Something surprising is happening as we begin April. Something not many people would have predicted at the start of the season but nonetheless is happening as we approach the start of the playoffs.
The Warriors are quickly losing their spot as the favorite to win the NBA title.
And that may signal an opportunity.
As of the morning of April 2, some markets have the Rockets just a fraction behind Golden State. 5Dimes and Heritage both have Golden State around +120 and Houston at +130. Bovada has reopened with Golden State and Houston both at +120. In its eyes, the Warriors are no longer the favorite — they are the co-favorite.
This marks a surprising change from the tone the whole season has set until recently. The Warriors were inching closer to -200 during January and February. Each week their price would gain 5-10 cents as they slogged their way through the grind of the regular season, compiling an impressive record (although not as impressive as Houston’s). It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Golden State would enter the NBA playoffs at that price level.
Then Steph Curry got hurt.
Curry’s status for the playoffs is uncertain, and the team has stumbled multiple times without him. His health will be the primary factor in this price shift, as he is arguably the most dynamic offensive player in the league, and is important to the Warriors in so many ways. Although he will be reevaluated at the start of the postseason to assess the state of his MCL injury, he has already been declared out for Golden State’s first-round series. The typical recovery time for his injury is six weeks, which puts the second round in jeopardy as well. Then there’s the concern over his condition even when he returns.
Kevin Pelton wrote a great piece where he found that, surprisingly, players returning from Grade 2 MCL sprains are able to achieve their same level of success as if they never left. Kevin Durant had this same injury last season in February and returned to win Finals MVP. That should at least allay some of the concerns about Curry’s injury. If he returns on a normal timetable, the Warriors will likely get a similar version of Curry, even if he isn’t exactly the same.
All of the other concerns about the Warriors seem to represent some form of recency bias. We see the Warriors struggle game after game in March (going 7-7) and we see their stars suffer minor injuries that knocked them out for handfuls of games, and we think this is it for them. We think that the long grind of this four-year run has finally gotten to them. We see Houston rattle off 10-game winning streaks and think we’ve entered a new age. But really, this boils down to a fundamental question:
How much does the regular season matter?
Consider this: It’s Feb. 1 and you are betting on the Warriors at -195 to win the title. Would you really care if I told you they would go 7-7 in March? No. Those games have completely different minutes, rotations and strategies than the postseason. Would you care that Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala all missed some games games close to the start of the playoffs? You’d probably be happy they got the rest (and that younger players like Quinn Cook got additional minutes to ready themselves for the playoff run). Would you care how many regular-season games Houston won? No, because of the fundamental differences between regular-season and postseason games. You’d care about Curry’s availability, but the most expected outcome is a return — and a return to form before any truly challenging series.
Here’s the other angle to consider: What is Houston doing now that makes you think they will be a formidable playoff opponent for Golden State?
I am limiting this question to Houston because they are by far the team who has gained the most from the price changes. The other Western Conference teams have remained pretty stationary (with Portland being the lone exception, but they’re still 40/1 in many places).
I think it’s pretty clear that there’s absolutely nothing Houston can do now to look more attractive in the playoffs. If they won every game for the rest of the regular season, we’d still have the same exact concerns we have now. Chris Paul has a nagging hip injury, coupled with a hamstring injury that caused him to miss games recently. James Harden, in the most important game of his career last season, completely no-showed, and his team was eliminated by the Spurs in the second round. Mike D’Antoni’s style of playing his starters and significant players for huge minutes the entire season, and his style of play in general, has frequently caused his teams to flame out before reaching the later rounds of the postseason. The Rockets are a team that has proven nothing other than an ability to most-consistently defeat lesser opponents.
And this is the team that’s gaining on Golden State? I don’t understand. What’s really changed? Are people just attracted to whatever the new, shiny object is? Are we already tired of the Warriors and ready to move on?
All of this doesn’t even address the question of whether Golden State is much better than the rest of the league even without Curry in the playoffs, which we don’t know — but is absolutely possible.
A unique opportunity has been created to grab a price with a Warriors team which we all universally agree is transcendent, one that spent nearly the entire season as a giant favorite. How does their price drop further? Barring another injury, or something like a 3-1 deficit in the first round, I don’t see that happening. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of ways the price increases: favorable news about Curry, less favorable news about Houston, or even a dominant performance over a team like New Orleans or Minnesota in the first round. You may not even have to hold this price for very long before it becomes valuable to trade.
As sports fans we like to think that poring over data and game results and box scores will automatically be rewarded with increased predictive ability. Houston’s regular-season dominance coupled with the Warriors’ March swoon seemingly tell us that Houston has emerged as a significant challenger for the title against the vulnerable Warriors. I am telling you not to be fooled.