11 tips for betting the NBA
For an updated breakdown of Tuesday's betting action, be sure to tune in to the VSiN Market Insights Podcast with Josh Appelbaum. It will be posted at noon ET. I'll also be co-hosting Betting Across America with Mike Pritchard from 3-5 p.m. ET.
If football is the undisputed king of sports betting, basketball is next in line to the throne. The NBA has always been popular with casual fans. But the success of daily fantasy sports (DFS) and the sweeping legalization of sports betting in America has taken NBA betting to another level in recent years. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was the first pro commissioner to come out in favor of legalized betting, back in 2014. To its credit, the NBA has embraced betting as a way to connect with fans, increase engagement and grow the sport.
Like football, basketball is a predominantly spread and Over/Under (or total) sport. This means bettors are tasked mostly with picking not just who wins each game but by how much and how many total points will be scored by both teams.
Bettors must also pay the juice (the tax, commission or “vig,” short for “vigorish,” which you must pay the sportsbook in order for the book to accept your bet) on all spread and Over/Under bets. The juice is typically 10 cents, known as “-110.” Assuming standard juice of -110, this means bettors must win 52.38% of their NBA bets in order to break even and overcome the tax. Anything above that means you’re turning a profit. Bettors should strive to win 53% to 55% of their plays. The sharpest bettors win at roughly a 60% clip.
With the NBA about to get started, let’s break down a few helpful tips bettors should be aware of entering the 2020-21 season.
1. Home-Court Advantage is Overvalued
Home-court advantage is real, but it’s overvalued. Oddsmakers typically will award three points for home-court advantage. Public bettors love betting home teams, which leads to sportsbooks shading lines further toward home teams, forcing casual bettors to take overpriced numbers. This creates added value to buy low on road teams. This edge may be heightened even more this season as many teams will play with limited or no fans in the stands, reducing the home-court edge even more.
2. Road Dogs
The public also likes to bet on favorites. On the surface, this makes sense. If you’re going to bet on a team, you might as well back the “better” team, which is expected to win. However, this bias also creates shaded lines toward favorites, creating added value to back underdogs. Road dogs often have value as the public flocks to home favorites. Another key is focusing on road dogs with a rest advantage. The NBA plays a busy 82-game schedule with lots of travel and back-to-back games. Bettors should always consider these factors when placing a bet, especially when one team has tired legs and the other is rested. One great spot to lean on: road dogs coming off four or more days of rest against teams on two days or fewer of rest (or fading teams on a back-to-back). Also, buy low on dogs off a loss, especially a blowout loss of 20 points or more. The public won’t want to touch them. but you can capitalize on inflated numbers.
3. Look For “Severe” Line Moves
One of the few ways to capitalize on home-court advantage is backing dogs with big line moves in their favor. In the NBA, it’s common to see a line move a half-point or a full point one way or the other. But when you see a “severe” 1.5-point line move or more, it likely was caused by some big smart money from professional bettors. Pros aren’t perfect, but they have the respect of the books and win more often than they lose. You always want to be on the side of respected action, ideally at the number the pros got. Home dogs receiving at least 1.5 points of line movement in their direction (think + 8 to + 6.5), have been a sneaky sharp spot historically.
4. Go Contrarian
Because the NBA market is flooded with recreational money from Average Joe bettors, going contrarian or “betting against the public” is a smart move. More often than not, the public loses. They bet with gut instinct and bias. And, inevitably, the house wins. So going against the crowd and bucking the herd mentality is a profitable long-term strategy. The easiest spots to bet against the public are the nationally televised, prime-time games on TNT and ESPN. If it’s on TV, the public is betting on it. Think of it this way: If you walk into a bar and everyone is rooting for Team A, you likely want to be holding a ticket on Team B.
