The NBA’s regular season is winding down, which means the playoffs are just a few days away. March Madness came to a close with Virginia’s stirring win over Texas Tech in the National Championship Game, and now it’s time for the pros to take center stage.
The Golden State Warriors, who have won 3 titles in the last 4 years, will enter the postseason as massive betting favorites to win their third consecutive championship. As of this writing, BetOnline has the Warriors listed as -200 favorites to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy once again.
Golden State is in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches the NBA has ever seen, so it’s no surprise. The Warriors have reached the NBA Finals in each of the last 4 seasons, and, had they not blown a 3-1 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, this team would be looking at a fifth straight championship this summer.
The Houston Rockets have come close in recent years, but they are still trying to get past Golden State. Houston came to within a win of the Finals last year, but it wasn’t meant to be. Houston is listed at +1200 to win the title this season, which ties them with the Boston Celtics for the fourth-best odds of accomplishing the feat.
Oddsmakers believe that the Milwaukee Bucks (+600) and Toronto Raptors (+1000) look like the teams with the best chances of knocking off the reigning champs.
Can anyone realistically dethrone the Warriors this season? Or is Golden State the best bet on the board once again?
Teams to Ignore
16 of the 30 teams make the playoffs in the NBA every year. While making the playoffs is an admirable accomplishment, we obviously can’t rate all 16 qualifiers equally. You have dominant teams like the Warriors and Bucks at the top, and at the bottom you have teams that snuck in by the skin of their teeth.
The entire 16-team field has not yet been set as of this writing, but 15 teams are in. We’re just waiting on the Pistons, Hornets, or Heat to claim the last spot in the Eastern Conference. Of course, that barely even matters when it comes to NBA championship betting. Whichever team winds up nabbing the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference will just get crushed by Milwaukee in the first round.
Right off the bat, I think it’s pretty safe to write off the following teams when it comes to winning it all this season: Miami Heat (+100000), Detroit Pistons (+25000), Brooklyn Nets (+25000), Orlando Magic (+15000), Charlotte Hornets (+15000).
The Indiana Pacers are currently the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they have been one of the most consistent teams in the game. Interestingly enough, they’ve been given the same championship odds as the Magic and Hornets. The Magic squeaked into the postseason, while Charlotte is still on the outside looking in.
I certainly think it’s a stretch to suggest that Indiana, who is without All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for the rest of the season, can win the championship this season. Still, they’re better than the other teams with similar title odds. The Pacers have a very good chance at toppling the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Nate McMillan’s squad is a sound defensive unit, and it’s not like the Celtics are a dynamic offensive team to begin with.
If the Pacers get past Boston and into the second round, anything is possible. They’re still super unlikely to win the title, but it’s not crazy to take a cheap bet on them at +15000. The profit potential there speaks for itself.
Western Conference Also-Rans
The Eastern Conference is very interesting at the top, but the bottom leaves plenty to be desired. That isn’t necessarily the case out West, where the No. 8 seed will finish with a minimum of 47 regular season victories.
While the L.A. Clippers and San Antonio Spurs have put together impressive campaigns, these aren’t championship-caliber teams. The Clippers could be interesting next year if they lure a star or 2 in free agency this summer. It feels weird passing on the Spurs with Gregg Popovich still around, but this isn’t the same team anymore. Both teams are easy bets to pass on at +10000 apiece.
The next tier of Western Conference clubs is more formidable, but it’s still hard to envision any of them going all the way.
The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the playoffs last year in humiliating fashion by the New Orleans Pelicans. Portland will likely have home court advantage in the first round as the No. 4 seed, but oddsmakers are understandably leery of trusting this team. It also doesn’t help that the Blazers’ star center, Jusuf Nurkic, was lost for the season a couple of weeks ago after sustaining a gruesome leg injury.
Portland is a tough venue for opponents, but we’ve seen this movie before. The Blazers just don’t have the firepower beyond Damian Lillard to compete with some of the more high-octane offensive teams in the conference. Portland is definitely an interesting value at +10000, but I’d feel a whole lot better of it if they still had Nurkic in the middle. They’re a better betting option than either the Clippers or Spurs at the same price, but it’s still not a bet I can reasonably advocate.
It’s tough to get a read on teams like the Thunder, Jazz, Celtics and Nuggets. All 4 have looked like legitimate contenders at times, but at this point it’s tough to really think of any of them as teams capable of going all the way.
The Nuggets have been right there with the Warriors at the top of the West all season. Problem is, this team has very little playoff experience. Other than Paul Millsap, this is a roster (and coaching staff, for that matter) that hasn’t tasted much playoff success. The team’s best player, Nikola Jokic, will be playing in his first-ever playoff game next week.
