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Life in the NBA Bubble From a Betting Perspective 


With over a week of action now in the books, bettors and books alike are trying to adapt to the way that games are being played in the seeding round of the NBA restart. Let’s take a look at how things seem to be playing out, and how they are impacting NBA action from a betting perspective. 

One of the major storylines of the early action in the bubble is the increase in foul calls. At first glance, it looks like refs have been very whistle-happy. On average, teams are committing 4.2 more fouls per game. Put another, foul calls are up a substantial 20.6%. Unsurprisingly, free throw rate percentage has also climbed league-wide. The league average is 6.1% higher in bubble play than in the shortened regular season. However, watching the games, it is ultimately difficult to lay the blame at the feet of the officiating. One factor, not even considered by many when play began, is how refereeing has been impacted by the lack of crowd noise. It is well known that refs often use the sound of contact as an aid in making tight foul calls. Now, with no crowd drowning out the sound on the court, refs are able to hear every slap of the skin much more clearly. The natural tendency to whistle upon hearing any contact has clearly been a factor in this increase. But, the play on the floor is also different than during the regular season. After a sloppy game against the Thunder, in which Frank Vogel’s Lakers and Oklahoma City combined for 65 free throw attempts, Vogel said: “We tried to play with pace early, but we fouled,” Vogel said. “So if we’re taking the ball out after free throws each time, it’s going to be hard to run. … Fouling is up throughout the whole league by a large margin. I’m not sure if it’s the officials. When guys aren’t in the same shape they’ve been in during a typical buildup, you (lose) defensive discipline. We’re seeing a lot of reckless fouling.” The defensive rotations in many of these games have been sloppy at best, and nonexistent at worse. With players out of sync, out of shape, and out of routine, it’s no surprise that the biggest increase in foul calls has come during the first quarter of play. Many players seem less prepared than usual to hit the ground running. First quarter and first half OVER plays could be worth a look. 

That said, while scoring is up by about four points per game league-wide, almost all of that additional scoring can be accounted for by the increase in free throw attempts. Moreover, the books seem to have adjusted after an over-induced bloodbath on the second day of play, when all six games flew over the total. Since then, OVER is only 17-18. Part of the reason for this is likely that while free throw attempts can often be a boon to a bettor looking for points, it can also slow the game down greatly, and as Vogel mentioned above, it can be difficult for teams to get out and run. The Lakers are a perfect example of this situation. The team ranks sixth in the league in transition offense, scoring an efficient 1.13 PPP over the course of the season. However, the offense has been slow and stagnant in the team’s first five games of the restart. Laker games are 1-4 to the UNDER so far. More telling, is the fact that the average cover margin for the UNDER in those five games is a ridiculous 13.2 points.  

Indeed, while the books seem to have evened things up in terms of the end result, what is clear is that it is markedly difficult for the oddsmakers to craft consistent lines that end up somewhere close to the finishing total. Over the six games played yesterday the total went 4-2 to the OVER. However, the average final score was 18 points removed from the line at tip. Only one of the six games finished with a total less than 10 points off the line. This has been a consistent theme as books struggle to adapt to NBA play that has been wildly inconsistent on a day-by-day, game-by-game basis. It is difficult to say that this is a huge help to bettors, but it is fair to say that it is making things difficult for the books.One area to consider in this regard is alternative totals. If a particular total jumps out at you, there may be value in hopping on some alternative total props and getting some big plus-money numbers.  

Play of the Day: Orlando/Philadelphia UNDER 222.5 

At first blush, this total may appear somewhat low. Philadelphia is 2-1 to the OVER, and its first two games averaged 255 PPG. The Magic themselves are 3-1 to the OVER. However, both teams slowed down in their last games, with Orlando losing 109-99 against Toronto, and Philadelphia limping to a 107-98 win against the lowly Wizards. These teams both have pace ratings under 100 for the season and are clearly more comfortable slowing things down. Moreover, neither Ben Simmons nor Aaron Gordon will be playing in this game. While Philadelphia slow down without Simmons and without Gordon, the Magic play a touch quicker, it’s the quick turnaround in the bubble without two key players that may have these offenses playing a little less fluidly and efficiently. Philadelphia, in particular should slow down even more than typically without Simmons. During bubble play, Simmons had moved to the power forward position, freeing up the starting point guard role for Shake Milton. In its three games in the bubble, Philadelphia is the seventh-fastest team in the league, with a pace rating of 103.5. During the regular season, the team’s pace rating was only 99.4. The Sixers may be even slower given that Al Horford is likely to return to a starting role and see expanded run. Finally, it seems as though Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown, who was very critical of Philadelphia’s defensive effort through its first two gamesmay be getting his message across. The Sixers held Washington to only 98 points in their most recent game, allowing Washington to shoot only 42.4% from the floor. A focus on defensive intensity should remain in this game.