Updated NBA Championship Odds: Wild Card Contenders
The NBA playoffs will begin in two weeks just in time for basketball fans -- March Madness will end just a couple days before the NBA regular season does. The playoff picture looks clearer everyday with seven teams already locked in with playoff berths. Milwaukee, Toronto, and Golden State have emerged as the three favorites since they’re the first teams to reach 50 wins this year, but there have been some hot streaks from other teams lately, such as the Clippers, who’ve won nine of their last ten games.
Last week, we examined the odds of the middle class of contenders, which included the slumping Celtics who’ve lost four in a row. Now we turn to the wild card contenders where two teams from the West pose questions: the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the fourth highest odds at FanDuel Sportsbook behind the aforementioned three favorites, while Utah is down the list at ninth.
Both the Jazz and Rockets have been the hardest teams to decipher this season, so let’s dive in and determine if there’s any value at their current title odds.
FanDuel Title Odds: +1100
numberFire Title Probability: 4.3%
There’s no value at current odds according to our model, but Houston’s title price reflects the public’s respect for James Harden and the tear he’s been on. Harden scored 57 points in an overtime loss to Memphis last Wednesday and then poured in another 61 in a win over San Antonio on Sunday. He’s intensified the MVP race with Giannis Antetokounmpo by playing “Moreyball” to the extreme. Harden has made 4.9 three-pointers on 13.3 attempts per game this season and averages just about one free throw attempt for every two-point attempt.
While the questions surrounding the Rockets’ ability to compete in the postseason were mostly defensive related, Harden’s encore performance to last season’s MVP win has transformed Houston into the second-best offensive from an efficiency standpoint in the league, only behind Golden State. We’ve previously noted how Houston’s shooting improvement has turned around their season, but Harden’s body of work should not be taken for granted in the midst of a historic season.
For teams that have shown that they contend at the highest level in the postseason, it can be difficult to determine their true quality just by regular season wins. Obviously, Golden State is better than a 50-win team, but they’ve traditionally coasted into the playoffs where they inevitably put their collective foot on the gas. Houston was a game away from dethroning the dominant Warriors in last year's playoffs, so it’s quite possible they have a similar mentality in terms of turning it on in the playoffs. For now, even though they’ve vastly improved on offense, they haven’t done quite enough for our model to project them as one of the top contenders.
FanDuel Title Odds: +6500
numberFire Title Probability: 6.7%
The Jazz have climbed all the way to fourth in our power rankings over the last couple weeks behind their stifling defense. Utah has improved as expected, and now they’re amongst the teams that present the best value for title bettors.
It seems as though Rudy Gobert took his All-Star omission personally because he’s ramped up his defense in the second half of the season. According to NBA.com, Gobert is third in the NBA in contested two-point shots, behind Brook Lopez and Jarrett Allen, as his interior defense has clearly influenced shooting from Utah’s opponents. He’s also the main reason that the Jazz are first in defensive rebounding percentage this season. Needless to say, Utah's success on the defensive end of the floor is reliant on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
The other starter that has stepped up for Utah as of late is Donovan Mitchell, who started off slow this season after an impressive rookie campaign. Mitchell has averaged 25.8 points in the last ten games for Utah, while shooting an astounding 48.4% from beyond the three-point line. Utah leans on their defense to win games, but when Mitchell is firing on all cylinders offensively, the Jazz pose a much more serious threat.
Utah has forced their way into our definition of a middle class contender with improved play from their stars, although they weren’t a part of the conversation last week. Bettors ought to consider taking a flyer on the Jazz at current odds since our model pegs them as the second-best team in the West, only behind the reigning champs.