I generally think “experience” is a little overrated when it comes to intangibles. Basketball is basketball. However, the Nuggets have been getting routinely owned by the Warriors and Rockets for years. Denver went a combined 2-6 across their 8 head-to-head meetings with Golden State and Houston this season, so it’s tough to envision the Nuggets suddenly turning the tables and beating either of them in a 7-game series.
The Nuggets are a team to watch moving forward, but I will happily pass on Denver as a viable championship bet this season at +2500.
The Thunder and Celtics have plenty of star power, but both have been relative disappointments this season. OKC has a couple of legitimate MVP contenders in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but the team’s complementary pieces have been fairly inconsistent.
The Celtics have been the biggest disappointment in the league all year. Many had Boston tabbed as the likely Eastern Conference representative in the Finals before the season, but, for whatever reason, they just haven’t been able to get out of second gear. Things can always change in the postseason if they can find a switch to flip, but I’ve been bearish on Boston all year. Why change now?
I wouldn’t be betting on the Celtics at +1200 to win the championship. The odds have never really reflected just how mediocre they have looked all season. I would rather take a stab at OKC at +4000, but it’s not something I’m overly enthusiastic about, either. Utah is very dangerous as a defense-first team, but I’m skeptical that Donovan Mitchell is going to lead a team to a title in his second season as a pro.
I’d rank the Thunder as my favorite value of the bunch here at +4000, but I’m lukewarm on these 4 teams at best.
The Real Deal
I think there are 5 teams that can realistically win the title this season: Philadelphia, Houston, Golden State, Toronto and Milwaukee.
Betting on the Warriors is the smart play at -200, but that’s no fun. You’re not making much money betting on anything at -200. It’s also worth noting that Golden State has looked downright vulnerable at times this season, more often than in previous campaigns. Whether the team was just bored during the regular season remains to be seen, but I think they can be beaten this year.
If anyone is keeping the Warriors from a fifth-straight Finals berth, it’ll be the Rockets. Houston came close last May, though the combination of 27 consecutive misses from 3-point range combined with an ill-timed injury to Chris Paul wound up thwarting the Rockets in the decisive Game 7.
If the Rockets are healthy, I think this is the year they finally get the job done. Houston went 3-1 in the regular season against the reigning champions, and I can’t realistically envision any of the other 6 Western Conference teams really slowing Houston down. The Rockets will be entering the playoffs playing their best basketball of the season, and James Harden’s MVP case speaks for itself.
The Rockets at +1200 are very, very interesting.
I think Milwaukee, Toronto or Philly comes out of the Eastern Conference. The Sixers look like the biggest long shot of the bunch despite having the most talent of any team in the conference. Philly boasts 5 legitimate All-Star caliber players, but incorporating the likes of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris on the fly hasn’t been all that seamless.
The Bucks at +600 also look a bit undervalued by oddsmakers. Milwaukee has looked downright dangerous this season under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, who seems to have unlocked the potential that has been sitting untapped in this roster for the last few seasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a complete matchup nightmare for opponents without defenders long enough to keep him from getting to the rim at will.
I’ve been driving the Raptors’ bandwagon all season long, but their history of playoff failures does give me a bit of pause. Still, +1000 is quite the favorable price for a team that does match up pretty well with a team like Golden State on paper.
The NBA is generally more predictable than sports like football or baseball when the playoffs roll around. Upsets still happen in the NBA, but over the course of a 7-game series the better team typically winds up getting the better result.
That’s why the Warriors are probably going to win another title this summer. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant happen to be pretty good at basketball, and nobody has been able to solve them since Durant joined the team a couple of years ago. That said, I think the field of competition is stronger than it’s been in either of the previous 2 seasons, so I do think betting on a non-Warriors team to win the championship this season is not a dumb idea by any means.
While I’m intrigued by the 76ers, I’m not sure there is much value in the odds compared to some of the other options. Why bet on the Sixers at +1600 when you can get the Rockets at +1200 or the Raptors at +1000? Houston and Toronto are superior teams, and they’re still extreme values in their own right. I’d just take stabs at the Rockets and Raptors before risking it with Philadelphia.
If the Warriors do not win the title, it feels like it could be the Bucks’ year. Milwaukee’s point differential of plus-9.1 is the best mark in the league and it puts them on par with some of the greatest teams of all-time. 60-plus wins during the regular season is no joke.
I will rank my favorite bets to win the NBA title this season as follows:
- Milwaukee Bucks +600
- Houston Rockets +1200
- Golden State Warriors -200
- Toronto Raptors +1000
- Philadelphia 76ers +1600