Although betting on NBA games is popular at sportsbooks (and March Madness pools are common in offices all over the nation), the National Basketball Association has always had a smaller market share than Major League Baseball or the National Football League.

NASCAR and other auto racing events have actually surpassed NBA games in terms of viewership in recent years. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced in early 2014 that his league would one day rival the NFL for TV viewers and overall popularity, it was seen as little more than sabre rattling.

Though a typical NBA game doesn’t draw in the same numbers as Monday Night Football, among sports bettors, pro basketball games are more popular than among the general population.

Why Bet on NBA Games?

NBA games appeal to sports bettors for a few reasons. Of course, there will always be fans of the game who bet on their hometown favorite team or hit the sportsbooks in Vegas during the NBA Finals. Pro basketball may not have the massive TV audiences of pro football, but the sport does have dedicated fans.

The teams are small, relative to football and baseball, making the job of handicapping games a lot simpler than in MLB or the NFL.

An NBA season is long, running from late October to mid-June. The number of times two NBA teams face one another head-to-head each season, and the sheer number of games played over the course of a year, gives handicappers a large pool of data to make their picks.

The Basics of NBA Wagering

There is a long and intense debate among NBA bettors on whether it is better to place bets on one side or the other to win outright or bet on game point totals instead. The debate over whether betting sides (point spread and moneyline betting) or game totals will never be settled, because there is no one appropriate way to bet the NBA.

Point Spreads

Betting on point spreads means laying bets according to what a sportsbook will think the outcome of a pro basketball game will be.

A book will release a point spread that look like this:

SA -4
HOU +4

The use of these symbols contains a lot of information in a small package. Bettors know the teams in the contest (the San Antonio Spurs are SA, the Houston Rockets are HOU), where the game is being played (the home team is always listed on the bottom), who the sportsbooks favors to win (in point spreads the favorite is marked by a minus symbol), and the point spread itself, which in this case is 4.

Moneyline Wagers

This type of bet is similar to a point spread wager in that the player is asked to select a side to win outright. The difference with the moneyline is that the outcome of the bet doesn’t depend on the number of points the team won or lost by.

A typical moneyline looks like this:

Bucks +500
Pacers -700

As with the point spread, a few details are available at a glance. Bettors see the two teams playing (Milwaukee and Indiana), the home team (also listed on the bottom, so in this case it’s the Pacers), and a couple of other important details.

The plus and minus signs here mean the opposite of in point spread betting. The team indicated with a “-“ is the favorite, and the number next to the minus symbol tells bettors how much they’ll have to be to earn a $100 return. For the underdog Bucks (marked with a plus symbol), a bet of just $100 returns a payout of $500. The huge difference in the line here indicates the difference in the quality of the two teams. A line like this indicates that Indiana is a heavy favorite.

Game Total (Over/Under) Betting

Arguments in favor of point spread and moneyline bets over game totals in the NBA are about appreciating the beauty of the sport and the teams themselves. With game total wagers, the bettor has no stake in the outcome of the game besides the final scores of the two participating teams.

The phrase “game total” refers to the total of points scored by both teams in a pro basketball game. A sportsbook represents their over/under bets something like this:

Clippers  198.5o -115
Jazz           198.5u -105

Bettors lay wagers on either “over” (hoping that the two team’s points scored will total 199 or more) or the “under” (in hopes that the final score will add up to 198 or less). The second number listed next to each team is the size of bet a player would have to make to earn back $100.

Three Must-Pick Pro Basketball Games

An NBA season is long – each team plays 82 regular season games. Casual fans of the game who don’t want to spend eight months of the year handicapping NBA games should at least consider laying a wager during these three contests.

Opening Night

The NBA does as good a job at the theatrical side of the game as any other pro sports league. The season’s opening night game is normally a headline contest designed to draw in a ton of attention. An example would be the 2014-2015 season, when the defending champion Spurs hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers (and their recent re-hire LeBron James). A smart bettor can easily out-pick the masses of bettors laying wagers without much insight into the game.

Conference Championship Finals

This is technically not a single game; it’s the final playoff round before the league’s championship. In recent years, pro basketball’s lack of league parity means there is usually a clear favorite and underdog when it comes to the Conference finals. Bettors who like to go against the trend will have plenty of opportunities for that during the NBA Conference Finals.

NBA Championship

Technically another series and not a game, the NBA Finals bring in the largest viewership in any given season, which generally means more people betting on games at your sportsbook. Line movement in the 2014 Finals meant great value for wagers on San Antonio.

Since the Spurs didn’t look like the giant-killers that appeared courtside from Game 3 onward, fan and trend wagers were so heavily in favor of Miami early on that the line was soft all the way through the final game. San Antonio at -6 in Game 5, after the Heat had all but thrown in the towel? That’s a great example of when betting during the NBA Finals is a good idea.

Betting on pro basketball is more stressful than wagering on pro football and involves a more volatile league than Major League Baseball. For those reasons, some sport bettors won’t place NBA wagers. For fans of the game, though, or for handicappers interested in the statistical complexity involved, professional basketball wagering offers some exciting opportunities for high-value wagers.