LAS VEGAS — I sit beside handicapper Noah Parker, in the VIP section of the Green Valley Ranch sportsbook, and squirm. It’s nothing Parker says or does, but what we’re about to watch.
The NBA has been completely off my radar for several years. Having witnessed Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J, Bird, Ice Man, Marques Johnson and Jordan, today’s game pales by comparison.
And the product, this season, has been historically underwhelming. Games had been finishing under their designated totals at a 62.3% clip. In the last 30 seasons, ESPN reports, the Under percentage had been between 47 and 52.
For enlightenment, I meet with the 37-year-old Parker, a New York City native and former member of the U.S. Marine Corps who is an ace NBA prognosticator for the Against the Number service.
It’s Nov. 4. We watch Miami, at home, get outscored by Boston 33-9 in the second quarter. The Celtics win 95-78. The game’s Vegas total was 213½.
“Scores have come way back to earth, and people aren’t used to that,” Parker says. “No fouls are being called. Happened quickly.”
Indiana, at home against Miami, scored eight in the third quarter on Oct. 23 but rallied to win in overtime. Even with the extra period, the game finished under by 30 points. The Celtics scored 11 in the fourth against the Bulls on Nov. 1.
Brooklyn scores 11 in the second quarter in Detroit on Nov. 5, when Minnesota nets 12 in the fourth against the Clippers. A night later, Portland tallies 12 in the fourth against the Lakers.
The league’s switch from Spalding to Wilson basketballs is an alleged culprit, and Parker has heard players blame their shooting woes on the new ball.
“There are the rule changes, too,” he says. “The refs are definitely taking it easy with the whistles. We’ve been used to totals in the 230s and 220s. They’ll adjust to 218, 215, even 210.”
That kick that Reggie Miller once employed on the perimeter, to create contact with an opponent and draw a foul, which James Harden and others adopted?
“That’s now an offensive foul,” Parker says. “It’s funny because I used that to my advantage when I played.”
Social media started trumpeting this Under phenomenon Nov. 3. “The numbers are being adjusted on a daily basis,” warned one observer.
That night, seven of 11 games still finished Under, igniting a three-night wave in which 19 of 25 games didn’t hit their totals. That pumped the season Under rate to 64.8%.
Last Saturday and Sunday, at a combined 6-8, it began leveling. On Monday and Tuesday, Unders went 5-6. Six of Wednesday’s 13 games finished Under. Its season percentage dipped to 60.3.
But the dozen squads whose games finished Under most frequently were doing so, through Wednesday, at a 71% rate (92-37-2).
Of those, Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota games were staying Under by ridiculous double-digit averages, their combined rate being 76.7% (33-10).
The Nets (9-3) and Thunder (8-2) play Sunday in Oklahoma City.
Fewer fouls were indeed being called, and it has been an unprecedented silence of the whistles. Through midweek, an all-time NBA-low 18.9 fouls were being called per game.
Game averages of 19.8 free-throw attempts and 15.2 makes represented new basements, too. In the history of the NBA, there had never been fewer than 20 free throws attempted per game in any season.
“The refs are definitely taking it easy with the whistles,” Parker says. “They’re letting them play. It isn’t like the ’80s or ’90s. But fewer fouls equal fewer stops, so it’s a much more fluid game.”
With much clanging of the rims. Never before have games averaged 35.8 three-point attempts, and players’ 34.4% long-range marksmanship is their worst since 1998-99, when it was 33.9%.
It’s a boardwalk carnival game.
Where have you gone, Julius, Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan?
WHICH CLUB, KD?
The NBA hasn’t figured in my wagering schemes since Sunday, March 4, 2018, when Philly was giving a mere 1½ points at Milwaukee, which had dropped four in a row.
I bet the 76ers, confident they were better than the Bucks. Philly led 40-21. In the second half, however, Milwaukee scored 50 of 67 points during a 17-minute stretch and won 118-110. I disowned the league. Kaput.
Parker nods slowly. He doesn’t deal with NBA totals, focusing solely on certain underdog side action.
“I know,” he says. “You can sweat it out until the final two minutes and still lose on a buzzer-beater. And inside those two minutes, an opponent is asking Kevin Durant what club he’s going to tonight.”
Parker does very well. He’s bearish on the Bulls, who won eight of their first 11 games, going 8-3 against the spread, too.
“I didn’t think they’d start that fast,” Parker says. “I’m not knocking them, but I think they’ll regress.”
Bookmakers, he knows, are fine-tuning their totals.
“People have always expected NBA games to fly over totals, with garbage points. For years, there have been so many points scored in NBA games. You know how the sharps will react. If there’s a trend, it’s bound to go the other way.
“If it’s the basketball, maybe they’ll soon get the feel of it. But all this, in the span of one offseason? It’s a bit weird.”
Sources: Basketball-Reference.com and TeamRankings.com were tapped for this article.