Dissecting recent NBA dog phenomenon

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. While 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% on moneylines and an ATS mark of 53%. Simply put, had you been blindly playing underdogs over the last 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. Here are the records by season for 2016 through Feb. 13, 2020:


NBA underdog records by season

2016: 390-912 SU (30%), -159.3 ML units; 625-661 ATS (48.7%)

2017: 424-867 SU (32.8%), -29.1 ML units; 643-625 ATS (50.7%)

2018: 406-906 SU (30.9%), -141.05 ML units; 639-641 ATS (49.9%)

2019: 428-883 (32.6%), -60.95 ML units; 641-649 ATS (49.7%)

2020-Feb 13: 259-554 (31.9%), -55 ML units; 405-395 ATS (50.6%)

Since Feb. 20: 259-410 (38.7%), + 95.2 ML units; 347-308 ATS (53%)


As you can see, in no season over the last 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 last year, it’s no surprise to see even the best teams struggling regularly. Just last weekend, the league’s best teams exemplified that. On Saturday, the Pistons took the Lakers to double overtime in Los Angeles, and on Sunday, the Kings upset the Clippers in L.A.


With the foundation of why in place, here are some of the underdogs’ records in specific situations we’ll want to keep any eye on:


NBA underdog records by location since Feb. 20:

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%)


NBA underdog records with varying personnel situations since Feb. 20:

These are the records in the various situations affecting teams and their rosters. Key players are defined as those who are line movers, some as low as 1.5 points on a line.

Underdog and favorite missing key player(s): 59-75 SU (44%), + 27.5 ML units; 73-58 ATS (55.7%)

Underdog missing player(s), favorite at full strength: 62-170 SU (26.7%), -23.7 ML units; 107-120 ATS (47.1%)

Underdog at full strength, favorite missing player(s): 54-37 SU (59.3%), + 62.8 ML units, 60-30 ATS (66.7%)

Underdog and favorite at full strength: 84-128 SU (39.6%), + 28.6 ML units; 107-100 ATS (51.7%)


It’s quite clear that favorites not operating at full strength are vulnerable. I know this because in updating my power ratings daily, I log each game’s adjustments I make for missing players. 


NBA underdog records by line range since Feb. 20:

Here are the records of NBA underdogs over the last year or so 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%)


NBA underdog records by opponent type since Feb. 20:

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%)


This latest group of record breakdowns explains how motivation might be a greater factor for favorites in divisional games. Let’s look at the different rest scenarios:


NBA underdog records by game-to-game rest scenarios since Feb. 20:

On one day’s rest: 142-208 SU (40.6%), + 77.95 ML units; 185-161 ATS (53.5%)

On two days’ rest: 28-39 SU (41.8%), + 9.9 ML units; 38-28 ATS (57.5%)

On three or more days’ rest: 19-37 SU (33.9%), -2.6 ML units; 23-31 ATS (42.6%)

On back-to-back days (road to road): 18-35 SU (33.9%), -6.65 ML units; 27-25 ATS (51.9%)

On back-to-back days (road to home): 9-9 SU (50%), + 3.85 ML units; 12-4 ATS (75%)

On back-to-back days (home to road): 1-15 SU (6.3%), -12.2 ML units; 7-9 ATS (43.8%)

On back-to-back days (home to home): 12-14 SU (46.2%), + 18.55 ML units; 15-11 ATS (57.7%)


The standard one-day rest scenario has proven to be the most fruitful for underdogs. Meanwhile, we have our first situation in which to truly avoid underdogs — in the home-ro-road back-to-back situation. Watch this as we move ahead.


Ultimate NBA Underdog System

I’ve also combined some of the most impactful situational records to see if we can come up with the ultimate system. In this case, I looked for underdogs on the road, playing on a single day’s rest at full strength against non-divisional conference opponents that weren’t at full strength. The records of these teams since Feb. 20 were 9-5 SU and 10-3-1 ATS for + 18.6 moneyline units! The return on investment for these live dogs has been 133%.

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