Signs and Wonders

I took a few stabs at a wrapup, but kept coming back to these thoughts:

  • I don’t have a system,
  • my sample is statistically insignificant,
  • this never was a how-to, and
  • fundamentally, the NBA is about flux.

So what could I say that would be valuable going forward?

I can say I stumbled early, adjusted quickly, and spent the last month wagering well.

My 28-13 record is the sum of a 3-8 start (lost $655), a three-day 5-2 turnaround (won $380), and a 20-3 closeout (won $1570). There isn’t a wager I wouldn’t make again in that last group (though there were plenty I wouldn’t repeat from my first 18 bets), so here’s a look at what, if anything, can be gleaned from my final streak:

Being finicky paid.

From March 15 to April 10, the NBA scheduled 204 games. I wagered on 23 across 15 sessions.

Taking the spread into account, I had no idea of what to make of 70% of those 204 contests.

I was tempted by roughly 20% of the games I didn’t wager on, and didn’t guess right even close to half the time in this category.

My successful month came down to finding a bet or two every other night among 18 to 20 games. My best guess tended to be very, very good. My second…dicier. My third wasn’t worth wagering.

I had to get used to the idea of putting money on a loser.

My 20-3 run was comprised of a 10-1 mark when getting points, and a 10-2 mark when giving.

It took a lot of early losses to come around, but now I’m comfortable on either side, and am no longer distracted by which team is going to win. I focus only on whether the line makes sense.

It’s hard to avoid coinflips.

Six of my last 23 bets fell into this category, with the outcomes within 2 points  of the line.

I went a normative 3-3 on those wagers, and was unbeaten in the remaining 17 bets, winning those by a whopping average margin of 11.5 points.

Had I been wildly unlucky and lost all the close ones, I’d still have gone a robust 17-6. Had three more baskets dropped in garbage time, I’d have won 23 consecutive wagers.

Embracing duality, I wagered well, and yet I also couldn’t avoid what turned out to be perfect lines 26% of the time. I don’t have any wisdom on cutting that number to zero; all I can say is, I didn’t enjoy those wagers, because I’d rather be good than lucky.

For me, NBA wagering is inescapably about hunting for the rare nonsensical line.

It matters that my late successes came almost equally from both sides of the spread.

It also matters that I passed on the vast majority of games.

And it says something that, even with flexibility and selectivity, I wound up with a coinflip in every fourth wager.

Because the fact is, on most nights for most games, the oddsmakers nail or come close to nailing the outcomes. Call it expertise, luck, or consensus theory–it can’t be denied, at least not by me, not after having experienced the horror of waiting for a final random shot or dribble to determine a wagering win or a loss.

I jumped in. I chickened out. I gakked. I laughed. I saw the future.

I had a lot of fun writing about every step and misstep. I hope it was fun to read.

If the NFL or NBA ever come back with regular seasons, the odds are good I’ll be back here too.

Thanks for coming by.

Sound, Fury, etc.

Every team in the league is playing tonight.

A grand total of three might be motivated to win.


The Grizzlies plan to tank against the Clippers, thereby locking up a playoff date with the Spurs. Which means the New Orleans-Dallas scuffle is irrelevant to the Hornets, who will finish seventh regardless of the outcome. Which leaves Dallas in a quandary, because it plays at the same time as Oklahoma City (squaring off against hapless Milwaukee), to whom it loses in a tiebreaker should Dallas lose and Oklahoma City win. And of course, the other problem there is that the Bynum-impaired Lakers play after the Mavs and Thunder, in what should be a loud, conflicted Arco Arena.

So while sixth, seventh, and eighth seem sorted out in the West, second, third and fourth aren’t, and likely won’t be until the Lakers show their hand several minutes into the regular season’s last game.

That’s it. I’m done wagering on NBA 2010-2011.

Just for fun:

  • New Jersey +14 over Chicago (the Bulls will win, but not by that much)
  • L.A. Clippers -6 over Memphis (Grizzlies tank, Griffin dunks)

and these were tempting too:

  • Milwaukee +11 over Oklahoma City (see: Bulls)
  • Sacramento +4.5 over the L.A. Lakers (the Kings’ last hurrah)

And I’m down to pouring through the numbers, looking for revelations.

Back when I have any.

