Buying or Selling Fringe NBA Playoff Teams' Odds to Make Postseason
The race for the NBA's final playoff spots is reaching fever pitch. This is to say, it's becoming complete and utter chaos.
Not even opponents of the play-in tournament can deny its impact on the tail end of the regular season. All except six teams are still competing for something—an incredible number with fewer than 10 games to go. Whether the play-in tournament becomes a rousing TV-ratings success is a separate matter, but it's having the intended effect on the competitive landscape.
Figuring out which squads will grab the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in either conference is harder than ever as a result. So many different scenarios are in play. Accounting for them all is liable to leave anyone with a migraine.
Fortunately for us, the oddsmakers over at FanDuel are making it a little easier to juggle the pool of possibilities. They have, effectively, already removed teams from the bet slip.
Options like the Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors have been bounced given their recent play, and FanDuel has ostensibly decided squads such as the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers are guaranteed one of their conference's top-eight spots.
What's left is a list of six fringe-postseason hopefuls, each of which has odds on whether they'll make the playoffs. Please note, we're not buying or selling their potential to bag a play-in spot. We're instead trying to decide which team from the East and West will procure the final "available" top-eight slot in their conference.
San Antonio Spurs (+390)
Holding a somewhat comfortable lead over the 11th-place New Orleans Pelicans doesn't bode all that well for the 10th-place San Antonio Spurs. They should make the play-in tournament, but to what end?
San Antonio's season has started veering off the rails. Since getting to six games over .500 in the middle of March, the Spurs are 9-17 with the No. 20 offense and No. 22 defense. Generating buckets without DeMar DeRozan on the court has been a chore. Preventing them when he's in the game has been equally, if not more, difficult.
Derrick White's sprained right ankle only complicates the Spurs' situation. He's not expected to play again this season, and they don't have someone to supplant the work he does on the ball.
Not surprisingly, replacing him with Devin Vassell in the starting five has not proven tenable at the offensive end. San Antonio wants for primary and secondary creators more than ever beyond DeRozan, Dejounte Murray and stuck-in-the-throes-of-a-super-slump Patty Mills.
Sneaking into the actual postseason feels more than unlikely at this rate. The Spurs aren't sliding into the seventh or eighth spot when they're up against the league's second toughest schedule, according to Positive Residual. And they certainly don't look like a team capable of beating the Memphis Grizzlies and then picking up another victory against one of the Warriors, Blazers, Mavericks or Los Angeles Lakers.
Memphis Grizzlies (+155)
Who else whiffed on the Grizzlies this season?
They were seemingly primed to take a step back after a plucky close to the 2019-20 campaign. They have instead spent the entire year hovering around (and above) .500 despite missing Jaren Jackson Jr. for most of the season—he debuted on April 21—and dealing with an array of other injuries and absences.
What Memphis lacks in dependable offensive firepower it makes up for with punch-you-in-the-face defensive efforts. Also: It may have more offensive firepower than it seems. The Grizzlies are ninth in points scored per 100 possessions since April 1, during which time the entire team is canning nearly 39 percent of its triples.
Reaching these heights without getting a major leap from Ja Morant is absolutely huge. (Morant is draining almost 40 percent of his threes since April 1.) It gives Memphis a higher-variance ceiling. What happens if Jackson starts hitting more of his threes? Or if Justise Winslow is more than a zero on offense?
Throwing money on the Grizzlies' make-the-postseason odds is far from a bad investment. Their roster is peppered with underappreciated players galore. Desmond Bane has given them a potent floor-spacing weapon. Kyle Anderson's improved three-ball has dropped off over the past month-plus, but he remains Mr. Jack of Most Trades. Jonas Valanciunas might be the most underrated big man in basketball.
This still feels like a "Get to seventh or eighth place or bust" situation. Memphis shouldn't fear San Antonio in a No. 9 vs. 10 matchup, but having to win that game and then face the Blazers or Warriors, if not the Mavericks or Lakers, is a harrowing scenario.
Getting two cracks at the apple would be more palatable, and the Grizzlies have time regain that position. They're neck and neck with the eighth-place Warriors, who they are slated to play on the final day of the regular season.
And yet, penciling in Memphis means writing off a team that has Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard or, less likely, Luka Doncic or LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Even if we assume the Grizzlies pull the Warriors, the weakest of the West's seven-or-eight hopefuls other than the Spurs, I personally can't bring myself to bet against Steph.
Verdict: (Hesitantly) Sell
Golden State Warriors (-110)
Golden State does not have the body of work that warrants paying out less than even money in this discussion. It could very easily find itself in Spurs territory depending on how a closing kick versus the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Pelicans and Grizzlies pans out.
Rather than outright, impugnable faith in the Warriors as a whole, these odds scream "Stephen Curry exists!"
And, well, he does.
Curry is having the type of stretch—entire season, really—that makes you wonder when the mothership will call him home. Since missing five consecutive games with a bruised tailbone at the end of March, he's averaging—and this is a not a typo—36.8 points and 4.9 assists per game while converting 58.8 percent of his twos and 45.9 percent of his threes. The Warriors have outscored opponents by a total of 96 points during his time on the court over this supernova run.
Non-Steph minutes remain a killer, but Golden State is gaining some momentum on the competency scale. It has a top-three defense over its past 15 games, along with the league's second-highest effective field-goal percentage on offense. Kent Bazemore has found his touch from beyond the arc in a big way.
Injuries and absences from Damion Lee (health and safety protocols), Kelly Oubre Jr. (wrist), Eric Paschall (hip) and James Wiseman (knee) are ill-timed, but it has forced the Warriors to trot out lineups that create more mismatches and spacing. The new starting five—Curry, Bazemore, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney—is nuking opponents.
Bettors can find more confidence in the remaining schedule. Sort of. Golden State has one of the seven easiest slates remaining, but that four-game stretch to finish the year (outlined above) could derail everything.
Then again, only one of those teams may have something for which to play. The Jazz and Suns seem to have a floor of the No. 2 seed, and the Pelicans are on the verge of Thanos-snapping themselves out of meaningful games.
Charlotte Hornets (+138)
Miles Bridges' entry into the league's health and safety protocols couldn't come at a more inopportune time. Not only are the Charlotte Hornets fighting for their postseason livelihood, but he's also been wrecking defenses for more than a month.
On the bright side, LaMelo Ball is back from his fractured right wrist. He instantly adds steadying captaincy to both the transition and half-court attacks. If the initial timeline on Gordon Hayward's right foot sprain winds up accurate, he should be re-entering the fold soon, too.
Even at close to full strength, Charlotte is built to manipulate defenses. Ball is only part of the appeal. Devonte' Graham continues to inject some off-the-dribble juice, and Terry Rozier is a stud when he's not forced to be the heart and soul of the team's playmaking. Malik Monk's own return looms large if neither Bridges nor Hayward will be available down the stretch.
Less certainty is found on the defensive end, particularly during the stints in which the Hornets play small. They rank 18th in points allowed per 100 possessions on the season, and that feels like a gift.
It might not be. Charlotte defends with a rhyme and reason. It does a great job creating turnovers without fouling, and head coach James Borrego has implemented a system that catches opponents off-guard with its variety. As Action Network's Matt Moore wrote;
"They rank second in switches this season, and third in points allowed using the switch. The Hornets are also No. 1 in the percentage of times using zone, and seventh in the league in points per possession allowed using zone, fourth among teams with at least 100 zone possessions defended."
"Relevant to this? The weakness in switching is always the big getting matched up on the smaller player, but Cody Zeller, PJ Washington, and Bismack Biyombo (!) are all top 12 in fewest points allowed per possession when switching."
My heart wants to buy the Hornets. My head says otherwise. Too much is left to chance with Bridges and Hayward still out of the rotation. Charlotte might concede the No. 8 spot. Even if it doesn't, it may end up having to beat one of Boston, Miami and Washington to get through. Having two chances to get that W is great. Actually bagging it isn't a given.
Indiana Pacers (+160)
Thanks to a post-trade-deadline slide from the Chicago Bulls and the Toronto Raptors seemingly trotting out a new starting lineup every night, the Indiana Pacers are assured of a spot inside the play-in tournament.
They aren't guaranteed anything else.
Scattered availability has threatened to torpedo their season. It would take less time, at this point, to rattle off the names of everyone who hasn't missed significant time.
Myles Turner's rash of injuries has consigned the Pacers to their roller coaster more than anything else. (T.J. Warren also hasn't played since Dec. 29.) He kicked off April missing six games with a sprained left ankle and then returned to the shelf indefinitely after hurting the big toe on his right foot.
Indiana is actually around .500 over this span but has seen its defense implode amid hazy efforts and shifting approaches. It ranks 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions since Turner's initial absence and has struggled to do everything from crashing the glass to avoiding fouls.
Caris LeVert has more pep in his step, and the Pacers do rank eighth in offensive efficiency over their past 15 games. But that means only so much when they're giving a lot of it back at the other end. Their performance in a 154-141 regulation loss to the Wizards on May 3 was alarming. No team is allowing opponents to take a larger percentage of their shots at the rim during this 15-game stretch—though Indy is fifth in actual rim protection—and teams are binging on second-chance opportunities against them.
Among the Eastern Conference's main play-in options, the Pacers are the deepest. It just doesn't seem like that depth will be available to them in full—a gargantuan problem given when they'll need to pick up two victories to snag a postseason bid.
Washington Wizards (+164)
Break. Up. The. Wizards.
I'm only sort of kidding.
Washington has been on a heater since beginning April with a four-game losing streak. It's 13-3 over the past 16 contests, with a top-six offense and—gulp—top-eight defense.
Reflexive wisdom suggests this hot streak can't hold. The offense is mostly believable. Bradley Beal is doing Bradley Beal things. Ditto for Davis Bertans.
Russell Westbrook has gone full Monstar at the right time. He's shooting 68.2 percent inside the restricted area during this stretch, up from 63.3 percent, and has cut down on some of the non-paint twos he doesn't hit at a high clip. His capacity to send defenses into a tizzy when going downhill persists. He recently said that he played through a torn quad earlier this year, so it makes sense his play has ticked up.
The Wizards defense is harder to comprehend. Except, maybe not. Their opponent three-point shooting has started to normalize. Rival offenses were drilling 38 percent of their above-the-break threes prior to Washington's tear. That number has dipped below 36 percent now. The trio of Daniel Gafford, Alex Len and Robin Lopez has beefed up their rim protection. Raul Neto leases out space in his opponent's jersey.
In other words: The Wizards' rise may be more authentic than artificial. Good thing, too. Their schedule doesn't offer any breaks. They're about to embark on a five-game road trip that'll pit them against the Milwaukee Bucks, Raptors, Pacers and Atlanta Hawks (twice). They will close the season against a Hornets team that should have something to play for, too.
Maybe tabbing them for the East's final spot is recency bias of the highest order. It's meant to be a vote of confidence in the Wizards' talent at the top. Remove Boston and Miami from the equation, and Washington might have the two best players out of all these fringe-postseason hopefuls. That matters.