Odds are, Lakers are everyone's favorite team in Las Vegas

Jan 22 2011 - 5:47pm

LOS ANGELES -- Picture yourself in Las Vegas last Sunday. Money was burning a hole in your pocket as you walked by the sports book and noticed the Los Angeles Lakers were a six-point favorite over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Defending NBA champion against the league's longtime laughingstock. Kobe Bryant versus the kid, Blake Griffin. Easy money, right?

Oops. Final score: Clippers 99, Lakers 92.

Continuing the city's longtime ability to sabotage bettors' grand dreams, Las Vegas sports bookmakers have been buoyed this season because the Lakers, the most popular NBA team to bet on, have a 19-24-1 record against the point spread.

"We are a Lakers town, far and away. Every time the Lakers play, it's our biggest decision on the NBA board," said Jay Kornegay, director of the Las Vegas Hilton Race and Sports book. "You should hear the talk when the Lakers are playing."

A typical conversation, he said, is as follows:

Lakers' bettor: "The Lakers are going to kill them!"

Another bettor: "But they're favored by 16 points."

Lakers' bettor: "Doesn't matter, they'll win by 25."

"The overconfidence is hilarious," Kornegay said. "The true Lakers fans have been blinded by the team's (past) success."

Bookmakers establish point spreads not only by considering who bettors believe will win the game, but by equalizing the attractiveness of both teams in competition.

For example, instead of labeling Sunday's NFC championship game in Chicago a pick-'em between the surging Green Bay Packers and the home team Bears, when home teams usually are made three-point favorites in tossup games, Las Vegas books have Green Bay listed as a 3 1/2-point favorite. Why? To make the herd of Packers lovers balk before loading up and to inspire increased action from Bears fans and more neutral gamblers.

The Lakers draw heavy betting traffic in part because they play more than half of their games late in day in the Pacific time zone, which only deepens the interest in the gifted assemblage of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest.

Winning gamblers see the chance to increase their day's profit by wagering on the final NBA game of the night, while losers get the opportunity to climb out of their hole by betting on the wisdom of 11-time champion Coach Phil Jackson.

Yet, even as the Lakers won six of seven games during a stretch in January, they were only 3-3-1 against the spread, and they've nose-dived into this week with losses to the Clippers and at Dallas.

"It's almost a natural to shade them by a half-point more, you know so many people will be betting them," said Jay Rood, MGM Resorts race and sports book director. "I can't get too cute, though, because the sharp players will come in and put me in a spot."

Granted, betting action on the NBA is far less substantial than NFL gambling, Las Vegas bookmakers say. A typical NFL Sunday in October could generate $2 million in bets at MGM Resorts, while a routine NBA Saturday will produce about $200,000 in bets, Rood said.

Overall, the NBA season generates about 25 percent of what the NFL season produces at the Hilton, Kornegay said.

After the Lakers, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are the most popular teams for gamblers, although Miami started out this season just 20-21-2 against the spread, while Boston was 19-19-2, according to the website covers.com.

Boston has also created some worries in Las Vegas because the Celtics were listed as high as 15-1 off-season underdogs to win the NBA title before sprinting to a 31-9 record through Monday. The Celtics are now listed at 5-2 to win the NBA championship in June, about the same as the co-favorites, the Lakers and Heat.

Rood said the Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have also drawn first-half traffic with their good starts, though Orlando started 18-22-1 against the spread.

Yet, beating the spread doesn't guarantee that teams will beat their opponents.

Through Monday's game, the New York Knicks had the best record beating the point spread, at 25-14-1 against the Las Vegas number, followed by the Spurs' 25-15-1 mark -- and both teams are having strong seasons. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers had the third-best record against the spread, 24-15-1, with the Memphis Grizzlies fourth at 24-16-1, and both teams have losing records.

That helps explain why sports gamblers don't have NFL-like enthusiasm for the NBA.

"It's my least favorite sport to bet," said Greg Mascio, a professional poker player from Orange County and Las Vegas. "It's bad viewing. You have a 31-25 game in the first quarter and the spread is two (points), it doesn't mean a thing. The cliche that the NBA struggles with -- that you only need to watch the last two-to-three minutes of the game to know what's going on -- is true in gambling.

"It really usually does come down to the end."

Kornegay said the Hilton team considers NBA point spreads set by offshore Internet gambling destinations like pinnacle.com, and factors in well-known betting patterns like going against a team coming off a huge showdown game or an intense overtime contest.

Bettors like to gamble against an NBA team playing back-to-back road games coming off a victory, or against teams stuck on a long trip, Kornegay said. His Hilton team also monitors Twitter to see if any NBA players are experiencing sickness or travel problems, and they also factor in the first home game after a long trip.

"Catching up with the family, finally seeing the girlfriend after a long while -- that could affect things," Kornegay said.

All that said, the Clippers' upset of the Lakers on Sunday isn't going to alter betting patterns.

Rood was asked if the Clippers' recent 11-4 run with victories over the Heat and Lakers would shorten their odds of winning a first NBA title.

"Nah," Rood said. "I'm keeping them at 250-1."

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