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NBA AM: A Look Through The Eyes Of A Sports Bettor

How do professional sports bettors see the NBA, and what information is important to them?

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It’s a Bigger World Than You Know:  The 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference wrapped up in Boston on Saturday and while the conference draws all manner of attendees, the bulk are people who work in or around sports who attend to network to expand their knowledge base.

However, there is another segment – sports bettors – that attends for entirely different reasons.

Data, analytics and trends within the numbers has become a booming industry for those that wager on the games and their outcomes. Analytics is becoming a huge part of that process for many of the high-volume bettors.

Admittedly, I am as much a novice on the sports betting culture as anyone, but while standing among a group discussing many situations, I met a sports bettor at Sloan, who shall remain nameless as it complicates his ability to make sizable wagers.

We sat down on Saturday and talked about a great many things and his perspective and insight was compelling, so the purpose here is to illustrate his views of the NBA and its teams, which offered many points that were interesting.

Now to set the stage, this person is a professional gambler by trade. He bets roughly $100,000 every day and bets on virtually every NBA game. Not only is he betting over-under scenarios, he is also a huge “in-game bettor” and commented that the NBA offers the best “in-game” action among the major sports.

“One thing you find late in the season is the bad teams, they kind of like to get down by a lot in the first half,” our pro said. “Then in the second half both teams like to speed up the tempo and try and pad their stats. On teams like the Knicks, you’ve got guys like Langston Galloway coming to the end of their contracts and are looking to get a contract for next year so you’ll see them, like against Cleveland, they were down 30 after three quarters and then in the fourth quarter they’re kind of running at you, playing and really cutting the game from being down 30 to maybe being down 18.”

The trends among teams and how they play in-game is a crucial detail for the sports bettor, as they are making huge cash decisions based on pace and style of play.

“I think it’s just important to have a good grasp on what different teams are doing in different situations,” our pro said.

One of the things that became clear was our pro is watching a lot of games, and in great detail. Asked if there were any teams that really surprised him, like maybe the Hawks or the Warriors, he wasn’t overly surprised with anyone.

“It’s not really a surprise to me because I’m watching a lot every day,” our pro said. “I would say Sacramento is a great team, they always put in a lot of effort in the fourth quarter when they are down 20 because a lot of times starters like Boogie Cousins will still play the full game so they are great at making runs late in the fourth quarter, but they also play terrible late.“

“On the NBA.com website, you can look at a lot of the clutch stats and New York has been very bad all year in close games. Like you have Carmelo (Anthony) talking out in interviews saying, ‘We were always there right until the end but then we just kind of lost by five or six points in the last few minutes.’ I would say the NBA is a lot different than all other sports bets like soccer, football, baseball in that the way that teams play can dramatically change depending on the score.

“Like in football, teams will speed up if they are losing in the fourth quarter but like in NBA, bad teams play really bad when they are losing and it just seems like the other team can make a run. A good example is like the Lakers-Celtics game the other day when the Lakers were up by seven or nine with a minute and half to go and you just saw all these turnovers in the last minute and (Avery) Bradley hit a buzzer three to send it to overtime although the Lakers managed to recover and win it in overtime. The Lakers also did a similar thing against Chicago on a TNT game when I think they were up nine points with a minute and half to go. Stuff that if you look to kind of put win ability, the index would be extremely low for Chicago to win that game although again in that situation the Lakers recovered and won that game.”

One of the trends our pro keyed in on was effort plays, especially among elite players, pointing out that the data supports what some fans see – star players don’t always play the same every night.

“One big thing that I’ve seen this year is, there was a big thing on ESPN a few weeks ago about the diminishing value of home court advantage, “ our pro said. “A good example is Chicago, if you look at their record this year they’ve won at Golden State, I think they won at San Antonio, they beat Cleveland very well in the last game before the All-Star break yet they have very bad home losses by big margins against Utah, they lost to Charlotte just after the Derrick Rose news came out, those are kind of bad efforts.

“If you look at teams in Florida, for a long time we’ve known home court advantage isn’t great there, if you look at a team like Miami, the fans arrive late. If you look at when the game starts look around the crowd it looks like no one is sitting there and Orlando is kind of the same. But for a team like Chicago with kind of hardcore fans and a long tradition of basketball, which sells out every game, you would expect the home field advantage for the Bulls to be strong, right?

“What we are seeing is that compared to the other sports, psychology plays a huge role in the NBA. In the NFL, it’s a 16-game schedule so just one loss here or there could be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. Baseball is a very long season and so motivation could ebb and flow, but a pitcher only goes every five days so he is going to give a strong effort, and what you are doing in baseball is kind of an individual thing; one guy is throwing the ball, one guy is hitting it and then the other guy is catching it so the motivational stuff doesn’t really come in as much although you will see varying performance for guys in clutch situations.

