Higher scoring in NBA, NHL forces sports betting markets to adjust

AP photo by Ron Schwane / Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell shoots as Zach LaVine defends for the Chicago Bulls on Monday night. Mitchell scored 71 points in 50 game minutes, and the Cavs won 145-134 in overtime.
AP photo by Ron Schwane / Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell shoots as Zach LaVine defends for the Chicago Bulls on Monday night. Mitchell scored 71 points in 50 game minutes, and the Cavs won 145-134 in overtime.

LAS VEGAS — The recent rise in NBA and NHL scoring has caused the betting markets to respond in kind, posting totals that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

NBA teams were averaging 113.8 points a game this season through Thursday. That is the highest figure since the 1969-70 season, when the average was 116.7, but it does follow a greater trend.

Scoring averages have surpassed 110 points for five straight seasons after not hitting that mark since 1985-86, when the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets were the dominant teams and led by multiple players who would wind up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

According to SportRadar, NBA games this season have gone over the Las Vegas betting totals 51.5% of the time, the second-highest rate since the website began tracking such trends in the 2012-13 season.

The totals are the number of expected combined points in a game, and bets are placed on whether that actual number will be lower or higher. Sportsbooks try to even out the betting as much as possible because the closer to 50% wagering on each side, the increased chances of ensuring a profit. Each bet carries a charge, or what is commonly referred to as the vig.

Chris Andrews, sportsbook director of the South Point in Las Vegas, said the lowest total for Wednesday's NBA games was 229. He said that wouldn't have been so unusual in the mid-1980s, but it is more eye-opening now.

"The game's in a constant flux, and every game's in a constant flux," Andrews said. "That's part of our challenge. It's been that way forever for bookmakers and for bettors, too."

As team scoring averages have risen, so have individual ones. Each night, it seems, someone is scoring 50-plus points.

Just last Monday, the Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson scored 54 points only to be overshadowed by the 71 that Donovan Mitchell put up for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Luka Doncic scored 60 points for the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 27, one of three performances in a five-game stretch when he had 50 or more points.

When it comes to 50-point games, there were 14 in the NBA this season through Thursday; for 40-point games, the number was 90.

The breakout of player scoring has affected proposition bets in which individual matchups often are wagered. Andrews said those wagers are adjusted similarly to team ones.

A similar upswing is taking place in the NHL.

Through Thursday, teams were averaging 3.17 goals a game this season, the highest number since 1993-94, when the figure was 3.24. It's not much different from last season, when the average was 3.14, and this is the fourth time in five years the figure is north of 3.0.

But until this current stretch, the average was less than 3.0 for 12 straight seasons.

"Every game's a 6 or higher," Andrews said of Wednesday's action. "Last year or so, that would be pretty rare to have every game on the board 6 or higher. We occasionally had some 4 1/2s at times. But I can go back to the '80s when we had 8 to 9s when (Wayne) Gretzky was playing."

Minnesota-based Alex B. Smith, one of the nation's top NHL handicapping experts, said the number of high-skilled players is the primary reason more pucks are going into the net. He cited the depth scoring for the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers as primary examples.

"You have more offensive players in those third and fourth lines," Smith said of the league in general. "More offensive defensemen, guys like Cale Makar (of the Colorado Avalanche), for example. The goaltenders, as great as they are, they've made their pads smaller.

"They're calling more cross checks. They're calling more goalie interference. You've got a lot of teams where they run plays where they're screening the goaltenders. All those things are factors in the higher scoring."

Now that teams are back into a more regular rhythm after the Christmas break, he noted scoring already has picked back up after a short holiday lull.

"This is the new norm for sure," Smith said. "Sixes and 6 1/2s are going to be the totals for quite some time, and you might even start seeing more 7s because it seems like for the most part defenses tend to wear down over time."

The high-scoring College Football Playoff semifinals fall in line with the recent scoring trend, too. No. 1 Georgia beat No. 4 Ohio State 42-41 in one semifinal last weekend, and No. 3 TCU won the other one 51-45 over No. 2 Michigan.

The betting total for Monday's national title game is 62 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. That's also the consensus number at Las Vegas sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

Though the overall scoring trend in college football this season wasn't higher than in recent years, it does follow the general pattern of where offenses have gone in the sport.

"I remember when I first started (in 1979), most college football totals would probably be in the 40s -- 45, 47 maybe," Andrews said. "Now you almost never see it like that. Most totals are at least in the 50s."

The challenge for sportsbook directors and bettors is identifying what is a small sample size compared to a general trend. What's happening in the NBA and NHL appears to fall more in the latter category.

The Gold Sheet's Bruce Marshall said in a text message that gauging how the increased scoring is making a difference in betting patterns, however, is difficult to measure.

Wrote Marshall: "I do not think it has increased betting volume overall."