Most Didn’t See the Suns and Hawks Coming — But Some NBA Bettors Did
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns and Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks.
The NBA is the most predictable of the four major sports.
Parity in the NFL typically makes for a random assortment of teams in the Super Bowl year-to-year. The variance in the MLB creates a path for a hot team with decent pitching to make the World Series. But the NBA doesn’t lend itself to many surprises when it comes to championships.
Individual players have more impact on the game than in any other team sport, the best players are generally on the best teams, and in a seven game series, the better team typically wins (unless you’re my beloved Philadelphia 76ers and you’re coached by Doc Rivers).
One thing is clear, the pandemic, NBA bubble and the subsequent shortened 72-game season has added an element of unpredictability we’re not used to with the NBA. Last year the Miami Heat shocked the world by upsetting both the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics on their way to the NBA Finals.
The Phoenix Suns opened at 100-1 to win the NBA title and could be had at as high as 140-1, while the Atlanta Hawks opened at 150-1 to win the title. Before Miami’s improbable run in 2020, you have to go back to 2002 to the then New Jersey Nets (60-1) to find a team with such longshot title odds to make the NBA Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers (+275), Milwaukee Bucks (+550), Brooklyn Nets (+600) and LA Clippers (+650) rounded out the top four on the board for title odds, and in a normal season we might have seen all four teams in the Conference Finals.
However, injuries have been the most consistent and dominant storyline this season and that has impacted each of those teams significantly enough that only the Bucks and Clippers are left standing ahead of the NBA Finals.
Sharps Were Ahead of the Curve
In every market, there are people who are smarter than the rest, and believe it or not, there are some people who did see this coming. I reached out to a Slack betting community called Betting Talk to figure out what the rest of the betting market was missing.
There’s one bettor in particular who goes by the alias “AbnormallyDistributed” that stands out among the rest. AD was ahead of the curve on the Suns, going back to 2019 before the NBA Bubble. His belief was they simply ran bad, and if you’re looking at their Pythagorean Win Expectation he was correct.
According to his metrics, the Suns were the most improved offense and defense and with improving young players who they planned to keep. With Suns general manager James Jones getting the green light to spend in free agency, AD believed this team was primed for a run and was skeptical of teams that made a deep run in the bubble that had to make a quick turnaround.
AD said he wagered on the Suns before the Chris Paul signing at 100-1 and 140-1 to win the West then at 40-1 and 60-1 to win the Pacific Division. After signing Paul, he picked up more as their odds didn’t drastically move based on that news.
Even more fascinating is that AD also bet them to win the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, hedging out when the Utah Jazz were -500. AD was so high on the Suns that he told me that he bet on the Suns upwards of 60 times this season. Based on their 51-21 (70%) record against the spread, it was likely a profitable endeavor.
AD wasn’t the only one either. Numerous other posters jumped on the bandwagon as well. Mony, a semi-professional sports bettor I spoke to from Toronto, was able to get championship futures on the Suns at 80-1 believing that the 8-0 stretch in the bubble would carry over.
Our own Darren Rovell reported in May that a bettor at DraftKings placed $20,000 bets on the Hawks to win both the Eastern Conference and NBA title.
JUST IN: A bettor at @dksportsbook has bet $20,000 on the Atlanta Hawks (currently 35-30) to win the Eastern Conference and $20,000 on the Hawks to win the NBA title.
If both happen, the bettor would net $2.8 million.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) May 3, 2021
Although we don’t know if this was professional money or a fan, with the Hawks’ Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, he’s just three wins away from cashing a future on them to win the East.
David Purdum of ESPN has reported that the Hawks are a popular bet at sportsbooks, and given their long shot odds, it’s not a surprise to see much of the public willing to take a shot.
Defying the Odds
The Suns started the season with a lot to be excited about. Last season, they had a Pythagorean Win expectation of 37-36 compared to their actual record, 34-39, which suggested they underperformed their point differential and should have won three more games.
After finishing the bubble with an 8-0 record, there was a feeling that they could be even better with the right upgrades in the offseason. They traded Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 first-round pick for Paul, who was thought to be on the decline at 35 years old.
As a great facilitator, leader, scorer and defender, Paul is arguably the most impactful player in the league, increasing the win percentage of every team he’s joined throughout his career.
The Suns also re-signed Dario Saric and Jevon Carter while adding Jae Crowder, E’Twaun Moore, and Langston Galloway. Crowder in particular, added another 3-and-D wing who was integral in the Miami Heat’s NBA Finals run, shooting 44.5% from behind the arc while providing solid defense.
Despite the additions of Paul, Crowder, Moore and the improvements of their young players, the market was still tepid in regards to the Suns this season. The Westgate SuperBook opened the Suns with a win total of just 38.5.
