Let’s face it, the Lakers are going to win the championship, Luka Doncic is going to be the MVP, and nobody else has a chance. Wagering money elsewhere is like using Benjamins as toilet paper.
Right? Well, maybe not.
Lest we forget, two seasons ago LeBron James got injured and the Lakers’ season fell apart. Two years ago, the Golden State Warriors were favored to win it all again. Then the injury bug bit them in the Finals.
Not everything goes as planned.
So take preseason prognostications with a grain of salt when trying to predict what will happen between now and mid-July. There are a bunch of good teams in both conferences who can make trades between now and March 25, so what any team’s roster looks like in late December and what it might look like in April are two entirely different things.
Also, there is the James Harden factor to consider when it comes to picking a championship favorite. If he stays in Houston, the Rockets are not all that bad now that they have a pair of accomplished bigs in DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood. If Harden gets dealt to Miami, maybe bettors will show a little more respect to the team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals last season.
Harden is a huge, huge game-changer if he changes teams, and the fact that he has never won a championship should not be held against him. With the right mix of players, he can emerge with a championship this summer. The big question is, where will he be playing?
So avoid irrational exuberance when handicapping the NBA futures market as Tuesday night’s start of the season approaches. Things change. Didn’t 2020 teach all of us that? And what looks like a sure thing in December becomes a punch-yourself-in-the-head memory by springtime.
With those warnings in mind, let’s look at the two conferences and some of the more popular NBA futures markets.
The Brooklyn Nets are the most wagered-on team at practically every sportsbook – and with good reason. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are finally playing together, general manager Sean Marks has built a team that is two-deep at every position, and Steve Nash will be a player’s coach. Heck, he played against some of these players.
Brooklyn is +600 to win it all just about everywhere, while the Bucks are regarded a bit more strongly with championship odds of +500 to +550. The Nets have taken 23.49% of the bet count in the championship futures market at PointsBet, with the Lakers second at 20.3% and the Warriors (+2500) third at 6.7%, PointsBet spokesman Patrick Eichner said.
Then we have Miami, which took the Milwaukee Bucks apart in the playoffs and did fairly well against the Lakers in the Finals until their lack of experience started to show late in the series. For 2020-21, they lost Jae Crowder but gained Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless. They should be just about as good as they were last season, so their price of +2000 at PointsBet (as opposed to +1500 at DraftKings) is somewhat enticing.
Miami did not make the list of the top three teams wagered-on to win the title at FanDuel Sportsbook, spokesman Kevin Hennessy said – identifying the 76ers (21%), Lakers (15.5%) and Nets (14.7%) as the top three.
The Bucks swapped Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday to appease Giannis Antetokounmpo, but they still have Khris Middleton – who has not shown up in the playoffs for two straight seasons. Their games against the Nets and Heat should serve as regular season litmus tests to see if more changes are needed before the trading deadline.
The Celtics and 76ers remain the best of the rest in the East, but keep an eye on the up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks – who have built a strong young nucleus of Trae Young, Clint Capela and John Collins. Atlanta also went out and added Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo and Danilo Gallinari. If the team meshes quickly, they offer the best value for dreamers – with odds of +10000 at every major sportsbook.
In the player award category, Doncic is the leading MVP candidate with odds that have steadily dropped and are now below 4-1, with Antetokounmpo as the consensus No. 2 choice as he goes for his third straight MVP award. But keep in mind that voters give considerable weight to teams that outperform expectations, and that is where an outlier candidate could have a chance. If, for instance, the Hawks finish with the most wins in the NBA (a +25000 proposition at BetMGM), it’ll likely be because of Young – who is on the board as an MVP candidate at odds ranging from +6000 at DraftKings and William Hill, to +8000 at BetMGM.
Picking an MVP candidate from Brooklyn is tricky because Irving and Durant will split the load, but Jayson Tatum in Boston (best odds are +2600 at FanDuel) and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia (best odds are +4000 at BetMGM) are value picks if either of those teams overachieve and compile the best record in the East.
In the Rookie of the Year race, winning is not as important as exceeding individual expectations, producing monster stat lines, and making Top Plays of the Week. LaMelo Ball of Charlotte is the favorite, mostly because of the lack of a better candidate. But it should be noted that Knicks rookie Obi Toppin has been drawing action, and point guard Immanuel Quickley started for New York on Friday night and was very impressive. He can be wagered at +5000 at DraftKings Sportsbook.
