NBA Futures Picks: Our Best Bets for Late-Season Tanking Teams
Getty Images. Pictured (L-R): Jaden Ivey of the Pistons, Jeremy Sochan of the Spurs, Jalen Green of the Rockets.
We’ve reached the point in the season where some teams are gearing up for the postseason push while others are making their off-season plans. This year, the top prize is Victor Wembanyama and some teams are already of the pack in the race to the bottom.
Now that we’re past the All-Star break, our writers Matt Moore, Brandon Anderson and Joe Dellera have focused their attention on teams at the bottom of the standings. They break down their best win totals bets picks for worst record and more below.
Which Teams Are Actually Tanking?
It’s important to establish an answer to this question first. The Western Conference is jumbled we can only gauge the level of interest in each team based on their place in the standings and the makeup of their roster.
Entering the season, the Jazz, Pacers, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder had win totals below 24.5. Fast forward to February and three of those teams had a representative in the NBA All-Star game and have a legitimate chance at the Play-In Tournament.
Our three betting analysts sorted out teams in the lottery range into four categories: hard tanking teams, soft tanking teams, teams on the fence and teams that are going for it.
|Hard Tank||Soft Tank||Wait And See|
|Dellera’s Tankers||Spurs, Rockets, Hornets, Pistons||Jazz, Pacers||Trail Blazers, Raptors, Wizards, Warriors, Thunder, Pelicans, Magic|
|Brandon’s Tankers||Spurs, Rockets, Hornets, Pistons||Jazz, Pacers, Magic||Raptors, Wizards, Trail Blazers, Warriors, Thunder, Pelicans|
|Matt’s Tankers||Spurs, Rockets, Pistons||Hornets||Pacers, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Bulls, Wizards|
Three teams stand out here, which is no surprise. The Spurs, Rockets and Pistons are the bottom three teams in the NBA. With all due respect to their rosters, they might not be able to win more games even if they wanted considering how young they are.
On the other end, our writers all expect three teams — Lakers, Hawks and Timberwolves — to aim for the postseason. Neither of those three teams own their own draft pick this season anyway (you can add the Bulls to that group as well) and each of those three teams made moves at the deadline to win.
The teams in the other two categories will be interesting to watch with so few games left. However, on a night-to-night basis, there will be opportunities to find value on the teams that have been outright bad this season.
One of the PRO Systems available via Bet Labs is called “Fade Tanking Teams,” and it shows that tanking teams — specifically home underdogs — have been overvalued by the betting market.
This system has hit at a 57% rate since 2004, good for a robust 10.8% Return on Investment (ROI). If you had placed $100 on every game over that span, you would be up $8,738.
What makes this system even more compelling is that it is grading against the closing line — which means it’s truly finding an inefficiency in the market. It doesn’t grab a line when there’s a sudden injury; it grades it against the line after the market has readjusted.
How to Bet the Race to the Bottom
Worst Regular Season Record Odds
Odds as of Feb. 22 and via bet365. Click arrow to expand list.
|San Antonio Spurs||+150|
It’s clear at this point that there are four teams alone in the race for the worst record, and the odds for the No. 1 pick flatten once your record is that bad. The worst three teams get an even 14% at the top pick, with the fourth-worst record at 12.5%. The odds for No. 2 pick have even less separation.
On the surface, that means a win is less damaging to one of these bottom four, as much separation as they have from the rest of the NBA. But those extra few percentage points matter, and there’s another thing the team with the worst record gets that’s a bit overlooked — even in the worst-case scenario, they still pick No. 5 at worst. The team with the fourth-worst record could still end up as low as No. 8, and those spots matter too.
If I see how much those little edges add up, some NBA franchise will too and if I have to bank on one franchise making sure they account for every last edge, I’m counting on the Spurs.
Remember when the Spurs started 5-2? I do, because I bet on their then-inflated win total under-26.5 on the Action App. San Antonio has gone 9-43 since that start, a 14-win pace over a full season that would rank bottom-10 all-time.
