NBA Late-Season Betting: Does Motivation Really Matter?

Basketball May 02, 2021

Note:  The 2020-21 NBA regular season is winding down to the final two weeks. Teams have less than ten games left to play.  Many bettors shy away from this part of the season, preferring instead to wait until the playoffs begin (this year on May 18th).  For those looking to profit, overlooking these critical late season games is a missed opportunity, as this article points out.

NBA Late Regular Season: To Bet or Not to Bet?

The NBA regular season is nearly over.  Just two more weeks remain on the schedule.  

Most bettors choose to either pass on these games, or they bet fewer games for lesser amounts.  Conventional wisdom goes -- that with many teams having already clinched playoff spots and many other teams now completely out of playoff contention with nothing to play for, it’s sometimes difficult to determine exactly which teams will show up on any given night.  Add in the fatigue of a long season (coming after a shortened off-season), and that makes NBA betting, already a precarious endeavor, even less predictable.

Yet, as my data will show, that opinion is wrong.  Fact is, late season NBA betting can be one of the most lucrative times of year to bet basketball.

Focus on Games that Matter

Bettors should focus on games that matter.  More specifically, bettors are advised to focus on games that matter most, and look to bet on teams that desperately need to win in order to lock up a playoff spot.

A long held contrarian approach to sports betting is to wager against teams desperately needing to win.  This seems almost counterintuitive.  We know the public is well aware of which teams are desperate late in the season and must win in order to make the playoffs.  

The trouble is, the betting public tends to overvalue these teams.  Contrarians would point out -- if these marginal teams have to win so badly so late in the season, they must not really be that good.  This contrarian approach works very well in football -- both college and pro.  Fading public opinion can be wise, and profitable.

However, late season NBA betting is not a public pastime.  Far fewer people bet on the NBA, especially this time of year.  Aside from the regular season wariness and anticipation for the playoffs which are pending, the final two weeks of the NBA must compete against baseball and hockey, which are also daily sports.  That’s a crowded sports gambling menu this time of year.  No wonder so few gamblers have caught on to the unique opportunities which exist of late-season NBA betting.  

Teams Fighting to Make the Playoffs

Let’s focus on teams which are fighting for a playoff spot.  Loosely defined, this includes teams which could conceivably miss the playoffs with too many losses, as well as teams currently out of the playoff race if the season were to end now, but which could still get in with several wins (or losses my teams ahead on the standings).  It also includes the teams bunched somewhere in the middle.  

These teams tend to be about .500 in the W-L column. They’re in the danger zone.  They’re marginal teams which are struggling.  But the key for betting purposes is, they’re motivated to win.

Note:  With the NBA playoff play-in games, the top 10 seeds make the “playoffs," so this concept needs to be adjusted in consideration that TWO added teams get into the post-season.

Current NBA standings (as of May 2nd) show three teams in the Eastern Conference still fighting for one remaining playoff spot.  They are Charlotte, Indiana, and Washington – separated by 2 games in the standings.  The line shows the cutoff if the season were to end today:

In the Western Conference, four teams are bunched up for the final playoff spot  They are Memphis, Golden State, San Antonio, and New Orleans – separated by just 2 games in the standings:

Why Bet on These "Marginal" Teams?

Let's be clear – these seven teams are all marginal, and probably won't go anywhere (other than home) once the playoffs begin.  However, there’s compelling evidence which shows that betting teams in this situation in the final ten games of the season is a profitable endeavor.  This goes for betting on them on the moneyline and/or betting on them versus the pointspread.  Betting them indiscriminately (even after they’ve either secured a playoff spot, or been eliminated) has been a positive EV proposition across the board.  

Normally, such a broad range of games and situations would not be profitable.  But this one has been profitable, at least in recent years.

Here’s the data I’ve gathered over three recent NBA seasons for all teams which were in the danger zone of either making or missing the playoffs during their final ten games.  IMPORTANT NOTE:  I skipped last season's data for obvious reasons and opted instead to choose three somewhat recent seasons in order to get a random sampling of data.

