Updated NBA Championship Odds: Checking in on California
Stephen Curry finally returned to the court this week after being sidelined for 11 games with an injury, but Golden State fell to Blake Griffin and company in Detroit. Still, the Warriors are only one game out of first place in the West but have started slow relative to previous seasons and only rank fifth in our power rankings. Golden State was expected to dominate before the season, and oddsmakers are still expecting them to bounce back as they’re still the heavy favorites to win the NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have turned around their slow start and now rank 13th in our power rankings. After starting off the week with a loss in Denver, they’ve won three straight games against the Pacers, Mavericks, and Suns to grab the five seed in the West, just a half game behind Golden State. LeBron James has continued to show his remarkable agelessness at 33; his 2018 per-game numbers are right around his career averages.
These California squads are two of the NBA’s highest profile teams. The Lakers and Warriors play more nationally televised games than any other team and employ the league’s biggest stars in James, Curry, and Kevin Durant. Both teams have similar records but have taken vastly different paths to this point in the season.
Here’s a look at the title odds for each and how our model evaluates their place in the futures market.
Golden State Warriors
numberFire Probability: 25.2%
FanDuel Odds: -160
The NBA title is still the Warriors’ to lose, despite the slow start this season. Golden State has dealt with injuries to Curry and Draymond Green, as well as some beef between Durant and Green, but when it comes time for playoff series to be decided over seven games, the Warriors should be the favorite against any team.
Coach Steve Kerr and his team are still the offensive juggernaut they’ve been in the past this season; the defensive end of the floor is where they’ve regressed. Green is still one of the best defenders in basketball, but last season he had more help on that end of the floor, especially from bench players. David West and Jordan Bell joined Green among the top 25 defenders by real plus-minus (RPM) last season; West has since retired. The Warriors have fallen the most in their ability to defend opponent shooting -- they’ve dropped from 5th in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) last season to 10th this season, according to Basketball Reference.
While Golden State’s troubles are likely early-season issues that will be sorted out by playoff time, our model projects their championship likelihood to be only 25.2%, a low number for a team that’s won three of the last four titles. At below even odds, there isn’t much value in betting the Warriors to win in the NBA Finals. Until Golden State finds a rhythm and shows some defensive depth, bettors should look elsewhere among the contenders to find value on a title bet.
Los Angeles Lakers
numberFire Probability: 3.4%
FanDuel Odds: +2300
Early in the season, the Lakers had much better odds to win the title because of the acquisition of LeBron James. Los Angeles quickly became overvalued by the public, since the popular perception is that LeBron can lead any team to a championship. This Lakers team was seemingly a downgrade from last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers at the beginning of the season, and our model currently has a much more realistic view with a projected likelihood of 3.4% for a Lakers championship.
Even so, the Lakers have been right in the mix with the best teams in the Western Conference, sitting just a game and a half outside of first place. The public was sort of right -- LeBron can lead any team to success. However, Los Angeles has had much more success on the defensive end of the floor as James has gotten more help from his teammates there.
Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and the veteran Rajon Rondo have been solid defenders at guard, while JaVale McGee and the newly acquired Tyson Chandler have added an element of rim protection. Each of those five players has been among the best players at his position in terms of ESPN's defensive RPM. The Lakers’ most common lineup with James, Ball, McGee, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram has a defensive rating of 103.1, and ranks among the best lineups with 100 or more minutes played, according to NBA.com.
While it’s often difficult to find betting value with teams that are popular to the public, the Lakers are a team to keep on eye on. Their odds have become more favorable to bettors as the season has played on, but they haven’t moved much in our power rankings at all. If the odds continue to improve from a bettor’s perspective, or the Lakers find a rhythm and continue to prove they’re a real contender, Los Angeles might end up as a surprisingly valuable bet down the stretch.