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NBA Playoffs 2018: Updated Odds, Predictions for NBA Finals

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 23, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Monday, June 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

In less than three months, the 2017-18 NBA champion will be crowned.

Both recent history and the trusty eye test say the number of legitimate contenders can probably be counted on one hand. But so much can happen between now and then that an ill-timed injury or an on-time hot streak could both shake up the championship field.

For now, we can run through the current championship odds (via OddsShark) to predict which team will come out on top and identify the two teams most capable of spoiling that prediction.

                       

Top 10 Championship Odds

Golden State Warriors: -125 (bet $125 to win $100)

Houston Rockets: +200

Cleveland Cavaliers: +850

Toronto Raptors: +1,000

Boston Celtics: +1,800

Oklahoma City Thunder: +3,000

Philadelphia 76ers: +4,000

Portland Trail Blazers: +4,000

San Antonio Spurs: +6,000

Washington Wizards: +6,600

                       

Championship Prediction

Warriors Over Cavaliers

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Sorry if this isn't the most exciting pick, but it's still the deepest-rooted in logic. Even if the championship odds have lowered from their opening for Golden State (-150) and Cleveland (+300), this ongoing NBA Finals battle still pits the Association's best roster against its most dominant player.

Do the Warriors have reasons to worry about their injury issues? Nope. It's still March, and there's zero indication any of these medical maladies will linger into the postseason—let alone May or June.

All four of Golden State's All-Stars have missed at least five games, and its two most important ones (Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant) have been sidelined 33 combined times. And still, this group sports the NBA's best efficiency rating (plus-9.6) and an astronomic mark when all four take the floor (plus-13.3).

On the other side of the coin, who's dispatching LeBron James from the Eastern Conference playoffs and snapping his streak of seven consecutive Finals appearances?

The Boston Celtics? They lost their second-best player on opening night (Gordon Hayward) and have a bottom-half offensive efficiency (17th). The Toronto Raptors? They tried last season and were sent packing in four games. They don't have a top-20 player in player efficiency rating (Cleveland has two), and their best player sits just 47th in real plus-minus (DeMar DeRozan).

Cleveland's defense is brutal, second-worst in the entire league. But the Cavs were tied for 22nd on that end last season when they steamrolled through the East with a 12-1 record through the first three rounds.

Cleveland is still too flawed to topple a full-strength Golden State squad, but all signs point to these teams squaring off for the fourth straight time in the championship round.

                     

Championship Sleepers

Houston Rockets

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

It shouldn't be possible to call the team with the best record a sleeper, but that's the reality when the Warriors aren't in the top spot.

The Rockets are overloaded with offensive weapons, and head coach Mike D'Antoni has the perfect style to utilize them. No one makes more threes (15.4 per game) or free throws (20.3), two of the most efficient shots in the sport.

The two-headed point-guard monster of James Harden and Chris Paul almost isn't fair. They rank first and second, respectively, in real plus-minus. They collectively contribute 49.8 points and 16.6 assists on a nightly basis. They almost never lose when they play together (41-4).

Add in Houston's substantial improvement on defense (eighth in efficiency, up from 18th last season), and it's hard to find faults that could keep it from claiming the throne.

"When a team is this good, regardless of what its doubters say, the question isn't whether it has arrived but whether it will win the title or merely its conference," FiveThirtyEight's Kyle Wagner wrote.

But again, Golden State's historic collection of talent warps conventional wisdom.

Houston had a single All-Star this season, and even if Paul had avoided injury and been selected, that still would have given the Rockets only half as many as the Warriors. Houston also doesn't have as many two-way players as Golden State. The Rockets have some stone-wall stoppers and lights-out scorers, but not enough guys that do both.

That said, if the Warriors can't hit their top stride for whatever reason, the Rockets would be right there to take their place.

                      

Toronto Raptors

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

As with Houston, the numbers say it's disrespectful to put Toronto in this category. It not only boasts the East's best record (by a comfortable margin), it's the only team outside of the Bay Area with top-seven efficiency marks on offense (third) and defense (fifth).

These aren't the dinosaur Raptors of yesteryear, even if their roster looks largely the same. They play smarter, faster and more perimeter-based on offense. They're deeper and better defensively.

Detractors will point to past playoff failures as justification for reserving any judgment on the "new" Raptors until postseason time. But as the win column swells and the efficiency numbers soar, they're converting critics into believers by the day.

"This looks sustainable," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "It looks, sounds, feels different."

DeRozan, who entered this campaign on the heels of back-to-back All-Star selections, embodies those changes.

The former inside-the-arc specialist has gone from launching 1.5 threes per 36 minutes over his first eight seasons to 3.8 in this one. He's never had a higher assist percentage (24.6) or better true shooting percentage (56.0). All-encompassing metrics such as box plus/minus (2.1) and win shares per 48 minutes (.179) agree this is the highest level he's reached.

Toronto still has its shortcomings, though, starting with not having LeBron on the roster. If James goes ballistic, the Raptors might not have a counter. They didn't during Wednesday's 132-129 loss when the King cooked up unprecedented dominance:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Courtesy of @EliasSports: LeBron James is the first player with 35 points, 15 assists and no turnovers in a game since turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.

There are other questions with Toronto, too.

Will they resort to their old, hero-ball ways late in tight games? They haven't been a good team in the clutch (minus-4.0, 16th). Can they maximize having the league's best bench when playoff rotations typically shorten? Will their traditional bigs work against the small-ball styles prevalent in today's postseasons? Do they have enough shooting to make their new offense work when it's needed most?

There are enough unknowns to think of the Raptors as less than the Eastern Conference favorites, even when the stats say they deserve that label.

                   

Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.

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