When Should You Bet the Lakers to Win the NBA Title? How Sportsbooks, Bettors Are Preparing for Their Returning Stars

When Should You Bet the Lakers to Win the NBA Title? How Sportsbooks, Bettors Are Preparing for Their Returning Stars article feature image

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images. Pictured: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Utah Jazz have the best record in the league. The Phoenix Suns are the hottest team.

The Brooklyn Nets are the trendy NBA Finals ticket. The Denver Nuggets have the likely MVP.

The Los Angeles Clippers, last year's title favorite before their early exit, remain as dangerous as ever.

But do you hear that? That's the sound of the LA Lakers getting healthy, and hell follows with them.

The Lakers have slipped from the marquee despite plenty of national TV appearances with Anthony Davis and LeBron James both out due to injury. Their title odds have dropped to as long as +370 at some books.

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However, the New York Times reported Wednesday that the Lakers are hopeful Davis can return at the end of their current five-game road trip in a week's time and that James can be back by the end of April. That would give the Lakers a full month with Davis and between 15 and 25 days with James.

Based on projected return dates — around April 13 for Davis and April 26 for James — our analytic wizards Sean Koerner and Justin Phan got together and projected out the rest of the Lakers' season to give an idea of where they might be seeded, come playoff time.

So that's a 63% chance the Lakers finish in the 4-5 matchup. This would wreak absolute havoc on the standings should it occur. Teams in the No. 4 spot will be desperately trying to move up to third and teams in fifth would be looking to move to No. 6. The poor Jazz, after all their regular-season success, would be looking at potentially facing the Lakers in Round 2 in that scenario.

Just as notable is the 9% chance that the Lakers wind up in the play-in tournament.

(Quick refresher: No. 7 seed plays No. 8 seed; the winner gets seventh and loser plays the winner of ninth vs. 10th for the eighth seed.)

If the Lakers fall into the play-in, as many have speculated, the risk is inherently higher. They'd have to lose twice in a row — there's little chance of a slide to ninth — but it still increases the volatility of a Lakers run.

I asked several bookmakers if this was the best value you would find on the Lakers, before the return of their stars, and how falling into the play-in would affect their odds.

Jay Croucher, Director of Sports Analytics for PointsBet:

Barring further setbacks for LeBron or A.D., the Lakers are unlikely to drift much further than their current title price. Even if they fall to 7, they'd have two chances to get into the playoffs, playing vastly inferior opposition (most likely from the Memphis, San Antonio, GSW, New Orleans, Sacramento group). Depends on the opponent, but they'd likely be around 8-point favorites at full-strength against teams in this group, and the chances of them losing back-to-back games against two of these teams would be around 5%.
If they fall all the way to 9, then that would materially change the equation, but they're 6.5 games up on 9th at the moment – and the Spurs aren't likely ripping off a giant win streak to catch them.
In short, unless LeBron or A.D. are compromised for the play-in/playoffs, it's highly unlikely that the Lakers don't go in as clear West favorites – particularly with home court being considerably less of an advantage than usual, making their slide down the standings much less damaging.

Meanwhile, Johnny Avello, Director of Race and Sportsbook Operations  at DraftKings had a different approach.

"Playing any of the top seven teams in the Western Conference could spell elimination for not only the Lakers, but any team in the conference. Being seeded 4th, 5th, or 6th and required to play a series against the Nuggets, Blazers or Mavs is far from an ideal first round matchup.

If seeded lower and playing the Jazz, Suns or Clippers, that’s even more challenging and the Lakers’ odds could very possibly go higher."

John Ewing, a PR data analyst for BetMGM, said the sportsbook isn't in a hurry to move any odds. A slide to No. 7 or No. 8 might prompt a move, but even that wasn't certain, for the same reasons outlined above.

So now here's the question you have to ask yourself: Will the oddsmakers move the Lakers if they dip into the No. 7 or No. 8 seed, even if they don't finish the season there? The bookmakers will likely anticipate a move out of that if they were to slide over the next few weeks when James returns.

The Lakers are just two games ahead of the Mavericks (currently seventh) in the loss column and just four games ahead of the Grizzlies who sit in eighth. But even if the Lakers were to slip into that territory briefly, it's unlikely the bookmakers would be moved to go in a different direction, or that some flood of futures bets on the Clippers, Jazz, or Nuggets would prompt further movement.

Our simulation has them in the play-in just 9% of the time. If Davis and/or LeBron return later than expected, that chance will increase. But with better than 3-1 odds around the betting market, this may be the best chance to get the Lakers at a number above +200.

Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Anthony Davis (3), Kyle Kuzma (0), LeBron James (23) of the Los Angeles Lakers.

As far as the injury concerns, I tend to not be as worried. Davis has clarified that his injury is related to the parts of the leg surrounding the Achilles. His tendinosis and calf strain increases the risk of an Achilles tear, which is why the Lakers shut him down after he re-aggravated it.

There isn't a sense that the injury is the same as what Kevin Durant experienced before his eventual Achilles rupture in the 2019 Finals.

The Lakers have taken a proactive, long-term approach with Davis, so if he returns this week, at the very least the team and Davis have done what is necessary to reduce and limit the chance of a more severe injury.

James has a high ankle sprain, which is super painful and annoying. But ultimately, it's a sprain. There's no reason to think a sprained ankle, even the dreaded high ankle sprain, is going to keep James from the court for the remainder of the season or limit his abilities in the playoffs.

It's possible that the Lakers slide to somewhere in the +400 range at a book, and there's obviously better value there. But if you're waiting for the right spot to bet the Lakers, this might be it.

There's a reason the Lakers have never slid from the favorite status to win the Western Conference, and never significantly trailed the Nets in title odds.

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Daniel Preciado
May 24, 2024 UTC