How to bet on the NBA

18 min

The ultimate guide to betting on the NBA, where you can always find an edge if you know where to look and your bet is rarely dead until the final whistle. What’s not to like?

How the NBA Season works

A total of 30 teams are divided into two conferences, the Western and Eastern conferences with 15 teams in each.

Each conference is then subdivided into three divisions comprising five teams each.

The Eastern Conference has the Atlantic, Central and Southeast divisions and the Western Conference has the Northwest, Pacific and Southwest divisions.

There are 82 games in the regular season and at the end, the eight best teams in each Conference go through to the playoffs with the top-ranked team playing the eighth-ranked team, second playing seventh and so on. The winners of each conference championship meet in the NBA Finals for a final best of seven series decider.

The regular season is slightly confusing to those used to European league formats, where the divisions are used more to decide the schedule than anything else. Teams will play a total of 16 games against their divisional opponents and then a mix of games against teams from the other divisions that alternates year-on-year.

Twists And Turns Galore

If you like twists, turns and non-stop action then the NBA might be the betting sport for you.

The games are rarely dead from a betting perspective, barring complete blowouts and mismatches, and a double-digit lead can evaporate in the space of a couple of minutes.

“This means the monyeline is usually still a viable trading market throughout a game, and there aren’t many sports you can say that about,” notes NBA expert analyst Dave Hickey.

Your bet is seldom dead and 20 point comebacks are fairly common, especially with the current level of three-point shooting and the slowing down of shot-clock off offensive rebounds from 24 to 14 seconds.

The Milwaukee Bucks have led the way in the East for the past few years.

When you add in a vast array of handicap markets and a range of totals to bet on over an 82 game regular season and playoffs and you have betting heaven.

It’s also a game loaded with freely and easily accessible analytical data and stats and allows bettors who want to put the time into their research to find a real edge.

But before you jump onto the court and start shooting take a couple of minutes to read our guide to getting the most value from your bets, and the pitfalls to avoid featuring expert NBA analysts John Crowley and Dave Hickey.

Top tip for newbies

  • Dave Hickey (DH): Keep up with team injury news. You need to get to know the players and what their absence will mean to team performance, points for and points against. You also shouldn’t forget the defensive side of the game. Teams may be lighting up the scoreboards in previous games may not do so against an above-average defensive team. And always check a team’s average Points Scored and Points Allowed averages before betting on the Totals markets.
  • John Crowley (JC): A good tip also is to watch a lot of games. The value isn’t just in advanced analytics, if you watch enough you will be able to see potential matchup nightmares for teams. Stats don’t lie and you might be able to pick up on trends which given enough time can yield a decent return

What’s the biggest mistake somebody new to NBA betting can make?

  • JC: You shouldn’t expect instant returns. You have to be patient enough to weather variance, and there are such a high volume of games that you can’t expect massive quick returns. You will have good and bad streaks so need to be calm when losing and calm enough when on a winning streak not to blow your bankroll.
  • DH: The biggest mistake you can make is to put too much onus on past meetings between teams. Sites will often list the last 10 meetings between teams but this stat is irrelevant more often than not. Teams from opposite conferences may only play each other twice a year so their past 10 meetings could be over the course of 5 seasons which is an age in basketball. New players are drafted each year, trades occur during the offseason and players retire.

What is the most important thing to consider?

  • DH: Team news is pretty much the biggest factor when it comes to betting on NBA. Most teams use a rotation of 9-12 players on a given night, but there will be 1-3 key players who will severely impact their chances if they are not playing. Some teams will be able to handle injuries more effectively than others so check each team’s ‘depth chart’ at each position when a player(s) is announced as unavailable to see how well they are covered in that position/area. Seemingly mid-level players being missing on a given night is still overlooked somewhat. Certain players who may not stuff the stats sheets but are a vital cog in a team’s eco-system can often be as detrimental as losing a high-volume scorer who may be porous defensively.

The impact of travel schedules

  • DH: The impact of travel is a big factor in NBA betting, but more so than the schedules, you should pay particular attention to teams playing back-to-back or the dreaded back-to-back-to-back. The third night of a back-to-back-to-back can be a great time to oppose a team, however you need to check the previous two games to see if players were rested or played limited minutes, particularly if the games were blowouts.
  • JC: The West over last few seasons has been a lot tougher and so it’s sensible to oppose an Eastern team on back to back away games there. Conversely, you might find some value on western teams on back to backs or longer trips to the east, although the gap is closing there now. Older teams will often rest guys on these trips so this is often main area where you’ll extract the most value.

Lebron and the Lakers have been struggling in recent times.

What are the key stats to look for and where do you find them?

  • DH: Donbest lists each team’s past 10 games with the result, the spread and how the team performed against the spread all in one place. This is a great starting point as recent form is only secondary to team news in terms of importance when it comes to NBA betting. You can see how often the team have covered the spread over the past 10 and you can see their against the spread stats for the season. By having the scores for the last 10 games in front of you, you can easily spot any trends in terms of scoring heating or drying up.
  • JC: One very useful statistic also is eFg% (expected field goal percentage), which is a big one when gauging a player for matchups.

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Recommended sites

  • DH: is a wonderful site that allows you to create different queries based on whatever approach you like to take – how do certain players perform against each other? How have each team performed when their three most important players are all on the floor to start a game and so on. Rotoworld Basketball on Twitter gives you real-time updates on injuries and potential rests and tends to be extremely reliable.
  • JC: There are some good people to follow on Twitter, but to pick two Bill Simmons and @wojespn are a good source of entertainment and injury news respectively.

What’s the best way to bet the NBA in-play?

  • DH: One strategy is to back a few favourites when they are losing as there is enough value as a result. In past years the then Lebron-led Cavs were a good bet when trailing at half-time. A good strategy is often to bet during the 1st quarter when prices have moved just enough to give you a price better than pre-game.
  • JC: The best value can often be found late in-game on the moneyline. An effective tactic would be betting against certain teams in “garbage time” when they are ahead by a large number, not least with the number of teams with very shallow benches. When certain teams have to empty out the bench the quality can be pretty poor.

Overlooked factors to consider

  • DH: You still see an overreaction in terms of totals when it is announced that a certain player will miss a game. Totals normally drop when an elite player has been announced as unavailable, but there isn’t always a correlation. An elite player being missing for say, the Warriors, who have a litany of stars will just mean more touches for other elite scorers. When betting totals you should be more interested in each team’s possessions per game to determine how fast they tend to play, provided their main and backup point guards are available on that given night.
  • JC: Another big factor is player management. Certain players on the stronger teams know they will make the playoffs so won’t “try” as hard as in the regular season as they do in the postseason. For example back in 2017, GSW were 44% against the spread and the worst was Cleveland at 38%. Both teams had made finals for four years straight so had way more games and less time off, hence the trend towards “resting up” in regular season.

The best markets to bet on

  • DH: You can find an edge in player props if you do your homework. One strategy is to focus on big men such as centres and power forwards on points and rebounds based largely on who will be up against them beneath the basket. Some big men have bogeymen that they just can’t get the better of and don’t like playing against.
  • JC: Given the high volume of games there are a lot of times where you will get teams playing back to back on the road, and older players will have minutes cut. There is value to be had often betting the overs on “role players” here, especially in the scoring and rebounding markets. And finally, other good markets are the numerous alternative handicap lines you will find on Matchbook and first-half totals. It’s not as easy to win as it once was but if you keep a close eye on a team’s rotations and where they are likely to have best matchups you can still get an edge here.

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