Even With Anthony Davis, the Lakers Shouldn't Be Title Favorites
The Los Angeles Lakers made the first big move of the 2019 offseason on Saturday when they made a massive trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, shipping off Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the 2019 fourth-overall pick, and a few future firsts in exchange for Anthony Davis, pairing him with LeBron James in what they hope is the core of a new super-team.
One day after the Toronto Raptors took home the 2019 NBA Championship, FanDuel Sportsbook already had odds released for next year's title winner. As I mentioned in my first look at championship betting values on Friday, odds that early in the offseason are filled with uncertainty.
As of Friday, the Lakers were +850 to be the 2020 NBA Champions, which was tied for the fourth-best odds in the Association. Considering they didn't even make the playoffs last year, oddsmakers were obviously expecting them to make a splashy transaction.
Adding Anthony Davis is more "tidal wave" than "splash," though, and the Lakers have rocketed up to the top of the board. FanDuel Sportsbook now has them favored to take home the championship (+390). That implies a 20.4% probability of winning the championship, while nobody else has an implied probability better than 15.4%.
Can we really expect the Lakers to be that good? Or is that line movement an overreaction?
No More Players in L.A.
Wagner, Jones, and Bonga combined to play 709 minutes last year. Of those minutes, 446 were from Wagner, but only about 154 of those came before March, which is when the Lakers' playoff hopes were shot.
At this point, the Lakers are almost literally a three-man team. Kuzma has shown some real promise through his first two NBA season, with a player efficiency rating of at least 14.0 and at least 2,000 minutes played in each of his first two year (something only 10 other players have done since 2010).
The Lakers will be left with $23.7 million in cap space to fill out their roster, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. If the deal is delayed until July 30th, which Woj reports is a possibility but not what is currently in place, then the Lakers would have enough cap space to offer another max contract to a free agent.
That means we still have a ton of certainty surrounding this line -- not only uncertainty about how well the team is going to play but also about who is going to be lining up alongside Davis and James and even how much money the Lakers are going to have available to pay those players.
How Far Can Davis and LeBron Carry a Team?
The huge number of draft picks and young players sent away by the Lakers means that the results of this deal aren't going to play out fully for years. But the top concern for this year's betting lines are how the 2019-20 is going to fare -- whether potentially mortgaging their future will actually pay off in the short-term.
It's easy to forget after he was surrounded by a weak team and had poor results last year, but LeBron James is still good. Really good.
King James played a career-low 55 games and 1,937 minutes last year, but he still finished with a PER of 25.6 -- making it his 12th consecutive year with a mark above 25.0. LeBron and James Harden are the only players with at least 1,900 minutes played and a PER above 25.0 in each of the last five seasons. There's also only one player to hit those marks in four of the last five, and that's Anthony Davis.
So even if LeBron has lost a step, he's still among the elite of the elite, and one of the only players who's come close to his consistent greatness in recent years is his new teammate.
It's not often we see a team pair together two players of this quality, so our sample size for precedent is pretty small, but the list of teams with two players who played at least 1,500 minutes with a PER over 25.0 is an impressive one.
Since 2010, the group includes: the 2010-11 Miami Heat, who made the championship and lost; the 2011-12 Heat, who won the championship (as well as the following year's); the 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder, who went to seven games in the Western Conference Finals against the 73-win Golden State Warriors; and the 2017-18 Warriors, who swept the NBA Finals and were back with the same core of players this year.
With the exception of the Warriors, these weren't especially deep teams, either. Third on that Thunder team in win shares (behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) was Enes Kanter. Those Heat teams certainly benefited from having a third star in Chris Bosh, but fourth on the team in win shares in those two seasons were Mario Chalmers and James Jones.
With Kuzma already looking like a strong piece and the potential to bring in one more expensive player, this lack of depth might not be as concerning as it seems on the surface.
The Health Caveat
One obvious point of fragility in this team is going to be the health of both LeBron and Davis. A team that relies almost exclusively on two superstars is going to need both of those players on the court.
James has played at least 2,000 minutes in 15 different seasons -- which is tied for the ninth-most of any player in NBA history. Overall he's played 46,235 regular season minutes, which is the 17th-most in NBA history, as well as an NBA-record 10,049 playoff minutes. At 34 years old, this could be catching up to him, as injuries (and, admittedly, some end-of-season-tanking) held him to only 55 games last year, which is 7 fewer than he had ever played in a season before.
And Davis is, of course, no stranger to injury woes. He has never played more than 75 games in a regular season, playing an average of 66.6 per game over his career.
For a championship run, the Lakers would need these two healthy for the entire regular season just to ensure a playoff spot. And with a shallow team they likely won't be able to afford a ton of nights off to rest for the pair, either. And then of course, after a rest-lacking regular season they would need to hold up through an entire playoff run.
With Davis' track record and the unprecedented workload LeBron has shouldered for his career, that health is far from a given.
So Is There Betting Value?
If everything goes perfectly, the Lakers could be a very scary team this year.
There are so many things that could go wrong, though. Without the room for a max contract, their top free agent signing may not be a total game-changer. And the cap space they have could leave them with virtually no depth unless the LeBron factor helps them bring in ring-hungry players at below the market value (again, something that would need to go perfectly).
LeBron or Davis could fall off to not-quite-as-elite levels of production and no long be able to carry an entire team on two players. As we saw with LeBron, almost nobody keeps up a 25-plus PER every year -- someone can still be elite and not have that kind of a crazy-good team-carrying season.
And of course, you need to bank on a clean bill of health for the oft-injured Davis and a resurgence of health for a guy who has played over 50,000 NBA minutes in LeBron.
If oddsmakers were counting out the Lakers, that kind of championship ceiling could create some interesting betting value. But we're seeing the opposite. They're favored by a big margin despite probably needing everything to go right for this bet to pay off, and that's just not worth rolling the dice on at these odds.
If anything, the line movement may have ended up lending even better value to some of the other teams, who now have longer odds to reflect the jump from the Lakers.