Notes on Aggression

Tonight, for no hypothetical money down:

  • Knicks plus 5.5 over the Bulls
  • Grizzlies plus 5.5 over the Blazers
  • Lakers minus 7 over the Spurs

I could make a good argument for the opposite side in each case. So I’m not betting.

Which leaves only a scrambled Wednesday in the NBA regular season, and a wrapup for this tour. In the meantime, the overarching thought from 8 weeks of sussing out NBA games:

Once I learned to wager, I didn’t bet enough.

For me, the watershed appeared two weeks in, when a disastrous 0-3 session dropped my record to 3-8, with $345 remaining from a stake of $1000. Eleven wagers to learn the hard way that what works in the NFL (good teams reliably clobbering bad ones by spread-covering margins) doesn’t transfer to the NBA.

Since then, I’ve gone 25-5 picking games across 18 sessions, making money 14 times and losing more than $20 only twice in that span.

Looking back, I’d make 29 of those 30 wagers again if I had the chance. Three of the five losses were by a point or a half a point, and almost all of the wins were by substantial margins.

After a bruising introduction, I think I’ve picked well. And my stake has grown roughly 560% since the nadir, and if I don’t make another wager, I’ll close out the season up 130% overall. A fine return for eight weeks of entertainment.

On the other hand, if I’d sat down in those last 18 sessions with the idea that once I’d cleared $1000, I should risk up to 50% of my profit each time out, with a hard cap of $500 per night, my profits would have jumped to $3925. Triple what I have now.


I know I’m essentially risk-neutral, because I don’t get much of a psychic payoff from the action itself, but I also know I lean too far towards risk aversion for an activity like wagering–even, comically, in a hypothetical exercise.

Next time around, I’ll tackle that with a rule-based system for pricing my wagers–one like the simple model above–that allows for aggression while still enabling me to bet what I can stand to lose. I like the idea of focusing exclusively on what’s going to happen, and leaving the rest to a model. Just as I would have liked a splashy return rather than a solid one.

Again, ouch. Next time, for sure.

Waiting for Wednesday’s lines…

In Praise of Perfect Lines

  • Chicago 102 Orlando 99

The Bulls cover by half a point. The outcome was determined after the clock expired, when a cadre of officials stared at rewinds of split seconds surrounding a Jameer Nelson three, then overruled the basket, chucking the crowd from ecstasy to stupefaction.  I was right there with the fans, except for the ecstasy part, because once again, the game didn’t play out as I thought it might, and I walked straight into a perfect line.

Excluding moneylines, my NBA record for now stands 27-11. Twenty-four times, I’ve wagered on games whose outcomes exceeded the spread by 5 points or more (for better or worse). Let’s call those bets I’ve nailed or blown; I’m 20-4 in them, clearing $1790 in profit.

I’ve also had six picks which I’ve won or lost by 2.5 to 4.5 points. I think of these as B or B+ efforts, because the final margin in this kind of game usually comes down to a few telltale plays in the last six minutes. I’m 3-3 in these contests, and have cleared $180 in profit.

Which leaves the perfect lines–the games the oddsmakers nailed, with wagers won or lost by 2 points or less.

Every one of these has felt like yesterday’s ordeal–it’s a coinflip, I know it, and yet I’m drawn in, because the margin flirts with the line every time down the floor. The payoffs are joyless and the losses sting for the same reason: the oddsmakers were right, and I blew it.

With yesterday’s win–my first success betting north of $200–my record in coinflips is 4-4. I’ve lost $490 wagering on these games.

Which means I’m walking into traps a little over 20% of the time (8 of 38 picks). I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad percentage. I just know I’d rather skip the entire category.

Speaking of which, with only three nights left in the regular season, I may have made my last bet. Only Denver giving 12 at home to a tired, travelling, Monta-less Warriors tempts, along with a proud Phoenix squad giving 9 at home to hapless Minnesota. But that’s a lot of points to concede, it’s a week for the best games in the history of players you’ll never hear from again, and I’m frazzled from surviving another perfect line.

So I’m sitting this one out, and waiting to see what the oddsmakers do with Tuesday.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I don’t get it.

I don’t.

Here’s Sunday’s wager:

  • $275 to win $250 on Chicago on the road giving 2.5 to Orlando

Categorically speaking, it’s a foolish bet. I’m going against a rested 50-win home dog in a marquee game. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It gets worse: I’m backing a squad that doesn’t have much to play for. The Bulls might be chasing San Antonio for the top seed in all the playoffs, but it’s worth noting they already have home court against everyone in the East, plus everyone in the West save the Spurs, who aren’t a lock to reach to the finals.

