You want to bet the NBA futures market, but you’ve succumbed to the idea that the Warriors — feuds, injuries and Suns losses aside — will celebrate another championship in June.
You’re probably right. But fear not, because the Eastern Conference presents money-making potential.
As of March 19, Westgate lists Milwaukee (+140) as the betting favorite to win the East, ahead of Toronto (+250), Philadelphia (+275) and Boston (+275).
It may seem like the novice play to take the short favorite in a crowded field. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll realize that the Bucks have been annihilating the NBA — and they deserve your betting attention, if they don’t already have it.
It’s a shame if you’re late to the Milwaukee betting party, because Bucks bettors have been rolling in cash. As of March 19, the team is 42-26-3 against the spread, best in the NBA, and it hardly matters how you bet them: they’re 20-13-1 at home (seventh-best), 22-11 on the road (second-best), 36-24-3 as favorites (fifth-best) and 6-2 as underdogs (No. 1 in the NBA).
Milwaukee is a cash cow for bettors this season. And there’s no reason this team should be getting plus money to win the East.
LeBron James ruled this conference for the last eight years.
Looking generally, though, every Finals winner since 2007 finished the regular season with at least 57 wins — excluding the lockout year, when Miami (46-20) was on pace for 57.2 wins. Extend that to NBA Finals losers, and only LeBron-led teams and the 2010 Celtics finished below the 57-win pace.
Unless you have LeBron, 57 is the magic number of regular-season wins you need to have a chance to make the NBA Finals. In the East, only Milwaukee is likely to hit that mark. And the Bucks aren’t just winning, either: they’re beating teams at a historic pace.
Milwaukee’s average margin of victory (9.15, as of March 19) would rank seventh-highest this century. Only 20 teams in NBA history (since 1949) have ever finished the regular season with a margin of victory of 9 points or more. Fourteen of them won the NBA title.
The Bucks are beating teams at a pace akin to the 1991 Bulls in Michael Jordan’s first title year, a stratosphere only 20 teams have reached in the last 70 years.
Milwaukee is a combined 6-3 against the Raptors, Sixers and Celtics. Much of that is thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose season stats are on par with those of Shaquille O’Neal in his 1999-2000 MVP run.
Antetokounmpo’s dominance is the reason the Bucks are such an attractive futures play. He’s on the record saying he doesn’t think there’s “one guy” who can stop him. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard is the only defender in the East with a shot. But even the Raptors haven’t been able to stop the Greek Freak.
In the eight games Antetokounmpo played against those three East rivals, he averaged 32.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks — all hovering at or above his season average. By spreading the floor with four shooters at all times, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has fused the best elements of his Hawks days with a generational talent.
Milwaukee added another strong shooter at the deadline, buying up Nikola Mirotic for 30 cents on the dollar to bolster a lineup that already makes the league’s second-most 3s (13.4 per game) behind the Houston Rockets. That formula spelled doom for the Rockets and Celtics in last year’s conference finals when the shots ran dry — but neither of those teams had a historically great inside presence like Antetokounmpo.
Teams can’t commit to double-teaming Antetokounmpo without getting burned, and they can’t guard the 3-point line without getting steamrolled. So far, nobody has had an answer.
At full strength, the Celtics and Sixers could tease bettors with the upside of a championship squad. But there’s just no precedent for a team erasing regular-season woes and lineup concerns to put together a Finals run; even the 2003-04 Pistons, who acquired Rasheed Wallace in a midseason deal, had a better margin of victory and net rating than either of this year’s teams.
And the Raptors, rangy as they are, are 1-3 against Milwaukee this season with moderate injury concerns surrounding Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Bettors looking to back Toronto would be better off playing moneylines on them in the playoffs in case of injuries.
Milwaukee isn’t just one of four teams (sorry, Indiana) in a muddled race in the East. It’s THE team, and oddsmakers haven’t adjusted accordingly.
There’s still a chance the Pacers could figure into this mess by stealing the third seed and forcing Philadelphia and Boston into a first-round death match, with the winner playing Milwaukee. That possibility could make Toronto an attractive buy at +275, which could waltz into the conference finals in that scenario. And an injury to Antetokounmpo, who has missed a few games as of late, would leave the Raptors as the clear favorite. Aside from a serious injury, the Bucks should be strong favorites in all three Eastern Conference playoff rounds. Getting plus money on a team with the best offense, the best defense and the best player in its conference is too juicy to pass.