After the offseason they had – adding Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol – the Lakers are rightly the favorites to repeat as champions. If you are looking for someone to minimize their chances, you are looking in the wrong place. They are a beast … and we have seen nothing from the Clippers in the preseason to make us believe they are in the same class.
But as mentioned above, injuries happen. LeBron has a ton of miles on his odometer and it’s a safe bet that he doesn’t play all that much in the regular season. The Lakers may not enter the postseason as the top seed in the West.
Outside of LA, the Denver Nuggets had a 2-1 preseason and won their games by an average of 20.7 points per game, the Utah Jazz went 3-0 and won by an average of 17.6, and New Orleans went 2-0 and won by an average of 18 points.
Of those three teams, the Nuggets are the most highly regarded, with odds ranging from +1600 at FanDuel to +2500 at PointsBet to win the title. Utah is priced between +3000 at most places to +4000 at BetMGM, and Zion and the Pelicans are +7000 at most places but +8500 at FanDuel.
But bettors are still going hard on the Lakers, as was the case last season.
“Last season the Lakers received more handle and bets than any other team – on the way to their 17th championship as a franchise – and this season many bettors are predicting the purple and gold to repeat,” said Johnny Avello, DraftKings’ head of sportsbook operations. “Currently, 37% of handle and 26% of bets to win the NBA Finals are on the Lake Show, the most for any team despite a quick season start turnaround following their deep postseason. A healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have raised the Brooklyn Nets to the second overall rank for championship betting, taking 22% of handle and 15% of bets.”
Perhaps most surprising among MVP odds is how the books see Anthony Davis as more likely to win the award than LeBron, who led the league in assists last season and was quickly gaining ground on Antetokounmpo when the season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Most books have Davis as the third or fourth choice behind Doncic, Giannis and Steph Curry – with BetMGM the only major book to have LeBron (+800) more likely than Davis (+900). Curiously, Zion is priced at +3600 at FanDuel but +6600 at PointsBet and BetMGM.
Eastern Conference rookies are drawing the most wagering interest, especially Orlando’s Cole Anthony after he led all rookies in scoring during the preseason. James Wiseman, the overall No. 2 pick of the Golden State Warriors, has the lowest odds among West rookies – although the Warriors are making bettors fly blind. Coach Steve Kerr did not play Wiseman in any of Golden State’s three preseason games, so the first we may see of the lanky Chris Bosh clone could be at 7 p.m. EST Tuesday night when the Warriors open the season at Brooklyn. He has been practicing with the Warriors’ first unit, but the money is being placed on Ball at FanDuel, with the New Orleans rookie drawing 18.5% of the bet count – more than twice as much as the second choice, Toppin.
Jamal Murray of Denver has overtaken Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Oklahoma City as the favorite to win Most Improved Player, his odds dropping to +1200 at most books with the exception of +1800 at FanDuel.
This is an interesting category for Murray to be a mover, since one would assume he would be among the top MVP candidates following his extraordinary play in the NBA bubble when he went for 50 twice in the playoffs and 40 a pair of other times as Denver became the first team in NBA history to come back from a pair of 3-1 deficits.
This will be Murray’s fifth NBA season, and the expectation that has made him a Most Improved favorite is that his scoring average, which has been 18.2 and 18.5 the past two seasons, will take a quantum leap. The catch here is that what quantifies improvement for one voter may not resonate quite as much with a different voter.
And thus a player such as Christian Wood of the Rockets, who averaged just 13.1 points per game last season playing for his fifth team in five seasons, might make a spectacular leap under Stephen Silas in Houston – starring alongside center DeMarcus Cousins. The best price on Wood is +1400 at FanDuel and PointsBet. DraftKings has taken the most action on Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets (15% of bets at +1600), with Williamson second in handle – 10%.
One interesting Western Conference team in the championship futures market is the Phoenix Suns, who just missed the playoffs after going 8-0 in the bubble.
“While Phoenix had already raised expectations for 2020-21 and opened with a championship line of 70-to-1, the acquisition of ageless point god Chris Paul moved the Suns’ odds down to 40-to-1 at the start of camp,” Avello said. “The presence of Paul, if healthy, should create off-ball opportunities for (Devin) Booker along with lethal pick-and-roll combos with DeAndre Ayton. That has bettors intrigued.”
“Intrigued” is the word of the moment as the season gets set to tip off.
Just remember, what looks like sure thing in December will change multiple times over the course of the season.