Betting the NBA playoffs: Should your money be on the 76ers?

Do the 76ers have enough with Joel Embiid and James Harden leading the way? Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Let's start with a trivia question: When was the last time a team seeded outside of the top three won the NBA championship?

Answer: 1995, when the 6-seed Houston Rockets defeated Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic in a four-game sweep.

Ponder that for a moment. Bill Clinton was president of the United States, "ER" was higher in the ratings than "Seinfeld," and Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart the last time a team seeded fourth or lower went on to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Still interested in betting the 4-seed Philadelphia 76ers at 13-1 to win the title?

That certainly doesn't mean it can't happen this spring. After all, when was the last time we witnessed a squad as talented as Kevin Durant's Brooklyn Nets enter the playoffs with such a low seeding? But as we get set to embark upon this magical journey known as the 2022 NBA playoffs, it's at least worth noting that a top-2 seed has won 12 of the past 14 titles, while only four of the past 44 teams to reach the NBA Finals over the previous 22 seasons have been seeded fourth or lower.

Now that I've got your cerebral cortex firing on all cylinders, here are some other angles I like to contemplate every NBA postseason before walking up to the betting window.

19 of the past 20 NBA champions have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency

A tired cliché, no doubt. However, there's wisdom in the oft-repeated "Offense wins games, but defense wins championships" analysis we encounter every year at this time.

It's no secret that scoring has been on the rise in the NBA. During the 2001-2002 regular season, the Dallas Mavericks led the Association in points per game at 105.2. This season, the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked dead last in scoring at 103.9. Totals are routinely closing in the 230s and four clubs (Minnesota, Memphis, Milwaukee and Charlotte) all finished their respective campaigns averaging over 115 points per contest.

But that's the regular season, where ratings are harder to come by. The playoffs have and always will be reserved for the teams that can get stops on a semiconsistent basis as well as in crucial moments.

The seminal moment of Golden State's 73-win season back in 2015-2016? It was LeBron James chasing down and swatting Andre Iguodala with less than two minutes remaining in Game 7 of the Finals with the score tied at 89. Cleveland would go on to win that series thanks, in part, to LeBron's elite defense in that high-leverage situation.

With that in mind, consider the following before placing any futures wagers:

1. Over the past 20 seasons, 38 of the 40 teams to reach the NBA Finals ranked in the top 20 in defensive efficiency.

2. Over the past 20 seasons, 33 of the 40 teams to reach the NBA Finals ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency.

3. Over the past 20 seasons, 21 of the 40 teams to reach the NBA Finals ranked in the top 5 in defensive efficiency.

4. Over the past 20 seasons, no champion has ranked worse than 11th in defensive efficiency (Golden State, 2017-2018).

5. 14 of the past 20 NBA Finals have featured a matchup between two teams that concluded the regular season ranked in the top-10 in defensive efficiency.

2021-2022 Top 10 teams in defensive efficiency

1. Boston Celtics, 106.2
2. Golden State Warriors, 106.6
3. Phoenix Suns, 106.8
4. Miami Heat, 108.4
5. Cleveland Cavaliers, 108.9
6. Memphis Grizzlies, 108.9
7. Dallas Mavericks, 108.9
8. LA Clippers, 109.5
9. Toronto Raptors, 109.9
10. Utah Jazz, 110.0

The Zigzag Theory

In its most rudimentary form, the Zigzag Theory is a wagering strategy in which you essentially bet the opposite of what occurred in the previous game of the series. For example, if Dallas covers against Utah and the total stays under in Game 1 of their upcoming Western Conference playoff series, applying the Zigzag Theory, you'd be inclined to bet the Jazz and the over in Game 2.

Unfortunately, this approach won't turn you a profit over the long haul.

But that doesn't mean the Zigzag Theory is completely useless, either. Instead, you just need to know when to apply it. And when you should apply it comes immediately after an outlier performance.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

It's Game 3 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals and Philadelphia closes -2 at Atlanta with a total of 224.5. Philly wins 127-111, covering the 2-point spread and surging over the closing total by 13.5 points.

So why does this particular game qualify as an outlier worth discussing?

Go inside that Game 3 box score and you'll notice that the 76ers, who shot 47.6% from the floor and 37.4% from 3-point range during the regular season, knocked down an amazing 58% of their shots from the floor and 48% of their attempts from deep in Game 3. That performance was well outside Philly's season average and, thus, indicates that a shooting regression is on the horizon. Meanwhile, Atlanta shot a paltry 26% from deep in Game 3, well below its season average of 37.3%.

So what happened in Game 4? Well, the Sixers closed as a 3-point favorite this time, with the total bumped up to 226.5.

Final score: Atlanta 103, Philadelphia 100.

