There are a lot of numbers and terms that probably aren’t going to make a lot of sense at first glance, so we will attempt to simplify and clarify as much as we can. You will need to learn how to read standard NBA odds like point spreads and totals (over/unders), but you also need to learn about the other types of NBA wagering that could be available to you.
How to Read NBA Odds
The most common types of odds you’ll run into for the NBA are point spreads and over/unders (also called totals) and we will cover them extensively. We’ll also look at some less common bet types like money lines, teasers, parlays, props, and futures.
Let’s start by breaking down the pieces of a typical point spread on a hypothetical NBA game.
A rotation number is a unique number given to every team to make them easy to identify when placing a wager. They help to avoid confusion when making a face-to-face wager at a sportsbook or placing a bet over the phone. For example, if you wanted to bet $100 on the Lakers at a sportsbook you would say you wanted $100 on 501 +5, not $100 on the Lakers +5.
If you are placing your wager on an online sportsbook, you do not really need to know the rotation number, but at least you will know what it is when you see it.
Keep in mind that rotation numbers are updated daily, meaning teams won’t always have the same identifying number.
This is pretty obvious, but after the rotation number you will see the name of each team in the matchup. Typically, the first (top) team listed is the visiting team, while the second (bottom) team is home team. In our example, the Lakers are playing the Bulls in Chicago.
Next to each team’s name you’ll see either a positive number or a negative number (or PK, see Pick ‘Em below) – this is the point spread. A negative number represents the favorite in the matchup. In the example above, the Chicago Bulls -5 indicates that the Bulls are favored by 5 points. This is sometimes referred to as “giving” points, e.g. the Bulls are giving 5 points to the Lakers. The favorite in a matchup must win the game outright by more than the listed point spread (or the exact point spread, see Push below).
A positive number represents the underdog in the matchup. In our example this is the Lakers +5. This is sometimes referred to as “getting” points, e.g. the Lakers are getting 5 points from the Bulls. The underdog must either win the game outright or lose the game by less than the point spread listed. For example, if the Bulls won by a final score of 104-100, a bet on the Lakers +5 would be a winner because they only lost the game by 4 points.
Pick ‘Em: Books do not usually post +0 or -0 point spreads, instead these games are listed as “Pick ‘Em’s”, represented by “PK” or sometimes as “Even”. For example:
503 New York Knicks PK -110 504 Detroit Pistons PK -110
503 New York Knicks Even -110 504 Detroit Pistons Even -110
These all mean the same thing: there is no point spread on the game and you are simply betting on who will win the game outright.
Push: A push occurs when the result of the game lands exactly on the point spread. Using our Lakers/Bulls example from above, if any final score were to have the Bulls win by exactly 5 points, bets on either side of the game would be nullified. This is called a push or “no action”.
The vigorish, sometimes called just the vig, also known as the juice, the take, or the cut is the amount charged by the bookie for taking a bet. This is displayed as a number directly after the point spread and is sometimes listed in parentheses. The vig is probably the part of the odds that is the hardest to understand if you aren’t familiar with it, but once you understand the concept behind it, it becomes much easier to read.
Most of the time the vig is going to be a negative number (see money line bets below for an explanation of a positive vig). The standard for most books is -110. What does -110 mean? There are a few different ways to look at it. A negative vig would be the amount you would need to wager in order to win $100. At -110 you would need to wager $110 in order to win $100. Another way to look at it is as a percentage. This would mean you need to bet 110% of the amount you want to win, or that you need to add 10% to the amount you want to win in order to place the bet. This translates to any vig, at -120 you would pay a 20% premium on your bet, e.g. you need to risk $120 for every $100 you wanted to win.
Why does the vig get adjusted? Books will sometimes shade a line by adding additional juice in lieu of moving the line. The motivation for this isn’t always clear, however, it’s a good bet that the vig has been moved in order to mitigate risk because of a large number (or amount) of bets on one side. For example, if a large number of bets are coming in on the Lakers +5, instead of adjusting the line to +5.5 or +6, the book might simply make new bettors pay a premium to bet the Lakers by adjusting the vig from -110 to -120.
Yet another way to calculate the vig is to convert it to a decimal by simply dividing by 100. You then take that decimal and multiply it by the amount you want to win to get the amount you need to risk in order to win that amount. Here’s the simple formula:
(Vig/100) x Desired Win Amount = Risk Amount
If you have a standard vig of -110 and a bet in multiples of $100 this is easy to calculate as 10% (or $10) for every $100, but let’s say you have a non-traditional vig and wager amount. We’ll use a vig of -115 and a desired win amount of $75.
