The Year of the Underdog is still in full swing. With nearly a month of basketball in the books, underdogs have a staggering 114-89-2 record against the spread this season, according to Odds Shark’s standings. The sample is big enough that it now needs to be addressed. Something is leading to upsets this season, and there’s no clear answer as to what it is.
Home-court advantage is the simplest explanation. Without fans in most buildings, home teams are well below .500 against the spread. There’s been quite a bit of 3-point variance as well, but sample might play into that. No team made more than 38 percent of its 3s last season, but so far in 2020-21, seven teams are beyond that marker. That should normalize, but attempts are up from 34.1 per game to 35.1. The more 3s taken in a game, the less predictable its outcome.
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There is never going to be a definitive answer to this, but as long as underdogs keep winning, they should be the play. Vegas is hesitant to move lines too far in the other direction given the propensity casual bettors tend to have toward favorites, so at the moment, there is a slight inefficiency to be taken advantage of. It will come into play in Thursday night’s first nationally televised game, and in the second, we’ll look into how one of those early-season trends can work in favor of a favorite.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
This is the first time all season that the Lakers have entered a game as an underdog, and the line is justifiably small. Milwaukee’s home-court advantage means very little to a Lakers team that is 7-0 on the road. Milwaukee’s history against teams like the Lakers is fairly checkered. The Bucks are 3-4 against 2020 playoff teams, but none of those wins mean all that much. They beat Miami without Jimmy Butler or Andre Iguodala, Dallas without Josh Richardson, Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber or Dorian Finney-Smith and Orlando without Markelle Fultz or Evan Fournier. So far, Milwaukee’s reputation as a team that decimates bad teams and loses to good ones appears intact.
The Bucks could argue against that given their relatively poor shooting luck in many of those games. The Celtics, Nets and Jazz combined to make 20 more 3-pointers than the Bucks in their three marquee losses, two of which were by a single possession. The Lakers have conversely benefitted significantly from bad opposing shooting luck. Offenses have made only 35.9 percent of their wide-open 3’s against the Lakers this season, the sixth-worst figure in the NBA so far.
But the Lakers allow the fifth-fewest wide-open 3s in basketball, and that’s the lifeblood of Milwaukee’s offense. Between LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol, the Lakers are loaded with so many defenders equipped to take Giannis Antetokounmpo with relatively little help that they can stay at home on Milwaukee’s shooters. This is a matchup they’re well suited for, and coming off a loss against the Warriors in which their poor effort was the story, the Lakers should be plenty motivated to prove a point in this potential Finals preview.
This is a nightmare matchup for the Pelicans. Zion Williamson hasn’t made a shot outside of the paint all the season. The Jazz have Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. The Pelicans are giving up 42.7 3-point attempts per game, by far the most in the NBA. The Jazz are currently ranked third in 3-point attempts and fourth in 3-point percentage. One offense relies entirely on getting inside, and it will have to do so against a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The other offense relies on jumpers that the opposing defense gives up willingly.
We saw this up close on Tuesday when the Jazz crushed the Pelicans by 16 points. This is the rare matchup where variance works out well for the favorite because the favorite relies on it in the first place. They’ve given themselves so much wiggle room with their shooting this season that even a relatively off-night should lead to a comfortable victory in this matchup.