron, AD, Kawhi or Paul George play over 32 minutes, and the game almost certainly has no bearing on playoff positioning. Oh, and Lou Williams will be missing, too, as you already know. I’m confident that at least one team won’t crack 100 — and I'm confident in the under.
Every game currently available has been bet down since the open. Sharp gamblers know that offense is going to be at a premium over the next couple of weeks, and they're wagering accordingly. And I still don't think the books have adjusted enough.
Will the games have a no-defense, NBA summer league I-gotta-get-mine feel to them? Will the bench players be auditioning for potential spots on rosters next season, meaning more defense and team basketball? For me, it all lines up to unders.
Theres only one question that looms before I blindly bet every NBA game under:
How do we factor in the rise of the 3-pointer? When the NBA opened after the 2011 lockout, and offense lagged, the 3-pointer hadn’t mushroomed into what it is today. This data is jarring:
Short answer: Nobody can know. The best guess here is that the increase in 3-pointers will be offset by shooting in unfamiliar gyms, with no home court advantage and no fans, on the heels of a 4+ month layoff.
Add it all up, and you have a formula for low scoring games — and under bets cashing.