The Spurs have lost 14 in a row entering the break. They’ve won twice since Jan. 1, and they might be lucky to win twice more. San Antonio ranks last in Net Rating, last in Defensive Rating and just traded their only decent defender, Jakob Poeltl. The Spurs also rank near the top of the league in Pace, a secret stealth tank sauce that ensures more possessions each game for the opponent to be better.
San Antonio has a back-to-back against Houston in early March, the only two games left against teams that don’t want an easy win, and the Spurs will be happy to oblige. This 20.5 win total is a ludicrous number. San Antonio would have to finish 7-16! That’s nearly double the win rate the Spurs have had since that 5-2 start. Throw out that start and a weird three-game win streak from December and it’s more wins than the Spurs had the entire rest of the season!
I’m betting that under 20.5. The Spurs should be incentivized to keep losing to stay “ahead of” Houston for worst record, and I think it’s those two teams since the East teams have easier schedules and are already a couple wins better. I make the Spurs a slight favorite over Houston for worst record, so I like San Antonio at for worst record too (I bet it at +162). I’ll play that as an escalator to the under 20.5.
I’m in lockstep with Brandon here regarding the Spurs. They were already all-time bad and then they shipped off Poeltl at the trade deadline for Khem Birch and picks.
I think they are significantly worse than the Rockets, who have enough talent on their roster to back-door their way into wins with Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, and Tari Eason to name a few.
The Spurs are worse than the Rockets in Adjusted Net Rating with a league-worst mark of -9.6 compared to -8.3 for the Rockets. Additionally, by playing at the fifth-fastest Pace, they invite more possessions, which is not necessarily good for a team that would need fewer possessions to introduce more variance in order to upset some squads down the stretch.
The Spurs have 23 games left, and if they continued to win at their current Pace they’d settle around 19.5 wins; however, as Brandon pointed out, they started the season off scorching hot at 5-2 and then failed to ever recapture that magic. This team is bad, and I think they will be the worst of the worst come the end of the season.
First off, I’m completely with Joe and Brandon on the Spurs bets. I have them significantly worse than Houston in power rating as the worst team in the league and they face Houston multiple times.
But for this one, we take a correlated performance based on the idea that Detroit will shut down its veterans.
Detroit’s best players in on-court Net Rating? Veterans Cory Joseph, Alec Burks, and Hamidou Diallo. Those three players are likely to see some “soreness” over the next few weeks. Detroit put together a winning stretch last season after the All-Star break, but the stakes are much higher and there’s no Cade Cunningham this time.
So what do the Pacers have to do with this? Indiana plays Detroit three times down the stretch. I have Indiana projected to go right at this number at 35.5. Getting three wins more assured because Detroit is likely to be incentivized to lose those games helps.
The Pacers may also pivot to draft positioning, but they need to go 10-13 to get over this number and they’re not so far out of the play-in as to abandon all hope just yet. So we take Detroit to move towards losing and Indiana to benefit from that at +259.
Where to Find Value on Teams in the Middle
The race for the bottom four is a wrap at this point, but we might get a stealth race for the fifth-worst record. Consider the difference of a team finishing 33-49 instead of 38-44. With the standings so congested, that might mean the 10th-worst record instead of fifth.
Now check the lottery odds. The team that got those last few wins at 38-44 now has the 10th-best odds to secure Wembanyama at 3.0%. The team that tanked for those few extra losses is at 10.5% instead.
That’s a 250% increase in odds — huge!
The fifth-worst team has a 21% chance at a top-two pick and either Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson. The 10th-worst team gets just 6.3%, a bigger difference in odds than the team with the worst record has at Wembanyama.
Houston, San Antonio, Detroit, and Charlotte likely finish bottom four in some order, but what teams are positioned to make a push for that fifth-worst record — and how can we bet it?
Allow me to nominate two candidates.
The Pacers have fallen apart after a nice start, winning just three of their last 19 including 2-6 even with Tyrese Haliburton back in the lineup. They have a tough late schedule readymade to pile up losses, especially if they shelve Haliburton with some sort of injury.
I like Indiana’s under 35.5 — they’d have to finish 10-12 to go over that number. They might not even be able to do that if they try to win, and if they tank even a little, it’s a wrap.
