Cardiac Wagering: Betting on Basketball

It’s the start of the fourth quarter of a mid-season basketball game between the Milwaukee Bucks and New Jersey Nets. The spread going in was Milwaukee +5, the over/under was 218.5 and things were looking good for basketball bettor Peter B who’d taken Milwaukee and the under. The Bucks were up 95-82, the Nets’ point totals had decreased every quarter and Milwaukee had their defensive unit on the floor...

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only real scoring threat. But Peter's been betting on basketball long enough to know that no point spread is safe on the hardwood.

Such was the case that night between the Bucks and Nets when, without any warning, the Nets went on a 25-7 run halfway through the 4th. Peter saw the writing on the wall when the run was only 9–3: Milwaukee’s second unit was off that night.

“Brooklyn’s passing got crisper and tighter. Their shots were more open. They were hustling and Milwaukee couldn’t stop fouling.”

When the lead got too close for comfort, the Bucks brought their big guns back in, won the game by four points and combined with the Nets for 254 points. Peter walked away with nothing.

“Nope, didn’t foresee that when the 4th started,” he says. “But I’d have been a fool not to expect it. That’s basketball. That’s how it goes. You know it going in. That’s what makes it fun.”

Basketball Diaries

Basketball has always been a different beast when it comes to wagering, and not just for the bettors. The sports books dedicate a disproportionate amount of resources to number-crunching the NBA and NCAA. Bookmaker Ron P, explained it this way:

Basketball is by far the most subjective of the major North American sports, and that starts with the officiating. What’s a foul? What’s not a foul? It changes from ref to ref, from team to team and even from player to player. So it’s not enough to look at a team’s performance, say, over ten games. How does a team fare when a particular ref is calling their game compared to other refs. That alone makes basketball difficult. Then, there’s team tendencies, which change dramatically over the course of even a single game. Most teams play differently at the end of games than they do during the course of the game — and even then, the play is different depending on the score. The “them” is Sports Interaction, Jesse’s preferred book and his opponent in the game of sports gambling for the last two-and-a-half years.

The Last 30 Seconds: Fan vs. Bettor

Not much beats the end of a close basketball game. The best part is the fan reaction when a home player hits a crazy three from the corner to tie it up. Seriously, watch for it next time you watch basketball highlights — and definitely watch for it during the NCAA Tournament starting March 14th. In 2016, only 12% of NBA games were decided by two points or less. And since 1985, the NCAA tournament averages 9 games out of 67 (13%) decided by five points or less.

As a fan, when you get a dud, you shut it off because it’s just a bunch of whistles and time outs.

Not so as a bettor because it’s not about who wins and who loses. It’s about the final score.

Basketball is one of the only sports where win/loss betting is rarely offered because the reality is that the team with the better top three players usually wins. That’s what you get with a 13-man roster in the NBA and NCAA.

So they make it about point spread: not who wins, but by how much. And the scoring doesn't really stop until the final whistle, which is what makes basketball so hard on bettors’ hearts and why it’s so difficult to win consistently as a basketball bettor.

And the heartache doesn't discriminate between NBA and NCAA either. NBA favourites have converted at a paltry 49.7% rate against the spread since 2008 compared to an equally paltry 49.5% of NCAA favourites. In college ball, an underdog will beat a 5-point spread 31% of the time; in pro-ball it’s 34%. At 7.5 points, pro ‘dogs convert 23.8% while college ‘dogs convert at a 22.2% clip. Those aren’t insignificant chances of losing on the favourite, especially given what you’d have to put up to play the money line.

Those obligatory foul shots at the end of a game that was over three minutes ago - you know, the shots the shooter doesn't even care about - become vital to the bettor who bet the 5.5 spread.

Tournament Torment

The NCAA March Madness takes the stress to an entirely new level because of emotion. It’s virtually impossible to predict how a team will react on the biggest stage, which simply isn't the case in the NBA or even in regular season college ball.

For example, when a team is winning big, the expectation is that the coach sits the star players to protect their bodies for tomorrow. But in the tournament, when tomorrow is in jeopardy until the final whistle, that doesn't happen. But even so, keeping your main unit out there doesn't guarantee anything anyway in the tournament. Consider the 2016 second-round Texas A&M comeback on the University of Northern Iowa where the Aggies erased a 10-point lead in the final 33 seconds.

Tournament history is filled with those kinds of stories, and they’re impossible to see coming.

But still — Look for Trends

Look at 4th-quarter style of play. What does a team do when they’re in a close game, when they’re getting blown out and when they’re blowing an opponent out?

For example, in 2016, the Denver Nuggets finished 21st in the league, but 8th in close game winning percentage. Their record tells us they were the underdog more than they weren’t, and their close game stats tell us they beat the spread a lot more than they should have.

Another trend to look for is star player minutes. In 2016, NCAA Player of the Year Buddy Hield averaged 35.4 minutes. Denzel Valentine, the #2 ranked player, averaged 33 minutes. Given the statistical unlikeliness of a close game, you can bet these star players will be on the floor regardless of the score so the chances of a Brooklyn-type surge at the end might be less.

Also experience levels — especially in the NCAA tournament. A team of seniors won’t be rattled by a late deficit. They’ll know what to do (and what not to do) to get back into it. Not so much by a team led by sophomores.

But the most important thing to remember about basketball betting…

You’re going to get beat. Over and over again, more than any other sport. Like Peter B says, “That’s how it goes.” So keep betting. Keep trying new techniques and taking new angles. It’s still the most fun sport to bet on, and if you get a close game, it might be the most fun you have that day.