Profiling Good and Bad NBA Pointspread Teams Part 1

by James Murphy in NBA  / January 17, 2020

Something that I’ve always found interesting at worst and extremely valuable at best is taking a periodic look during the season at which NBA basketball teams are performing the best–and the worst–against the spread. Really, this is a good practice in every sport and particularly important in moneyline based sports like baseball or hockey. During the baseball season, I do this at least once a week. For pointspread sports, I take a look every month or so to determine what can be learned about the current ‘meta’ of the betting marketplace.

What we’re *not* trying to do here is to find ‘hot’ teams or ‘cold’ teams to jump on or off their bandwagon. Sports betting in any form isn’t that easy. In fact, most of the time that I evaluate the betting markets in this way there’s not really anything in particular that I go into the exercise ‘looking for’. The exception is during Major League Baseball season where this type of evaluation is helpful in revealing teams and starting pitchers that are overvalued and undervalued.

Admittedly, this is a ‘short sample size’ but I’ve always found that mantra to be something of an excuse in sports betting and not a helpful observation. A ‘short sample size’ is all we have in sports betting. Furthermore, sports betting isn’t a pure statistical function like, say, flipping a coin. There are countless variables that go into the mix statistical and otherwise. Don’t get me wrong–statistical analysis is essential in sports betting. The trick is to have enough confidence in your decision making process that you’re comfortable trying out and evaluating new handicapping concepts ‘on the fly’ based on the information you have.

So let’s take a look at the top three and bottom three pointspread teams so far this NBA season. We’re roughly at the midway point of the campaign so within the context of the professional sports schedule we have a reasonable amount of data to work with.

THE BEST NBA POINTSPREAD PERFORMERS AS OF 1/17/20

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER +10.6 UNITS
BOSTON CELTICS +5.4 UNITS
DALLAS MAVERICKS +5.3 UNITS

THE WORST NBA POINTSPREAD PERFORMERS AS OF 1/17/20

DETROIT PISTONS -12.5 UNITS
SAN ANTONIO SPURS -11.3 UNITS
PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS -10.4 UNITS

Most of the time I look at the individual teams in detail but what struck me as interesting in this analysis was the similarities between the teams at the top and bottom of the pointspread hit parade. We’ll cover that in the second part of this two article set.

Before we get to that, this information is useful for making a couple of general observations. One valuable thing that you learn as a novice sports bettor is that the biggest profits are at the margins. This is particularly true when it comes to pointspread performance. Bookmakers work long and hard to make sure that the best teams aren’t the most profitable teams against the spread. There are occasionally exceptions but they are surprisingly rare. Take a look at the three best W/L records in the NBA as of 1/17/20:

BEST W/L RECORDS IN NBA AS OF 1/17/20

MILWAUKEE BUCKS 37-6
LOS ANGELES LAKERS 33-8
DENVER NUGGETS 29-12

Check out their profit/loss against the spread:

MILWAUKEE BUCKS +3.1 UNITS
LOS ANGELES LAKERS +2.2 UNITS
DENVER NUGGETS 29-12 -4.9 UNITS

So if you had bet on the top teams in the NBA every game this year you’d have a profit of +0.4 units to show for your trouble.

This is something that experienced bettors are well aware of but something that is very important for a novice bettor to learn. Sports betting is a game of valuations. The fact that the top three teams in the league have been such an unprofitable ‘investment’ isn’t a shock, it’s the structural nature of bookmaking. When you bet an elite team–particularly as a favorite–you’re paying a ‘premium’ for the ‘brand name’ on the uniform. This is also true for teams beloved by the recreational bettors and casual sports fans. For a long time, the best example of this was Notre Dame though I’m not sure they’re still the best example. For most of my betting career, a great example was the Chicago Cubs–and particularly at home. Who doesn’t love the Cubbies at Wrigley Field? The answer: Nobody, which is why they’ve been perpetually overpriced in their home games since before I could legally drive.

In Part 2 of this series we’ll take a look at the current ‘Most Profitable’ and ‘Least Profitable’ pointspread teams in the NBA and see if we can learn anything from them.

James Murphy

James Murphy is a preeminent authority on the international gambling industry and has made frequent appearances in the mainstream media including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, Entertainment Weekly, CNBC and NPR. He has previously worked as a radio and podcasting host where he broadcast to an international audience that depended on his expertise and advice. Murphy also serves as an odds making consultant for sports and ‘non-sport novelty bets’ covering the entertainment industry, politics, technology, financial markets and just about everything else.

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