B/R's Way-Too-Early NBA Title Odds for 2018-19 Season
The Golden State Warriors are NBA champions for the third time in four years. If they're hoping for another successful title defense, they won't let their champagne-soaked celebration pull their attention away from offseason strategizing.
From win-now clubs to long-term rebuilders, all 30 Association members do some degree of forward-thinking. We might as well follow their lead, then, and take a way-too-early glance at the 2018-19 championship odds.
Yes, we know the basketball landscape can shift dramatically between now and October. Any movement LeBron James makes reverberates around the globe. There's also probably at least a handful of difference-makers in what appears to be a deep draft class and a bunch of non-LeBron free agents capable of moving the needle.
But by combining what we saw this past season with where things stand entering the summer, we can get a good grasp on every club's current championship hopes.
30-21: The Not-in-a-Million-Years Tier
30. Atlanta Hawks: 1,000-1
If Dennis Schroder gets traded, the top returning scorer will be Taurean Prince and the best distributor coming back will be Kent Bazemore. If Schroder stays, both labels are his. Either scenario looks uninspiring through the lens of title contention.
29. Sacramento Kings: 1,000-1
Thirty-six-year-old Zach Randolph led this team in scoring last season. De'Aaron Fox probably provided the most excitement while possessing a 41.2/30.7/72.3 shooting slash. It's possible the top talent on the roster is the unidentified No. 2 pick.
28. Orlando Magic: 500-1
Will the Magic bring back restricted free agent Aaron Gordon? We don't know, we just know it won't change their championship outlook.
Replacing Frank Vogel with Steve Clifford didn't change the fact this roster lacks elite talent, and there's no guarantee the No. 6 pick can alter it, either.
27. Brooklyn Nets: 500-1
The Nets were one of nine teams to lose 50-plus games. They're the only one who won't receive a top-10 pick for their troubles.
They'll finally own their first-rounder next summer, which might encourage them to spend another year in the cellar. Looking at their roster, they might not have another choice.
26. Dallas Mavericks: 300-1
It feels like the Mavs roster reaches three eras—from past-his-prime Dirk Nowitzki to win-now Harrison Barnes to needs-more-seasoning Dennis Smith Jr. There's enough money to try to accelerate their rebuild, but the smarter strategy might involve focusing on the development of Smith and the No. 5 pick.
25. Chicago Bulls: 300-1
Next season's Bulls might hemorrhage points the same way last season's Bulls did. But head coach Fred Hoiberg will have the chance to work his offensive magic with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine (assuming the restricted free agent remains in Chicago), Denzel Valentine and the No. 7 pick.
It won't be enough to matter in the standings, but it should be an improvement.
24. Phoenix Suns: 250-1
It's fun to imagine a "Shaq and Kobe 2.0" future awaiting Devin Booker and likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton. And who knows, maybe that duo will be the foundation of the Suns' next contender—in three-to-five years.
23. New York Knicks: 250-1
New York's lone All-Star, Kristaps Porzingis, tore his ACL in February. There's been talk of him not playing at all next season. Couple that absence with an obvious need for patience with last year's lottery pick (Frank Ntilikina) and this year's (ninth overall), and this could be a forward-focused, loss-filled, developmental campaign for the 'Bockers.
22. Charlotte Hornets: 200-1
The Hornets seem trapped in mediocrity and might require a Kemba Walker trade to escape this cycle. They were almost perfectly average this past season, outscoring opponents by only 0.3 points per game. That's a disturbingly low number for a $117.2 million roster.
21. Memphis Grizzlies: 200-1
A handful of ifs could help the Grizzlies quickly climb the ladder—if Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons finally stay healthy; if Marc Gasol reverses his apparent decline; if the No. 4 pick provides an instant impact—but that's a lot of breaks this bunch needs to catch.
It's possible to picture Memphis forcing its way into the 2019 playoff picture or needing a total teardown at the trade deadline.
20-11: The Once-in-a-Million-Years Tier
20. Detroit Pistons: 150-1
The Pistons found their new head coach in Dwane Casey, who snagged a five-year deal as Stan Van Gundy's replacement, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Now, it's Casey's job to figure out how these puzzle pieces fit. The high-priced trio of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson doesn't offer much in terms of floor-spacing or durability.
