Updated NBA Championship Odds: Middle Class Contenders

Beyond the obvious favorites, who are the teams with best betting value as the regular season winds down?

There’s under a month left in the NBA season and there are still plenty of bets to be made, even as the NCAA Tournament begins this week. The NBA’s bottom feeders are in prime tanking season as they keep an eye on Zion Williamson throughout Duke’s run in March. Meanwhile, the contenders are securing their playoff seeds. Milwaukee recently lost Malcolm Brogdon for up to eight weeks and both Toronto Raptors and Golden State have slowed down recently, each winning only five of their last ten games.

The middle class of title contenders, defined as teams that our model projects to win the championship with a probability of between five and ten percent, continue to gain momentum. This group consists of the Celtics, Nuggets, Sixers, and Thunder; each of these teams is currently sitting in a seed between two and five in their respective conferences.

As the season winds down, let’s take stock where each of the middle contenders stand. As always, odds are courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.

Boston Celtics

FanDuel Title Odds: +1300
numberFire Title Probability: 7.2%

While there’s slight value in Boston’s current odds, bettors will want to be careful before investing in a team that’s had so much drama throughout the season. Kyrie Irving has been up and down as the team's leader all year, Gordon Hayward still hasn’t quite played like he did prior to his season-ending injury last year, and the young guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum haven’t continued to develop as quickly as many fans believed.

However, the Celtics will still be a threat come playoff time because of their balance. They currently rank eighth in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. Irving is ultimately their catalyst on offense; he’s the only player that can consistently create his own shot. Despite the drama he’s caused, he’s shooting 41.1% from behind the three-point arc and is averaging just 2.6 turnovers per game, even with the highest usage rate on the team.

Defensively, the Celtics succeed by pressuring opposing guards and forcing turnovers. Boston is fourth in the league in steals, in part because of Marcus Smart’s stifling perimeter defense. Smart has the highest defensive real plus-minus in the NBA amongst point guards, per ESPN. The Celtics have managed to force opponents to take three-pointers, which they’ve contested with great success all season long. Boston allows the 5th most three-point attempts, but just the 26th most two-point attempts, and opponents make just 34.1% of their three-pointers against them, which ranks 2nd in the league behind Philadelphia.

Last season, the Celtics made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals without Irving and Hayward. They’re clearly a contender to win the East this year, but they need to gain momentum to fire on all cylinders before the playoffs begin. Bettors should keep an eye on the Celtics as the season dwindles down.

Denver Nuggets

FanDuel Title Odds: +2600
numberFire Title Probability: 6.3%

Denver is clearly the best bet amongst the middle class of contenders. There is value on +2600 offered from FanDuel because of the Nuggets’ success on the offensive end. We’ve recently discussed how well Denver crashes the glass on offense, and they shoot the ball efficiently, with a 53.1 effective field goal percentage, while limiting turnovers (just 13.6 per game) as well. Teams that are great in those three aspects are difficult to stop.

While the Nuggets rely on the masterful Nikola Jokic and their unique offense, their defensive ability is overshadowed. Unsurprisingly, behind Jokic and Paul Millsap, Denver is one of the best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. Millsap is one of the most underrated defenders in the league and Denver’s best. Millsap has the best defensive real plus-minus amongst power forwards that play at least 25 minutes per game.

The Nuggets will almost certainly have to play Golden State prior to the NBA Finals, meaning their odds are higher relative to a similarly talented team in the East. If they can pull off the upset, they’d be in a great position to win their first title in franchise history.

Oklahoma City Thunder

FanDuel Title Odds: +2600
numberFire Title Probability: 5.9%

Year after year, the Thunder’s postseason success relies on one player: Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City hasn’t been the same title contender since Kevin Durant left for Golden State, and even though the Thunder found a solid replacement in Paul George, their fate typically is in Westbrook’s hands.

This year, Westbrook has lost his shooting touch, only making 28.2% of 5.4 three-point attempts per game this season. The Thunder have struggled to shoot efficiently as a team with an effective field goal percentage of just 51.3%. Oklahoma City has dynamic scorers in Westbrook and George, but they haven’t coalesced any consistent offensive rhythm this season.

Instead, Oklahoma City relies on their defense, which ranks fourth in defensive efficiency. Paul George is a legitimate Defense Player of the Year candidate; he is second in defensive real plus-minus amongst small forwards, only behind Robert Covington. George and Westbrook play aggressive perimeter defense and as a team, the Thunder force more turnovers than any other team in basketball. Oklahoma City excels in what are classified on as hustle stats -- they’re first in deflections and second in loose balls recovered.

The Thunder seem to be a matchup problem for the Warriors on paper with their versatility and ability to switch on defense. However, they’re simply not good enough on offense to take advantage. There’s still value on Oklahoma City at current odds, since they have the scorers to turn the ship around on the offensive side of the floor, but bettors should proceed with caution.

Philadelphia 76ers

FanDuel Title Odds: +1300
numberFire Title Probability: 5.8%

We’ve discussed what the Sixers bring to the table before. Their roster is stacked, but they haven’t put the rest of the league on notice yet. Philadelphia is good but not great on both ends of the floor as they rank ninth in offensive efficiency and eleventh in defensive efficiency.

The Sixers excel at limiting opponents’ shooting efficiency. Philly holds opposing teams to a 50.8% effective field goal percentage, led by a starting lineup that consists of quality defenders (with the exception of J.J. Redick). Jimmy Butler is the only lockdown perimeter defender on the team, and they don’t force many turnovers, ranking 25th in the league.

However, on the opposite end of the floor, they’ve struggled with turnovers as both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons average 3.6 per game. If the Sixers can fix their turnover issue on offense, they have the tools to be elite; Embiid is one of the best post scorers in the NBA and he’s surrounded by a variety of scoring types.

Bettors should stay away from Philadelphia at current odds because they still haven’t quite found their identity yet. They’ll be one of the most interesting storylines going into the postseason, but for now, they’re probably the fourth best team in the East behind Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston.