Updated NBA Championship Odds: Los Angeles Lakers Surge Forward
All 30 NBA teams are in pursuit of a championship.
But not all squads are targeting the 2019 title. Since the presence or absence of superstars determine which clubs make up the latest batch of contenders, only a handful of teams are in the running.
The 2018 portion of this season has already thinned the field. While the standings are a bit more bunched than normal—especially in the always wild West—this doesn't feel like a wide-open chase for the crown.
Our updated championship odds will signify as much. While a certain portion of these title chances comes from this season's on-court performance, we also must account for past production and growth potential, and whether injury situations will either shrink or expand rotations.
Not in a Million Years
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2500-1
With Kevin Love shelved by toe surgery, Cleveland's outlook is even bleaker than the first time LeBron James left in 2010, which was followed by a 63-loss season.
The Cavs are already trapped in their third losing streak of at least five games. Their .216 winning percentage would lead to a 17-65 finish. Jordan Clarkson leads them in points. Cedi Osman is high man in minutes. Things are rough in Northeast Ohio.
Chicago Bulls: 2500-1
Coach Jim Boylen nearly lost the team in his first week on the job in early December. Jabari Parker trade talks have produced lowball offers that include albatross contracts, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. The Zach LaVine-led offense is the NBA's least efficient by three full points per 100 possessions.
Silver-lining seekers can appreciate Lauri Markkanen's continued rise and Wendell Carter Jr.'s smooth transition to the Association. But the biggest prize from this season will arrive in the form of next summer's lottery pick.
Atlanta Hawks: 1500-1
The Hawks' designs of being the Golden State Warriors of the Eastern Conference aren't happening. They're in the bottom two in offensive efficiency and in the bottom five in three-point shooting. Trae Young is running more cold than hot, and Omari Spellman has been nearly unplayable. Kevin Huerter is splashing at an encouraging rate (38.1 percent), at least.
But Young and Huerter are 20 years old. John Collins is 21. Atlanta knew this would take time. The Hawks should be able to double-dip in the first round of the 2019 talent grab, so this season is all about finding which areas still must be addressed.
Phoenix Suns: 1000-1
The Suns might be as close to interesting as a club with bottom-five efficiency marks on offense and defense can be. Devin Booker is making a loud All-Star argument. Deandre Ayton is firmly in the Rookie of the Year race. Mikal Bridges has offered plug-and-play ability, as expected. T.J. Warren remains one of the best players casual fans don't know about.
But this point guard collection—the worst position group we've seen in years—holds everything back. It's a good thing Booker has accelerated his distributing development, or this offense wouldn't function.
New York Knicks: 1000-1
Could this Knicks team be fun with a healthy Kristaps Porzingis? It's impossible to tell when the 7'3" phenom still lacks a timetable for his return from a February ACL tear.
While New York can count its bright spots on one hand, there are enough to make you nearly run out of fingers: Allonzo Trier, Emmanuel Mudiay, Damyean Dotson and Noah Vonleh. It would help, however, to see more consistency from Kevin Knox, which admittedly is a tough ask for a raw 19-year-old.
Maybe Once in a Million Years
Orlando Magic: 500-1
The Magic appear closer to mediocrity than they have during the last couple of seasons, but that's not necessarily good news. Only one of their top five scorers is under 26 years old: Aaron Gordon, 23, who's struggling to resemble an $80 million player. Nos. 1 (Nikola Vucevic, 28) and 4 (Terrence Ross, 27) on that list are playing on expiring contracts and may be best utilized as trade chips.
Orlando has largely resisted leaning into a youth movement, and maybe the likes of Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba, Isaiah Briscoe and Melvin Frazier aren't ready for prominent roles. But that makes it tough to tell which, if any, current players will brighten the future.
Washington Wizards: 500-1
It was fun (or maybe not) while it lasted, D.C. But with John Wall down for the count with an Achilles-related ailment, the Wizards should wave the white flag and get ready to field offers on their entire roster.
"The Wizards have a lot of questions and no clear path back to relevance," Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin wrote. "However they get there, it won't be with this group. That was true before Wall's latest injury, but the news that the five-time All-Star will miss the rest of the year is only further evidence that this group has run its course."
Bradley Beal might fetch a metric ton on the trade market. Otto Porter Jr. should appeal to any wing-starved squads. Any other swap that returns a rebuilding asset should be thoroughly examined.
Brooklyn Nets: 250-1
The Nets are feisty, well-coached, fiery from three and multilayered on offense. When Caris LeVert is healthy, the team's top three scorers—LeVert, D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie—are also the three best playmakers. That's a challenge for any defense to handle.
Brooklyn, of course, remains without a star (but maybe not for much longer) and doesn't have as many high-ceiling youngsters as it should due to the sins of the former front office. That caps its ceiling well outside of the championship race and maybe beneath the postseason cutoff.
Sacramento Kings: 200-1
With Buddy Hield and De'Aaron Fox orchestrating simultaneous (and, honestly, unexpected) leaps, the Kings appear well ahead of their rebuilding schedule. But if you think their 19-17 record deserves better odds, we'd advise you to consider other methods of evaluation. Like this group's minus-1.4 net rating (22nd overall, perhaps) or statistically expected .444 winning percentage, per ESPN.com.
This isn't meant to slight Sacramento. Coach Dave Joerger has done a tremendous job of getting all his youngsters on the same page and maximizing the production of most. But expectations for this group and statistical analysis suggest some level of regression is imminent.
Dallas Mavericks: 150-1
Could you talk us into the idea that Luka Doncic could lead a miraculous championship charge to cap his set-the-world-on-fire rookie season? Honestly, you might be able to talk us into anything Doncic-related.
The problem is, it's much easier to talk us out of this team's chances, since its second- and third-leading scorers are the sub-43 percent-shooting duo of Harrison Barnes and post-Achilles-injury Wesley Matthews. Not to mention Dennis Smith Jr.'s semi-awkward fit with Doncic, the fact that Dallas is playing better without DeAndre Jordan and that the Mavs are lacking a top-10 unit at both ends.
Detroit Pistons: 150-1
Blake Griffin is doing his part as the superstar the Pistons need him to be. He's one of just three players averaging at least 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the others.
But the rest of this roster doesn't look ready to follow his lead. That's especially problematic when the clock is already working against Detroit. While he's locked up through at least 2020-21 (player option for 2021-22), he won't be the easiest piece to build around as a 30-something with a shaky injury history and a $34 million-plus salary.
Miami Heat: 150-1
Justise Winslow as starting point guard is an outside-the-box strategy we can get behind. So, too, is a heavier reliance on zone defense that's allowing Miami to muck up some games and play more Erik Spoelstra-style basketball.
But stars win big, and the Heat still don't have one. A reset feels unavoidable, though it's tough to imagine that Pat Riley and Co. would pull the plug during Dwyane Wade's last dance.
Memphis Grizzlies: 110-1
The Grizzlies are borderline great on defense and borderline defective on offense. The wing rotation is mostly underwhelming. Chandler Parsons is doing little beyond straining the budget with one of the NBA's worst contracts.
Sounds like business as usual on Beale Street, right? It's a bit different this time as rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. emerges as a potential draft steal—even as this summer's No. 4 pick. But Memphis' typical flaws are threatening to close whatever window the Griz have left to make something of the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol tandem.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 100-1
The Timberwolves might have the top individual talent mentioned so far in Karl-Anthony Towns, who remains one of the game's most dominant offensive big men. While it would take a hot shooting stretch to get him there, the 23-year-old is within striking distance of a 50/40/90 shooting slash. If he hits those marks, he could become the league's first 20-point, 10-rebound 50/40/90 member.
But Jimmy Butler was this team's best player last season, and when he forced his way out of town, Minnesota didn't bring in a replacement star. Now, Towns is forced to try to make this work with a rejuvenated Derrick Rose, the least productive version of Andrew Wiggins to date and a 38 percent-shooting Jeff Teague.
New Orleans Pelicans: 90-1
You could copy and paste the Towns/Timberwolves section here only with exaggerations on both the individual strength and the underwhelming supporting cast.
Anthony Davis is crashing the "best player on the planet" discussions with, among other things, 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.6 blocks and a league-leading 30.1 player efficiency rating. Only seven players—including a younger Brow—have posted a 30-plus PER in the 2000s. The only player to ever average a 28/13/4/2 stat line was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"If he's not the MVP, he's going to be right there," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. "... The guy is a breathtaking talent. He's a great, great player."
Davis, though, is once again lacking proper support from the other Pelicans. Jrue Holiday is solid, but he's not a star-level sidekick. Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic complement Davis in different ways, but it's tricky playing all three together. The small forward spot perpetually disappoints, and the non-Randle reserves are unreliable.
Crazier Things Have Happened
Charlotte Hornets: 90-1
The Hornets have been both unlucky and victims of their own roster mismanagement. Their eight losses in games decided by three points or fewer feel a bit fluky when only two other teams have more than five (Chicago and Detroit have six each). But when there's basically one viable offensive weapon on the floor, crunch-time offense can get a tad predictable.
Kemba Walker has done nothing to quiet trade speculation or lessen Charlotte's commitment to him, pairing a career-best 25.9 points per game with 6.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds. While Jeremy Lamb and Malik Monk are the only other double-digit scorers, there's enough depth behind them to make this a top-10 attack. But those late-game lapses have made the Hornets the league's only team with a top-10 net rating and a losing record.
Los Angeles Clippers: 90-1
Put Doc Rivers on the list of Coach of the Year candidates. The Clippers don't have a star and do have a bunch of players on short-term contracts, so the front office can keep dreaming about next summer's free-agent stars. And yet, this seventh-rated offense stays connected to pile on the points.
Tobias Harris keeps getting better. Danilo Gallinari is showing what he can do when he stays healthy. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell look like steals. The lack of star power and clear future focus will eventually catch up to them, but the Clippers appear playoff-bound.
Portland Trail Blazers: 80-1
The Blazers will be good as long as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are on the roster. How many other teams can count on 20-plus efficient points from both starting guards every night?
But Portland will never be really good until they correct serious roster flaws. The defense has tailed off from last season. The second team is suspect. The forwards are—as always—short on shooting and off-the-dribble creating. This franchise needs to cut costs and balance the team; the only question is whether that can happen without moving one of Lillard or McCollum.
Utah Jazz: 70-1
Surprised to see the 18-19 Jazz listed this high? The stats say you shouldn't be. Utah boasts the 12th-best net rating, a respectable number that seems like it has upward mobility since neither Donovan Mitchell nor this defense is playing up to their potential. Based on scoring differential, that record should be 21-16.
All of Utah's sharpest defensive weapons are back from last season, and the offense is better spaced with Kyle Korver in town. If Mitchell rights the ship—the volume is there, but his efficiency lacks a bit—the Jazz could again emerge as the team no one would enjoy drawing in the postseason.
San Antonio Spurs: 70-1
It's happening, everybody. Despite having a shortage of outside shooters and an analytically disinclined abundance of mid-range operators, the Spurs are somehow Spursing again. No team has a better net rating (plus-10.4) or better offense (116.3!) in December, which has included wins over the Blazers, Lakers, Jazz, Clippers (twice), 76ers and Nuggets.
San Antonio's lack of three-point volume is worrisome. It's not like this is an elite defense by any stretch, so the Spurs have a razor-thin margin for error if forced to play catch-up. But all Gregg Popovich does is win, and the Aldridge-DeMar DeRozan duo should be strong enough to lead a playoff push.
Indiana Pacers: 60-1
For anyone who expected the still Paul George-less Indiana Pacers to come back to earth, they'd like to teach you something about their new norm.
This defense has improbably become the NBA's best. It's not especially large or intimidating, although interior anchor Myles Turner may qualify as both. It doesn't have a wing stopper in the George/Metta World Peace mold, but Victor Oladipo typically blankets his assignment. With communication and crisp rotations, they've made the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
"We don't have great length and we don't have great speed, but you're a lot faster when you're in the right place," assistant coach Dan Burke told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth.
Indy takes away the easy ones. The Pacers allow the third-fewest paint points and sixth-fewest second-chance scores. As a result, their 50.1 effective field-goal percentage is No. 1. Defend like this, and you have a chance to win every night. Indy's .667 winning percentage is the third-best this franchise has produced in the 2000s.
But this team has question marks. The offense is trending the wrong way (18th in efficiency, 11th last season), and there are no obvious ways for it to reverse course. Oladipo's declining shooting rates are more in line with his career percentages, Tyreke Evans is turning back into a pumpkin and Turner doesn't seem like he'll ever make the leap to No. 2 option.
Denver Nuggets: 40-1
The Denver Nuggets have top-10 rankings on offense and defense, plus an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic.
"I think Nikola is showing everybody in the NBA ... that he is a most valuable player candidate," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told Mike Singer of the Denver Post. "Not just from a stats standpoint, but he does it every single night in so many different ways. That's why he's a special player."
Jokic has been incredible. It's rare to see anyone average 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. But it's almost unheard of for a 7-footer. Should Jokic maintain those marks, he'd join Wilt Chamberlain as the only 7'0" tall members of the 18/9/7 club.
Denver's roster has almost everything you'd want in a contender. The depth behind Jokic can be overwhelming. Seven different Nuggets average double-digit points—five of whom shoot better than 47 percent from the field. Most defenders are interchangeable, and no team fares better on the glass.
But there are a couple of reasons to pause with the Nuggets, starting with the lack of a 20-point scorer. Denver's egalitarian approach might be hard to handle, but you wonder if this club has anyone it's consistently comfortable playing through offensively late in games. And while this defense ranks seventh overall, it's hard to imagine that ranking without any level of skepticism after last year's No. 23 finish.
The Nuggets are also just 14-10 since they sprinted to a 9-1 start. While injuries have contributed to that deceleration, the inconsistency makes one question if this more of a good-to-really-good team than a great one.
Los Angeles Lakers: 30-1
While we were busy questioning (OK, mocking) the Los Angeles Lakers' post-LeBron James moves this summer, we forgot to ask ourselves a critical question: Did the rest of the summer even matter?
They signed LeBron bleepin' James. Self-proclaimed GOAT. Architect of eight consecutive Finals trips. Top-five scorer and top-15 distributor all-time. Statistically speaking, maybe the most valuable player ever.
Opening free agency by inking LeBron is like clubbing multiple grand slams in the first inning. Sure, there's more game to play, but how are you not winning—and winning big?
This isn't to say the Lakers are the NBA's best team but more to suggest they don't have to be to make a ton of noise this season. James' presence gives them a chance against anyone. There is not a more transformative talent in the game, as Ben Golliver wrote in early December for the Washington Post:
"Consider: The Cavaliers are on track to win 18 games after winning 50 with James last year, while the Lakers are on pace for 49 wins this year after winning just 35 last year. Even the nit-pickers who point to James's increasingly lax approach on defense must admit that there aren't many players in NBA history who could potentially swing a combined 46 wins with a single summer decision."
The Lakers still need a second star (or more) to compete for the crown, but the supporting cast looks better than expected, and the youngsters have a chance to speed up their development during the time James misses with a groin strain.
Houston Rockets: 25-1
The Houston Rockets don't have their two-way wings from a year ago. They don't have a healthy Chris Paul (hamstring) or a particularly effective version even when he's played. They don't have Carmelo Anthony, since that experiment flopped after 10 games. They don't even have a 40 percent shooting Eric Gordon, which before this year felt like a certainty.
But Houston still has James Harden, who's possibly the most potent offensive force in the profession.
His latest nine-game stretch looks like a museum-quality masterpiece: 40.6 points, 5.7 threes on 40.5 percent shooting, 8.4 assists, 6.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals per contest. The Rockets, who were two games under .500 before the Beard went berserk, have won eight of those contests, dropping only a two-point decision in South Beach.
"Somebody said the other day that we can only win if he scores 40," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters. "OK, that's kind of a bad thing, but the good thing is he can score 40 every night, so we're OK with that."
Houston, of course, needs to get Paul back to normal to even approach its ceiling. And a lengthy playoff run won't happen unless something changes with this 25th-ranked defense.
That said, the Rockets have the three best players back from last season's group, which followed a 65-win campaign by getting within one victory of the Finals. The pieces are presumably in place to make these odds appear comically bad.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 25-1
The Oklahoma City Thunder are what you picture when you think of a suffocating defense.
With Carmelo Anthony out and the 6'9" Jerami Grant in, the starting unit has absurd amounts of length and athleticism. Paul George and, when healthy, Andre Roberson are on a short list of the league's stingiest stoppers. Steven Adams is a mobile barricade around the basket. Newcomers Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel and Hamidou Diallo have increased the unit's versatility.
"Coach Billy Donovan now has the defense moving on a string and always ready to rotate, making the Thunder appear to the top team that can contend with the Golden State Warriors in the West," Mohammad Dakhil wrote for the Washington Post.
This defense is as disruptive as they come. No one forces more steals, gets more deflections or turns teams over at a higher rate. Only six clubs contest more shots. All of this feeds directly into the offense in the form of 17.2 fast-break points per game, the sixth-most in the NBA.
The Thunder need all the open-court opportunities they can get, too, because if anything worries you about this club, it's the 20th-ranked offense.
That ranking feels impossibly low when George is authoring a career year and Russell Westbrook continues to add to his historic triple-double count. But this might be the league's worst shooting team: 15th in field-goal percentage, 30th in three-point percentage, 28th in free-throw percentage. The lack of spacing limits everything this offense can do, and Roberson's return from knee rehab might make it even worse.
Philadelphia 76ers: 25-1
The Philadelphia 76ers are strange and fatally flawed in the eyes of some. They're also overloaded with the type of talent that could produce a terrifying two-way power if given enough time and the right environment.
This is already a top-10 team by winning percentage (seventh) and net efficiency (ninth). Big deal, right? Well, it kind of is once you remember the three most critical pieces are: 24-year-old Joel Embiid (129 career games), 22-year-old Ben Simmons (117 career appearances) and newcomer Jimmy Butler (20 games with this team).
(If you took that even further, you could talk yourself into the idea that Markelle Fultz and rookies Landry Shamet and Zhaire Smith will all be among the team's 10 most important players by the time this is finished.)
In other words, the Sixers are both an established power and a work in progress. Their basement might be in the conference semis and their ceiling has no limits.
"They have a great team," Lillard told reporters. "They have three great players in Embiid, Butler and Simmons. They have shooters around them. ... They have some developing young players and Wilson Chandler coming off the bench. They have a really talented team."
Philly needs more shooting—both from its stars and the supporting cast. The Butler deal depleted the depth a bit, and that will either need to be replenished internally or through trades or the buyout market. The Embiid-Butler dynamic on offense must continue to be smoothed out. But betting on talent is always smart, and Philly has an abundance of it.
Milwaukee Bucks: 19-1
The Milwaukee Bucks might only send a single All-Star to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 17. Their best scorer, distributor and rebounder is all the same player, which is a testament to the across-the-board dominance of Antetokounmpo but also a sign of how special he must be for the Bucks to qualify as such.
And yet, when you go to poke holes in Milwaukee's championship chances, the stat sheet makes it almost impossible.
The Bucks have the best winning percentage and net rating. They're the only club with top-five ranks on offense and defense. Even if Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez aren't All-Stars, there's so much to like with their production and impact.
And Antetokounmpo...what can you even say? Save for outside shooting, the 24-year-old phenom is elite in essentially everything. His 29.0 PER is second only to Anthony Davis'. Antetokounmpo's stat line of 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists has only been previously produced once, by Oscar Robertson.
As SB Nation's Tom Ziller sees it, Antetokounmpo is in the MVP driver's seat:
"He has every ingredient on the MVP shopping list. Giannis is one of the purest talents in the league. He's young and getting better. This is the best he's ever been. He is playing on one of the league's best teams. His team has improved massively over last season (on pace for 13 additional wins). He has showstopper highlights. He seems like a good, wholesome dude. The numbers are incredible. He hasn't already been feted at this level."
Maybe Milwaukee will eventually get burned by the lack of secondary stars, but the combination of Antetokounmpo and coach Mike Budenholzer is making basketball magic a regular occurrence.
Boston Celtics: 14-1
Between injuries and role adjustments, the Boston Celtics have struggled to find opportunities to create chemistry. Most of this core isn't as productive as it was last season, and while volume reductions were expected, much of the nucleus has lost efficiency, too. Gordon Hayward hasn't been himself. Some of the youngsters have had difficulty moving back down the pecking order after shining during the playoffs.
It's been a transition, like anyone should have anticipated given everything this group experienced over the last 18 months.
But it's also getting better. Boston is 9-4 in December with the month's second-best offense and third-highest net rating. Sure, a softening schedule has helped, but so did Al Horford's return from a knee injury, Kyrie Irving's 40-piece on Christmas and continued torrid shooting from Marcus Morris, who has a shot at becoming the least likely 50/40/90 club member ever.
The defense is elite, as per usual. The coaching is top-notch. The depth is potentially incredible, assuming all the pieces eventually fit the same puzzle. The trade chips are there if Boston determines some type of change is needed. Basically, all signs indicate the Shamrocks will reach their anticipated juggernaut status.
"The best version of the Celtics ... can win the East and give the Warriors a series in the Finals," CBSSports.com's Reid Forgrave wrote.
Toronto Raptors: 10-1
Remember the Kawhi Leonard from before his messy divorce from the San Antonio Spurs? The player who, over his first six NBA seasons, won a championship, earned Finals MVP, secured two Defensive Player of the Year awards and once averaged 25.5 points on a near-50/40/90 shooting line?
Well, despite all the worries you may have had over the last year-plus, that player is all the way back. Truth be told, the Toronto Raptors version of Leonard could be the best we've seen.
"That is such an anomaly," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Bleacher Report recently. "I don't think the average fan knows how difficult that is to miss that much time and then step in and be every bit of who you were before—if not more."
The Leonard-led Raptors look ready for a long playoff run.
They have a legitimate MVP candidate in Leonard and an All-Star sidekick in Kyle Lowry. They have a horde of long-limbed, athletic defenders who can make life miserable on the opposition. They have a center for any situation: Jonas Valanciunas for bruisers, Serge Ibaka for perimeter bigs, Pascal Siakam for super-small-ball lineups. They arguably have the NBA's best bench, especially if CJ Miles ever rediscovers his stroke.
It's almost hard to imagine that anyone has better championship odds than these Raptors...until you remember one club may soon have an All-Star at every spot.
Golden State Warriors: 8-9
The Golden State Warriors haven't looked like themselves for most of this season.
Three more losses would give them the second-most they've had under Steve Kerr, who's been in the Bay since 2014. Their 15th-ranked defense is as low as it's been since Mark Jackson's first season behind the wheel (2011-12). Remember when this core would never lose consecutive games? It's already done so five times, including the first-ever four-game losing streak under Kerr in November.
For any other team, those might sound like reasons for alarm. For the Dubs, they feel like facts and nothing more.
This team has become near-impossible to evaluate. The Warriors are constantly fighting against themselves: the historic standards they've set, the inevitable complacency after winning three titles in four years, the occasional flare-up that gets magnified under their unique microscope.
Don't get us wrong, there are basketball issues to address. Clearly, this is not championship-level defense. The reserve unit runs light on shooting and experience. The regular-season workloads for Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are going up. Draymond Green's offense is going haywire.
"We're not invincible by any stretch of the imagination," Curry said, per Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin. "It takes a different level of preparation and a different level of discipline that we need to really right the ship to get to the level that we expect to be."
Or maybe it just takes the stakes being raised by moving into the playoffs. Or the lift from finally seeing what four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins can add to this club.
As long as their health cooperates, the Warriors remain the odds-on favorite to raise another championship banner into the rafters.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.