19. Los Angeles Clippers: 150-1
If DeAndre Jordan leaves this summer (player option), will the Clippers finally embrace a total rebuild? They've already seen Griffin, Chris Paul, JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford head for the exits. L.A. could be average with Jordan, but this franchise's future might be shaped by how it handles the 12th and 13th overall picks.
18. Miami Heat: 100-1
Assuming the Heat are out of the LeBron James sweepstakes—they don't have cap space or in-prime stars—they'll continue floating near the middle without a discernible centerpiece. They need more talent, but their roster is already overpriced and they don't have a draft pick.
If they trade Hassan Whiteside this summer, they might get nothing more than salary relief in return.
17. Washington Wizards: 100-1
The Wizards might have two stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but the club's whole never seems to mirror the sum of its parts.
Wall has said this roster requires "a lot" of attention, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. Problem is there's already a lot of money on the books (at least $115.8 million for next season) and there aren't many coveted trade chips.
16. Portland Trail Blazers: 100-1
The Blazers both surprised and disappointed this past season, snaring the West's No. 3 seed but also going 2-8 in the month of April while being swept out of the opening round.
They need more pieces, but the budget might necessitate subtractions. Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis lead a group of four rotation players into free agency. Over the next few weeks, expect to hear the latest round of debates regarding the long-term viability of a Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt.
15. Indiana Pacers: 100-1
The first post-Paul George campaign was a resounding success in the Circle City. If Myles Turner and/or Domantas Sabonis can make anything close to the kind of leap Victor Oladipo just did, the Pacers could get interesting quickly. If not, Oladipo's lack of star-level support will prevent Indy from ascending any further.
14. Denver Nuggets: 80-1
Give Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray a full season together, and this will be one of the best offenses in basketball. But their defense isn't ready to contend (26th in efficiency), and their star power might not be, either.
13. Milwaukee Bucks: 80-1
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the Association's brightest stars, and Mike Budenholzer stands as the most intriguing coaching hire. But what happens next?
Will the Bucks spend big to keep Jabari Parker after two ACL tears in four years? Can the franchise afford to let him walk? If he stays, how can Milwaukee improve the center spot and find the internal spring to jump from good to really good or even great?
12. Minnesota Timberwolves: 75-1
That said, there aren't many more talented 1-2 punches than Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler, and maybe there's a way to get Andrew Wiggins to better fit this core or trade him for a player that would.
11. New Orleans Pelicans: 75-1
The Pelicans have a massive decision to make with an injured DeMarcus Cousins entering unrestricted free agency. And regardless of what call the front office makes there, it will still need to get creative to upgrade the wings and build a better bench.
Cousins, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday were the only teammate trio to all average 36-plus minutes.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers: 60-1
The offseason will decide the legitimacy of these odds.
If LeBron James stays, that might be enough to lift the Cavaliers to their fifth straight Finals. As bright as the futures might be for the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, the King still wears the crown for a reason. Making his eighth consecutive Finals run at age 33, James was this postseason's top scorer, third-best distributor and No. 14 rebounder per game.
If he leaves, this could immediately become one of the worst teams in basketball. The supporting cast underwhelms in just about everything other than cost. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has no interest paying the luxury tax without LeBron, a source told Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. Demolition would certainly be considered at that point.
For now, the Cavs are hovering near the middle and probably just as clueless as the rest of us regarding James' future.
"Something that should be understood when it comes to James this summer: Anything is possible," ESPN's Brian Windhorst wrote. "Repeat: anything. ... James believes he's got a blank check to do what he wants, and perhaps the only thing that's clear about this free agency is that he's not afraid to use it."
9. Toronto Raptors: 60-1
The Toronto Raptors were incredible last season. They won the second-most games of anyone (59) and were the Association's only team with top-five efficiency ranks on offense (third) and defense (fifth).
But it was easy to feel skeptical given their past playoff flops. Then, they were swept out of the second round by Cleveland, which has eliminated them three years in a row. Dwane Casey was axed shortly thereafter, and the Raptors will reportedly "explore all options" with their roster, league sources told Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.
