How the NBA's scoring boom has broken open the betting market
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On Oct. 30, the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards played a game that closed with a consensus betting total of 234 points. A total that high would have been unheard of just over a decade ago, yet this year it's tied for the sixth-highest total through the first three weeks of the season.
It never stood a chance. The two teams combined for 317 points in a 159-158 Houston win, the third-highest regulation score in NBA history, obliterating the total by 83 points. That was the biggest margin in a game without overtime since Sports Database started tracking betting totals data in 1995.
Sure, that final score may have felt like an anomaly. But it didn't come out of nowhere.
"It's kind of indicative of the era that we're in with the NBA right now," said Jay Rood, Bet.Works' chief risk officer and theScore Bet's head trader. "I think the bigger anamoly is anything under 200 as a total."
Just eight years ago, the average NBA betting total was 192.1, while the average combined score finished at 192.5 points. Both numbers have increased in all but one season since then and are reaching record levels now.
Last year's average betting total of 221.7 was more than nine points higher than any average total in the past 25 years. The scoring average of an NBA game was 222.4 points, the highest mark since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
This year's pace is slightly below 2018-19, but it will likely normalize during the second half of the season, which is common for NBA totals. And if it does, oddsmakers are at risk of being exposed on both sides of an inefficient market.
The rising tide of NBA offenses
First, a brief history lesson.
Scoring used to reach these high levels in the 1980s and early '90s during the "golden age" of the NBA, when stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird ruled the hardwood. Between 1979 and 1993, the average final score never dropped below 210 points, which still paled in comparison to the high-flying days before the merger.
But scoring dipped in the mid '90s as some of basketball's biggest legends retired. In 1998-99 - the first season after Jordan, Johnson, and Bird retired - the average score plummeted to a record-low 183.2 points per game during a lockout-shortened season.
The following offseason, the NBA pushed through a series of rules aimed at stimulating offense, including penalizing defenders for pushing in the post and adding a five-second rule for isolation players. The scoring average jumped by 11.8 points that campaign, the biggest bump in modern NBA history.
Scoring increased by another 7.6 points when the NBA began enforcing hand-checking rules in 2004-05, and it peaked between 2007 and 2010 as up-tempo basketball became in vogue. It lulled again in 2011-12 - the most recent lockout season - but has increased in six of the last seven campaigns, as have betting totals.
Are offenses actually improving? Not necessarily, as the league's average offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) has fluctuated this decade and is roughly where it was during the golden age.
The biggest difference is volume fueled by "pace and space." Teams are taking more shots than ever before, especially from three-point range, and getting out in transition frequently for quick, easy buckets.
Consequently, scoring has reached a historic level, and the highest totals have never been higher.
From 1995 to 2017, 13 games closed with a consensus betting total higher than 237 points, according to Sports Database. Last year alone saw 37 games surpass that mark, and three more have come already in 2019-20. During the last 25 seasons, seven of the 11 highest totals and 22 of the top 30 have come since the start of last year.
These sky-high totals are still hitting the over, too. Four of the five highest totals this year have gone over - including that Rockets-Wizards epic - and the NBA's 25 highest totals over the last 25 seasons have gone over at a nearly 65% clip. On the 55 highest totals in that span, the over is 29-23-1.
"I think the NBA product is probably at an all-time high with the fans in the recent 20 years," said Rood. "This sort of 'showtime' activity is probably good for the sport."
But for oddsmakers? That's a trickier story.
'A dangerous situation'
If betting totals are higher than ever, and NBA teams are still flying past totals, the answer is to jack up the totals even higher, right?
Not so fast. The under has been the better bet in nine of the last 12 seasons, and it's off to a historic start this year with a 54% hit rate. There have only been two seasons since '95 with a better mark through November. If that lasts all year, it'll result in the best single-season under record in that span.
"I don't think you can deviate too far," Rood said, "because the sharp community is going to keep you honest."
The expansion of legalized gambling beyond Nevada and New Jersey further widens the gap between the public and sharps. While experienced bettors often look for value in the under, novice bettors tend to play the over in nearly any spot.
"Some of the more reactionary areas that haven't matured educated gamblers, they're gonna bet what they see," said Rood. "And they generally see high-scoring NBA games, so that's going to drive over betting by the general public."
Public bettors typically aren't playing totals until close to the game, so if a book tries to shade the over on a high-profile contest, it's opening itself up for early sharp play on the under.
The worst-case scenario is sharps hitting the under, books adjusting the total lower, and public bettors flocking to the counter for over tickets just before tipoff.
"You're creating an arbitrage market for everybody to cash in," Rood said.
Load management also rears its ugly head for oddsmakers. Playing stars usually leads to more points, so when top-shelf players unexpectedly hit the pine, that creates an information gap and sharps can capitalize.
"That information is critically valuable and could fluctuate a total six-to-seven points, which is a big swing in a betting market," said Rood. "I think these kind of (high) totals make for more of a dangerous situation from a bookmaker's standpoint."
So the highest totals are still hitting the over, and public bettors are reaping the rewards. Yet sharps are cashing in on the under. What can oddsmakers do about it?
They can take a cue from baseball, with its totals that are regularly kept off the board until close to first pitch because of weather or unknown starting pitchers. Rood says books can also keep NBA totals at "traditional" levels until an hour or so before tipoff, and then artificially raise the number to guard against a massive public liability on the over.
In high-scoring affairs, Rood adds that 237-238 is a potential inflection point for NBA totals. Any higher, and books are essentially begging sharp bettors to play the under, regardless of circumstance. Any lower invites both sharp and public bettors to profit.
"The high 230s I think is manageable," said Rood. "You start getting above that, you're gonna get straight value play from the sharps - which may or may not win. They're betting into historical numbers that they basically can't pass up."
How long can this last?
On Thursday and Friday, there were two games with a betting total of at least 234 points. There were none from 2011 to 2016, and only one from 1995 to 2007.
The NBA certainly isn't complaining. Increased scoring means increased revenue, which is reflected in the salary cap explosion this decade. And with the sport's general limitations - 48-minute games, 24-second shot clock, the 3-point shot - there will eventually be a limit to this level of scoring.
Because of that, Rood says the market is likely close to its betting-total apex, but we haven't reached the ceiling yet. And even historically high totals won't stop bettors from riding the NBA's record scoring wave.
"The public is still going to be betting the over," said Rood. "The perception is that no total is out of reach."
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.