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NBA Playoff Betting Picks: Finding the Best Value for the 8th Seed

NBA Playoff Betting Picks: Finding the Best Value for the 8th Seed article feature image

Chris Graythen/Getty Images. Pictured: DeMar DeRozan and Zion Williamson

The NBA season resumption is still nearly two full months away, but now that we know how many games in the regular season remain (eight) and the format for the play-in, we can bet on who’s going to come out of this mess with the 8th seed.

The biggest missing piece of the puzzle, for now, is the schedule. Yahoo! Sports reported last week that the plan is to start the schedule by removing all the teams who are not going to Orlando for the resumption of play. Then you take the next eight games.

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The issue is that some teams will have played eight games before they are due to play a team that hasn’t yet played eight games. There are a number of ways for this to go, but the exact details matter a lot here. So any analysis we do is incomplete because we don’t know what the actual schedule is going to be.

But based on deductive logic and schedule analysis, we can find where the value is on the odds. Let’s get to the numbers.

NBA Playoff Odds and Related Win Percentages


Team Make Playoffs Miss Playoffs Win% vs. .500 and above Win% vs. West 8th seed competitors Win% vs. projected schedule
Memphis Grizzlies -150 +112 .286 .50 .308
New Orleans Pelicans +400 -670 .250 .800 .500
Portland Trail Blazers +450 -835 .323 .375 .308
Sacramento Kings +1100 -10000 .300 .533 .273
San Antonio Spurs +1300 -10000 .367 .500 .556
Phoenix Suns +6000 .250 .412 .273

Now, those odds don’t just include getting the 9th seed and into the play-in vs. the 8th seed — they’re for winning the 8th seed.


Pelicans +400

At first, I thought this number was wild value, but the more I dug, I understood why the Pelicans are 4-1. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected the Pelicans to make the play-in 37% of the time, a majority of the time among all teams. The Grizzlies make the play-in in 90% of those projections.

However, those numbers above explain the circumstances a bit. The Pelicans only beat teams over .500 25% of the time, which is the lowest of any team involved. However, they only play two such teams based on projected schedule. They are scheduled to face Memphis twice, Sacramento twice, the Spurs once and the Magic once (if Orlando is their final opponent, it’s likely Orlando has already clinched 7th or a play-in spot and won’t have anything to play for).

New Orleans went 6-6 vs. its projected remaining opponents. A 4-4 performance gets the Pels to a 44.4% win percentage for the season. That’s better than all but one team (who we’ll get to in a minute) would finish if they performed to that season win percentage vs. their projected teams.

The Pelicans also obviously spent most of their season with injuries to Zion Williamson and key players like Derrick Favors. They were red hot before the suspension, and were projected to win the 8th seed by most models.

The Pelicans also went 2-0 vs. the Grizzlies, specifically. It’s hard to think they’ll be an underdog in a play-in vs. the Grizzlies, and the second matchup may favor Memphis but matchup issues won’t improve without injuries.

Given their schedule, specific matchups, and the Zion factor, +400 (+420 at FanDuel) gets us considerable EV.

Spurs +1300

The Spurs are uninspiring. No one outside of San Antonio wants them in this thing. The league did not construct a play-in structure to get the Spurs in.

But look, we’re getting 13-1 for the team with:

  • The best record vs. teams over .500
  • The only above .500 record vs. their projected schedule
  • Two games vs. the Jazz without Bojan Bogdanovic and who the Spurs went 2-0 against this season.
  • Two games vs. the Pelicans (with a chance to catch them) after winning their only matchup this season

This Spurs team is not good. They are -3.2 in net rating differential with LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor and -2.7 with DeMar DeRozan on the floor. They have positive net ratings without those two on the floor.

But their schedule really is favorable. You’re giving Gregg Popovich just eight games vs. five opponents, three of which are under .500. They don’t play the Lakers, Clippers, or any of the East teams (right now). Their only two non-8th-chaser opponents are the Jazz and Nuggets, the two teams you would take from the top five.

The Spurs are also one game up on the Blazers in the loss column and tied with New Orleans and Sacramento. They’re listed fourth in win percentage but have played fewer games.

This number is just way out of whack.

So what about Memphis (-150)?

This is more about the number. The Grizzlies were faced with teams running at them several times before the season suspension and they managed to walk out of the flames. They were supposed to nosedive out of the All-Star break and after a five-game losing streak to West playoff teams, they got a big win vs. LA and a good win vs. Brooklyn to keep hold of their 3-game lead.

Every reasonable scenario gets them into the play-in. If the Grizzlies go 0-8, you’d still need two teams to go 4-4 or better without any cupcakes on the schedule for them to get edged out.

So they’re going to be in the play-in.

But they have the third-worst win percentage vs. teams over-.500, and they play six of those teams based on the schedule as it stands now. They haven’t gotten a win vs. any of those teams (note: two games are vs. Toronto who they have yet to play this season).

So while I think they make the play-in, there’s a good chance they’re the team in 9th trying to play in. If there’s a tie for the 9th seed, say, with New Orleans? New Orleans is 2-0 already and plays Memphis twice more under the projected schedule. The Pelicans would only need a split to secure the tiebreaker.

Let’s say Portland (which we’ll talk about in a minute), with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back, goes on a tear and goes 6-2 or 7-1 to claim the 8th seed. The Pelicans and Kings have a good chance of owning tiebreaker for 9th, and the Spurs in a tie would have a good chance of squeaking by for the conference tiebreaker.

Then you have the play-in vs. all these teams. A veteran Spurs team, uninspiring as they may be. An offensive dynamo in New Orleans. The feisty Kings. The playoff-tested Blazers.

The Grizzlies have been better than those teams this season. That’s why they’re in 8th with a 3.5 game lead. But in a one-off, should Memphis not secure the 8th seed? That gets dicey in a hurry.

I don’t want to bet against the Grizzlies. If I put their chances of missing the playoffs at 50%, which is generous even with all these factors, I’m only getting +12.5% EV. They have built-in advantages, and a few unpredictable factors (like Toronto being their last two opponents when Toronto may not be scheduled against them and if they are, are likely resting).

But there are enough things going against Memphis here that I don’ t like betting them to win the 8th spot.

The Others

Portland is going to be a sexy pick. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic back healthy. Terry Stotts at head coach. But Portland went 4-9 against its projected opponents. The only team it had a winning record against of those teams was Houston … and we know Houston is better.

We don’t know what condition Nurkic will be in after 17 months away from the court. Collins was important for Portland and definitely hurt the Blazers’ chances this season. But he’s not such an impact player as to drastically redefine their team.

The Kings I want to believe in. The schedule is just simply unlikely to help them. There are softer spots in the schedule, like Orlando and Indiana. But they went 3-8 vs. the opponents they’re slotted to play.

Beating New Orleans in what will likely be their first matchup goes a long way. They face the Pelicans twice. Win both of those games, beat Orlando and Brooklyn (who they went 0-2 against in regular-season play) and they’re already to four wins. Beat San Antonio in their final matchup and that’s 5-3 and they can handle losses to the Mavericks, Rockets, and Pacers.

That’s the model. At +1100, it’s certainly tempting. But I can’t get my head around them overcoming their win profile to the degree necessary. The Kings, like all these teams, are not great vs. teams below .500 either. But their season has very much been defined by one step forward, two steps back. I can’t trust them to get those wins vs. Orlando and Brooklyn.

I was fully prepared to get wild and talk about how the Suns could go crazy and make a run! They play the Clippers, OKC, Dallas, and Miami and don’t have games vs. the teams they’re chasing to make up ground. There’s no value there; they have almost no shot.

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