“But in NBA it’s like what makes a team like Miami or Indiana play hard every day to try and get the one seed instead of the two seed? It seems to be now with a lot of the rest coming in, it seems like San Antonio this season is kind of happy whether they are the two seed or the six seed it doesn’t seem to matter much to (Gregg) Popovich, he is more interested in getting his team to the postseason and getting his guys healthy.

“So Chicago had a very bad home record and what it looked like was maybe a lack of motivation against poor teams but also with Derrick Rose, he wasn’t attacking the rim. Stats on ESPN show his drives first-third quarter, very few drives to the rim. But in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line, he was attacking the rim. But then you see when they played Cleveland before the All-Star break he was attacking the rim the entire game, so it seems like these aggressive plays that could put him at risk for injury, he was saving those plays for the big moments, the big teams, the ESPN games, the TNT games – whereas when Chicago is 10-point favorites at home against a team like Charlotte, we weren’t seeing those plays, but it’s not like Chicago was winning those games either because of the lack of motivation.”

With so much value for a sports bettor being on the “in-game” action, placing bets around where a team is at after each quarter of play, some teams looked a lot better to our pro than others.

“So one thing with Golden State people looking at their margin of victory it is 10.6 or something like that at the beginning of the season it was actually a little higher than that,” our pro said. “If you look at their margin of victory just thru three quarters like some of those games early in the season they were up 25 or 30 points late and their bench played very poorly in the fourth quarter – they just kind of like mailed it in or whatever because what does an NBA team care if they win by 30 or by 20.

“In the earlier part of the season, Golden State was playing great and everyone was saying how great Golden State is, I actually thought they were performing better than even what everyone was saying about them because if you just looked at the first three quarters, if we are looking at whether a team is going to win or lose a game, they were out performing that and their home court advantage is really big because they are just blowing everyone out at home. “

Despite all the time and research being put into who each team is and how each team plays, the way style of play changes throughout the season is a variable for the professionals.

“I think this season Orlando is a good example,” our pro said. “They started off playing very slow then all of a sudden, they went to like very fast like they had some very high scoring games; then all of a sudden the coach got fired, then you saw the quotes from the new coach saying we are going to install defense and then all of a sudden their pace is back from the 200’s to the 180’s (as a total combined score).

“I think for like the analytics community, if you are analyzing soccer or football or baseball, the fundamental way a team plays; it doesn’t change that much from the beginning of the season to the end. But with basketball like with the coaching changes, with guys coming in and out; a good example now we just saw Kevin Garnett go to Minnesota, considering big moves we saw at the trade deadline with (Goran) Dragic moving, OKC getting all these guys. So you take a guy like Thaddeus Young out of the lineup and you put KG and you’ve gone from an offensive guy to a big defensive presence even though KG is old and he can’t score like he used to, but he can play defense and like you’ve seen since KG is playing, only been two or three games, but Minnesota has gone from a team that is running up and down with a 210 (total combined score) pace to now being defensive orientated. And it’s not just KG’s defense, it’s what he is making the other guys do and you even saw the game last night, KG rested that game but the game was still in the 117’s so even a small transaction like that can have a quiet dramatic impact on the way a team plays in terms of pace and all of that.

“If you are looking to analyze or break down the data, all the old stuff you have for Minnesota is useless now. Now, (Andrew) Wiggins’ defense was already highly heralded coming out of college, now with KG in there I think you’ll see those guys and even guys who aren’t known for their defense, like (Nik) Pekovic, their defense is going to step up a level because he wants to be a part of ownership right and even though the team isn’t performing that great, you have KG in that locker room and he is going to demand things from those guys that maybe you wouldn’t have got before.”

Information is critical to sports bettors, so they monitor everything they can monitor, the question becomes do rumors and the media impact the process?

“The rumors, it’s kind of hard with your natural instincts,” our pro said. “You know there were a lot of rumors that Brook Lopez or Deron Williams was going to be traded so you’re thinking if guys are going to get traded the team might perform poorly, but actually when those rumors started going around, Brook actually started playing well. Maybe these guys were thinking, ‘Actually I don’t want to be traded.’ When the rumor first came out about OKC getting Brook, all of a sudden his production stepped up so maybe he thought it’s like, ‘I need to play well and get to OKC.’ But then all of a sudden he drives his price up so what Brooklyn was demanding for Brook Lopez kind of opened up that week or two period where it kind of went up to the point where in the end OKC went and got (Enes) Kanter.”

Some professional bettors use predictive computer models and trend analysis more than ours. Our pro uses the data, but labeled himself “old-school” in his approach.

“I think other guys use models a lot more than me,” our pro said. “I’m kind of old school using intuition, I’m constantly watching the market and looking at what other guys do. I’m pretty good, but there are guys out there a lot better than me.”

Our pro wouldn’t say how much he wins exactly, but said his percentages are much higher than 50-60 percent and he bets virtually every game on the schedule.

So how does a professional sports bettor stay high in the percentage department?

“If you look at all markets, if you look at the opening price and closing price, basically what smart people want is volatility,” our pro said. “If you look at Wall Street, if the stock price was opening and closing at the same price every day, no one is making money right? Only the brokers are making the small fee during the transaction.

