I was on a radio station a couple of weeks ago to talk about betting on the National Basketball Association. The host of the show asked me a question which I am sure he wanted to receive a highly intelligent, insightful answer that would be enlightening to his listeners. We then could have an extended discussion going into great detail that would be quite informative.
The radio host asked me, “What is the secret to making money betting the NBA”? Perhaps he was looking for me to talk about predicting team wins using the bell curve method or employing individual player ratings to determine the outcome of key match-ups and how they will affect a game. Or maybe he was looking for a humorous response such as “have Tim Donaghy introduce you to a few of his referee friends”.
Considering his expectations, it was quite deflating to him when I answered, “just pick winners”. There was a pause on the other end as his brain was scrambling for ways he was going to fill twelve minutes of air time until the next commercial break. I assume he was determining whether I was being a smart aleck or if I was just a moron.
I wasn’t trying to be a jerk nor was I giving him a flippant answer. Actually, my response carries a lot of validity. It would have been more accurate if I worded it “bet on winning teams”, but I guess working a couple of summers in a theme park while going to school left me with a habit of giving offhand and glib remarks to thoughtless questions posed by tourists and now, obviously, radio hosts.
The radio interview continued with another dead spot or two. I did finally impress the radio guy when I told him I knew the capitals of all fifty states. He quickly quizzed me asking what was Vermont’s state capital? Not only did I correctly answer Montpelier, but I added the fun fact that with a population of under 9,000 people, it is the smallest capital city in the country. The interview ended with me trying to convince him that the state capital of West Virginia, Charleston, was named after a lively popular dance in the 1920’s.
Back to the initial point though…Let’s take a look at whether betting on winning teams has been profitable in the NBA. Is there a connection between teams winning straight-up and covering the point spread? Do teams that have a higher winning percentage cover the point spread more than teams that lose a fair amount of their games?
One thing about the NBA, as well as the NFL, you normally see many teams closer to .500 in ATS and in Over/Under stats than you do compared to their amateur cohorts. With much smaller leagues, 30 or 32 teams in pro hoops and pro football, and a much smaller degree of differences and variances in style of play, you get more standardization of results and margins.
In college sports you have a wide diversity in talent as well as styles. Depth on college teams is much thinner, in most cases, than it is at the professional level. There is not nearly the drop-off in talent between the first-string and the reserves on an NBA team as there is in, say, the Missouri Valley Conference. Injuries can decimate teams at the amateur level. Look at a team like the Houston Rockets. Last year they frequently played without one or even both of their stars, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, due to injury. Houston still managed the sixth best record in the NBA winning 55 games in the regular season.
Last season in the NBA showed more of a gap between the top ten teams and the bottom ten squads. Each of the past three years the best team won right around 80% of their games straight up. Boston had the best record last year, Dallas in 2006-07, and before that it was Detroit. In the 2005-06 and 2006-07 campaigns, the tenth best record in the NBA regular season was 45-37, 54.9%. Last year Dallas had the tenth best winning percentage with a record of 51-31, 62.2%.
Looking for a correlation between straight-up winning and beating the number, last season the bottom ten teams in straight-up winning percentage contained seven of the ten worst point-spread covering teams. Not one team that finished in the top third in ATS% was in the bottom third in straight-up winning percentage.
The bottom ten teams combined regular season winning percentage was 250-570, 30.49%. Betting on those losing teams last season to win against the spread saw you only winning 44.06% of your wagers, 356-452.
Seven of the top ten teams who covered the point spread last year were also in the ten best overall winning teams. Only one team who was in the bottom third of the league in ATS%, Dallas, had the one of the top ten SU records.
The SU mark of the 2007-08 top ten teams was 561-269, 68.41%. Faithfully betting on these teams gave you a winning ATS slate of 56.07%. So last year, betting on the top ten teams with the best SU record was a very profitable venture.
One thing that you do have to remember is you have bad teams playing other bad teams as well as the top ten teams going against each other. Since there is a winner and a loser in every game, records will be padded on both sides at a .500 rate when a similar caliber team plays each other. I wanted to see if our results from last season, “just betting winners”, was being replicated this season. The quick answer was yes as six of the bottom ten teams against the spread are also in the bottom third of the straight-up winning percentage. Bad teams can cover as evidenced by the worst team in the league, Oklahoma City, 2-19 SU, being in the top ten in covering the number. Charlotte, one of the bottom SU teams, is also in the top ten in ATS records. The problem is these teams are few and far between.
On the contrary, of the ten best SU teams this season, six of those are also in the top ten for winning against the spread. Not one of the bad teams is in the top ten in covering the number.
The gap last year between very good and bad teams was assisted by having a couple of very bad teams. Two and three seasons ago, no team had below a 25% winning percentage. Last year two teams, Oklahoma City (Seattle) and Miami, finished below that mark winning 20 and 15 games respectively. This season is showing even a larger gap with amazingly seven teams with a 25% or lower winning percentage straight up.
In fact, the bottom ten teams right now are winning straight-up at a rate of 25.38%, 50-147, more than five percentage points below last years ten cellar dwellers. They are covering the point spread at a slightly worse pace than last year, 43.88%.
The top third winning teams this year have an impressive combined mark of 142-53, 72.82% SU. They are covering the oddsmaker’s line even better than last year, 57.51%, 111-82. A record which can’t stay this high is Cleveland’s 16-4, 80% ATS tally.
There are betting trends that come and go in sports wagering. A few years ago betting on favorites in the NFL was at an all-time best rate. This year NFL double-digit underdogs are money in the bank. Last year and this season have seen a very profitable NBA trend to just bet on the best ten teams as gauged by their straight-up record and to bet against the worst ten teams. If handicapping NBA games continues to be this easy, I will have a lot of free time on my hands. Maybe even enough time to visit Montpelier, VT, and see that impressive gold dome on the capital building.
Free lancewriter Jim Kruger
is a sharp basketball handicapper and state capital expert, who has no idea what he had for lunch.