NBA Finals shaping up to be a showdown between sharps and the public

By Jonathan Von Tobel  (Senior NBA Analyst) 

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For any sporting event, the need to know which side the respected money is on is paramount. Respected money shapes the lines which we bet, and there are many handicappers who desire being on the sharp side to avoid being in lock step with the dreaded betting public. There are many who like to boil down single sporting events to “sharps against squares” -- which is hardly ever the case. 

Sharp money is everywhere, and that money has different opinions. There is rarely ever an event in which 100% of respected bettors are on one side of the aisle and the public is on the other. At least I thought that was the case -- then the NBA Finals tipped-off last Thursday.

Through the first two games of the Finals, there is quite the divide of opinion on which team is going to win this series. Multiple shops have reported liability of some varying degree on Golden State in its futures market and in each of the first two games of this series the public has lined up back the Warriors at the window.

“We’ve needed Boston,” said SuperBook Sports VP of Risk Management Jeff Sherman. “We did well when Boston upset them in Game 1 and did poorly when Golden State covered last game. It’s been all Golden State.”

An indicator to gauge public support is viewing the betting splits data, and a glimpse at those numbers in the first two games saw that DraftKings had over 80% of the bets and 70% of the handle on Golden State. Those numbers do not tell the whole story, but over at the SuperBook there has not been a hint of respected money on the Warriors to be found.

“I didn’t see any at our place,” said Sherman “On Game 1 we saw sharp money on the Boston side, but I didn’t see the same for Game 2. It was just overwhelming public on the Golden State side. The sharps are either wanting to get involved with Boston or not get involved at all with us [at the SuperBook].”

I do not have access to every sharp basketball betting mind in the world, but the small sample-size of respected bettors I have spoken to represent that dichotomy between public and professional opinion.

Erin Rynning, a professional handicapper and NBA bettor, has the Boston Celtics rated as the better team in this series. When I filled in on Gill Alexander’s A Numbers Game on VSiN, I spoke with Drew Dinsick, a professional handicapper and analyst for NBC Sports Bet, who also gave voice to Boston being the best team in this series.

“I think the fair price for these two teams on a neutral court is Boston by 2.5,” said Dinsick. “I think in Golden State’s arena these teams are about a pick-em.”

And those opinions are not going anywhere as we now approach Game 3 on Wednesday. The betting market has been holding strong with the Celtics as 3.5-point favorites at home and some of the first bets taken on this game came from respected bettors.

“[For Game 3] we opened Boston -3.5 and someone we respect laid Boston -3.5 with us,” Sherman noted. “It wasn’t enough to move it, but it was on the Boston side.”

Usually, it is the sharp money that shapes these lines and odds that we bet into. However, in events such as the Finals or the Super Bowl, the public money has more influence. We saw in Game 2 that bettors were willing to push that line up to -5 in favor of the Warriors because of their need to win that contest in San Francisco and avoid falling into a 2-0 hole in the series. 

The same could be said of the series prices that we have seen for the NBA Finals. Despite Boston being favored in Game 3 with home-court advantage in hand, there are some shops that have Golden State as the favorite to win this series. 

“At this point you’re going to see the shaping of a year’s worth of futures plus the series price money you’re taking,” said Sherman. “You put all that stuff together and you can afford to write some prices wherever you want to put it to try to shape for position right now. We do well with Boston winning the series and have a little bit of liability on Golden State because we had some people take + 160 and + 145 [on the series price] before Game 2 and that took us away from our plus position on Golden State.”

It doesn't seem logical that a team with consecutive home games in which they will be favored isn't the favorite to win the series. Some shops do have Boston as the -115 favorite to win the NBA Finals as of Tuesday night, but is that the correct price? 

In talking with former VSiN colleague Jeff Fogle, who currently writes for TrueHoop.com, he broke down how a series price should be constructed given what we know about the odds for each game.

“If all the games are a 60-40 win probability split for the home teams then that would show a juice-free line of Boston -115 [for the series],” said Fogle. “So Boston -120 and Golden State + 105 if it is all 60-40 for the home team.”

If that’s the case, then a line of Boston -105 for the series (which can be found at multiple shops) is a valuable number worth betting for those who have had no dog in the fight to this point.

This exercise also speaks to the fact that the public has influenced what we have seen in this series from a betting perspective. Bettors loaded up on Golden State in the first two games, creating a winner for the books in Game 1 but a loser after Game 2. The public took the Warriors at plus prices after the loss in Game 1, altering the liability at the SuperBook and likely other shops as well. That has also shaped some of these series prices, making a Celtics team which should be the favorite in this series -- given how these games are being set -- a small underdog at a few books.

There might just be two teams on the court for the NBA Finals, but there seems to be another battle looming over this series:  The public bettors facing the respected money. The fight is taking place over the counter or on phone apps across the country, and through two games of this series the title is still up for grabs.

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