What Does Spread Mean in NBA Betting?

You’ve probably heard the term “spread” used in sports betting. If you’re wondering what it means exactly, here’s the scoop.

What is the Spread?

Put simply, the spread is the difference between the points scored by the teams competing in the matchup. For example, if the Los Angeles Lakers are playing the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the score is at 110 to 105 in favor of the Lakers, the spread would be 15. (In this case, 15 is the points scored by the Oklahoma City Thunder.)

This difference in scoring is also what gives rise to the word “point” in the phrase “point spread.” (And no, there’s no connection between the two words “point” and “spread.”)

Why Are Teams’ Points Scored in Basketball Matches “Spreads” Instead of “Averages”?

The NBA spreads its contests across two periods: the regular season and the playoffs. During the regular season, games are more competitive, resulting in higher scores. However, the playoffs are where you’ll find the true powerhouses of the NBA, going head-to-head in high-stakes contests for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy once the season ends.

In an effort to keep things interesting for sports bettors, the NBA spreads its games by design. If you take a look at the averages of NBA games during the regular season, you’ll see a very high degree of convergence toward the 50-point mark. In fact, only five games this season have exceeded the 40-point barrier. And of those five games, only one was a playoff game. This is in stark contrast to the 15 or more points awarded in 37% of NBA games this season (including playoffs).

Additionally, consider the following:

  • The spread accounts for underperformance as well as overperformance by subtracting expected points from earned points.
  • Because games are more competitive during the regular season, the spread tends to increase as the season goes on. But this is more of a reflection of the underlying strength of the teams involved than an indication that the games will always be this way.
  • The spread is also useful in helping you handicap a game when matched up against a bookmaker’s oddsmile line or point-spread bet. Sometimes these bets pay out huge prizes. (See the 2015-16 NBA Finals as an example of this practice.)
  • In a nutshell, the spread is the expected point differential between two teams playing

How Does the Spread Work?

When a team scores more points than the other, usually by a large margin, a sportsbook will take its commission off the total bets placed on that game. For instance, if the spread in the 2015-16 NBA season was +12 points, then an NBA bettor would have to pay 12 points in order to win the bet.

This is why negative spreads are so rare in the NBA. In fact, the only time a negative spread has occurred in the last 10 NBA seasons was in 2008-09, when the then-San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics were embroiled in a classic seven-game series that ended in a tie. The next season, the Spurs swept the series. (No, we’re not making this up.)

On the flip side, when the spread is very close to zero, this usually indicates that one of the teams is considerably weaker than the other. For example, in a 2017 NBA preseason game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Dallas Mavericks, the spread was just 2 points, and both teams were playing at less than 100% strength. The underdogs, the Atlanta Hawks were easily able to blow out their more-experienced opponents, the Mavericks, by 45 points. (The full game score was 114-79.)

When Is The Best Time to Place a Basketball Bet?

When you’ve got an edge at the sportsbooks, it’s always a good idea to take advantage of it. Like with most any other sports betting-related question, it really depends on when you make your bet. (Hint: if you’ve got an edge when you bet, it’s probably not the best idea to wait until the last minute to make your bet. This is especially true for NBA games. Remember: the spread changes as the game goes on. So by the time you get to the game, your edge may have disappeared. Of the five games this season that exceeded the 40-point barrier, the three highest-scoring games were all played in the second half, when the spreads were at their widest.

Additionally, consider the following: