How to Pick an NBA Upset [Guide]
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When it comes to sports betting, picking an upset is one of the most gainful skills one can have. Picking an upset in the NBA can be difficult, but with the right knowledge and intelligent tracking of current trends, you can find the right path.
We’ve built for you, the player, a guide to how to select upsets in the NBA. Betting on the underdog and winning isn’t luck, but a clear science and understanding of the NBA. We’ll be informing you on what to search for when choosing the underdog, while also showing you how to use statistics to support your choice.
We’ll be covering:
- How to identify an upset
- Understanding the odds of an underdog
- Different betting opportunities on upsets
- What statistics to look out for when picking an upset
- Famous upsets in NBA history
What Is an Upset in an NBA Game?
An upset in sports is a result that goes against common choices. In the NBA, when the less favored team in a matchup wins, that is considered an upset.
For example, in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors, the Raptors were considered the underdog – not expected to win against their opponent. By defeating the Warriors and winning the NBA Championship, the Toronto Raptors completed their upset.
This is what the lines looked like in their Game 6 matchup:
- Toronto Raptors: +120
- Golden State Warriors: -139
As one can see from the lines, the Golden State Warriors, represented by the negative, are the favored side.
Meaning the Toronto Raptors, represented by the positive value, are the underdogs. It is clear by these values that betting on the underdog is always more profitable.
Unfortunately longer odds means that betting on the upset is much riskier, despite the fact that you always stand to gain more from the bet. Profitability is great, but only if you can intelligently select the right underdogs.
How to Predict an Upset in the NBA?
We are going to go over some proven strategies for predicting upsets in the NBA. It is important to consider all of the following when making your picks as each strategy is meant to be used in tandem.
Be careful when making your bets, as only approximately a third of NBA matches tend to end in an upset.
Refer to Statistics
As with all forms of virtual betting, we begin with one of the most important strategies to follow. While trusting your instincts, even as a seasoned player, is valuable, your predictions should always be backed by statistics.
When making predictions, the most valuable information we have is that which is already available.
Of course, you should take into account your personal instinct, friends’ thoughts, and other factors, just be sure to do your research before making a final bet.
If you’re a seasoned player, you likely already look at the statistics in order to inform your decision. Recent form for a team is certainly important, as momentum can carry even the weakest teams over their competition. There is still more to consider though:
- Team schedule is important. Players generally perform better on extended home stands, versus long, out-of-conference trips. Refer to the SOS stat, which rates a teams remaining strength of schedule.
- Player health and injuries are also important. Key players that are unavailable can massively swing a teams odds.
- Take into account recent play. You could be banking on the known quality of a single player, but if they’re on a cold streak it might not be the right time to back them.
Always be detailed in your research. There is always more to a team’s record and odds than meets the eye. Maybe a team has been on a five-game losing streak and are now the underdogs. However, the return of a key player from injury could certainly boost their chances, which isn’t always shown on the lines.
Anomalies occur on the lines and in team statistics all the time. It is up to the player to find out which they should consider staying ahead of the public.
Take into Account the Team and its Players
Recognizing team playing style is a more advanced way of recognizing how teams will fare when looking at an NBA matchup. If one can understand how certain styles of play fare against the other, you’ll have the upper hand when placing your bets.
Two hard-nosed defensive teams with little scoring output will probably produce a low-scoring output compared to two run-and-gun offenses. When the underdog has a style of play that is easily taken advantage of by the favorite, you’d do best to avoid taking the upset.
By understanding styles of play, you can perform even better in other ways like prop betting.
To go along with understanding play style, you should also be able to understand which individual players are key to a team executing their game plan. The Golden State Warriors are a historically deadly team from three due to their ball movement. If their assist leader Stephen Curry is out of the lineup, you can expect their quality of play to drop off.
On the other hand, if Stephen Curry is in the game but will be guarded by Fred Vanvleet – a historically successful defender against Curry – the mismatch could favor Vanvleet and his team despite the lines.
