2021 NBA Playoffs: Seven Futures Bets with Value Before the Playoff Seedings Set
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Pictured: LeBron James.
The NBA Play-In Tournament is less than a week away. The new twist to the NBA structure, combined with a brutal season structure that had decimated teams with injuries and destabilized the standings power structure, has opened up a wealth of new possibilities for how this might go.
There are two competing lines of thought when it comes to the NBA playoffs this season:
- The regular season has never been more de-emphasized, and when the actual games count, we’ll see the same star-laden superteams rising to the top that we expected in preseason. We’ll call this the “Bet The Narrative” paradigm.
- This year is complete chaos, and chaos is a ladder. This could be one of those strange seasons like 1999 where the 8th-seeded Knicks reached the Finals. We’ll call this the Chaos Paradigm.
With those two paradigms in mind, here’s a look at the best futures to get in on before the standings set and the playoffs begin next Saturday.
BET THE NARRATIVE
LAKERS +500 TO WIN NBA TITLE (PointsBet):
LeBron will eventually return. Anthony Davis looks more like himself.
The Lakers are the defending champs and for much of the season were a top-3 seed before the injuries hit.
But more importantly, “The Lakers won the title” is one of the most common phrases in NBA history. If you bet $100 on the Lakers every single season since 2000, despite a five-year run that was the worst in franchise history, you would still be up $350.
You can always talk yourself into reasons why the Lakers aren’t going to win, and then more times than not, they do.
You can argue that this isn’t an empirical approach designed to find edges. It’s not. That’s the point.
Often in NBA history, events shape themselves towards the narrative. It’s a baffling thing in a sport that has more tracked, observable possessions than any other, but somehow, the arc of history bends towards the story, not what the data suggests.
You’re getting LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers with the No.1 defense in the league despite all the injuries at 5-1. That’s value.
LAKERS-NETS FINALS MATCHUP +550 (BetMGM):
If the NBA playoffs are dominated by the best players (and they are), then getting LeBron vs. Kevin Durant at +550 is value. Consider that this was +700 in preseason, and that’s incredible value.
If we consider the difference in playoff teams and regular-season teams, the Nets are better built than any other East team to come out on top of the conference. The Lakers are still the Lakers. This is the preseason favorite, we’re through the regular season, the Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis back, and the Clippers continue to show some concerns when it comes to chemistry and leadership (though they are better this season).
Say these things out loud:
“The Utah Jazz beat LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-seven series.”
“The Milwaukee Bucks beat Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving in a best-of-seven series.”
It just doesn’t sound right.
At +550, this is still the most likely outcome for the Finals.
PACIFIC TO BEAT ATLANTIC (+240)/ ATLANTIC TO BEAT PACIFIC (+260):
Cover your bases.
Clippers, Lakers, and Suns vs. Nets and Sixers. As long as the Bucks, who have been playoff disappointments two years in a row, don’t finally make The Run, you’re good, or as long as the Jazz don’t overcome every piece of evidence we have about the identities of playoff teams, you’re good.
You can bet this both ways and likely profit, no matter who wins the Finals. Or you can take one side, and when the Finals come around, provided we were right on these two divisions representing, you can take the other side. If we assume the Nets would be favored over the Lakers or Clippers, you can take Atlantic to beat Pacific now and then bet the other team as a dog, comfortably.
PHOENIX SUNS STAGE OF ELIMINATION , FIRST-ROUND +225 (BetMGM):
Right now, the Suns are 86.5% to be the 2-seed in the Western Conference via our Action Network projections. The Lakers are 61% to be the 7-seed and will be favored in the first round of the play-in tournament (likely vs. the Warriors).
The Lakers would be favorites vs. the Suns in that situation. How much? The Suns would have homecourt, a better net rating, etc. that would influence the price. The Lakers are banged up, but are a supremely public team; finding a number where the books don’t get hammered by the public or sharps would be a challenge.
It’s unlikely the Suns would be greater than +200 in those situations so you’re getting a 25% ROI edge if you’re looking to bet the Lakers in that series.
Now, of course, that requires the Lakers and Suns to be the matchup. If it’s the Warriors, Golden State is a larger dog. If it’s Portland, same deal. So that’s the risk here, you’re trying to project how these last three games will go. The Mavericks can lose out and slide to seventh. The Blazers can lose two of three and finish seventh.
