The NBA has undergone an unexpected wagering phenomenon that can be traced back to last February’s All-Star Game. But from what I’ve been able to decipher on Twitter, not many bettors are aware of it.
The circumstances of the pandemic, load management, cautious approaches to injuries and a lack of fans in the stands have led to vastly improved performances by underdogs. In fact, since the NBA returned from the All-Star break on Feb. 20 last year, underdogs have posted an overall record of 261-413 outright and 347-308-14 against the spread.
Though those numbers don’t jump off the page, they have been good enough to produce +95.2 units of profit, a return on investment of 14.2 percent on moneylines and an ATS mark of 53 percent. Simply put, had you been blindly playing underdogs over the past calendar year, you’d have a pretty large bankroll. But to better understand the significance of this transformation, we need to see the results of recent seasons for comparison.
Underdog Results by Season
2015-16: 390-912 SU (30%), -159.3 ML units; 625-661 ATS (48.7%)
2016-17: 424-867 SU (32.8%), -29.1 ML units; 643-625 ATS (50.7%)
2017-18: 406-906 SU (30.9%), -141.05 ML units; 639-641 ATS (49.9%)
2018-19: 428-883 (32.6%), -60.95 ML units; 641-649 ATS (49.7%)
2019-20 (through Feb 13): 259-554 (31.9%), -55 ML units; 405-395 ATS (50.6%)
Since Feb. 20, 2020: 259-410 (38.7%), +95.2 ML units; 347-308 ATS (53%)
As you can see, in no season over the past five did moneyline underdogs even produce a profit, much less close to 100 units. I think the recent success of NBA underdogs can be traced to several factors: COVID-19 pandemic circumstances; load-management strategies; teams taking cautious approaches to injuries; no fans.
These situations lead to shortages of motivation and chemistry on the court. Because these are professional athletes capable of playing at the highest level with only minimal differences in physical talent among teams, favored teams typically must have the edges in these factors to win and cover point spreads. Any absence of either gives underdogs much better chances of success. With the uncertainty in the sports world for the past year, it’s no surprise to see even the best teams struggling regularly.
Here are some of the underdogs’ records in specific situations (since Feb. 20, 2020) we’ll want to keep any eye on:
Home dogs: 79-129 SU (38%), +16.05 ML units; 102-103 ATS (49.8%)
Neutral dogs: 66-106 SU (38.4%), +22.25 ML units; 86-81 ATS (51.5%)
Road dogs: 114-175 SU (39.4%), +56.9 ML units; 159-124 ATS (56.2%)
By Line Range
Underdogs of +1 to +3.5 points: 112-99 SU (53.1%), +33.35 ML units; 121-87 ATS (58.2%)
Underdogs of +4 to +7.5 points: 102-181 SU (36%), +10.85 ML units; 140-139 ATS (50.2%)
Underdogs of +8 points or greater: 45-130 SU (25.7%), +51 ML units; 86-82 ATS (51.2%)
By Opponent Type
Vs. non-divisional conference opponents: 123-191 SU (39.2%), +64.2 ML units; 163-147 ATS (52.6%)
Vs. divisional opponents: 52-88 SU (37.1%), +4.45 ML units; 68-68 ATS (50%)
Vs. non-conference opponents: 84-131 SU (39.1%), +26.55 ML units; 116-93 ATS (55.6%).