(-110/100) = -1.15 -1.15 x 75 = -86.25
This tells us that if we want to win $75 on a game with a vig of -115 we will need to place a bet in the amount of $86.25.
On the flip side, if you just want to know what your payout will be at a certain vig for a certain bet amount, you can use a similar formula of:
Wager Amount / (Vig/100) = Win Amount
This time we will say we have $225 to wager on a game with a vig of -125.
(-125/100) = -1.25 225/-1.25 = -180
This shows us that a bet of $225 at -125 will pay out $180.
The vig is what gives the book their edge. Think about it this way: if books can take 50% of bets on one side of a game and 50% of bets on the other side of the game at -110, they are guaranteed to profit. It’s simple math. For the example we’ll bring back the Lakers/Bulls game from above.
The book takes 100 bets on the Lakers +5 -110 to win a total of $1,000 ($1,100 wagered)
The book takes 100 bets on the Bulls -5 -110 to win a total of $1,000 ($1,100 wagered)
Let’s say the Bulls win by 10 points. All of the Bulls wagers would need to be paid out, a net loss of $1,000, however, the Lakers bets are all winners for the book, plus they get to keep their 10% vig, $1,000 + ($1,000 x 10%) = $1,100. The book lost $1,000 on the Bulls but “won” $1,100 on the Lakers, a profit of $100. This is hypothetically the best-case scenario for a book because it eliminates all of their risk. Because the betting market is imperfect, books don’t take a full 10% cut of all of the action they take, but they do average around 7%, which is a pretty hefty return.
Over/Under (Total) Bets
A total or over/under is a number set by the sportsbook to represent the total number of combined points in a game. A bet on the total can be either an over bet or an under bet. With the over you are betting that the total amount of points will be more than the set number, while a bet on the under is betting that the total points scored will be less than that set number.
The over/under for the game is usually listed long side the point spread, though it can vary from book to book. Here are a few examples of what you might see:
Some books list the over/under separately to show the vig on both sides of the total:
501 Los Angeles Lakers +5 -110 Over 200.5 -110 502 Chicago Bulls -5 -110 Under 200.5 -110
Others list only the favorite for the point spread and the total where you would expect the underdog to be listed:
501 Los Angeles Lakers 200.5 -110 502 Chicago Bulls -5 -110
The total here is set for 200.5 points. Let’s say we have a final score of Lakers 101, Bulls 105. The total number of points scored adds up to 205. All bets on the over would be winning bets (205 > 200.5), while bets on the under would be losses since more than 200.5 points were scored.
Money line bets remove the point spread, giving the option to simply pick the outright winner of the game at an adjusted vig. The bigger the point spread, the more you will have to pay in juice on the favorite, and the more you have the potential to win if betting on the underdog. Let’s take a look at an example.
501 Los Angeles Lakers +220 502 Chicago Bulls -235
Just like with point spreads, the team with the positive number is the underdog and the team with the negative number is the favorite in the matchup. The vig on the favorite is calculated the same that it would be on a point spread. Here’s how you would calculate a bet to win $150 on the Bulls money line:
(-235/100) = -2.35 -2.35 x 150 = -352.5
As you can see, you pay a steep premium for taking the favorite. You would need to wager $352.50 on the Bulls to win outright in order to win just $150.
A bet on the underdog is calculated a little bit differently. The formula for calculating payouts on the underdog looks like this:
Wager Amount x (Underdog Vig/100) = Payout Amount
So, if we took the Lakers +220 for $150, we’d see:
(220/100) = 2.2 150 x 2.2 = 330.0
Since the Lakers aren’t supposed to win, you are paid more for accepting that risk. In this case a $150 wager would win you $330.00 if the Lakers were to win the game outright.
A parlay is a group of bets made together for a multiplied payout. The catch is that all bets in the group must win or the entire wager is a loss. Payouts (as well as risk) increase with the number of teams included in the parlay. Here is an example of standard parlay payouts:
These would be the standard expected payouts from a sportsbook (in this case, Bovada) if all bets listed were at the typical -110 vig. Payouts would be adjusted according to different vigs. This tends to get complicated as far as calculating a payout on your own, so we’d recommend using a parlay calculator to make life easier.
