On Wednesday night, the top seed in the Eastern Conference plays the top seed in the Western Conference. Is this a preview for the next NBA Finals? Are we likely to see the Boston Celtics face the Phoenix Suns again in June?
And, more importantly, does it make sense to bet on that particular outcome?
A solid argument could be made that these two might in fact be the last two standing.
The Celtics represented the Eastern Conference in the Finals last season, and this season are winning at an 80% clip that has them on pace for a whopping 66 wins even though their arguably best defensive player Robert Williams III has yet to play a second this season.
The Suns had the best record in the NBA last season, and are still leading the West this season despite team maestro Chris Paul having sat the last month with an injured heel. According to BPI, the Celtics and Sun rank as the first and second best teams in the NBA, with the two highest championship odds.
But, does that make these teams strong futures bets?
To answer, we need to look at their odds and the odds of the teams around them. According to Caesars Sportsbook, the Celtics have the shortest odds to win the championship at +350, while the Suns have the fourth-shortest at +900.
My personal rule of thumb, particularly this early in the season, is that I don't like to bet on any team to win the championship at less than 10-1 odds. There are just too many variables -- injuries, unexpected trades for fellow contenders, teams coming together to play their best later in the season, etc. -- for me to take relatively short odds on any team outside of a juggernaut.
I don't consider either of these teams juggernauts, compared to their peers.
While I agree that the Celtics have played the best basketball in the East this season, I also have to note that the Celtics are led by a pack of young-twenty-somethings that are willing and able to play high-minute, high-energy basketball for the entire 82-game marathon and still have gas in the tank for a two-month postseason.
The Milwaukee Bucks, on the other hand, are an older team that's been there and done that and knows they have to conserve a bit to be there at the end. It's a bit shocking that Giannis Antetokounmpo, who feels like he's been around forever, just turned 28 years old on Tuesday. But, he's surrounded by thirty-somethings, one of whom (Khris Middleton) is just returning after an injury that sidelined him last season, and I'd be willing to bet that they have some rarely tapped reserves that they don't plan to touch until the postseason.
It's key to remember that the Bucks were the 2020-21 NBA champions and that the Celtics only got by them in seven games in 2021-22 with Middleton sidelined. So, at best, I think the Celtics and Bucks are co-favorites to represent the East, and if I had to pick I'd still lean to the Bucks.
Similar story in the West, where the Warriors ceded regular season glory to the Suns last season, only to sprint by them in the playoffs on their way to the title. The Warriors have gotten out of the gates slowly, and BPI rightly recognizes that the Suns have been better thus far, but if I'm looking to the postseason, I'd still have the Warriors ahead of the Suns on my personal futures list.
So, if I'm not willing to bet either the Celtics or the Suns to win the championship, who would I consider betting instead? I disqualify the Bucks (+575) and the Warriors (+650), my preseason and current picks to meet in the Finals, for the same reasons: there isn't enough juice to interest me.
Two of my best futures Finals bets were the 2008 Celtics (who I got at 25-1) and the 2019 Raptors (who I got at 60-1). In both of those cases, I was able to get (egregiously) long odds on teams that I had as frontrunners to win the championship. While that wouldn't be the case this season, there are some interesting teams that I think could compete for the title if everything broke correctly that have longer odds.
For one, I'm intrigued by the Cavaliers at +1800. I've been very vocal about how strong I thought they'd be since the offseason, when they traded for Donovan Mitchell, and thus far in the season they're living up to my expectations. They have one of the top-5 records in the NBA despite injuries depriving them of many games from their best players, and according to BPI they also have the fifth-best championship odds in the NBA.
It's a similar story with the Grizzlies (+1800), currently a game out of the best record in the West despite a plethora of missed games from young stars Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. Additionally, they are the team with the fourth-best odds to win the title according to BPI.
The 76ers have been beset by injuries, and even healthy haven't fully put it all together, but a) no one really wants to face a team featuring Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and a now relatively deep bench that's gotten plenty of playing time; b) they still have the third-best odds to win the championship, per BPI; and c) Caesars has their odds to win it all at +2000, relatively long odds for a team that has a legit chance to make a run.
There are other longshots that catch my eye on a personal level, but the above three have a pretty strong case to be made that they have almost as good a chance to win it all as the Celtics or Suns, but with much more juice. At just past the quarter pole of the season, those are the kind of futures bets that I would be more likely to do than just betting the favorites. (Even if, admittedly, the Celtics look really good thus far).
Now, let's take an early look at how the Awards races look at this point in the season.