Plus I’m 0-2 and down a chilling $715 when betting north of the $200 mark.

Yes, but two Yes Buts override those concerns:

Howard is out.

Rose isn’t.

The Bulls have the best defense in basketball, the Howard-free Magic have no answer for Rose and likely very poor answers for Noah, Boozer and Deng. The possibility of Richardson and Turkgolu raining threes is remote when Thibodeau knows they’ll be hoisting them, and I believe the Bulls brass when it says Sunday’s contest will be business as usual; Chicago’s intended starting five has played only 25 games together in an injury-plagued season,  and this is their likely second-round opponent. They need the run, they’re a young squad that’s equal parts excited and confident about what they’re doing, and I’m guessing they won’t play possum on national television.

So I see a beatdown of a home team 79 games into a season of disarray. Frankly, I can’t believe this line isn’t higher.

It would be nice to win one of these bigger bets for a change, and pull away from the $2000 mark for the first time. Maybe I’m pressing my luck. Or maybe Howard is out, Rose isn’t, and I’m due.

Go Bulls.


  • Detroit 110 Milwaukee 100
  • Dallas 107 L.A. Clippers 96

Detroit delivers an easy win, and the Clips a painful loss, blowing a 26-point first quarter wagering margin in the last minute.

Though L.A. snapped my 11-game winning streak of picking winners when giving the points, the good news is I’m still on a 20-3 run overall, with the losses all coming by 1 point or less.

The bad news is that though I’ve gone a respectable 4-2 picking games these past six days, I’ve also managed to lose a grand total of $10 in the process. The last four sessions put me down $240, up $100, up $150, and down $20.

It’s gratifying to pick winners, but the way to keep score is in dollars. And the fact is, I’ve never gotten a big payoff in the NBA.

Though there’s no correlation between the size of the bet and what’s going to happen in the game, the costliest stat I’ve compiled is this: I’m 3-4 when wagering $200 or more, and have lost a cumulative $555 on those picks. Four of those came in the last six bets, including last night’s wrencher, when the Mavs hit a meaningless shot and the Clips failed to respond three times in the closing moments, swinging my Friday session from what looked like a $400 gain to a $20 loss.

I know it’s all hypothetical, but honestly, I’m wiped.

So no, I don’t know what to make of tonight’s five-game slate. Atlanta is giving 2.5 on the road to a Washington, but both played last night, Josh Smith is out, and neither team has anything at stake.

Milwaukee shouldn’t be giving 8.5 points to anyone at the moment, except, well, they just might cover against bad, bad Cleveland, who’s also on the second night of a back-to-back.

The other lines are inscrutable. Either that, or I just don’t want to give or take 13.5 points when Denver’s flying home after a beatdown, and Minnesota is involved.

Ugh. Until next time.

Bye Bye, Bogut

Late news brings a second Friday night wager:

  • $220 to win $200 on Detroit at home getting 1.5 versus Milwaukee

Because Bogut is now done for the season, Brockman’s hurt, Delfino is a long range shooter contending with bruised ribs, and the Bucks have no answer for Monroe.

Because Detroit is much better at home, the Pistons were sold today, and their embattled coach is auditioning for new management.

Because Milwaukee always struggles to score, and now it looks like it will struggle to rebound and defend as well.

Should I miss on both bets tonight, I’ll be done for the season. But I like my chances.

Go Pistons.

Friday Noir

  • Chicago 97 Boston 81

An easy cover. After a 2-7 start, I’m now 11-9 overall when betting the favorite and giving the points.

Which means I’m on a 9-2 run in this type of game.

Which means I must be learning. Or I’ve learned. Or I’m good at this.



Well, here’s another way to look at it: someone flipping a coin can easily go on a 9-2 run of heads. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a coin flip, and it doesn’t mean the coinflipper knows anything.

And another way: the coinflipping analogy is too reductive. Maybe there were a few random outcomes in that 2-7 debut and/or the current 9-2 streak, and yes, those are small samples, but it might matter that the good results have followed the bad in the timeline, and it’s the direction that counts.

