Fantasy Basketball 101: Understanding How to Bet on the NBA

Fantasy Basketball 101: Understanding How to Bet on the NBA

This article is part of our Fantasy Basketball 101 series.

So you want to learn how to beat the book and take Vegas for all its money like some wicked combination of Fear and Loathing, 21 and Ocean's 11?

Cool. I've failed at all three, especially driving a 1971 Cadillac Eldorado through the desert and parking it in front of The Tropicana (they still ticket for that -- and tow).

There is nothing more valuable to a handicapper than information, and gathering that information will gear you toward using your head more than your heart when it comes to placing bets at whatever frequency you wish

But what does it all mean?

The terms get tricky, but once you understand a handful of key terms, the rest is unlocked. We will start with the roadmap of all handicappers and follow up with the stats and information I like to gather, including my process. Say it with me now: Trust. The. Process.


The three basic terms here are: Point Spread, Money Line and Total, which refer to how much better or worse a team is explained as a point differential. In this case, the oddsmakers feel that the Miami Heat, playing at home, are 2.5 points better than the Boston Celtics. Placing money on the Heat point spread would result in them having to win the game by 3 points or more (which, in turn, would cover the 2.5-point spread).

The Money Line is the most straightforward bet to make. Simply put, you are picking which team will win, regardless of total score. The numbers associated with a Money Line bet are written, in this case, as +120 and -140. This refers to the payout, and it is easiest to describe in amounts of $100.


Teams that are favored to win have worse odds to return you money, which is why handicappers are always looking for value plays. These value plays are become evident if you gather enough information and pay close enough attention.

The Process

Like all other insufferable fans of Joel Embiid, I reserve the right to use this phrase until it is beaten to a bloody pulp.

1. Make Your Own Line

Before even looking at an odds board, use your own intuition to determine how much better you think Team A is better than Team B. Grab a schedule, without odds, and come up with a number based on the information you subconsciously know. Many factors could impact your own line including injuries, schedule, back-to-backs, who's on a hot streak and who is in a shooting slump. Just pick a number.

I think the Heat are 5 points better than the Celtics

Afterward, check the oddsboard. If that number is within a respectable ballpark of your number, start diving into the info. If the number is wildly off, let's say by five or more points, you likely have found one of the bets you want to play.

The reasoning for this is based on a tremendous amount of algorithmic factors that oddsmakers have at their advantage to push and pull the public betting sphere without shifting it off the Earth's axis (sorry, Kyrie).

If the line on the oddsboard reads Miami Heat (-12.5), you take the Celtics with the points, since your mind is telling you that the Celtics are far better than needing 12.5 points to beat the Miami Heat.

2. Gather the Information

If you ask Theo Epstein how the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, he would likely point you towards a 279-page book on the Scouting and Player Development machine he brought with him from the Boston Red Sox, and then start five years ago with a Cubbies team that lost 101, 96 and 89 games from 2012-2014.

Epstein wanted to put together four foundational position pieces in his team, stated it would take 4-to-5 years, and delivered on schedule, as promised, 1,826 days later. Epstein is regarded as one of the smartest minds in sports because he collects more information than just about anyone. He wants to know every single variable -- and when it comes to betting, so should you.

Start with the Rotowire NBA Fantasy News and navigate to each team playing in a given night. Pay very close attention to a couple of factors here: injuries and player performances over the last five games. Five games is not necessarily a representative sample size, but it is enough to find a hot shooter going into an advantageous matchup.

What serve as equally important guides are Betting Trends and team performances ATS (against the spread).

These are basically my Basketball-Reference for sports betting. There are specific features to both sites, which are free to use, that can change my perspective on a bet.

3. The Public is Dumb

The public has enormous control over oddsmakers and they don't even know it. Oddsmakers will constantly shift the line based on how much money is coming in on a specific team, and you can check that shift in almost real time through both of the websites above.

What it is vital to keep in mind is that when the public has 80 percent of its money on one side, bet the other. I do this almost religiously, and it helped me finish last year's Handicapping the NBA article series with a 30-24-1 mark for the season.

Across those games, I went 10-6 betting the opposite of the public when it favored a line at 80 percent or more.

Again, the public is dumb.

4. Bet the Total

The spread can play games with you. You piece together everything you want, and the number just becomes to tricky to get around. It becomes evil -- you turn into Jim Carrey from the very mediocre movie The Number 23. And that's the point.

The total, however, is never all that tricky. Take a quick look at some metrics like offensive and defensive ratings for each team, in combination with the schedule over the past week, and you can usually come to a rather quick decision. Are the Jazz and Grizzlies matching up on the second night of a back-to-back? Strongly think about taking the under.

Long story short, if the line is playing games with you, don't overthink it. Take a peek at the total, and if it is enticing, bet it instead of the line you can't seem to shake.

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Jason Rubin
Jason Rubin is a sports producer a part of the ESPN social content team where he runs point on the ESPN MMA Show on Snapchat. He had one good season betting the NBA and contributed to Rotowire's NBA content. Previously he broadcasted for TYTSports and contributed to multiple platforms along the way. He is a Carmelo Anthony apologist.
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