As NBA Weighs Restart Options, Which Playoff Outsiders Are Worth A Gamble?

Written By Chris Sheridan on May 27, 2020

NBA news was pouring in Tuesday as everyone got back to work following the long weekend, with it now appearing a certainty that the season will resume in July.

Before coronavirus shut down most of the United States and the world, the NBA was heading into the home stretch with a nifty race for the eighth seed in the West. Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans and San Antonio all were within striking distance of eighth-place Memphis with roughly 28 games remaining in the regular season.

Now, word is out that the NBA is discussing various forms of play-in tournaments, and the excitement – even if it is only in the abstract – is palpable.

Proposed formats provide opportunity for longshots

The Ringer reported that the league office sent a survey to all 30 general managers asking for their feedback on several different formats to restart the season. One proposal is to replace the first round of the playoffs with a “group stage” in which the 20 teams with the best records would be placed into four groups of five teams. Teams would play two games against each opponent in their own group, and the teams with the two best records from each group would qualify for the second round of the playoffs. Eight teams would advance, and then teams would play seven-game series to determine the champion.

East vs. East and West vs. West would no longer be the norm.

And for those who find leisure in gambling, there are a number of tantalizing choices among the longer shots in the field.

“We are not yet seeing bets come in on outliers, although we anticipate both sharp bettors and recreational bettors will be looking at them once a plan is finalized,” said Patrick Eichner, a spokesman for PointsBet.

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Portland Trail Blazers

Let’s start with the Blazers, who were the most disappointing team in the Association despite the addition of Carmelo Anthony and despite the impending return of Jusuf Nurkic from a broken leg he sustained at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Portland is currently listed at +21000 at FanDuel Sportsbook and +20000 at both DraftKings SportsBook and PointsBet. The Blazers went into the coronavirus break having won three of five with Hassan Whiteside making a case for Most Improved Player of the Year award. And on Tuesday, Damian Lillard vowed that he would not be any part of a charade if the NBA decides to go with a shortened regular season that would cheapen any team’s accomplishments.

“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team. But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that [expletive] in there,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports.

Lest we forget, the Blazers made it to the conference finals last season before losing to the Golden State Warriors, so a winning pedigree is bubbling under the surface.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans were only one one-thousandth of a percentage point behind the Blazers when the season was suspended, riding the play of Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball to 11 victories in 18 games including two in a row before the season was stopped.

Waiting more than half of the season for Williamson to recover from an injury put the Pelicans behind the 8-ball, but David Griffin has built a team for the long term, and Ball, Williamson and Brandon Ingram (another viable Most Improved Player candidate) have savvy playoff vet J.J. Redick on their team, which means they are perfectly capable of stealing one of the first two games in a seven-game series. Given that the playoffs will be on a neutral court, the mostly young and inexperienced roster will not have to deal with the type of hostile atmosphere that annually rattles teams of their ilk.

New Orleans is +21000 at FanDuel and +20000 at both DraftKings and PointsBet.

“The Pelicans have been getting steady action all season long, even before Zion came back. They still have to clinch, but a play-in playoff format changes everything,” said Johnny Avello, head of sportsbook at DraftKings. “If they are going to take all of the bubble teams and let them play in, the Pelicans are the best team. Their record with Zion (11-9) shows it.”

Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis has the same odds at two of the three aforementioned sites (PointsBet has them at +15000), and the Grizzlies have Rookie of the Year shoo-in Ja Morant leading the way. The Grizzlies bounced back from a five-game losing streak by winning three of five before the season was suspended, and they are dangerous primarily because they have the ability to steal a Game 1 or a Game 2 against an overconfident opponent.

San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs are a team that has no business making the playoffs but might make it anyway given the format scenarios that are being reported. Currently 12th in the West (27-36) and a half-game behind Sacramento, Gregg Popovich’s team would be in the mix if a play-in tournament included the top dozen teams in the West.

San Antonio is +20000 at DraftKings, +21000 at Fan Duel and +50000 at PointsBet – the same extremely long odds as the Orlando Magic, who are eighth in the East.

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento is the last team in the mix from the West, winners of three of five games prior to the suspension of the season, and 2-1 against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Kings are on the board at +25000 at FanDuel and +50000 at DraftKings. Under no circumstances will there be a case made here that the Kings are championship material, but they have one of the NBA’s most rabid and wealthy fan bases, and the true believers in Cowbell Kingdom will make their own case that Sacto is worth a flyer at those odds.

“I haven’t seen a championship bet on the Kings in 10 years,” Avello said.

The bottom line is this: the NBA is coming back, and anyone who tells you he knows what will happen does not know what he is talking about. The year 2020, still not even halfway done, should have taught all of us to expect the unexpected. The trick the rest of the way will be trying to find a way to cash in on the systemic chaos.

As any sharp bettor will tell you, opportunities are out there if you know where to find them. In the case of the NBA, that opportunity just might lie with an outlier team.

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