5. Capitalize On Inflated Lines
One of the best ways to go contrarian is to look for inflated lines in which the public is extremely lopsided on one team, forcing the books to move the number further toward that popular team. By being savvy and betting on the unpopular underdog, you just got an extra point or more of value simply because of the public artificially inflating the number. For example, maybe the Lakers open as 12-point favorites against the Kings. Everyone is hammering Los Angeles, driving the line from -12 to -14. You could capitalize on an inflated line and buy low on the Kings + 14. It may look unappealing, but you are extracting additional value.
6. Divisional Unders that Drop
Unders are a smart bet in general because, just like favorites and home teams, the public is biased toward Overs. Average bettors want to see a fun, exciting, high-scoring game and root for points. The sportsbooks know this and will shade numbers toward Overs, creating added value to bet Unders. This doesn't mean you want to bet every Under. The key is betting Unders with sharp money in which the total drops at least a half-point. But there’s real value in divisional Unders that drop. Teams in the same division play each other several times every season. This leads to familiarity, which makes it easier to game plan and benefits defenses because they know what to expect. When two divisional teams face off and the total falls at least 1 point (signaling sharp action), the Under has excellent value. It’s also important to research “pace” statistics when betting totals. This takes into account the average number of possessions each team has per game. A high pace is great for Overs, while a low pace benefits Unders.
7. Track Line Movement
Knowing the opening line, how it moved and why is incredibly important when it comes to figuring out where the public is and where the sharps are. One of the easiest ways to locate sharp action is to look for line moves that make no sense, also known as “fishy” lines. If everyone is betting the Warriors, yet they fall from -4 to -3 at the Hawks, that is a good indication that respected money grabbed Atlanta plus the points. I also love playing the “dog to favorite” system. For example, maybe the Spurs are an unpopular bet but move from + 2 to -1.5, signaling sharp reverse line movement. Also keep an eye out for late moves in the last 30 minutes to an hour before tip-off. Late moves are most meaningful because that’s when limits are highest and big bettors and syndicates come in.
8. Know Referee Tendencies
All officials want to get the calls right. But they’re human. Some lean toward home teams, some toward road teams. Others side more with favorites over underdogs. Some call lots of fouls and help Overs, while others “let them play,” which benefits Unders. You shouldn’t bet a game based solely on referee tendencies, but knowing them can be important if all the refs working a game lean the same way. For example, if all three refs are heavy to the Over, that increases confidence in your Over bet.
9. Shop for the Best Line
The sports betting market is fluid and constantly changing. Just as in life, timing is everything. It’s not just about picking the right side, it’s also about getting the best number. Bettors should always shop for the best line before placing a wager. Make sure you have access to multiple sportsbooks. Search out the book offering the best odds. If you want to bet the Heat, make sure you seek out the book offering Heat + 6.5 while others are posting + 6. Extra half-points make a world of difference over the course of a long season.
10. Manage Your Bankroll
The NBA season is long with several games each day. Bettors should try their best to remain disciplined and limit plays to the most profitable games of the day. Betting lots of games assumes more and more risk and can lead to big ups and downs. A great long-term approach is flat betting: risking the same amount on every game and risking only 1% to 5% of your bankroll per play. A good medium is 3%. If you’re starting with a bankroll of $100, this means betting $3 on each game. It may not sound sexy, but it will sustain you over the long haul and keep you alive through the inevitable ups and downs of betting. Also, try to avoid betting parlays. Sure, they’re incredibly popular and attractive. But parlays provide a massive hold percentage for the house. They are the penny slots of betting. You’re better off betting individual games.
11. Lean on Twitter
Getting access to live information is critical in all sports, but especially in the NBA. Many teams adopt a “load management” routine for star players. You may think Kawhi Leonard is playing all day, only to find out he is out due to “rest” shortly before tip-off. If Anthony Davis is questionable with a hamstring, you want to be the first to know whether he is upgraded to probable or downgraded to doubtful. Twitter is the best place to learn this information quickly. If you’re quick enough, you could jump on a good number before it moves.