How to bet smart on NBA players

Russell Westbrook
Photo: Sue Ogrocki / AP

In every NBA playoff game, some Las Vegas sports books offer propositions on how many points several individual players on each team will score. Gamblers have the option of betting “over” or “under” the posted total. When analyzing these props, I like to examine the defense of the opposing team—specifically, how many points a game it allows compared with the NBA average.

As an illustration, let’s consider the line on Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook in Game 4 of the Nuggets-Thunder series Monday. Gamblers in Las Vegas could bet on whether Westbrook would score more or fewer than 21.5 points. Westbrook was facing a Denver defense that allowed 102.7 points a game this season, more than 3 percent higher than the league average. This led me to believe Westbrook would tend to amass more points than usual in the game.

Westbrook scored an average of 21.9 points a game this season. In making my prediction, I increased that total by 3 percent, or 0.7 points. That’s not an insignificant amount, by the way. As in nearly all forms of sports betting, wagering on individual player props is a game of inches. Even a half-point carries a lot of weight. My projection of 22.6 points for Westbrook put me on the “over.”

In the same game, oddsmakers set a line of 10.5 points for Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka. Considering Ibaka scored 9.9 points a game this season and was facing a Denver defense that allows more points than average, I would make the line about 10.2, so it was “under” or pass for me here. Hypothetically, I would have bet Ibaka “over” 9.5 points if I had the opportunity.


Haney appears Mondays on The Chris Andrews Show, ESPN Radio 1450-AM, Reno. Connect with him at

Of course, savvy bettors will also incorporate factors such as the expected pace of a game and potential lineup shuffles into their predictions. Emphasizing the opposing defense, however, is an excellent starting point that can yield a strong baseline projection. Incidentally, Westbrook went over with room to spare (30 points), though Ibaka did, too (13).

Of this year’s 16 NBA playoff teams, only the Knicks allowed more points a game, relative to the league average, than the Nuggets. In predicting the performance of individual players as the NBA playoffs progress, bettors should play close attention to the following teams: The Celtics allowed 8.5 percent fewer points than the league average; the Bulls allowed 8.3 percent fewer points; the Magic allowed 5.8 percent fewer points; the Hornets allowed 5.5 percent fewer points.


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