Now, using the table above let’s look at a $100 3-team parlay. If all teams win, you get paid a whooping 5.958 times your bet, $595.80 for a $100 wager. With any other outcome, your parlay would be considered a loss, whether you go 2-1, 1-2, or 0-3.
If one (or more) of the games in your parlay pushes, the typical result is to simply payout the parlay like that game was not included. For example, if you bet a 3-team parlay and won two of the games and pushed the other, you’d be paid out like you won a 2-team parlay.
A teaser is similar to a parlay in that it is a group of bets and all games much win, however, with a teaser bet you buy additional points on the point spread at the cost of a discounted payout. Books offer teasers at slightly different odds, but a typical NBA teaser is for 4, 4.5, or 5 points. Many books do offer extended teaser options, but these are the most common. Payouts are based on how many teams are included and how many points you buy. Here is the payout table at Bovada, which is similar to what you will see at most books:
|Teaser Size||4 Points||4.5 Points||5 Points|
Just like with parlays, these payouts assume the usual -110 vig. Payouts would be adjusted up or down based on the actual juice listed on each game selected.
Now let’s look at an example of a 3-team 4 point teaser. First you would find three games either against the spread or on the total that you would like to tease, let’s suppose we see the following point spreads:
Los Angeles Clippers -8 San Antonio Spurs -6.5 Detroit Pistons +8
Teasing them 4 points would give us 4 points in whichever direction gives us the advantage, so the odds on our teaser would be:
Los Angeles Clippers -4 San Antonio Spurs -2.5 Detroit Pistons +12
From the table above, you’ll see the cost/payout for a 3-team 4 point teaser is +180. This means if all three games win with your adjusted line, you would be paid at +180 odds. For example, a winning $100 bet on this particular teaser would pay $180, while if any team included in the teaser loses, you would lose $100.
Pushes in Teasers
One distinction that books make with their teasers is how they handle ties/pushes. Be sure to check on this before placing a wager so that you know what to expect. If a book uses “ties lose” the payouts are going to be better, but if, say the Clippers win by exactly 4 points and the other two games win, your teaser bet is a loser. If a book uses “ties lose” you might not get as good of odds up front, but in the same situation your teaser would be a winning bet even if the Clippers did win by exactly 4 points and the other two games won. Lastly, some books offer the option called “ties reduce” which simply means that a tie in your teaser would reduce it instead of making it an outright losing wager or winning wager. For example if the Spurs and Pistons won and the Clippers pushed, you’d be paid out like you bet a 2-team teaser instead of a 3-team teaser, so you’d be paid at +100 instead of +180.
Proposition bets, commonly referred to as props, can be wagers on just about anything within a game or series. There are team props and player props, but there are really no restrictions. Anything a book can think up can be turned into a prop. Here are a few examples of props that might be available in the NBA.
NBA Player Prop
John Wall (Wizards) - Total Points Scored Over 18.5 -105 Under 18.5 -125
NBA Game Prop
Hawks vs Nets - Team to Score First Hawks -115 Nets -115
NBA Finals Prop
What Color Sneakers Will LeBron James Wear in Game 4? Red -155 White -125 Black +110
There are certainly situations where betting on props would be fun or even profitable, however, the vig is usually weighted heavily in the book’s favor and there are almost always relatively low limits on the amount you can bet on props.
Futures are just odds provided on future events. In the NBA this is usually the odds to win a division, conference, or the NBA Finals. You might also find odds on awards like Rookie of the Year or NBA MVP. These types of odds can have enormous payouts, but they do keep your money tied up until the end of the season (or at least until the future event you are betting on) and oddsmakers obviously adjust the odds based on how likely a team or player is to win their event.
Futures odds can be listed like money lines or the vig, which we’ve covered extensively, however, they are sometimes expressed as fractions like 10/1 or 4/5. Anything fraction with a “1” as the denominator is easy to read. The payout for these odds is simply your bet amount multiplied by the numerator. For example, a $50 bet on a team at 10/1 would pay $500 if it were to win (50 x 10 = 500). Other fractional odds are a little harder to calculated, but the concept is the same. The easiest way to calculate these payouts is again to use a simple formula to convert the fraction to a decimal. So 4/5 = 0.8, meaning a $50 bet on a team at 4/5 odds would pay $40 (50 x 0.8 = 40).