Strategic Betting on the Favorite or the Underdog

Strategic Betting on the Favorite or the Underdog

Learn the latest and most successful strategic basketball betting tips for wagering on the favorite or underdog and start making winning NBA picks today.

There’s a common misconception among casual bettors that the point spread measures how much oddsmakers think the favored team will win by. That’s not at all the case, and knowing the true reasoning behind the point spread can give you a big advantage when reviewing NBA betting lines. There are advantages of taking the odds-on favorite, but on many other occasions, betting on the underdog is a sound strategy.

Read on in this betting guide for all of the reasons why and how Sidelines can help you optimize your bets to give yourself the biggest possible advantage, whether you’re betting on the favorite or going with an NBA underdogs betting method.

Who Decides the Favorite in NBA Games?

What makes a team a favorite in an NBA game are the reasons that you would normally think of: who has the more talented roster, which teams have veteran stars that might make a difference, whether one of the teams’ stars is playing or sitting out, is a team on a hot or cold streak, and which team is playing at home.

But the true favorite and betting favorite can be two different things—or at least the degree as to which they are favored.

The oddsmakers’ job is to get an equal amount of betting on each side. So using the example below, the Sacramento Kings are 2.5-point favorites at home against the Golden State Warriors. The “minus” sign next to the Kings’ spread indicates that they are the favorites by giving two points. In essence, you will subtract 2.5 points from the game’s final score to determine the winner via the point spread. Conversely, the Warriors are +2.5, meaning they are getting 2.5 points added to their final-score total.

Golden State VS Sacramento, The Odds Favor the Underdog | Sidelines
Golden State VS Sacramento, The Odds Favor the Underdog | Sidelines

A wager on the Kings means that you’re betting that they will win the game by three points or more. A wager on the Warriors is a winning one if they either win the game outright or lose by one or two points. In some games where the point spread is an even number, there can be a push (tie). If the Kings were listed at -2 and won the game 98-96, the outcome would be a push and bettors on each side would get their investment back.

The key to setting a good line in terms of the oddsmakers is not only the number, but the odds for the specific spread bet. In the example above, you’ll notice a -110 next to the Kings’ spread. That means that you have to bet $110 in order to win $100. The odds on the Warriors are ever-so-slightly tilted toward the bettor, as -109 means you just have to bet $109 to win $100. But if you have to wager more than you can win on either bet, that means if there is an even amount of betting on each team, the house is going to win regardless of who wins the game. In sportsbook-speak, an even-money bet is -110, not +100. That extra money that goes into the house’s pocket is called the vigorish, aka the vig or the juice.

Based on that, you can understand how it’s vital for oddsmakers to try and set the line so there’s an even amount of betting on each side instead of setting what would be a true point spread. And if the betting on the two teams is too lopsided in favor of the favorite or underdog, sportsbooks will shift the line to try and make the side getting less action more attractive. Now that you know the process and the logic behind it, you can look for discrepancies in the oddsmakers’ line and what you perceive to be the true line through research—a process called handicapping.

Which Betting Types Suit Betting on the Favorites in the NBA?

There are other betting methods in the NBA that make betting on the favorite a clearer proposition. The first is the moneyline bet. In the Warriors vs. Kings example we mentioned in the last section, you’ll see the best moneyline bet on Sacramento is at -139. The moneyline is a bet purely on the outcome of the game, so instead of giving the house odds via points, you’re doing so by having to risk more money to win the same amount. A bet on the Kings at -139 means you have to bet (or lay) $139 in order to win $100. Conversely, the Warriors at +125 means that you only have to bet $100 to win $125.

According to several seasons’ worth of data, a team favored by 2.5 points should win 59.61% of the time, making the true moneyline odds for this bet at -148. You can see that the oddmakers are working in an inherent bias toward the Warriors due to their popularity with casual bettors, so a bet on the Kings here is a good value. The odds for the bet should be -148 when in reality, it’s -139; you’re having to risk $9 less than you should in order to win the same amount of money.

