NBA Playoffs Betting Odds: Value on the Denver Nuggets to Make a Run

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Photo credit: Justin Tafoya/Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic

The Denver Nuggets will have to earn respect in the playoffs. They’ll have to earn it from the media, fans, other teams and bookmakers.

The national TV media thinks they are a regular season fraud, led by an unimpressive superstar. The fans think they are a try-hard group of pretenders. The other teams think they’re soft; that’s pretty clear. And the bookmakers? They don’t give them much of a chance at all.

But the key is to look at the Nuggets’ specific circumstances to see if there’s value to be had.

FanDuel is running a promo this week for the Nuggets to reach the Western Conference Finals at +300. Not win. Just make it there.

Most people expect a Lakers-Clippers all-L.A. battle in the Western Conference Finals. Is there a chance for the Nuggets to spoil the party? — and if they get there, is it better just to wager on them to win the West?

THE POSITION

At first glance, the Nuggets are in a tight race and a precarious position. They’re third in the West with just a one-game lead in the loss column over Utah and just two over both Houston and Oklahoma City.

If they have a bad run in the regular season portion of Orlando play, they could finish fifth, a pretty big disaster even with home court neutralized in the bubble.

The reason this matters is it impacts whether or not Denver has to go through the Lakers to reach the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets went 1-2 vs. the Lakers this season (with one to play). The only game they won was a contest in which LeBron James didn’t play … which kind of matters, don’t you think?

Now, Denver wasn’t blown out in the other two contests. One of them was a nail-biter in Denver that went to overtime — one of those games where everything just seemingly goes wrong for the Nuggets and yet they push the team to the limit. (Think Game 3 vs. Portland last year in a 4-OT thriller.)

But there are basic issues with the Lakers that are a problem for Denver, even more so than the general problems the Lakers give the rest of the league with LeBron and Anthony Davis.

To narrow this down: The Nuggets don’t have a wing that can hang with James. No one can stop him; Kawhi Leonard won a Finals MVP for holding him to 28 points, six boards and seven assists. But Denver is more behind the eight-ball than most here.

Davis is a problem with his length and athleticism against Nikola Jokic. But he isn’t as much the problem as the role he plays with the Lakers and how the Lakers use him not at center but power forward. With another center on the floor, Paul Millsap or Jerami Grant have to guard Davis. If Jokic is in trouble with Davis’ athleticism, those two are dominated by his sheer size.

And there are the centers. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have simple roles in the offense. They set screens, grab offensive rebounds and get ready for the lob. Denver struggles with that last part.

Denver’s preferred defensive strategy is to put two on the ball in pick-and-rolls, putting Jokic or Mason Plumlee at the level of the screen, forcing the ball-handler laterally and pressuring him to force a reset.

This just isn’t possible with James due to his height and ability to reverse the ball to the other side of the court — and how dangerous he is if you give him a 4-on-3 situation should he break the hedge from the big. So the Nuggets find themselves switching or dropping more with their bigs vs. James.

And, well…

So that’s a problem, on top of all the other issues the Lakers present as the best team in the West.

The reality is there are very few ways I can see the Nuggets beating the Lakers four out of seven times in a series barring injury or (God forbid) a COVID-19 diagnosis.

The Lakers are awesome; avoiding them is obvious. The point is that the Nuggets are in a position to avoid them until a Western Conference Finals, and from there, the goal should be putting the toughest road in front of the Lakers as possible.

That’s very doable.

THE BLUEPRINT

The Jazz are just one game behind the Nuggets, but Utah lost Bojan Bogdanovic for the season due to injury during the hiatus. That, combined with questions about whether Donovan Mitchell will play in Orlando given his injury concerns and whatever happens in the locker room with Rudy Gobert, is enough to think Utah’s up against it to overcome Denver for third.

No one knows what to expect from the Rockets. After transitioning to full-time small-ball, they set the world on fire with big wins, including one against the Lakers. Then they started to crash to earth late.

With just eight games left, the Rockets are also facing an uphill battle because they’re three back in the win column from Denver.

For example, if Houston goes 6-2 in regular season play, Denver can go 4-4 and still hold off Houston for third.

Of course, in second place are the Clippers. Are Denver’s chances of advancing past the second round any better vs. the other L.A. team?

The short answer is yes.

The Nuggets went 1-1 vs. the Clippers this season, with Paul George missing the Nuggets’ win in Denver, and the Clippers absolutely smashing the Nuggets in the rematch, 132-103.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the Clippers are just that much better, and at full strength with their best effort they can just dominate the Nuggets. But it’s impossible to watch that game and think that Denver was ready to match the intensity with which the Clippers played.

In that game, the Clippers absolutely gave a playoff effort, sending a message early and often. Denver was caught off-guard by a team bringing that in a regular season game and never adjusted. Denver players admitted after that game that they had to do a better job of reaching their opponent’s level.

But I’m just not convinced that with both teams bringing top effort, the gap is very wide between these teams — and in a lot of cases, I like the matchup for Denver.

The Clippers undoubtedly have the edge on the wing with Kawhi and George, but notably in that Nuggets win, Jerami Grant did a nice job on Leonard. There’s some evidence that Grant had similar success in OKC before joining the Nuggets this season. Just having a capable matchup, even if he’ll lose four out of seven times, is helpful.

Ivica Zubac is a sneaky good center and an analytics darling. But Jokic has proven consistently that if Zubac challenges him inside, he can hit from range or burn him with passing. Montrezl Harrell is an even bigger liability defensively.

Patrick Beverley is a dogged on-ball defender, and his ability to challenge Jamal Murray should make for a great matchup. But the Clippers also switch routinely, and Beverley has been unsuccessful in his attempts to draw charges on Jokic, who just shoots over him.

The Nuggets will be underdogs vs. the Clippers, and for good reason. But their chances of winning that series will likely be much closer than the implied odds on that series price.

Meanwhile, the Rockets match up about as well vs. the Lakers as any team can. Their 3-point volume counters the Lakers’ dominance inside. The Lakers are 23rd in 3-point makes per 100 possessions; the easiest way to beat them offensively is with math, trading their 2s for your 3s.

Houston is probably the toughest matchup in the West for the Lakers, outside of the Clippers.

THE BETS

Again, FanDuel is running a Colorado promotion, boosting the odds of the Nuggets to reach — not win — the Western Conference Finals at +300. Given how they match up with the Clippers, there’s value there.

Those implied odds put the Nuggets’ chances at just 25% to get through a first-round matchup with Houston, Utah or OKC, and then through the Clippers (assuming the Clippers advance). With the unstable circumstances in play, and with the emergence of a skinny Jokic, that probably provides +EV.

As for the West title odds, it’s a fun idea to think about the Nuggets conquering the odds and coming out on top, playing spoiler to TV executives’ dreams of a Lakers Finals run.

But even if the Lakers have to go through Houston, they probably win that series, and if the Nuggets upset the Clippers, their chances vs. the Lakers are slim. They’ll be shorter dogs than the +1200 they are currently, but it’s better to see if Houston (or some unforeseen team) can knock them off. If the Nuggets actually get there? Maybe the circumstances are different.

The Nuggets have a real shot at making the Western Conference Finals. Winning them, however, is a significantly tougher task given the matchups.

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