The Nets, Despite Their Flaws, Had Short NBA Title Odds All Season. Here’s Why Sportsbooks Didn’t Budge.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images. Pictured: Kyrie Irving #11 reacts with Nic Claxton #33 of the Brooklyn Nets.
The list of prolific failures for NBA superteams is not long, but it is remarkable.
Typically combinations of superstar, All-NBA talents leads to success more often than not. There might be bumps in the road, but very seldom do those bumps take out the entire transmission.
The ones that have come apart, however, are long-remembered. The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers. The 2013 Lakers. The 2022 Lakers (even though they won the 2020 title with two of the same three stars). The 1997 Houston Rockets. The 2014 Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
And of course, the Nets this season.
However, it’s rare to see a team keep their odds as short as the Nets did this season through all the drama, failures, and misfortune.
The Nets opened the season the favorites at +205 to win the NBA title at DraftKings. On Christmas day, the Nets were the No. 1 seed in the East at 22-9, and their odds were still +240. The Nets began to fall once Kevin Durant was injured, leaving James Harden to handle the load with Kyrie Irving either out or only playing in road games.
Brooklyn went 9-20 in January and February, and while its title odds dipped to +425 by the All-Star break after trading James Harden for Ben Simmons, its Eastern Conference odds remained shockingly stable.
According to Sports Odds History, the Nets were still +280 to win the Eastern Conference, tied with the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. By April 1, they were still just +300, again tied with Milwaukee.
DraftKings had the Nets listed at +600 before the NBA Play-In Tournament to win the NBA title despite being two bad games from losing. After securing their playoff spot, those odds didn’t move.
They were +130 underdogs to the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics, who had home court advantage and played the best basketball in the league over the last four months of the regular season. There was just a stickiness to the Nets’ chances by the estimation of the books.
Was it because of their liability? Was it because of a concern that they would take on large sums if they priced the Nets closer to what their record said they were?
Did the books simply believe, like so many others did, that the Nets were still a sleeping tiger waiting to pounce?
The Nets by the Book
I spoke with DraftKings’ Head of Race and Sportsbook Operations, Johnny Avello, to get a sense of how exactly the Nets were priced in such a bizarre season. Avello said that much of the reason the odds didn’t move on the Nets until late in the year was mostly because of how good the Nets could be if they ever got things together.
“The Nets and Lakers have been bet three years in a row early and seemed to take money the entire year,” Avello said. “The feeling on the Nets from us was that they didn’t have a very good home campaign, but with Kyrie coming back, and then finishing well, we thought that they could beat all those teams above them.”
Jay Croucher, Director of Trading and Content at PointsBet, told Action this week that the Nets were still a major liability until late in the season.
“The Nets were the #1 most bet on team for the title at the start of the season (15% of total handle),” Croucher said via email. “By All-Star they were third (still 15% of total handle) behind the Bulls and Suns, and heading into the playoffs they were second (13%) behind the Bulls. The Bulls Optimism was no doubt because of PointsBet’s presence in Illinois.”
Avello said that a key reason why the price on the Nets never moved down significantly was a feeling that big bettors would feel the way the book did.
“If we had put Nets up at 15-1 range, we would be out of position because bettors would have been thinking like we’re thinking. ‘[The Nets] have the players, they look like they’re on track. There’s no team that’s better than them in the East.'”
Croucher, meanwhile, noted that PointsBet consistently had one of the longer prices on the Nets because PointsBet felt they were overvalued in the market.
“All season we thought the rest of the market was heavily overvaluing Brooklyn,” Croucher said, “So we were consistently best price out there on Nets futures. ‘Best price’ was still pretty short, though, but we were drawing lots of Brooklyn money even at what we thought was too short of a price relative to reality, so there was no real reason to make them any longer.”
DraftKings pretty clearly was not interested in taking more Nets money.
“We took more of a conservative approach thinking that way,” Avello said. “If we’d had them at 15-1, we would have taken a lot more money. But I don’t think anyone was that interested in them with their seeding at 6-1, it didn’t look like there was any value there.“
It wasn’t just the team’s capability, however. The Nets also crossed an important intersection being a supposedly dangerous, incomplete, star-laden team in a big market.
“There’s a bias [with some markets],” Avello said. “Remember that when we opened sports betting we opened in New Jersey first. So there’s a lot of back east bias for the Nets. New York and New Jersey, that’s obviously two states that handle quite a bit of money. We have to try and get the best value without keeping a team too low.”
Ultimately, the books are likely satisfied with the end result. The Nets finished with the fifth-most handle at DraftKings, a significant chunk, but not enough to have over-leveraged the book.
The bigger concern now lies with the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, who took money all year at longer odds than the Nets and who make up a combined 25% of the handle at DraftKings. As of this writing, the Warriors (+340) and Celtics (+475) have the second- and third-shortest title odds at the book.
What Did We Learn?
On our Action Network NBA podcast Buckets, we stayed away from the Nets the entire season for a number of reasons. But we also never fully counted them out. Fading them to miss the playoffs would have lost. There was never any real way to play against the Nets until their first-round series against the Celtics.
(I even bet Brooklyn in that series despite saying all year how they were overrated and bad defensively. That’s how confusing they were!)
There wasn’t an actionable way to fade them.
In part, the way the Nets failed made them difficult to really analyze. Again, they were the No. 1 seed in the East at Christmas before Kevin Durant’s injury. Irving’s absence meant that when he returned they could be great (they weren’t). Duran’t injury obscured the other issues on the team, including how much they missed Joe Harris.
Ultimately, the lesson learned is not to believe that the books know better by keeping a team short on odds. Their reasoning isn’t just backed by how they consider the team, but by how the market will react to their moves. The Nets were ultimately a bad bet to make, but too good for the books to open their liability.
Croucher said there’s a lesson to be learned here.
“The public tends to bet on futures by looking at who is the best team or who has the highest upside, instead of doing the math of Brooklyn will be X price in R1, multiplied by X price in R2, etc,” Croucher said. “People would have been better off backing Brooklyn round by round but for the most part were happier to just place the singular bet on the Nets to win the title or conference.”
The Nets season seemed covered in confusion, in smoke and mirrors the entire way.
In the end, when the lights came up the illusion fell away, all that was left were losing tickets.
Among those? The largest ticket that PointsBet took on the Nets all season was $120,000 to win the NBA title at 9-1.
That bet came just before the season began, seven months ago.