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How to bet on the NBA

The most popular sports to bet in the United States are the NFL and then college football. It’s not close. Why is that the case? Football reigns king for sure, but it’s also partly because it’s easy to understand a point spread in a football game. Team X must beat Team Y by a certain number of points and you either win or lose that bet. The average Joe/new bettor has no trouble understanding that. 

Simplicity in betting the spread is also why the next most popular sports to bet in the USA are basketball related: the NBA and NCAA basketball. In fact, by some metrics the NBA is growing more in popularity each year than football. No league in the world is more dependent on its individual stars than the NBA. From Wilt Chamberlain to Bill Russell to Magic Johnson to Larry Bird to Michael Jordan to Allen Iverson to Kevin Durant to LeBron James, it’s a star-driven league. Americans love star power. No sport from a betting perspective is more influenced by the superstars than the NBA. 

Types of Bets

Betting on the NBA is almost identical to betting on football in terms of the point spread, moneyline and over/under total being the three most popular. Let’s say LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers are taking on Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors. All things being equal, having home-court advantage is worth something on the spread. According to noted statistician Jeff Sagarin, the average home-court advantage in the NBA is right around 2.33 points per game. In comparison, home-field advantage in the NFL is worth around 2.5 points. Obviously, the crowds are smaller in the NBA and weather isn’t a factor. 

In the scenario above, the Warriors could be 8.5-point favorites. That means Golden State leads the game at tipoff 8.5-0 for betting purposes. A Warriors backer needs them to win by at least 9 points. A Lakers backer needs Los Angeles to lose by 8 points or fewer – a win would simply be gravy. Most NBA point spreads, like those in the NFL and college football, have a half-point included to ensure there’s no tie/push, where all bets are returned. All spreads do include potential overtime(s). Spread in the NBA can be anywhere from a pick’em (no spread -- just pick the winner) to around 20 points. 

Using the above scenario for the moneyline, the Warriors would be around -540 favorites at -8.5 (use our spread/moneyline converter). That means it would take a $540 bet on Golden State to return $100. The Lakers would be priced around +390, meaning a $100 bet would return +390.

Totals in the NBA generally range from the 180s-240s. From 1995-96 through 2012-13 the NBA was a very defensive-oriented league. However, rules in recent years have really benefited offenses as Americans love scoring and the NBA is an entertainment business first and foremost. What’s more exciting, seeing LeBron James with a thunderous dunk or a defender drawing a charge? For the 2018-19 season, NBA teams are averaging about 111.0 points per game each. That’s the highest since 1970-71. So, totals have risen accordingly. A total bet is simply just that: Wagering whether the total points scored go over the number provided by the sportsbooks. Both the over and under will be given a moneyline price, often the same (-110). 

Betting Strategies

One very smart wager is the NBA is to bet against a team playing the second game in two nights or third game in four. The NBA is trying to limit those scenarios, but cramming 82 regular-season games into about six months makes it impossible for teams to play with at least one day of rest every single time out. There are plenty of stoppages in action in football or baseball, but NBA players are constantly in motion. Playing two games in two nights and having to travel in between is a daunting prospect. A rested team at home against a club playing the second of a back-to-back on the road is usually a winning wager all other things being equal. 

In addition, a fairly newer trend in the NBA these days is head coaches resting their star players in the second of a back-to-back to avoid wear-and-tear and possible injury. That, obviously greatly affects the line. A LeBron James or Kevin Durant playing or not can move a spread more than a starting quarterback not playing in the NFL depending on a matchup. Injuries are also very much a part of NBA life regardless of player. 

Michael Jordan played all 82 regular-season games a handful of times in his career. That rarely happens nowadays with stars – LeBron has done it just once. Keeping up to date on player injuries and potential rest games are vital in beating the sportsbooks in the NBA. 

It’s also important to shop around for sportsbooks. Not all books will have the same spread or total. They can vary by as much as a couple of points and those can make all the difference. A late garbage-time basket can be the difference between a winning bet and a losing one. 

Also be aware of trap or letdown games. If, say, LeBron’s Lakers are playing the two-time defending champion Warriors one night and then the NBA-worst Phoenix Suns the next, it’s natural for those Lakers players to be a bit deflated for the Suns game after getting amped up to face the champions. 

Props/Futures Bets

Like all American sports leagues, there are many, many props available to bet on every NBA game as well as futures options. A typical prop for a game might be over/under points scored by LeBron James in a game, or over/under Steph Curry made 3-pointers. Will Russell Westbrook have a triple-double? There are spreads and totals available on each half and each quarter. Will the game go to overtime? What’s the winning margin? 

Popular futures options are to bet which team wins the NBA championship or Eastern or Western Conference title. Which player wins MVP? Which wins the scoring title? Which is Rookie of the Year? All of these would be available before a season begins and then updated throughout the year. Most are taken down when games are actually ongoing in case of a major injury, etc. 

Notable Numbers

The largest spread in NBA history was on March 30, 2008, when the Boston Celtics were -22.5 at home against the Miami Heat. Boston did cover. Over the past 20 seasons (from the 2018-19 campaign), there have been 87 instances where one team was at least a 17-point favorite over another. The underdog won just twice straight up – and both against Golden State. On March 6, 2016, the Lakers were +17.5 and beat the Warriors 112-95. And on March 10, 2019, the Phoenix Suns were +17 in Oakland and pulled a 115-111 upset. Phoenix was +1500 on the moneyline, so that was worth $1500 to those fortunate enough to bet $100 on the Suns.

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