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NBA Unders Keep Cashing. What’s Going on Here?

The NBA season isn’t even two weeks old, but one clear trend has emerged: Unders are paying out at a high rate.

The NBA made headlines this offseason when it made a much sought-after promise to limit the number of fouls that came as a result of “abnormal” basketball moves. The public — and apparently players, coaches and the league office — had grown tired of players baiting others into fouls by the hook of the arm or the flail of the head.

There were obvious culprits to such acts, and they’ve paid the price in 2021. As promised, referees have ceased calling so many of these unnatural fouls. In two well-documented cases, James Harden and Trae Young have made significantly fewer trips to the free throw line than we’re accustomed to seeing.

Harden has attempted 8.7 free throws per game over his long career, and took 7.7 on average for the Nets in 2020-21. He’s shot just 12 through five games so far this season. Young, who averages 7.4 free throw attempts per game for his career and took 8.7 last season, has taken just 22 in his five contests.

This is part of the reason why offense is down so far in 2021-22. Last season, teams scored 111.8 points per 100 possessions, on average. Entering play on Thursday, that number was 108.7 per 100 possessions.

“Free throws are down with a drastic decrease in three-point fouls, which are at their lowest rate since since 2012-13,” said Raheem Palmer, an NBA handicapper and writer at The Action Network. “Just from watching on a nightly basis, it feels like we’re also seeing a decrease in continuation fouls called.”

With that decrease in points has come an increase in money won by betting the under. After the over went 1164-1118-30 last season, it’s just 54-86 so far in 2021-22. That is a drastic change, and one which bettors have noted.

Six of the seven games on Friday’s NBA card had taken more money on the under than the over at the DraftKings Sportsbook, which has been a common trend. Four teams had seen every one of their games finish under entering the weekend: Brooklyn, Dallas, Houston, and Minnesota. Bettors have been cashing in nightly, so why stop?

Well, there is the possibility that this is all a mirage.

“It might be a little too early in the season to read much into the trend of unders winning at a high rate based on the rule changes, since fouls per game doesn’t appear to have changed much from last year across the league,” Matt Meiselman, a content specialist at DraftKings Sportsbook, told Boardroom. “Scoring and scoring efficiency are down a bit though, so it’ll be interesting to see if that continues throughout the rest of the NBA season.”

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Indeed it will; the house has historically found a way to even things out, so it promises to be fascinating to follow along with whether lines start falling or if scoring picks up. One thing has remained constant, though: The sportsbooks haven’t seemed to budge yet on their projections.

Palmer shares Meiselman’s sentiment that a wait-and-see approach is needed.

“Oddsmakers always adjust to league-wide trends, but I do believe that we will see scoring regress to the mean as we should see an increase in three point shooting percentages,” he said. “Typically, Offensive Ratings are lower towards the start of seasons and climb as the season goes on, so we should see an uptick in overs as soon as players start to find their rhythm and get their legs under them. This early in the season, back-to-backs and three-and-four night stretches can be tougher on players.”

There seem to be just as many arguments for the under trend continuing as there are for scoring picking up. Here and now, however, we can make one claim with confidence: the under has ruled the 2020-21 NBA season to this point.