If Toronto wants to make dramatic changes, it might require taking a hatchet to the current roster. This franchise has neither the necessary wiggle room to chase free agents nor a single selection in the upcoming draft. The biggest offseason decision could involve restricted free agent Fred VanVleet, a nice player but also an unlikely difference-maker as a reserve point guard.
Still, all those victories and all that efficiency happened. If this team is trapped, it's stuck within arm's reach of the elite. That probably doesn't mean the Larry O'Brien trophy is headed north of the border, but the Raptors remain better than most.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder: 40-1
Year one of the superteam(ish) Thunder will be remembered as a disappointment. Slotting Paul George and Carmelo Anthony alongside Russell Westbrook only increased OKC's win total by one and couldn't prevent another first-round playoff exit.
But there were enough elite moments before Andre Roberson's season-ending injury to make one wonder what might be possible if George sticks around.
The Thunder had a 4-3 record against the Western Conference finalists, Golden State and Houston. OKC also posted an eye-popping plus-14.2 net rating in the 539 minutes George shared with Westbrook, Anthony, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams.
"That definitely changes a lot," George said in April of Roberson's injury, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "Andre is a big piece, and him going down, it definitely was a big blow to us. ... You've got to look at where we can be, imagine what we would be if Andre was here playing with [us] now."
If the Thunder keep George, they might be closer to contention than most realize.
7. Utah Jazz: 40-1
While Utah finished a perfectly average 15th in offensive efficiency, there were times this attack felt held together by frayed yarn.
Donovan Mitchell was by far the best scorer while also being a 43.7 percent shooting rookie. Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio were nominally the second and third point-producers, respectively, but each did his best work on the opposite end.
At full strength, though, this defense is the Association's most suffocating unit. It finished the season second in efficiency, but it was tops in 2018 and nearly five points stingier per 100 possessions than anyone after the All-Star break.
The Jazz are one of the rare teams with both a winning record and spending money for this summer. The key will be shrewd handling of that flexibility. Utah might consider keeping most of its focus in-house, both to retain its most critical free agents (Derrick Favors, Dante Exum) and to potentially realize the value of continuity.
6. Los Angeles Lakers: 33-1
The Lakers' success in free agency will determine if these odds are too high or far too low.
LeBron James and Paul George will discuss potentially teaming up on the Lakers, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (via Brett Dawson of the Oklahoman). Marc Stein of the New York Times mentioned LeBron and Chris Paul as another possible Lakers duo. If the San Antonio Spurs ever field offers on Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers are expected to place a bid, sources told Sporting News' Sean Deveney.
Even with the Lakers coming off a 47-loss season, there's too much superstar smoke to leave them out of the top 10.
James can single-handedly transform teams into contenders. Paul, George or Leonard would all fit the superstar sidekick role that Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving filled on previous champions. That might not make L.A. the favorites, but it would get this organization on a short list of realistic championship hopefuls.
There's also a chance no one comes, and the Lakers load up on one-year contracts again to roll over their cap space to next summer. That'd make 2018-19 a developmental season, during which they wouldn't sniff the playoff picture.
5. San Antonio Spurs: 33-1
If 21 straight postseason trips have taught us nothing else, consider them a loud hint that the Spurs are always two steps ahead.
Think about it. All we've heard about recently is a relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs that's so tense it might prove too toxic to salvage. And yet, league sources told Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News that Leonard and Gregg Popovich are trying to meet soon to address any concerns and potentially come together on a five-year, $219 million supermax extension.
Oh, and Marc Stein of the New York Times hears that Popovich "is bound to try to force his way into" the LeBron sweepstakes.
In other words, while we've been busy debating their possible demise, the Spurs have perhaps slotted a Leonard-LeBron strategy—a pairing that might rival or even surpass the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry duo in talent.
So, why does San Antonio only have the fifth-highest title odds? Because the Spurs haven't yet smoothed things over with Leonard, they're a long shot for LeBron and they might have a decent number of internal decisions to make in free agency. Rudy Gay (player option), Danny Green (player option), Tony Parker, Kyle Anderson (restricted) and Davis Bertans (restricted) might all enter the open market.
4. Philadelphia 76ers: 10-1
This was always going to be a wild summer for the 76ers, but the activity has already shifted into overdrive due to burner Twitter accounts and now a need to find a new general manager.