Even more stunning were their preseason title odds.
- Preseason Title Odds: Oct. 11: (100-1) | Dec. 22 (40-1)
- Preseason Conference Finals Odds: Oct. 11: (60-1) | Dec. 22: (22-1)
Even after finishing second in the West with a 51-21 record, going 27-11 against teams above .500 and 9-3 in 3-point games, they still didn’t garner much respect from the betting markets entering the playoffs.
My colleague Matt Moore regularly speaks about betting the narrative in the NBA. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis typically catch all the breaks, and even with both stars coming into the postseason banged up, it was unfathomable to many that they would be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Rarely do we see a No. 2 seed as a series underdog, but William Hill opened the Lakers/Suns series at Lakers -300/Suns +240 before the rest of the market adjusted with a more reasonable price of Lakers -175/Suns +130.
Even beyond the Lakers, the average NBA fan had reasons to overlook the Suns. There are high-performing regular-season teams every year, but without a consensus top-five player most of those teams miss the NBA Finals.
Although Paul and Booker are among two of the best players in the league, Paul is now 36 and has struggled with staying healthy throughout his career while Booker lacked playoff experience coming into this season.
In the eyes of most people who watch the NBA, the Suns could just as easily have been the 2018 Toronto Raptors or 2015 Hawks — teams who had the best record in the East in their respective seasons and were bounced by James-led teams.
It’s pretty clear that the Suns were slept on primarily based on how people view the NBA. We generally have a good idea of what teams will make the Conference Finals or NBA Finals before the season and it’s rare when things deviate.
Injuries to Davis, Jamal Murray and now Leonard have certainly had a huge impact on why the Suns are in this position, but there’s no doubt that their stellar play all season led them here too, and now they are just two wins away from the NBA Finals.
The Hawks have been even more of a surprise considering how much of a rollercoaster ride their season has been. They also had increased expectations entering this season after adding some key pieces — Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu — to a core that featured Trae Young and John Collins.
Oddsmakers set their preseason win total at 36.5, but many didn’t expect the Hawks to make the leap as they played to just a 24-win pace in 2019. There were questions about whether this team could even make the postseason, and the Miami Heat appeared to be a shoo-in to win the Southeast Division after coming off a season in which they made the NBA Finals.
For most of the season the naysayers were correct: The Hawks underperformed under former head coach Lloyd Pierce, starting the season with a 14-20 record before he was relieved of his duties.
Over that span, the Hawks had an 112.7 Offensive Rating, a 112.9 Defensive Rating and a -0.3 Net Rating. Moving on from Pierce to Nate McMillan completely changed the course of the season for the Hawks as they finished the season with a 27-11 record, ranked seventh in Net Rating (4.5) behind the league’s eighth best Offensive Rating (115.9) and 13th ranked Defensive Rating (111.3).
So with the move from Pierce to McMillan and the drastic improvement from the Hawks, why didn’t anyone see a long postseason run from the Hawks?
For starters, the Eastern Conference appeared to be a three-team race between the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. Like the Suns, no one saw a player on Atlanta’s roster who could be transcendent enough to carry them deep into the playoffs.
We were all were wrong about Trae Young.
In his first postseason run, Young is averaging 30.5 points, 10.5 assists, 3 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 9.1 free throws a game. Despite his defensive limitations, he is proving that he can be the best player on a team with his ability to shoot from long range, pull up with his floater and create for teammates on drive-and kicks or lobs.
There are no easy answers when it comes to defending Young and the Hawks, you have to pick your poison.
Switch and the Hawks will matchup hunt. Come up too far and Young throws a lob. Play drop coverage and Young can hit open jumpers or floaters at will.
This is the other part of the Trae Young problem. He punishes your drop defense. You react and now that opens the other plays up and you end up with two problems. Young turns the corner on the double drag and hits Capela rolling late. pic.twitter.com/UxKIKOTclc
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 24, 2021
With plenty of offensive talent around Young, the Hawks can score with the best of them.
Still, there wasn’t much that said this team could make a deep postseason run. While the Hawks steam rolled through the offensively inept New York Knicks in Round 1, there weren’t many who saw the Hawks defeating the Philadelphia 76ers with Atlanta opening as +165 underdogs to win the series.
The Hawks came back from multiple 18-point leads to win Games 4 and 5 on their path to defeating the 76ers in seven games. The Hawks finished the series with a Net Rating of -3.7 and in many ways it felt as if that series said more about the 76ers’ inability to close games than the Hawks as a viable contender.
With their first Game 1 upset of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals behind Young’s 48 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, we are forced to take notice. Although there’s some skepticism about whether this Hawks team can finish the job, it’s clear this team is a lot better than most of us realized.