But bear in mind that the Suns are 28th in defensive rating in their last 15 games, and 21st in net rating. They are sliding. They still have to be favorites because of homecourt and how they’ve played.
You can wait to be sure, wait for that Lakers-Suns matchup and bet the Lakers as a shorter favorite than you would have expected preseason. But if you’re looking for an edge, this is one.
UTAH JAZZ TO WIN NBA TITLE +325 (FanDuel):
Let me take you back to 1999. The Knicks made the Finals as an 8-seed and faced the San Antonio Spurs, in the first of five championships for the Spurs.
The Spurs were the 1-seed in a lockout-shortened, weird, grind-it-out season. They beat the Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal in the second round and swept the Blazers in the conference finals before beating the upstart Knicks. The Spurs were just the best team that year, by any advanced metric and by overall record … just like the Jazz.
President of Basketball Operations Dennis Lindsay is a former member of the Spurs organization. Quin Snyder coached the Spurs’ G-League affiliate, then the Austin Toros.
I’m not saying that’s enough to make the comparison because, you know, you’re missing Tim Duncan in this equation.
But this is the model, maybe this year, the narrative isn’t the play. Maybe history doesn’t matter in a COVID-ravaged, mostly-fanless, messy-as-hell season. Maybe it just really is about who the best team is. The Jazz are first in net rating, fourth in offense and third in defense. They are third in eFG%; they can shoot. Donovan Mitchell can hit pull-up shots; he’s the most efficient among qualified shooters.
The Jazz being able to thread the needle and win it this year would be very Spurs-like, taking advantage of the one window they have.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS (+800) TO WIN NBA TITLE (FanDuel):
Now, a caveat: You’re likely better off here betting the Bucks series by series and rolling it over. They will be favorites in the first round but dogs vs. the Nets and dogs vs. the Sixers. You can roll that over and come out with a bigger net, most likely.
If you’re wondering how, it’s pretty simple. The Bucks have lost two seasons in a row to teams with two defining characteristics: unbelievably hot shooting and defensive versatility coupled with the athleticism necessary to “form a wall” vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Nets obviously pass the shooting component. The Bucks are surprisingly good at containing primary threats in series (OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Duncan Robinson) but then get torched by the other guys (Fred VanVleet coming off his worst season shooting, Jae Crowder).
The Nets, however, don’t give you a good choice. Contain Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant as the ball handler, and you have to guard the other on the perimeter, and then you also have to guard Joe Harris. This is where Milwaukee’s improved versatility comes into play. They’ve played more zone. They’ve played more switch. They’ve blitzed more.
Milwaukee is more versatile than ever, which helps at least some. Meanwhile, though the Nets have a nice defensive versatility, they don’t have the bodies to contain Giannis. DeAndre Jordan will struggle in transition, and Nic Claxton will struggle in halfcourt, despite being a great switch defender. Jrue Holiday provides another on-ball creator you can trust.
Then the Sixers present the opposite problem: They can build the wall but lack the shooting (25th in 3-pointers made per 100 possessions) and don’t have the versatility.
In a Finals matchup, the Bucks actually match up favorably with both the Lakers and Clippers, given their athleticism, isolation defense and 3-point volume.
At this point, Milwaukee is being undervalued at this price.
LAKERS +850 TO MISS THE PLAYOFFS (DraftKings):
No, no, I know. I know. Just … no, I know … Look. … No … Just hear me out, OK?!
That’s it. The Lakers can’t finish worse than seventh. They might finish sixth, and then this is dead. And again, you might get better value just betting the moneyline on their 7-vs.-8 opponent and then on their opponent in the 7-8-loser-vs.-9-10-winner game.
But LeBron James tried to come back from injury once and immediately went out again. Anthony Davis grabs at about 10 injured body parts per game and falls down twice as often.
If they face the Warriors and Curry goes off for 40 while James isn’t 100%, and then they just happen to have a bad shooting night while Memphis or San Antonio has a good one … that’s it.
I can’t reasonably suggest this, but I have to mention it. You would think if the Lakers were in the final play-in game vs. Memphis, LeBron and Davis would combine to shoot 50 free throws. But if chaos is a ladder, this is the topmost rung.