Why Gambling on the NBA is No Free-Throw (Part 1)

Basketball Feb 28, 2021

Betting on a pro basketball game can be like a two-and-a-half hour coin flip.

First it’s heads then it’s tails; heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails. In most games there are multiple lead changes, teams go on scoring streaks, then the closing minute usually turns into a foul circus, with the ultimate point spread winner determined by a couple of foul shots.

Indeed, betting on NBA games presents some very unique challenges for sports gamblers.

There are many reasons why beating the NBA is no free throw.

More Games/Longer Season – The typical NBA season consists of 82 games, not including preseason and playoffs, which can add another 30 games per team. This means that “significant” regular season games are exceptionally rare. Fact is, “must win” games are infrequent. Contrast this with college and pro football where all games are crucial to national rankings and postseason prospects. Even college basketball features many significant regular season games, since the season is much shorter than the NBA. The bottom line is: Picking the team that will be motivated to win on any given night is very tough to predict.

Urban Influences – The NBA is an urban game. City people play it in cities.  Players live in hotel rooms half the season, often for extended periods. Players on the road visit bars and nightclubs and some find it difficult to resist temptations. Alcohol and women can certainly affect athletic performance. This might not be a politically correct thing to say, but ignoring the influence of the NBA’s nightlife on wins and losses is a big mistake (COVID restrictions have reduced this influence, but it's usually a factor for many players and teams)

No Key Betting Numbers – Unlike football, which has key numbers for field goals (3) and touchdowns (7), basketball scoring consists of 1, 2 or 3 points. Team totals usually fall into the 90s, which means one “made” basket represents a tiny fraction of the team’s final score. In essence, one basket is no more important than any other is, whereas a touchdown in football can have a momentous impact on the final outcome. A spread of 2 as opposed to 4 in football is a huge difference. But in basketball, the difference between 2 and 4 is almost meaningless.

Forecasting Shooting Percentages Is Impossible – The outcome of a basketball game often depends on which team’s players shoot better. This is impossible to predict. Inferior teams with a “hot hand” can upset superior teams. The introduction of the three-point line 20 years ago only adds to the unpredictability of NBA scoring and point spread handicapping.

Inconsistent Officiating – The most important people on the basketball court are not players or coaches. They are referees. A few ill-timed whistles can completely turn around the momentum of a game and determine the outcome. Personal fouls can be called on just about every play, which means games (and the outcomes of wagers) are often determined by officials. If you pride yourself on good handicapping, this is not good.

Note:  Coming in PART 2, I'll discuss how to overcome these issues.  Despite many challenges that make NBA games tough to predict, there are ways to make a profit.