With the NBA turning its attention to the playoffs, this year’s futures market has more room for variance. It’s the first time the NBA Finals won’t be LeBron James vs. the Golden State Warriors since 2014.
While the East looks for a new king (perhaps the Milwaukee Bucks), the West has been tighter than expected this season.
Here’s a look at the current futures market:
Best value to win the West
Despite a rocky regular season, the Warriors (-375 on Bovada) remain heavy favorites to win the West. There just isn’t value on a number that big, but you aren’t totally crazy if you’re tempted to bet on that number and hope nothing crazy happens in the postseason.
We may be due for a little craziness. An NBA team hasn’t made five consecutive finals since the Boston Celtics made it 10 times in a row from 1957-66.
These Warriors have the talent to buck that trend, but the extra miles (emotionally and mentally as well as physically) have worn them down to a degree, based on their regular-season record.
Steph Curry played in 71 postseason games the last four years, almost an entire season’s worth of games, all with playoff intensity. Golden State’s likely opponents in the Western Conference Finals, Houston or Denver, will have less pressure and fatigue.
There’s also the element of drama. The Warriors are going to win fewer than 58 games for the first time since Steve Kerr became head coach. There’s no shortage of reasons: Kevin Durant’s pending free agency, his early-season feud with Draymond Green, assimilating DeMarcus Cousins into the rotation.
But if not the Warriors, who?
The Houston Rockets (+600) make the most sense. Houston came within a Chris Paul hamstring injury of unseating this team a year ago, and James Harden has only gotten better. Paul missed a chunk of the season with an injury, which could keep him fresher for the playoffs. Same story for Clint Capela, who is a matchup problem for the Warriors, even with Cousins.
A bet on the Rockets to win the West is a bet that Harden can continue his torrid pace through the postseason. He’s the first player since Kobe Bryant to average more than 35 points per game, and he has carried the Rockets to the No. 3 seed. If Paul is healthy, Houston could pull off the upset.
Avoid the rest of the West
There isn’t much else of interest in the Western Conference. The Nuggets (+900) are the No. 2 seed as of April 4, but the team is flawed and fading. The Warriors exposed a lot of their weaknesses on April 2 with a 116-102 win that wasn’t nearly that close.
This Denver core has never been to the playoffs, and there’s considerable doubt as to whether the Nuggets can get past Houston, let alone Golden State. Denver could even have trouble in the first round if they draw Oklahoma City.
The Thunder (+1800) don’t deserve your faith either. Oklahoma City spent much of the season as the No. 3 seed, but slipped to No. 8 in a matter of weeks. They have the experience and star power to pull off a first-round upset, but things are unraveling. Paul George and Steven Adams aren’t healthy. Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant have hit a wall. And while Russell Westbrook can be counted on for max effort, history shows that won’t be enough for OKC to make serious noise.
Best value in the East
With LeBron James out of the East, the conference is interesting. NBA fans don’t seem to know who will make it out of this conference, and neither do oddsmakers. As of early April, Bovada listed Milwaukee (+190), Toronto (+230) and Philadelphia (+275) close together, with Boston (+450) not far behind.
Even as the favorites, Milwaukee and Toronto represent the best value. The Bucks have potential MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo guiding their ship, as well as an improved coach in Mike Budenholzer. Toronto has Kawhi Leonard, a former Finals MVP who is still one of the best players in the NBA when healthy.
Milwaukee has an edge over Toronto. The Bucks went 3-1 against the Raptors, although Leonard did not play in one of those losses. Milwaukee also arguably has the better coach, the best player and will have home court throughout the postseason.
Philadelphia struggled down the stretch, losing games to Mavericks and Hawks in April. The 76ers probably should have won the East last year, but couldn’t get past Boston without Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving. Adding Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris has helped, but it came at the expense of its bench. A hypothetical series vs. Toronto in the second round could go seven games, but the Raptors should win. Philly is close to a .500 team on the road this season.
Avoid the Boston Celtics
Boston entered the season as favorites to win the East, but won’t even enjoy home-court advantage in the first round. Why, then, are the Celtics +450 to win the conference while No. 4-seed Indiana is at +3300? Boston has the talent to flip the switch in the playoffs, but bettors aren’t being properly compensated for that risk as of now.
Even without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers could advance to the second round over Boston. But even if the Celtics do get past Indiana, is there any reason to believe they’ll be able to defeat Milwaukee and Toronto or Philadelphia? The price isn’t good enough for a team that may not win 50 games.
Picking a non-Warriors NBA Champion
If you want to look beyond the Warriors, Houston (+1200) is an excellent bet to win it all. Same goes for your poison of choice in the East, especially Milwaukee (+800).
But if you’re sticking with the Warriors (-220) to win a third consecutive title, you’ll be able to sleep at night. Despite the drama, Golden State has one of the most talented rosters ever assembled in the NBA and an excellent coach. It’s fair to speculate whether the team gets bored or unmotivated slogging through an 82-game regular season when they know they’re the NBA’s best team. All runs come to an end, but it’s not easy predicting when that will happen.