The Hawks and the under cashed after Philly went from shooting 58% from the floor in Game 3 to just 44% in Game 4, while Atlanta bumped its 3-point shooting from 26% in Game 3 to 30% in Game 4. Nothing too drastic, but enough to swing the outcome in its favor.

The morale of the story? Examine the box scores each night of the postseason in search of outlier performances and then bet on regression, positive or negative, in the following game if the price is right.

Coming home down 0-2

Be careful here. This has been a popular angle in Las Vegas for quite some time, which means the bookmakers have caught on and begun shading their point spreads. As a result, the value in these opportunities has been reduced, if not depleted entirely.

The situation in question refers to a team down 0-2 in its playoff series coming home to host Game 3. The angle is that you should place a first-half wager on the home team down 0-2 because they are desperate and have the benefit of a supportive crowd on their side against an opponent that might be fat and happy up 2-0 in the series. As a result, the home team down 0-2 in the series will ride the crowd's energy, as well as their own desperation, to a fast start.

Of the 15 playoff series that took place last spring, nine featured a team down 0-2 coming home to host Game 3. In those nine instances, the home team covered the first-half spread in Game 3 five times. The most notable example of this angle came in Game 3 of the NBA Finals when the Milwaukee Bucks, down 0-2, obliterated the Phoenix Suns by 15 points in the first half of Game 3 en route to a 120-100 victory.

A prime example of this angle blowing up in our faces occurred in Game 3 of Milwaukee's opening-round series against Miami during that same postseason. The Bucks jumped to a 2-0 series lead, flew to Miami for Game 3 and beat the brakes off the Heat by 13 points in the first half en route to a 29-point victory. Like I said, this angle cashed in five of nine instances last spring. You can't win them all.

While not as valuable as it used to be, this is still an angle worth monitoring. Especially if some projected regression is in the forecast because of a Game 2 outlier.

Game 1 unders in the opening round

Scoring has risen in each of the past four regular seasons. Scoring has also risen in each of the past four postseasons. What's worth noting, however, is the dip in scoring that takes place when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin:

2021: 224.2 PPG regular season
2021: 220.6 PPG playoffs

2020: 223.6 PPG regular season
2020: 219.1 PPG playoffs

2019: 222.4 PPG regular season
2019: 215.4 PPG playoffs

2018: 212.7 PPG regular season
2018: 208.9 PPG playoffs

Over the past four years, there has been an average of 220.7 points per game scored during the regular season. During that same time span, the average points per game during the playoffs has checked in at just 216, a significant decrease of 4.7. This is to be expected as teams play more inspired defense during the playoffs and, over the course of a seven-game series, get to know each other so intimately that they have an easier time getting stops on the defensive end of the court.

Where this can benefit us from a betting perspective, however, is in Game 1 of the opening round, when we're all still in that "regular-season frame of mind." The books are still hanging high totals because the public is still on the over train, so outside of sharp money, there might not be a good enough reason to post a lower total. Here's how unders have fared in Game 1 of the opening round over the past four years, the same time frame as discussed above:

2021: 5-3
2020: 4-4
2019: 8-0
2018: 4-4

Grand total: 21-11 to the under

That's a significant profit, albeit due to an incredible unders run during the 2019 postseason. The big takeaway here should be that when blindly backing unders, the worst-case scenario over the past four years has been lost juice, while the best-case scenario has been a clean sweep financial windfall.

I don't recommend blindly backing anything. I do, however, recommend at least paying attention to those opening-round Game 1 unders to see if the bookmakers are hanging a higher total than they should be.

Don't bet the Philadelphia 76ers to win the title, the Eastern Conference or anything that requires them to advance past the second round

In all honesty, this is just a reminder to me to stay as far away from this franchise as humanly possible when it comes to betting anything good happening. I'm a born-and-raised 76ers fan and I fell hook, line and sinker for that "Trust the process" garbage. I've stood by this team since birth, but my money is no longer interested in riding shotgun for another playoff implosion.

It has been 21 years since the Sixers made it past the second round of the playoffs, and that was courtesy of the anti-Ben Simmons, aka Allen Iverson. Iverson is a God in my mind. The man strapped the franchise to his under-6-foot frame and carried it to the Finals in 2001, going so far as to upset Shaq and Kobe in Game 1 before losing the series 4-1. That lost series was more enjoyable than anything this current crop of underachievers has produced since they started selling the notion that a lot of losing would lead to winning.

News flash: Build your culture around losing and you shouldn't be surprised when you get really good at -- wait for it -- losing.

That being said, should the Sixers run the table and finally deliver on that "Trust the process" advertising campaign, you can erase this section of the article from your memory and look for me on Broad Street during the parade.