Don’t forget to consider coaching in the equation as well. Coaches go through ups and downs just like any player. Their record against other coaches can be a telling sign as well.
A coach like Steve Kerr is clearly top tier. However, it is more likely for a creative, risk-taking coach like Nick Nurse to build a plan to succeed over more rigid and militant coaching styles like Terry Stotts.
Keep an Eye on the Lines When Trying to Pick an Underdog
Line movement is the main factor that determines how profitable an underdog can be! To learn more about betting on the underdog and when to do it check out our betting on the Public Underdog guide.
What is Line Movement?
Line movement refers to when the odds or the point spread for a bet changes leading up to the game and it’s worth paying attention to.
The reasons why bookmakers adjust odds are varied. This is referred to as moving the line, where the team odds are adjusted due to changes in team lineups, injuries, and more.
It is the tendency of the bookmaker to balance whatever changes they make. That means they aim to have as close to the same amount of money on either side of the bet. The reason for this action is so that the bookmaker will always make a profit no matter the outcome.
For example, if the public is betting heavily on one outcome, then the bookmaker is likely to adjust the odds so that the other side of the bet is more attractive to players.
The ability to make timely bets as you observe adjustments to the line is a great way to find much better odds. This is especially relevant when betting on the underdog.
Why Do People Make the “Safe” Bets?
It isn’t so much that the public likes to play it safe, it is more so that it can be simple to make the easy bet. Teams with strong records, excellent players, and good form are incredibly convincing when compared to the specific criteria needed for success in an underdog.
A big part of that perception can be changed by media. Small market teams rarely get national viewership, so their qualities may not be as well known as teams from big market cities.
Line movement is an excellent representative of how the public is thinking about a matchup.
There is More to it Than Win/Loss Bets
When betting there are more opportunities than just in the win-loss section of the odds. You should look deeper when trying to decide if you want to bet on the underdog.
For example, say the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Lakers face-off. The Lakers are one of the NBA’s best offensive teams, while the Toronto Raptors are one of the best defensive teams. The bookmakers suggest a rather high-scoring match in favor of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unique matchups like this open up the opportunity for prop bets. Against tough defensive sides, would you bet on LeBron James to get a triple-double?
Or perhaps you might expect Toronto’s Pascal Siakam to score less than his season average against Anthony Davis. There are many prop bets that you can take advantage of within events.
With your understanding of the NBA and its players, you can take advantage of prop bets that reflect your predictions of how the game will play out.
If there is a prop bet on Fred Vanvleet accumulating 2+ steals on the game, how would you bet if he’s up against a team with the lowest turnover rate in the league? Even if the team you bet on to win the game comes up short, you could still win a lot of money despite your incorrect prediction.
Identifying an upset doesn’t rest solely on knowing which team will win or lose in a match. There are many ways to take advantage of upsets, and looking deeper than win-loss betting is crucial.
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What is the Best Way to Bet on an NBA Upset?
Let’s take a look at the mathematics behind why betting on an upset is profitable.
Even more than being able to recognize a match where the underdog might win, picking an upset is about identifying a place in the available odds that represent a more beneficial value compared to what the public thinks might happen.
The concept of finding which odds indicate the more positive chance of each side of the bet winning is called implied odds. It is easiest to figure out the implied odds by using a free sports betting calculator online.
Bets that are straight-up wagers on which team will win a game are called Moneyline bets. They are also the type of bet where you can find the longest odds for betting on the underdog to upset the public.
Let’s refer back to our Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors matchup in Game 6 of the NBA Finals:
- Toronto Raptors: +120
- Golden State Warriors: -139
For the uninitiated, this line may seem a bit unclear. But should we convert it into a visual representing implied probabilities:
- Toronto Raptors: 45.5%
- Golden State Warriors: 58.2%
Down a game, with Kevin Durant out, and elimination breathing down their necks, the Golden State Warriors were favored. Why was that?