What follows are the results betting on every team indiscriminately (no filters or line shopping).  These are the marginal teams during three consecutive seasons in the final ten games of the regular season.  


First column….SU=straight up wins-losses

Second column….ATS=against the spread wins-losses

Third column….Final Season Record wins-losses

Fourth column….Made Playoffs -- Yes/No


Milwaukee -- 5-5 SU / 5-5 ATS / 41-41 / yes

Boston -- 8-2 SU / 8-2 ATS / 40-42 / yes

Brooklyn -- 6-4 SU / 5-5 ATS / 38-44 / yes

Indiana -- 7-3 SU / 5-5 ATS / 38-44 / no

Miam -- 4-6 SU / 3-7 ATS / 37-45 / no

New Orleans -- 7-3 SU / 6-4 ATS / 45-37 / yes

Oklahoma City -- 8-2 SU / 7-3 ATS / 45-37 / no

Results:  45-25 SU / 39-31 ATS


New York -- 7-3 SU / 7-3 ATS / 38-44 / yes

Atlanta -- 7-3 SU / 7-3 ATS / 37-45 / no

Memphis -- 7-3 SU / 3-5-1 ATS / 50-32 / yes

Dallas -- 6-4 SU / 4-6 ATS / 49-33 / yes

Phoenix -- 5-5 SU / 5-5 ATS / 48-34 / no

Results:  32-19 SU / 26-22-1 ATS


Atlanta -- 4-6 SU / 2-8 ATS / 38-44 / yes

New York -- 8-2 SU / 8-2 ATS / 37-45 / no

Dallas -- 6-4 SU / 6-4 ATS / 49-33 / yes

Phoenix -- 2-8 SU / 5-5 ATS / 48-34 / no

Results:  20-20 SU / 21-19 ATS

My Summation:

Betting on all teams within the danger zone during the final ten games of the regular season has produced 97 wins and 64 losses (straight up).  That’s a 60.2 percent winning percentage.  

Given that most of these teams are only slightly ahead of the .500 mark, that would make them only small consensus moneyline favorites in most games (half the games are home, and half away).  Hence, there could be some excellent values betting these danger zone teams in key must-win games, especially when they are moneyline underdogs or slight favorites.

As for point spread results, the danger zone teams went 86 wins and 72 losses, with 1 push.  That’s a 54.4 winning percentage, not a huge margin, but still profitable and with some added filters and line shopping, those percentages might increase slightly.  

Bottom line is -- betting these teams is proven to be a positive EV proposition.

Accordingly, I recommend taking a closer look at these wagering opportunities.

Addendum: Filters

Note that one additional way to filter the danger zone teams might be singling out the sub-.500 teams (those with losing W-L records overall).  They performed surprisingly well, both SU and ATS.  There were eight teams in this category.

Overall, they went 51-29 (63 percent winning percentage).  Remember, these were losing teams, which meant they more often than not went off as moneyline dogs.  That means they produced a significant profit when bet across the board.  Against the spread, they went 45-35 (a 56 percent winning percentage).  

These lesser-respected teams -- losing teams still in playoff contention -- appear to be the best betting values and performers of all, based on results over the three seasons of the sample and 162 wagering situations.

Once again, a brief word of caution:  Prior results are no guarantee of future outcomes.  But they can help us to predict which games and teams are wiser bets than others.


Nolan Dalla has spent the last 25 years betting sports, playing poker, enjoying gourmet meals, and drinking fine wine.  Whatever money was leftover, he paid the bills and then pretty much wasted away the rest.  Dalla pens a popular daily blog filled with controversial political commentary, vile rants, classic stories (some true), and blistering reviews of restaurants and movies which can be read at:  Dalla resides in The Lakes section of Las Vegas with one wife and two cats.