It may have taken months of rampant tanking (even among playoff teams!), injuries and the desolation of proud franchises like the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics, but the 2014 NBA playoffs finally arrive in earnest this weekend.
Along with the finalization of the playoff field comes the latest batch of NBA championship rankings. While a league-wide hierarchy has long been established, matchup-based alterations are bound to skew the numbers a bit. Example: I'm far more likely to bet on the Clippers now that they're playing Golden State, which will be without Andrew Bogut for the foreseeable future.
In that spirit, we're going to check in on the latest odds and give advice.
But first, an aside: I wish there were more insane prop bets for the NBA playoffs. During the Super Bowl, you can bet on everything from the national anthem length to the coin toss to whether a fifty-something rockstar will be wearing a shirt. I want the same thing for the NBA. I want over-under props on the number of five-second David West staredowns, the number of times Brooklyn's tank job is referred to as "bulletin board material" for Toronto by talking heads and the number of times Blake Griffin gets into near fights with opponents.
These are the playoffs. Where is my stupidity? I have money that needs burning. At least give fans a minus-200 line on Russell Westbrook versus Lance Stephenson for the playoffs' "WTF play" championship. NBA playoff betting is too boring.
Luckily, the games aren't. As for things you can actually bet on, here is the latest update from Odds Shark and some actual advice.
|2014 NBA Playoff Odds|
|San Antonio Spurs||+300|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||+400|
|Los Angeles Clippers||+900|
|Golden State Warriors||+2800|
|Portland Trail Blazers||+4000|
The Favorite: Miami Heat (2-1)
James is the best basketball player on the planet. He's one of the seven or eight best in the history of the game. Kevin Durant may be deserving of the MVP award this season—in large part because of James' disappointing defensive indifference—but an engaged LeBron beats you in so many ways. James has become an above-average three-point shooter and a monster in the post as a scorer and passer, and he remains a devastating force of nature off the dribble. When James locks in defensively, there are few better perimeter stoppers.
We're all well aware of these facts. As we are of Wade still having plenty of gas in the tank when he can make it on the floor. As we are of Bosh being a vastly underrated cog in this Big Three run, perhaps one of the game's most underrated talents at this point period. Add in Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, et al., and Miami has a veteran core coming back that knows how to win.
To be the king, you have to beat the king. And the odds reflect that.
No doubt the Heat also have the best overall odds thanks to the region within which they reside. For all the fun we can have discussing Brooklyn, Chicago or Toronto making a surprise run with an upset, Miami has just one Eastern roadblock: Indiana. And, I don't know if you've noticed this yet, but the Pacers have regressed on both ends of the floor and have a locker room rife with in-fighting. These aren't the same players who have presented a united front against the NBA's monolith each of the last two seasons.
At least not yet.
The answer to Miami's championship destiny may be whether James, Wade and Bosh can continue actually sharing a basketball court. Wade, hampered through each of the last two title runs, missed 28 regular-season games with myriad injury issues. His knees will never be 100 percent for the rest of his career, and the hamstring issue that cost him a ton of games this month may recur.
Bosh is a bastion of health for the most part but missed time in Miami's 2012 NBA Finals run. James has been the only one of the Big Three who has kept himself on the floor consistently through this three-year run. If he goes down, the whole ship will go along with him. If the Big Three stay healthy, though, you'll be hard pressed to find a team capable of beating them in a seven-game series.
The Sleeper: Houston Rockets (20-1)
If you're looking to engender buzz as a possible title contender, going 5-6 in your last 11 games isn't typically the best way to do it. But that's how it went for the Rockets, whose shaky defense sprung a late leak and left them just barely clinging to home-court advantage for their Round 1 series with Portland.
Of course, the mitigating factors that caused that swoon are also the ones that make Houston a not-terrible bet to at least come out of the West. The Rockets played all but five games in the their last month without Dwight Howard, who was out with a bothersome ankle injury. Patrick Beverley missed eight games with a torn meniscus.
The return of both players might be enough to shore up what ills Houston. Beverley is the team's best perimeter defender by a strong margin. His motor runs nonstop, he's not afraid to get physical with opposing guards, and his on-the-floor demeanor infects teammates—in a good way. Opposing players shot just 26.2 percent against Beverley in isolation situations during the regular season, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Howard's return fortifies the middle against breakdowns on the perimeter—87 percent of which can be blamed on James Harden. Omer Asik filled the void well in Howard's absence and might be the key bench cog we talk about the least, but D-12 moving back into the starting lineup allows Kevin McHale's rotation to coalesce. Neither Terrence Jones nor Donatas Motiejunas, as much as I like both, should ever get a second of time at center for a contender.
With Beverley and Howard healthy for the first three quarters of the season, Houston bordered on the very edges of the title conversation. The Rockets were a top-10 team on both ends of the floor—typically the minimum requirement to win a championship—and were trending upward. They beat Miami and crushed Indiana at home in early March.
Houston still managed to finish 12th in points allowed per possession and was worse than only the Clippers, Heat and Mavericks offensively. Swap the Rockets and Pacers, and we're talking about a legitimate Eastern Conference threat. Swap Houston and Miami, Howard and Co. might have been favorites.
As it stands, the playoff bracket worked out fine. Portland's perimeter defense might be the worst of any playoff team, and the Rockets are one of a handful of teams that can compete with the Blazers' world-beating starting five. Gregg Popovich and the daunting task of taking down San Antonio looms in Round 2, but Houston did so all three times during the regular season.
Going Portland-San Antonio-Oklahoma City might be one step too many, and I'd posit that is why the Rockets are 20-1 more than anything. Just don't let the last month fool you. This is a very good team.
A Word of Advice: Stay Away from the High Odds
The Bobcats, a professional basketball team that made the playoffs, are at 250-1 odds despite there being only 16 teams in this tournament. Likewise for the Atlanta Hawks. Washington is 150-1. If you bet one measly dollar on each of those teams—round up some loose change under the coach, find that crumpled up dollar you drunkenly threw on top of the entertainment center, whatever—you could turn that nothing into a very nice dinner.
I understand the temptation. It is also imbecilic. You are better off taking those dollars, grinding them up in a blender, throwing them in the air like confetti and then spending your next six years attempting to tape them back together properly than doing a deep dive into the pool of underdogs.
The NBA playoffs are not the NCAA tournament. Hell, they're not the NFL playoffs or the NHL playoffs or the MLB playoffs. Basketball is inherently the most predictable of our four major sports, even more so at the NBA level in the seven-game era. Only two teams in NBA history have won a title seeded lower than No. 3.
Third-seeded teams have been more common since the turn of the century—four champions, compared to only three in league history prior—but the best money remains on the favorites. Forty-eight No. 1 seeds have won NBA championships. All other seven seeds have 18 combined. That in many ways makes Indiana—a team I suspect will right the ship by the conference finals—an undervalued team at 6-1.
History in the same respect says your $10 Wizards bet won't be paying your June mortgage. This isn't the funnest point in the world, but favorites rule the NBA roost. Save your money.
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