It’s panic station in Oklahoma City. The Thunder were blown out by the Magic last night, and the ripples in their team chemistry are starting to show.
Westbrook just appeared to stinkeye George after George threw him a poor pass. George didn't look too pleased either.
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) November 30, 2017
With Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George teaming up, Oklahoma City opened the season at +2150 to beat the Warriors to the NBA championship. Twenty games and an 8-12 record both straight up and against the spread later, and they don’t look anything like a championship contender.
The Thunder have all but ruled themselves out as a threat to the Warriors, so who’s left?
Warriors vs. The Field
The Warriors are -167 favorites to win back-to-back NBA championships. With a roster so talented that it could lose any one of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant or Draymond Green and still be title favorites, the Warriors are one of the great teams in the history of the league.
Nobody would question the fact they’re the odds-on favorites to win in June, but as we’ve seen so often in the world of sports: Always expect the unexpected.
It may be due to an injury, a form slump, or the possibility that their usually harmonious locker room divides like the Red Sea. Anything could happen that allows another team to come through and steal the title.
The field is paying +135, but realistically, “the field” can be narrowed down to four teams.
Cleveland Cavaliers (+500)
The Cavaliers are odds-on favorites to win the Eastern Conference and give us our fourth straight installment of the Cleveland vs. Golden State NBA Finals series.
After their traditional slow start, the Cavs have won nine in a row. They’ve been quick to put to bed any doubts they wouldn’t be a contender, and they’ve done so without Isaiah Thomas.
We don’t know what the Cavaliers look like with Thomas in the starting lineup, but history suggests they will do just fine.
IT’s defensive frailties will be the biggest thing to monitor. Throughout the nine-game winning streak, the Cavaliers have produced a serviceable 100.5 defensive rating. That will no doubt rise, but so will their 110.9 offensive rating over the last nine games. The 2016-17 Celtics delivered a 113.6 offensive rating with Thomas on the court (+5 net rating).
LeBron James always finds a way to get the most out of those around him. Maximizing Thomas is a new challenge, but one we can’t assume is beyond The King’s powers.
The Cavaliers will have had two months on the court to prepare themselves for the introduction of Thomas’ defensive shortcomings. They’ll find a way to deal with them.
Expect them to be on the second line of betting throughout the season and Golden State’s most likely finals opponent.
Boston Celtics (+1000)
It only took five minutes before Boston’s championship hopes were supposedly dashed. When Gordon Hayward went down, the chances of the Celtics pushing the Warriors and Cavaliers seemed to take a dive. But after posting an 18-2 record since dropping the first two games of the season, the Celtics are forcing themselves back into the conversation.
With a 17-4-1 record against the spread, the Celtics have been the most profitable team in the NBA so far, but a look to the future doesn’t hold the same financial reward.
Even if the Celtics manage to reach the conference finals and dethrone King James, this team in its current form isn’t the one to beat the Warriors.
Defensively they are sound, but in the pressure-cooker setting of a finals series, getting the ball in the basket enough to out-score the Warriors is a step too far. Not only that, but the Celtics rely heavily on two youngsters, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s not wise to rely on them to produce four wins against one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport.
Houston Rockets (+1000)
As far as going point-for-point with the Warriors, the Rockets are the only team in the league that has a chance.
Houston’s high-powered offense spits out 113.9 points per game with a 115.07 offensive rating (per Basketball Reference) – second only to Golden State at 117.3 and 115.51.
James Harden is putting in an MVP season, leading the Rockets to the best record in the West heading into December. He leads the league in points (32.5) and assist per game (9.8) as well as usage rate (35.8%) and win shares (5.1).
After bringing Chris Paul into the backcourt, it was assumed the Rockets would struggle with two ball-dominant guards. At the very least there would be teething issues.
Well, we were all wrong.
Chris Paul and James Harden have now played six games together.
They've combined to score or assist on 531 points (factoring in when they assist one another) in them.
The Rockets are 6-0 and score an average of 121.3. Their MOV is 18.0.
Seems to be working out.
— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) November 28, 2017
The Harden and Paul backcourt has been outstanding, and the more they play together, the shorter these +1000 odds are going to get.
Furthermore, with a 104.28 defensive rating, the Rockets are ahead of the Warriors at 105.68. Boredom and a lack of interest account for Golden State’s inflated defensive rating, but it’s time to start taking Houston seriously as a dark horse threat in the West.
San Antonio Spurs (+1600)
Given their history, their coach, and the 14-7 record they’ve manufactured without All-Star Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have to be in the conversation.
They can never be ruled out, and with LaMarcus Aldridge finding his feet for 23.1 points per game on a career-high 52.1 percent shooting, Leonard has a reliable right-hand man upon his return.
Totally lost in his playoff struggles last year and Spurs being out of spotlight: LaMarcus has been AWESOME this year. 59% TS, 6th in PER
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) November 30, 2017
In his 21 seasons prior to 2017-18, Greg Popovich only missed the playoffs once – his first season. San Antonio are the masters of peaking at the right time,and we can expect them to be ready to go come playoff time again.
Leonard’s return to the court has already been delayed far longer than anybody thought it would. Pop claims he’s never seen a hamstring injury like that of Kawhi’s. What the delay has done, though, is give us a good indication of the Spurs’ standing in the conference playoff picture.
If they can still be third in the West without their best player and league MVP candidate, they remain a threat to win the championship.
Pat Riley coined the phrase “the disease of more.”
He argues “success is often the first step toward disaster.” After winning multiple championships, players become selfish and invested in their own success. They seek more money, playing time and recognition, in particular.
Bill Simmons asked Steve Kerr if his team might suffer from Riley’s disease, and his answer was straight to the point: “We don’t have it.”
He said it was human nature to be bored, and the malaise that has set in isn’t a reason to worry.
So if Kerr isn’t worrying, why should we?
Six weeks into the NBA season, I’m taking the Warriors over the field.
All odds provided by William Hill as of 11/30.