Incredibly, there's a good chance the real excitement hasn't started yet. The Sixers head into this offseason holding both a lottery pick (actually, six selections in all, including an additional first-rounder) and enough cap space to pursue a whale.
Just think about the strength of their sales pitch. They won 28 of their final 34 games and had the second-highest net rating during that stretch (plus-10.6). They have one of the league's most intriguing young duos in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the latter of whom two years left on his rookie deal. They can plug additions into substantial roles, as they did with midseason pickups Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Philly smartly plans to reach for the stars. There's interest in signing LeBron or Paul George or trading for Kawhi Leonard, sources told Philly.com's Keith Pompey. Head coach Brett Brown has already voiced his hopes of adding a "high-level free agent," via NBC Sports Philadelphia.
This seems like a can't-lose situation. If the Sixers make a dramatic move, it will likely involve adding a perennial All-Star. If they don't, they'll probably return all the key pieces from their 52-win team and see what Embiid and Simmons can do during their second season playing together.
3. Houston Rockets: 6-1
The Rockets had this past season's best record (65-17), No. 2 offense and No. 6 defense. They unleashed an unprecedented number of three-point bombs, got 16.7 assists per game from the James Harden-Chris Paul two-headed monster at point guard and built a switch-everything defense so effective it nearly dismantled the defending champs.
Obviously, the only offseason focus is on running it back, right? Just re-sign Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza and match whatever offer Clint Capela commands, correct?
Maybe if a different executive was running the show, but not when it's one as daring and creative as general manager Daryl Morey.
The Rockets will make a run at Paul George, per Wojnarowski (via Sagar Trika of Blazer's Edge). They've also been linked to the LeBron sweepstakes for the better part of a year. Their desire for a third star must be strong, because they'd have to jump through several financial hoops to sign one, as Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle explained:
"With the cap holds to keep their own free agents, or even just their primary free agents, the Rockets are far over the salary cap. To add James, they would either have to gut the roster to create that kind of cap room or work out a deal with Cleveland, either with James opting in to the final season of his contract or in a sign-and-trade deal as a free agent."
2. Boston Celtics: 5-1
Last season's Celtics lost Gordon Hayward on opening night and Kyrie Irving in March. They also won 55 games in the regular season, finished one victory shy of the NBA Finals and received their biggest portion of playoff scoring from the 24-and-under trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier.
Next season's Shamrocks should have their in-prime All-Stars healthy and their youngsters back to continue their climb, unless one gets moved for more immediate help. Boston's most important free agent is restricted (Marcus Smart), and yet another first-round pick is incoming (27th).
Every possible arrow is pointing up, even if the roster can look slightly cluttered from certain angles.
"Some have wondered how coach Brad Stevens will find minutes for everyone," ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg wrote. "The Celtics are fine with that 'problem' and believe that, while easing Irving and Hayward back into game action, and with aspirations of a 100-plus-game campaign, there will be plenty of minutes to go around."
Stevens just turned a youth-filled patchwork team into a conference finalist. What he'll do with next season's group, which might have five legitimate All-Star candidates depending on the continued maturation of Tatum and Brown, could be incredible.
1. Golden State Warriors: 3-2
Since signing Kevin Durant, the Warriors are 32-6 in the postseason and 2-for-2 in their title pursuits. Only one of their eight playoff series has gone beyond five games.
Maybe that's why Durant's upcoming venture into free agency has as much drama as growing grass.
Durant recently told ESPN's Rachel Nichols, "I'm planning on staying with the Warriors." Golden State general manager Bob Myers has since said Durant can have, "Whatever he wants. Sometimes you don't negotiate," per Bay Area News Group's Mark Medina.
Assuming Durant's free agency is as straightforward as it sounds, the Dubs can spend their summer making minor moves to balance the roster and add depth. They don't need to employ six centers again. They do need to transform the taxpayer's mid-level exception and the 28th overall pick into perimeter rotation players, preferably ones who can make open shots and defend multiple positions.
There's a decent chance Golden State enters this next season even stronger than it finished this one. In other words, there's no reason to remove the Dubs from their familiar spot as the favorites.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.