- The Golden State Warriors have a propensity for winning championships in recent history, having won three titles in the past five years.
- Despite losing Kevin Durant in Game 5, Golden State still won with an incredible 57 points between Curry and Thompson.
- The Warriors would be playing at home.
At the time, you would probably say that the Golden State Warriors were the better team, despite missing their key piece.
In fact, the combination of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry had led to Warriors to a championship before. The line indicates a 45.5% probability of an upset, but you’re still not getting enough value out of your pick.
As the day of the match comes closer, the line begins to change. Media begins to influence the lines, as the storyline of Stephen Curry’s legacy, the last match at Oracle Arena, and a Championship win at home come into play. The line changes.
- Toronto Raptors: +355 / 22.0%
- Golden State Warriors: -400 / 80.0%
You now have taken some things into account with the underdog Toronto Raptors.
- The Toronto Raptors big men are dominating, with Ibaka and Siakam shooting over 50.0% from the field.
- Kyle Lowry’s shooting percentages have steadily increased with each series.
- The Raptors have been leading the four factors in each game (eFG%, TOV%, ORB%, FT/FGA)
- The Toronto Raptors are yet to lose a match at Oracle Arena in the 2018-2019 season.
You’ve now got a solid return on your initial bet of the Raptors 45.5% win chances. You can easily back them at +355 due to your analysis of the teams.
This is a classic way of betting on an NBA upset via moneyline bets.
Moneyline bets are the most common ways to win big due to identifying upsets. However, there are other bets for you to take advantage of as well.
Point Spread Betting
What is commonly referred to as the line or the spread, it is a number that is chosen by the oddsmakers that they feel will get an equal number of players to wager on the underdog as the favorite. Betting on an upset on the spread means you have a better chance of winning, but you are likely to win significantly less.
When betting on the point spread, the odds are usually -110. Each team is allocated a margin of points that will account for the difference between teams. With our teams in the previous section, our spread could look like this:
- Toronto Raptors: +2.5 (-110)
- Golden State Warriors: -2.5 (-110)
If you bet on the Toronto Raptors’ spread, all they have to do is not lose by 3 points or more, and you win the bet.
This is seen as a more low-risk way to bet on upsets, favoring more conservative players. All the same rules apply when the points spread moves as they do the money line. The only real difference is that you risk less and win less.
You can also take advantage of upsets by exploiting point totals. A totals bet is when choosing whether or not the total number of points will be over or under a certain value. Similar to point spread bets, the odds are usually about -110.
Point total lines in the NBA could look like this:
- Toronto Raptors vs Golden State Warriors
- Total: 199.0 Over (-110) Under (-110)
The strategy remains the same when making these kinds of bets. Take into account the trends of the teams of late, players involved, and schedule at the least. If you think that the bookmakers are underestimating how high-scoring a match could be, you can bet the other way.
Much like Point Totals, these tend to be less risky bets since the odds usually sit around -110. These can change depending on the value of the match though.
Spread bets and total bets are an excellent way to bet on an upset, with more security in exchange for what will be a smaller payout.
There are odds on a number of things in the NBA these days. Outside of the games themselves, many websites offer prop bets. These are very creative ways for you to cash in on players’ performances.
Perhaps the underdog bet isn’t really in your favor. But you know that Stephen Curry has been averaging 30.5 points per game in the series, and you can put a bet down on him scoring 40+. Maybe the Toronto Raptors are your underdog pick, but they fall behind as the game wears on. Bet on them to win the first quarter or the entire first half!
There is the potential for a small upset in every single match. You don’t need to rely on the overall winner to get a big payout. Smaller bets on the over hundreds of possible “small upsets” in a match can be just as rewarding.
How Frequent Are NBA Upsets?
