How An Officiating Change Altered The NBA Betting Landscape

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It was rumored midseason that NBA commissioner Adam Silver had instructed referees to allow more contact and physicality in an effort to boost defenses. During the board of governors press conference on April 10, Silver shed light on the matter by essentially confirming the change. 

“I think there was a sense earlier in the season that there was too much of an advantage for the offensive players … that was a point of emphasis on behalf of the league.” 

Fast-forward a few months from the midseason shift, and players are publicly disgruntled about the perceived change in enforcing fouls. Additionally, online sportsbooks and bettors have had to reconsider their NBA betting strategies given the officiating implications. 

Players, teams push back on NBA officiating 

Officiating is the last headline that the NBA wants to see during the postseason. However, the league’s biggest star plus a huge-market franchise both complained following their recent Game 2 losses on Monday.  

First, an improbable New York Knicks comeback victory over the Philadelphia 76ers featured a controversial ending. Philadelphia was inbounding the ball to Tyrese Maxey up by two points with 26 seconds left when the Knicks appeared to hold his jersey, causing him to turn the ball over.

New York then knocked down a 3-pointer, leading to the comeback win. As a result, the 76ers reportedly planned to file a grievance with the NBA over the officiating in the first two games. The league’s Last Two Minute Report later showed that Josh Hart should have been called for the foul on Maxey.  

Next, Lakers superstar LeBron James ranted about the state of officiating during his postgame interview following a heartbreaking Game 2 loss. 

“I don’t understand what’s going on in the replay center … [D’Angelo Russell] clearly gets hit in the face on a drive … what’s the point of the replay center … and then I just saw what happened with the Sixers-Knicks game too … what are we doing?” 

James’s frustration with the lack of free throws is far from a one-time occurrence, as the data depicts a steep decline in free throw attempt rate around midseason.  

Free throw change, response by online sportsbooks

Here is some info to consider when looking at this from a perspective of how to bet on basketball. From opening night until Feb. 1, the NBA averaged 0.257 free throw attempts per field goal attempt. However, that plummeted to 0.226 free throw attempts post-Feb. 1. For context, the 0.226 mark would have ranked 28th-best for teams before the apparent officiating change. Offensive efficiency also took a drastic hit, as league average points per game fell from 115.5 to 112.3 across these two periods. 

This scoring decline heavily impacted the under for bettors. According to BetMGM this week, the winning percentage of under bets before Feb. 1 was 50.1%, and it rose to 52.2% after Feb. 1. Although that does not seem like an immense shift, consider the following example:

Blindly betting every under nearly resulted in a profit. 

“Post All-Star break was when totals started to drop. It was not immediate, but we quickly noticed scoring was falling. One of the key factors was free throw rates declining — especially with high-usage guards who initiate contact.”

Betmgm sports trader Hal egeland

For example, Luka Doncic dropped from 9.5 to 7.7 free throw attempts per game, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went from 9.3 to 7.6 free throw attempts per game during the relevant timelines. 

Additionally, the average total fell from 230 points to 225 points after Feb. 1, per DraftKings this week.

Finally, more contact than ever is typically allowed during the postseason, which could further drive down scoring. Have online sportsbooks adequately adjusted to the new landscape? It’s worth noting that the under is 14-5 through the first four days of the playoffs.