I’m fading the Jazz, too. Utah is quietly just 19-28 after its torrid 10-3 start, a 33-win pace. Utah’s defense has totally collapsed and the offense should continue to fall further without Mike Conley and Malik Beasley.
Utah signaled its intentions by trading away Conley, Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt at the deadline. That’s three of its top six with no real replacement, and Lauri Markkanen isn’t good enough to drag this team to the 11-11 finish it would need to hit its win total.
I’ll play Utah under 39.5, and I like the over 11.5-seed even better at +115. Even if a star like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, or LeBron James gets hurt, two of those teams would have to finish worse than the Jazz for Utah to finish as a top-11 seed. Utah has a tough final month schedule too. I don’t see it, and the writing’s been on the wall for awhile.
There’s one other way to fade Indiana and Utah. Most Improved Player almost always goes to a player in the postseason. If the Pacers and Jazz tank, that could bury Haliburton and Markkanen and leave the MIP race open. If you like Oklahoma City, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a great buy at +135.
If you think OKC drops too, that race might be open for a late sleeper.
This may sound ludicrous but the bet is on the number as well as the current team. The Warriors are still without Curry and sit in 9th Place at 29-29 and come out of the All Star break with a back-to-back set against the Lakers and the Rockets.
While they should be able to dispose of the Rockets without Curry, this new and improved Lakers squad should have an edge with the two best players on the Court in LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The problem for Golden State is they have continued to struggle on the road with a 6-22 record compared to 22-7 at home – these splits are not a hallmark of a contending team.
Additionally, we do not have a timetable for Curry, and the Warriors seem committed to resting their players on back-to-backs of which they have three more this season but two within the next 10 days.
At some point, the Warriors presumably expect to flip the switch, but there’s been no indication when that will be and whether or not it will be too late.
The Warriors next games are at Lakers, Rockets, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, Clippers, Pelicans, at Lakers, at Thunder. I think the earliest Curry returns is Feb. 26 vs Minnesota and then Clippers-Pelicans is a back-to-back on March 2 and 3. These are all winnable games if Curry plays, especially with the five-game homestand in the middle; however, those are also some key teams in their hunt for the play-in.
If the Lakers win on Thursday, the Lakers would then sit just two losses behind the Warriors, but the Lakers would be up 2-1 on the season series which is important for tiebreakers in this log jammed Western Conference. I think the Lakers have improved significantly and like them to make the Playoffs (+230).
The second issue is the Thunder are legit. They are 10th in Adjusted Net Rating on the full season but the books are not pricing them as a contender for the Play-In. They currently sit in 10th, but are tied in the loss column with the Warriors. If the Thunder stay in the Play-In, and I expect the Lakers improved roster to make a meaningful push, then the Warriors could find themselves on the outside looking in.
The Thunder are (+240 Bet365) to make the Play in, and that’s a bet for me. They have four games against the Jazz still and they should sweep those for a majority of the reasons Brandon already mentioned.
With Kerr’s insistence on resting his players, and the Warriors seeming agreeability with being in the Play-In that creates exponential risk.
The Warriors are literally almost on the outside looking in right now, and this bet gives us a few outs. Even if the Warriors manage to stay in the Play-In, if they are in the No. 9 vs. No. 10 game they need to win twice with at least one game coming on the road to advance to the playoffs.
The number here is good, and the circumstances should not be pricing the Warriors as the team that won the Finals last season.
Minnesota is … good? I have them projected to finish with 43 wins, a full 2.5 wins over the listed total. They will get Karl-Anthony Towns back, presumably, at some point and even with the strain of reintegrating him, the talent boost alone helps.
Mike Conley is a net positive over D’Angelo Russell in terms of chemistry, leadership, and keeping things organized even if Russell’s age makes him the more talented player right now.
The Wolves have no incentive to tank, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them win a No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup and make the No. 7 seed in the West. Minnesota is 21st in offense and 13th in defense, with Towns presumably returning and despite a whole host of injury issues. They’re well coached. I love the over here.
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