Newcomers to sports betting should become familiar with the way bookmakers represent game odds even before they begin researching teams and learning the basic strategies of NBA betting. Every NBA season begins at the end of October and culminates in the NBA Finals during the first couple of weeks of July. That’s a long time, a fact that has both positive and negative implications.

The most important feature of any NBA betting strategy is understanding how to extend a bankroll between Halloween and mid-summer – considering NBA wagers as a type of short-term investment, it makes sense that bettors learn the ins and outs of how those investments operate. Here are brief explanations of the thee methods used to present odds for NBA contests – point spreads, moneylines, and game totals.

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The Point Spread

Often called just “the spread” or “the line,” the point spread is the essential way that sporting events are handicapped – the spread is called “handicapping” because it is designed to draw in wagers on both sides. Thus, a bettor looking to wager on the team most likely to win is “handicapped” by a smaller return for his investment, while bettors are encouraged to wager on the underdog because of the “handicap” available through the use of the changing point spread itself.

The point spread is in fact a number chosen by oddsmakers in order to draw money on both sides of a contest. It is sometimes said that a pint spread is a prediction of the actual amount by which one team will win or lose, but this isn’t entirely true. Bookmakers want equality on their books, so they handicap contests to provide that equity.

Here is a simplified version of an example of an NBA point spread:

Celtics (-2)  Nets (+2)

This small amount of information actually contains more than a few details. For example, we know that the Celtics are on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, and we know that Boston is expected to win. Where did those details come from?

The first team listed is always the away team – that’s how bettors know that Boston is on the road in the above example. The negative symbol (-2) tells us that Boston is the favorite – it also gives us the point spread, here valued at 2. For wagers on the Celtics to pay off, Boston will have to win by 2 or more points. Underdog bettors who wager on Brooklyn are hoping that the Nets will either win outright or lose by only a single point.

Point spreads get a bit more complicated than that thanks to the inclusion of a money value. The above example isn’t quite complete – in reality, every bookmaker will also place a number next to the team’s name to indicate something about the wager. The neat thing about a point spread is that the moneyline number next to each team’s name means something different.

For favorites, such as Boston in the above example, the number tells bettors how much they have to wager in order to earn $100. In most cases in the NBA, this number is set at -110. For every $10 a better wants to win back from a favorite, they must wager $11. Bets on the underdog have a number that begins with a positive symbol, indicating the amount of money they’ll win per $100 wagered.

A standard example would be +110. A bet of $100 on the underdog will return $110, or $11 for every $10 wagered. This is a big part of the handicapping of the game, making a wager on an underdog appear valuable because of a higher reward and the presence of a point spread.

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Game Totals

Game totals, which most bettors refer to as “the over/under,” are another tool used by bookmakers to attract attention from NBA bettors. The purpose of the game total, like the purpose of the point spread, is to make both sides of a contest attractive for an oddsmaker’s customers.

On its surface, a game total is a prediction of how many points both teams in an NBA game will score, when combined. But that’s not where the number comes from – like the point spread, it is set at the point where the bookmaker feels they’ll make the best profits.

Game totals are represented in a mode that’s a lot less complex than point spreads, looking something like this:

Spurs     199.5o +115
Heat       199.5u -115

As is the case in point spreads, the arrangement of the teams tells you who is playing at home and who is away – and just like with point spreads, the first team listed is the road team. The next number is the actual game total – in this case, set at 199.5. The letter “o” next to the Spurs’ name indicates that this is the “over” wager, and that it offers $115 in winnings for every $100 wagered.

That’s an indication that the oddsmaker believes the game will come in at 199 total points or fewer. A bet on the “under” in this case means betting the favorite, requiring a $115 wager for every $100 won back, or $15 in winnings for every $10 bet. The numbers are given in this format to make the actual amounts easier to scale up and down for bettors.


This is the least-popular odds in terms of NBA wagering – moneylines are more commonly used in low-scoring sports like hockey, baseball, and European football, though they are available at oddsmakers that offer NBA wagers.

The main difference between the point spread and the moneyline is that the moneyline requires a straight win/loss prediction. For moneyline wagers, it doesn’t matter how much the winning or losing team scored, won, or lost by – winning bettors have only to pick the correct outcome for a payout.

Moneylines are also easy to read. Here’s an example of a typical NBA moneyline:

Thunder                 -650
Lakers                     +400

As is the case with the point spread, the negative symbol in moneylines indicates the favorite (in this case the Thunder at -650) while the positive symbol indicates the underdog (here, the Lakers at +400). The number indicates how much a better must wager to win $100 (in the case of the favorite) or how much a bettor will win for a successful $100 wager (in the case of the underdog). The large difference in cost and value of the two wagers is due to the lack of a point spread, and in the NBA, that lack also accounts for a good deal of the strategy that suggests wagering on moneyline underdogs.

The impetus behind choosing to place a bet on an underdog in a moneyline arrangement is the higher reward for nearly-identical risk as compared to a point spread wager. Yes, the point spread is nice insurance for underdog wagers, but the top-end of underdogs in moneyline scenarios is large and varied, much more so than in point spread wagers.

These three most-common ways of handicapping NBA games are easy to understand and read once bettors are familiar with the various symbols and what they mean. Though point spreads and game totals will make up the majority of most NBA bettors’ wagers, moneylines are becoming an increasingly popular way for NBA bettors to hedge point spread outlays and take advantage of potential upsets when the point swing is wide enough.