The second half of the 2017-18 NBA season is here, which means Las Vegas bookmakers are bracing for the bizarre, but expected, ritual of tanking.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, "Losing is our best option," relaying a recent conversation Cuban had with his staff. The NBA subsequently fined Cuban $600,000 for that public comment.
An NBA-record seven teams are at least 20 games below .500 at the All-Star break. And those seven teams will face one another a combined 17 more times, which is when we may learn the true depths of this year's tanking.
Not only do the current standings have an unprecedented logjam at the bottom, but many experts anticipate a loaded NBA draft, assuming certain underclassmen declare.
"You can probably get five franchise-changing players this year," ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose told host Bob Ley on Outside the Lines this week. "[Tanking is] almost worth it for those teams."
How are Vegas bookmakers preparing for this inevitability in the second half of the season?
'We see it every year'
For many, it will be business as usual, with tanking seen as just another aspect of booking the second half of the NBA season.
"We see it every year," Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook head NBA oddsmaker Jeff Sherman told ESPN. "It's part of being informed of what's going on."
"The NBA is always a headache," William Hill director of trading Nick Bogdanovich said. "Sharper players already have lower limits."
However, this particular stretch might force one bookmaker into uncharted territory.
"It [may] get to the point as weeks go by [where I don't] book those games," Golden Nugget sportsbook director Tony Miller said. He did promise lower betting limits for games involving teams out of playoff contention.
Most NBA fans can rattle off past examples of sketchy behavior by lottery-bound teams, the most common technique coming when a coach or front office executive mandates a key starter's absence for questionable rest or an unspecified ailment.
The gambling edge usually represents a race to that information, sometimes resulting in double-digit line moves right before tipoff. Both oddsmakers and bettors monitor social media of beat writers and national journalists.
"The NBA has always been about information and trying to see who's in and who's out," Bogdanovich said. "It's not like the old days when the trainer or [public relations] guy knew something before everyone. It seems like with Twitter everyone's on a level playing field."
"It's important to follow not only Twitter but Instagram," professional bettor and handicapper Bill Krackomberger noted.
Knowing specific lineups only removes some variables. One must also handicap rotations, effort and other unknowns.
"I don't believe for a second that the players are not giving full effort," professional bettor and handicapper Ron Boyles told ESPN. "But if the coach plays players at the end of games that aren't their best, then that clearly tells you those teams aren't trying to win."
"Every player tries. It's a matter of what product is put out on the floor," Sherman added. "If you look at the trade protections, they incentivize the tanking aspect big-time."
Furthermore, the point spread is the great equalizer. Thus, tanking's true impact on sportsbooks is somewhat neutralized since the line hinges on margin of victory.
"They only need to lose the game, not lose by 100," Bogdanovich said. In fact, sometimes the market corrects too much with the point spread, especially if public bettors exaggerate a bad team's desire to lose.
"I would tend to bet on a team that is getting a boatload of points that is supposedly tanking against a playoff-bound team," Boyles said. "You're getting more points than you normally should."
"It is always scary when you have a human element outside of the information controlling your wager such as tanking," Krackomberger said. "But it has not come back to bite me yet."
The other side of the counter agrees. "Even though you know something might be up, it's not easy booking," Miller said.
Most oddsmakers and bettors claim to be well-equipped for this comical sideshow. But the NBA has a knack for finding new ways to surprise us. After all, no one anticipated a 30-point steam to the under on the NBA All-Star Game, yet the offshore betting market just witnessed that (accurate) move. More history could be on deck.