Another place to focus on favorites in the NBA is in betting futures. The most popular future bet in each sports league is who will win that league’s championship at the end of the season. In the NBA, it’s much more likely that one of the top three or four teams favored to win the title actually does so.

In 2020-21, the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA title and were at +550 to open the season. Only the Los Angeles Lakers (+275) were bigger favorites. In fact, just five times in the last 30 years has a team that’s been out of the top-five at the beginning of the season gone on to win the championship. The largest odds were the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, who were +2800 to start the season. The other teams were the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors (+1850), 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks (+2000), 2003-04 Detroit Pistons (+1500), and the 1993-94 Houston Rocket s (+1200).

If you look at the futures betting chart for the 2021-22 NBA championship here, you’ll notice that it’s lopsided towards the top four teams. Brooklyn, the LA Lakers and Clippers, and Milwaukee are the top favorites, and there’s a big drop off to Philadelphia and Utah. While an underdog team might reach the Finals (Phoenix this year, Miami in 2019-20, etc.), you can see that it’s rare for anything but a big favorite to win the title.

NBA futures betting favorites | Sidelines
NBA futures betting favorites | Sidelines

Which Betting Strategies Are Based on the Underdogs?

When oddsmakers set lines, there will inherently be a slight advantage given to the underdog. This is because casual bettors have a tendency to over-bet the favorites. This is especially true in games featuring star players or power teams. If a team like the Bucks, the defending NBA champions, are hosting a team that struggled this year, like the Orlando Magic, you would expect Milwaukee to be heavily favored. And if the true line is calculated to be 9.5, the oddsmakers are going to add a point or two to the line in order to entice some more betting on Orlando. This is because casual bettors are going to take the Bucks whether they are 9.5-point or 11-point favorites. But if the true point spread would be Milwaukee -9.5 and you can get Orlando +11 at -110 odds, you’re getting a free 1.5 points. That doesn’t seem like much, but over the course of the season, those extra points add up. In fact, road underdogs covered 53.72% of the time in the NBA in the 2020-21 season, so if you’re a long-term bettor, that’s a significant difference.

Which NBA Betting Strategies are Based on the Underdogs?

In addition to betting on road underdogs, there are several other long-term strategies that favor the underdogs in NBA spread betting.

  • Ignoring Public Perception on Big Favorites: The example we mentioned in the previous paragraph between the Bucks and Magic fit here. Popular teams like the Lakers and Knicks, especially if they are heavily favored, will have a built-in disadvantage in the spread.
  • Fatigue Management Strategies: With star players playing such a big role for NBA teams, paying attention to when a key player may be nursing an injury or needing a game or two to rest can be a profitable strategy. Key players often get some rest in the second half of a back-to-back or if they’re playing their third game in four days, especially if the game in question is taking place on the road. Teams are more apt to sit star players in away games because they don’t want to deprive their home fans of seeing a star that they paid to see. Also look for teams wrapping up a multi-city road trip being played on the opposite coast of their home.
  • Heavy Home Underdogs: Double-digit underdogs overall in the first half of the 2020-21 season were 76-54-2 against the spread. That cover percentage was even better for home teams facing a 10-point spread or larger.
  • Games After Big Losses: Once trends start to develop in a season, you can pick up on which teams rebound better after a loss. At the midway point in the 2020-21 season, for example, Phoenix was 11-3 against the spread in a game following a loss. Detroit, a team that had their fair share of losses, was 20-11 ATS in the same scenario. And teams that had good records struggled under the same circumstances—Brooklyn (5-10) and Miami (7-15-1) were two playoff teams that didn’t bounce back as well after a loss.

? For Your Next Bet, Consider Betting on the Underdog

If you’re going to stick with point-spread betting in the NBA, you can see that there is oftentimes a built-in advantage for underdogs, and by doing a little research, you can tilt the scales even more in your favor by backing the underdog. Using Sidelines to compare odds and prices among the different sportsbooks can give you even better value when it comes time to place a bet!

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