Basketball is a bit more difficult of a game to predict than say hockey or soccer. The high-scoring nature of basketball lessens the possibility of “luck” bringing teams closer – like you might see in a low-scoring 1-1 hockey or soccer match.
However, in the world of professional sports, basketball upsets are seen more often than you might expect. Over the past five seasons, the underdog has succeeded in the NBA 32.1% of the time. That is the lowest underdog win-rate of all major American sports leagues, only leading collegiate football and basketball.
With the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Golden State Warriors in 2019, the odds began to grow more open. Where the league was heavily favored toward two or three teams, the underdog Toronto Raptors’ victory opened the publics’ eyes and encouraged much more play against the favorite in the NBA.
When Are Upsets Most Likely?
During the regular season, we continue to look at our normal strategy when observing upsets. Team, schedule, and other extraneous factors all play into how a team fares as the underdog. The playoffs are a different situation entirely.
Rosters are set to come the NBA Playoffs and teams play each other within a series for a maximum of seven games – first to four wins. Teams are matched up in a bracket based on their seeding. The top seed plays the bottom seed, second plays eighth, etcetera.
Always look at the regular-season series when betting on a playoff series to analyze how a team fared against another. Teams play each other a maximum of four times during the regular season, so it is a great way to determine how a playoff series might play out.
Considering the stakes at hand in the playoffs, pay attention to the news and team changes as drastic rotations changes are more likely. Underdogs generally succeed in the regular season because of the ever-changing schedule. However don’t rule out the playoffs, as the series format allows for teams to constantly adjust until a winner is found.
What Are Some of the Best NBA Upsets of All-Time?
1995-1996: Expansion Toronto Raptors defeat Jordan’s Chicago Bulls
In 1995-1996 the Chicago Bulls were building themselves into the greatest team in NBA history. In what became a 72-10 NBA Championship season, the Chicago Bulls had one blip on their record. That being a loss to the new expansion team Toronto Raptors, becoming what is likely the biggest single-game upset in NBA history.
The Raptors, who were second-worst in the league with a final record of 21-61, ended up stealing away a win by a single point. While the odds were against the Raptors, they actually played the Bulls well throughout the season. Compared to Chicago’s usual 12.3 point differential, the Raptors were only held to seven in their losses.
By relying on a tight seven-man rotation, bombing from deep with 11 three-pointers, and giving the Bulls nothing from the field (.186 FT/FGA), the Toronto Raptors were able to best the eventual NBA Champions.
2006-2007: “We Believe” Warriors Take Down ’06 Runner-Up Dallas Mavericks
This was one of the few times that we saw a team really succeed in a playoff as an eighth seed. Fresh off of a trip to the NBA Finals in 2006, the Dallas Mavericks looked to capitalize on their momentum and find their way back to the promised land in 2007.
The Mavericks won a league-best 67 games and had the 2007 NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki at their disposal. Unfortunately, they came to blows with one of the most dynamic teams in the league. The Baron Davis-led Golden State Warriors, coached by former Mavericks head coach Don Nelson.
The eighth seed Warriors overpowered the Mavericks with their energy and effort. Outpacing Dallas and forcing star scorers Nowtizki and Terry into shooting an abysmal 21% and 28.1% from three respectively.
1993-1994: Mt. Mutombo Rejects the First Seed Seattle Supersonics
This is the upset of the ages. Where the Seattle Supersonics were the -2000 favorites against the +1400 Denver Nuggets, this series shows how a single player can change the fortunes of an entire team.
The Supersonics looked primed to breeze through the first round and challenge for the NBA crown after reaching the conference finals the year prior. The combined efforts of Detlef Schrempf, Gary Payton, and Shawn Kemp was near unstoppable to other teams.
However, a young Dikembe Mutombo waved his finger at the perceived championship contenders by shutting off the paint entirely. Mutombo averaged 12.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, and an incredible 6.2 blocks per game over five games! More importantly, he held crucial big men Shawn Kemp and Sam Perkins to under 37% from the field.
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