The concept of “tanking” in the NBA is sometimes misconstrued. Coaches coach to win, and players who take the court are nearly always motivated to play well and win — for reasons of both personal pride and future earnings. Oftentimes, though, those decisions aren’t totally in their control, particularly during the second half of the season.
Tanking, in other words, is an organizational approach. Because of that, tanking may not always sit well with coaches and players, but it nonetheless can lead to many betting opportunities over the stretch run of the campaign.
There are myriad ways to bet against tanking teams. Although, as noted above, players continue to give effort in tanking scenarios, the organizational factors are just so typically stacked against success that even total individual motivation is frequently overrated by oddsmakers.
For evidence, consider the following: Since 2005, teams that have won less than 30% of their games (a fair classification of “tanking”) have covered just 46% of the time after the All-Star break against teams that have won at least 48% of their games, according to Bet Labs Sports. That’s a sample of over 800 games.
Those numbers have held this year. Cleveland, Minnesota and Golden State – the three teams with sub-.300 winning percentages – are a combined 7-11-1 ATS (39%) since the All-Star break. That may be a small sample size, but expanded to all games since Jan. 1, those bottom-feeding teams are a mere 32-48-1 (39.5%) ATS. That includes a 16-27-1 ATS record (37%) against teams with a .480 winning percentage or better. Between the historical data and the anecdotal returns, it’s clear there’s value to be had by fading tanking teams in those spots.
Another angle worth considering is to bet against tanking teams playing at home off a win late in the season. Teams in that situation boast a sub-40% cover rate over the past 10 years, which is to say value can often be found on playoff-contending road favorites. In those scenarios oddsmakers are typically unwilling to go as far as they should number-wise on a home underdog — particularly when that team is coming off a win, as sportsbooks are well aware of the public’s penchant for recency bias.
The deeper a season stretches, the wider the gulf between the haves and the have-nots generally becomes — in terms of talent as well as motivation. That’s a recipe for opportunities that smart handicappers can take advantage of.