Most Valuable Player
Jayson Tatum (+250)
According to the odds, this is currently a three-man race that is almost a dead heat. Tatum's excellent play on the team with the best record in the NBA has him in the favorite slot, but Doncic's video game numbers and Giannis' consistent excellence on a strong Bucks squad has them both right there. I still believe Giannis to be the best player in the game, but as mentioned above, Tatum has the youth and energy to play at a high level for long minutes essentially every game. At the just-after-quarter pole, I agree he should be the favorite.
But, as above, longer shots tend to catch my interest. Embiid has been runner up in each of the last two MVP races, he's still putting up excellent numbers in what could be his peak years, and if he and the 76ers stay healthy they could still compete for a high seed. I wouldn't be surprised if, by next month's update, Embiid had joined the top-3 and made it a four-man race.
Morant is worth mentioning, because like Tatum he's got youthful vigor and endless energy. Unlike Tatum, Morant has top-play-on-Sportscenter highlight ability on a nightly basis. The Grizzlies are currently only a game out of first in the West, and if Bane returns and Jackson stays healthy, they could push for best record in the league...which would only boost Morant's MVP chances.
Davis earned this mention by putting up numbers unseen since Moses Malone and helping lead the Lakers to eight wins in 10 games. But, on Tuesday, the downside of Davis' personal coin showed up when he had to leave the game in the first quarter due to illness. Anyone can get sick, just like anyone can get hurt, but Davis has developed enough of a reputation that it's hard to see him get MVP consideration unless/until he proves he can stay healthy long-term and the Lakers were able to stay hot long enough to get back into contention.
Rookie of the Year
Paolo Banchero (-550)
In the hunt
Bennedict Mathurin (+320)
Jaden Ivey (+2,500)
Banchero has been injured for much of the time since the last article, but he's still the runaway favorite for this award. Mathurin has played well enough that his odds have gotten shorter, and Ivey has played well and should only get better, but if Banchero stays relatively healthy this is his award to lose.
Defensive Player of the Year
Brook Lopez (-105)
I would never have expected Lopez to have the shortest odds to win DPoY, but it is worth noting that he had some excellent defensive performances in recent seasons, including the year that teammate Giannis won the award. With that said, I still have trouble imagining Lopez actually winning the award, in large part because he has such a big-name teammate that will likely draw attention away from him.
I do hope you paid attention to my 'longer shot' section last month, when I pointed out that Anunoby was second in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus Minus at a time when his DPoY odds were +2500. He'd currently be my favorite bet, among the three with the shortest odds...especially if you were able to get him when the odds were longer.
Mobley looks like a future winner of this award and could get in the mix this season. I've been saying the same for Adebayo for years, so he's worth paying attention to. Gobert is a multiple-time winner of the award, and he still has the upside to really settle in with the Timberwolves and regain his usual consideration.
Bridges, like Anunoby, is a forward with a defensive reputation who's playing well and leading his team in Defensive RPM. Then, there's Capela, who I pointed out was leading the NBA in DRPM last month despite ridiculously long odds. He's still top-3 in the NBA in DRPM, and the Hawks currently rank 10th in the NBA in Defensive Rating and have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. If this continues, with Capela maintaining a high individual impact on a successful team with a strong defense... I'm just saying, at 300-1 he's worth a look.
Sixth Man of the Year
Russell Westbrook (+140)
Westbrook and Poole were first and second on this list last month, and are holding steady. Again, I hope you noted Brogdon last month when I had him as a longer shot at +2000, because he's moved way up the list and I think might have the best chances among those with the shortest odds.
Hyland is an electric player, and he's formed a key role and is making a name for himself on a Nuggets team that will be in the playoffs mix. Someone tweeted me (@ProfessorDrz) that Hyland is making him stay up and watch West Coast basketball again, which shows he's creating buzz.
Payne is also worth watching, because he's gotten extended run as the starting point guard on the team with the best record in the West, which has also really helped his averages. If the season ends with the Suns on top again, and Payne has great averages and an acknowledged key role on a contender, he should have better than 50-1 odds.
Most Improved Player
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (-155)
Gilgeous-Alexander has made himself the odds-on favorite, posting numbers that would get him in the MVP conversation if the Thunder were a better team.
Haliburton is leading the league in assists and could be an All-Star this season, while Markkanen continues to keep the Jazz more relevant than anyone expected.
Bane and Maxey have fallen off the pace due to injury, but both were playing excellent before the injuries and could get back into the race if they come back still scoring 25+ PPG. Simons gets to shine whenever Damian Lillard is injured, and his candidacy is also predicated on keeping his scoring average in the upper 20s. Edwards is currently scoring at that pace with Karl-Anthony Towns out, and if he keeps improving, he could move up the list as well.