And another way still: yapping about samples, random outcomes and directions fools no one–I’m moments away from asserting I have…a system. I can look at the 2-7 and 9-2 runs as unrelated sets, find the flaw in the former, note how it’s been corrected in the latter, and presto–anyone can do what I’ve done. Just note the insight and follow the steps.

Or maybe this is the truth: the mix of learning and luck is indivisible and unquantifiable. If there’s any revelation here, it’s that there is no system: NBA wagering is a game-by-game proposition, where the vast superiority of one team isn’t nearly enough to go on–not when one must contend with stalemates and mismatches at five positions on the floor, plus the bench, plus the coaches, plus the vagaries of garbage time, tired legs, bad shooting nights, midweek blahs and in-season trades clouding every oddsmaker’s line.

There. I feel better. Here’s what’s on tonight:

  • $220 to win $200 on the Los Angeles Clippers on the road getting 10 from Dallas

Kidd missed this morning’s shootaround. Chandler’s back hurts. If they play, it’s likely they’ll be limited. It’s also likely Juan Barea will spend a lot of time at the point with Roddy Beaubois at the two.

Which means the Clipper backcourt tandem of Williams and Gordon suddenly looks big by comparison. Or lightning fast, when the decrepit Terry and Stojakovich spell the Dallas newbies. Williams will drive and Gordon will get open looks, and because Nowitzki doesn’t defend even when hale (he isn’t), the air defense against the blitzkrieg of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan falls to a statue called Brendan Haywood.


The Mavs might win, but this looks like youthful speed versus worn-down expertise, and that’s too many points for Dallas to concede to a spry, rested team.

Go Clippers.

It’s More Than A Feeling, Boston

Thursday’s early lines are up, and I’m jumping:

  • $165 to win $150 on Chicago at home giving 4.5 to Boston

Wadeless Miami’s Wednesday night loss seemingly boosts the Celtics’ incentive to win in Chicago, but then again, Boston is tired and battered; the Three Party has carried too much of the load in recent weeks, what with the spate of frontline injuries, the envervating swap of Perkins for Green, and the mysterious decline of Rondo.

Even with a loss tomorrow, the conference and head-to-head tiebreakers favor Boston, and the Celts will close out their regular season with three cupcakes and a road scuffle in Miami.

So the question is whether they’ll risk leaving blood on the floor in Chicago, failing, then facing the prospect of still having to beat the Heat once more.

I think the likelier scenario is Boston recognizing the path of least resistance to the East’s second seed doesn’t run through Chicago Thursday night, but rather Miami this weekend.

Chicago, meanwhile, is a young team with a chance to clinch the franchise’s first post-Jordan top seed before what should be a raucous home crowd. What’s old hat for the veteran Celts is prized by the Bulls; I expect early jitters followed by Derrick Rose, Derrick Rose, Derrick Rose.

Here’s hoping Boston sees the schedule as I do.

Go Bulls.

Dark Horses

  • Utah 86 Los Angeles Lakers 85

The losing streak ends at one, and everything I wrote yesterday came to pass save a Utah defeat.

I’ll say it again: the prose makes me happier than the win. Which explains why I’m writing rather than actually wagering.

I’m now 14-1 when taking points, and my dogs aren’t dogs–they’re dark horses, having sprung 7 upsets in 15 attempts.

While watching last night’s comfortable wager, I was tempted to jump on a couple of early Wednesday lines: Sacramento getting 12.5 at San Antonio, and the Golden State Warriors, at home, getting 7.5 versus the laconic Lakers. All four teams played Tuesday, so the draws were young legs against old, and superior squads conserving energy.

This morning, unfortunately, those lines have dropped two points each, and now the only temptations are Washington getting a preposterous 11.5 points at Indiana, and a rested New Orleans giving 2.5 at home to Houston.

I can’t see risking $150 on Washington playing well for a fourth consecutive game, particularly in a back-to-back after a flight to the Midwest, and especially because Andray Blatche is involved.

And while I suspect that New Orleans will win easily, there’s no way of knowing whether Houston is desperate or dispirited after last night’s Sacto debacle. The risk of the former could make 2.5 a good line, and the wager a coinflip.

So no bets tonight, and perhaps none for tomorrow’s two-game NBA slate, unless one of the Thursday’s early lines makes no sense. All I know is that next time I see an early line that doesn’t make sense, I won’t hesitate.