“I would say that what we like is coaching changes, injuries, guys getting traded and it just seems that the smart guys are able to work out how these transactions and moves affect teams better than the average fan.

“If you look at (Goran) Dragic going to Miami, they went from being the slowest pace team in the NBA to all of sudden even without (Chris) Bosh really up tempo. With Dragic driving the rim, all of a sudden (Luol) Deng is getting wide open looks and his production is going up, (Hassan) Whiteside is getting dunks, I mean he was getting dunks before in the pick and roll with (Dwyane) Wade but now you’ve got the pick and roll with Dragic with Wade and Deng is still a threat from out here. So you’re looking at Miami scoring 10 or so points more against the same team.”

While betting the final outcome is where a lot of sports betting action in, it’s the in-game play that’s excites our pro.

“Ten to 15 years ago, you would just bet before the game, then it was halftime and now it is every timeout,” our pro said.

“Soccer is the most popular sport to bet on in the whole world but the problem with soccer is if you bet for Arsenal to win before the game and if it’s 1-nil to Arsenal during halftime or with 20 minutes to go you’re kind of still sweating that original wager right? So there is not the opportunity to bet again and also the problem with soccer is because they are not scoring a lot of times, your betting a quarter ball or a three quarter ball. You have to do these kind of things to make it pay out equal and it is kind of hard for the average bettor to understand.

“With basketball it is very easy to understand; so let’s say we have an over-under of 200 and we are expecting 50 points a quarter and in the first quarter there are 60 points so we are 10 points above what we thought. Now we can just open it up at 210 and take more bets and then at halftime if there are 120 points now we can just put it at 220 and open it up for betting again and you know we can do the same thing on the handicap.

“So basketball, in terms of like generating action and allowing people to bet thru the game, it is the perfect sport. Football is great too but it is a little bit more technical because you are scoring in 7’s and 3’s so it requires a little bit more mathematical work and you have to factor in overtime whereas in basketball the distribution is kind of normal, you are scoring in 2’s and 3’s. It’s pretty easy for a normal person to see that Miami is playing OKC, OKC is winning by 12 midway thru the fourth quarter so do you want to bet OKC minus or would you want to bet Miami plus 12.”

The biggest questions that dominated the Sloan Conference this year were surrounding the idea and push to legalize sports betting in the United States. During one panel discussion on the subject, the NBA’s Vice President and Assistant General Counsel Dan Spillane revealed that more than 100 countries that the NBA does business in have legalized sports gambling.

So how does our pro see that playing out in the US?

“I think it is good for the professional gamblers because basically they say it takes 98 losing gamblers to make two winning ones,” our pro said. “At the moment, a lot of the money from the losing gamblers is leaking into the hands into illegal bookmaking and stuff like that, so I think if the NBA does it correctly and if there is a big pool and all the losers go into that and the winners are able to access that as well I think it’s an opportunity for the winners to make more.

“There are a lot of different business models for gambling. A lot of the sports books offer very bad prices and if guys like me bet, they get kicked out. Then there are other sports books that you have to wager $1.10 to win a $1.00 then there are other books like Pinnacle where you only have to bet $1.05 to win a $1.00 and their business model is they don’t cut out the sharp players.”

Finding places to place large wagers or to find places where a high winning rate is permitted isn’t always easy or transparent.

“Every time we play, they monitor what we do,” our pro said of Pinnacle. “They are pretty smart too. They have their own opinions of what they think of games but when someone like me bets they use that information to monitor their prices. Since you only have to wager $1.05 to win a dollar, for your recreational gambler they don’t lose as much so it kind of makes it really cheap to bet , they offer great value.

“I think if the NBA was to go down that business model, it would be good for both the professional and recreational betters. But then if gambling does become legal in the U.S., you’ve got some very powerful casinos in Vegas and they are probably in a prime position to get a piece of the pie. These companies’ business model is based on making as much profit as possible. If you look at Pinnacle, they probably only make less than 1 percent on turnover. If you look at U.K. Sports books, they probably make 4 percent on turnover and it’s probably similar for the Vegas books.

“I hope that if gambling is legal here they will allow someone with a business model similar to what Pinnacle does, to go in and offer a great value, only wager $1.05 to win, which is good for the professionals. I kind of fear that it will kind of become like British bookmakers, where the prices are terrible, where the winning betters get kicked out, it’s just a vehicle for guys that want to wager to lose more so it would basically just be a transfer of money that is now bet illegally to all of sudden that money would just get funneled into the Vegas sports book. “

During the sports betting legalization panel, Ryan Rodenberg – an assistant professor of forensic sports law analytics at Florida State University – predicted that he thought there would be a national sports betting law passed in the United States inside the next four to six years, there seems to be enough momentum building that sports betting, which was once a back alley, seldom talked about subject, will become more and more main stream.

I found our pro’s perspective on the NBA fascinating, especially with all of that current momentum and conversation surrounding how he makes his money.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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