Remember that old adage about oddsmakers being very, very good at what they do because they always seem to nail the final point differential? That has certainly been true in seasons past, but not quite the case so far this peculiar NBA season.
Of the 235 games that have been played through Sunday night, an astounding 61.7% have not finished within 7.5 points of the pregame spread. The latest most egregious examples occurred Saturday night when Dallas was a 7-point favorite against Houston and lost by 25, and New Orleans was an 8.5-point favorite and lost by 10 at Minnesota.
- Of the 25 games that were played over the weekend (including Friday night), 14 finished within the 7.5-point threshold, which was a change from what we had been seeing over the first five weeks of the season
- From Jan. 16 through Jan. 22, a majority of the games finished outside that 7.5-point threshold
- Between Jan. 10-12, there were 20 games played and 15 were super blowouts in terms of the spread
- On Jan. 7, all five games were massive spread blowouts
- On New Year’s Day, 8 of the 10 games did the same thing
- Christmas was a 5-for-5 day in terms of every single game finishing nowhere near the pre-game point spread
The most glaring example of this trend came on Dec. 27 when the Mavericks, 3-point underdogs, defeated the Clippers by 51.
Check out some of these examples from the past eight days as well:
- On Sunday, Boston was favored by 6 over Cleveland and won by 38, and San Antonio was favored by 6 over the Wizards and won by 20
- On Thursday, Golden State was favored by 5 over the Knicks and lost by 15
- On Wednesday, Brooklyn was favored by 11 at Cleveland and lost by 12 in double-overtime (the Over covered by 55.5 points in that one)
- On Monday, the Lakers were favored by 9 over Golden State but lost by 2
- And on Jan. 17, Boston was favored by 7 over the Knicks and lost by 30, and Dallas was favored by 6.5 over Chicago and lost by 16
Strange times, indeed
Blame this on the randomness and unpredictability of this NBA season, in large part because of COVID-related issues such as rosters having to be fluid due to positive COVID tests and contract tracing problems. Already, 21 games have been postponed, with the Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies hardest hit. Washington’s loss to San Antonio Sunday night was their first game since Jan. 11 – a 13-day gap between games.
Coaching decisions, including load management, have been an issue as well.
For Friday night’s Nets versus Cavs game, Kevin Durant was given the night off by Steve Nash after playing 50 minutes in Brooklyn’s previous game. Cleveland won the Friday tilt rather easily. As mentioned above, Boston defeated Cleveland by 38 Sunday as a six-point favorite, but Kemba Walker will be given the night off Monday when the Celtics (favored by 8) play the Chicago Bulls.
Also, there are some up-and-coming teams that have not yet drawn the respect of the oddsmakers, who often set lines using historical context that is not necessarily relevant this season because of the myriad changes to rosters around the league.
And the biggest factor of all may be empty arenas.
“Some teams like to come into an opposing arena and play a villain role, but we’re not getting the usual intensity because the arenas are empty,” said Jeff Sherman of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. “I make a spread for every game, and you have to remember that the intention of the spread is to get equal action on each side of the line. For the Lakers (at the Bulls on Saturday night), they would normally be about 7.5, but they were off (Friday) night, whereas Chicago played at Charlotte and had to travel, so you add two points on for that. Spreads are designed to split people’s perception, and we are doing a good job on that.”
The Bulls ended up losing that game by 11, making it a nail-biter for gamblers.
Certain teams draw more action than others, and the Brooklyn Nets have been heavily bet ever since James Harden was acquired. In last Wednesday double OT loss at Cleveland, a whopping 81% of the tickets and 82% of the handle was on Brooklyn at PointsBet. In Thursday’s Knicks versus Warriors game, 88% of the point spread handle was on Golden State at PB, but with the Warriors favored by five the Knicks won by 15.
“I have seen that a lot of underdogs are covering, and I believe this is because the crowds aren’t there,” Sherman continued. “There’s a lack of spectators, so it’s just a game on a court, and that makes it abnormal. Teams are lacking energy and effort from what I’m seeing, and that’s because the crowds aren’t there. An example is Anthony Davis, who was supposed to be having an MVP type of season but just seems to be to be going through the motions.”
Not all of the 61.7% of spread misses involved underdogs winning, but it accounts for a fair portion – which is especially surprising because underdogs win in the NBA only 32.12% of the time – a lower percentage than what is seen in baseball, football and hockey.
The craziness won’t last forever
How uncommon is it for the spreads to be this far off?
“The odds swings are definitely a little off right now, but the lines will tighten up as the season goes on. It’s only a matter of time before things will get tighter,” said Johnny Avello, head oddsmaker at DraftKings Sportsbook. “Remember, when the NBA resumed play last summer there were only eight games for each team before the playoffs, so every game meant something. So there’s a big difference between that and what we have now, a bunch of regular season games in late January. We’re going through a period now where it’s tough to get a handle on it.”
Avello added that most bettors are not taking advantage of this trend.
“People see the numbers like the ones you are talking about and they think the books are getting killed,” Avello said. “That’s certainly not the case.”
Tonight, there are 10 games, with the most curious line being the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers favored by just 6 points over the Detroit Pistons, whose 3-13 record is the NBA’s worst. Somewhere among those 10 games will be a mismatch that bears no resemblance to the pre-game spread.