When it comes to NBA betting, good teams win but great teams cover. You’ve heard the old adage before, and it’s bordering on cliché in the gambling community.
But there might be another phrase that makes a lot of sense: Achieving teams win; overachieving teams cover.
Let us explain.
The best teams in the NBA aren’t necessarily the best teams against the spread. In fact, in 2018 two of the three worst teams in the NBA against the spread were Cleveland and Golden State. The third was the 48-win Thunder.
So it’s not enough to simply find a winning team and chalk them up as a winner against the spread on a yearly basis.
What we do find, however, is that winning teams who out-perform their preseason expectations find themselves almost always among the league leaders in record against the spread.
Consider: Over the last six seasons, 54 total teams have ranked in the top-9 in record against the spread (good math, right?).
Of those 54 teams, 47 (87 percent) also surpassed their over-under win total that season. Of the nine teams to top the ATS standings from 2013 to 2018 here is how many went over their win total by year:
But the statistic goes even deeper. Remember how winning doesn’t always mean covering the spread?
It does mean covering the spread if a winning team goes over its win total, perhaps unexpectedly transforming from a good to very good team, or a very good to great team.
Of those 47 teams that surpassed their over-under win total and finished in the top-9 against the spread, 39 (83 percent) finished the year at .500 or better.
It makes sense that a team taking the next step in their progression might surprise oddsmakers early in the season. But one would think sportsbooks adjust to a team like last year’s Sixers or Pacers, who wound up topping their over-under win total by 12 and 18 games, respectively.
That wasn’t the case, as Philadelphia finished second in the NBA against the spread (47-34-1) and Indiana third (47-35-0).
And that’s part of the equation here, too. Those 39 teams flew by their preseason over-under win total, winning an average of 9.1 more games than sportsbooks set for them. And of those 39 teams, 29 had an over-under win total of at least 40.
So, while a team like the 2018 Brooklyn Nets won two more games (28) than their over-under win total (26), we’re not as interested in those situations.
The aforementioned Pacers had an over-under win total of 30 and wound up winning 48, a clear outlier. Again, we’re looking for teams expected to be good who far exceed expectations.