The Rockets and Mavericks Are Worthwhile Bets to Appear in the NBA Finals
The NBA returns to action in less than 30 days, and after three months of life without basketball, the race for postseason positioning is ready to get underway. The Western Conference has been the dominant conference over the last half-decade, but this season the field is more robust despite the Golden State Warriors falling off the face of the Earth. There are seven teams in the postseason with their final seeding still to be determined, outside of the Lakers locking up the three seed.
FanDuel Sportsbook sets the Lakers (+165) and Clippers (+175) as the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, while also being the runners-up to win the NBA title behind the Milwaukee Bucks' +240 odds. The Lakers are +260 to win it all with LeBron James returning to the postseason for the 14th time in 15 years. The Clippers have the third-best odds at +320 to win the NBA Finals, led by Kawhi Leonard, whose going for consecutive NBA Finals' appearances.
The rest of the field hasn't received much respect as all season, as it's been deemed a two-team race, but is it? There is plenty of star power in the West, and during a season where there was a three-month hiatus, the field is more open than ever. Which superstar-led team in the West has the best chance to upset either or both Los Angeles squads?
Can the Rockets Take Flight?
+1300 Champion / +700 to win the West
The Houston Rockets were grounded after the All-Star break, posting a disappointing 6-4 record due to their small-ball experiment. Once Clint Capela was traded, the Rockets went 8-6 as a result, including a season-long four-game losing streak. In their final 14 games all without Capela, Houston's points per game dropped to 115.7, but their defense barely allowed a change in points per game, going from 114 to 114.4 during that stretch.
Houston ranks second behind the Bucks on the season with 118.1 points per game, leads the league with 15.4 three-pointers made, and 44.3 three-pointers attempted per game. The Rockets are also second in free-throws made (20.5), and free-throws attempted (26.0), as the third-fastest paced team in the league (105.9). Russell Westbrook has continued his all-around performances in his first season with Houston, despite deferring to James Harden. Westbrook is posting the 30th highest Player Efficiency Rating (21.59). At the same time, Harden ranks second in the league (28.39) as the third-highest rated teammates in PER among players that average 20 minutes or more per game.
Harden was on a historic scoring pace, averaging 34.4 points per game -- the 15th-most in single-season history per Basketball-Reference. At earlier points in the season, Harden was averaging over 37 points per game, attempting to build off his NBA-best and seventh-most of all-time, 36.13 ppg in 2018-19. Harden also leads the league for consecutive seasons in Estimated Wins Added (EWA), cracking 20 for the sixth-straight season. As much criticism Harden receives for being ball-dominant and shot-hungry, he's finished top six in EWA every year since joining the Rockets in 2012-13.
The Rockets are 25-17 in the Western Conference this season, only the Clippers, Lakers, and Nuggets having more wins. Houston is currently tied with Oklahoma City for the five seed in the West and could climb to the three seed if their cards are dealt right. The Rockets are 2.5 games back of the Nuggets (No. 3) and one game behind the Jazz (No. 4). Houston has the offensive firepower and pace to hang with any team as well as shoot their way out of any slump, making them a tough seven-game matchup for any squad.
The Most Talented Seventh Seed...Ever?
+3800 Champion / +1600 to win the West
The Dallas Mavericks have one of the most efficient offenses, posting an NBA-best 115.8 offensive net rating, 113.8 offensive efficiency, and the third-most points per game with 116.4. Led by second-season superstar Luka Doncic, the Mavericks are much better than their seven seeded 40-27 record demonstrates. The arrival of Kristaps Porzingis altered the Maverick's future while putting them in a position to contend earlier rather than later, giving Dallas one of the youngest and most talented one-two punches in the league.
Doncic is in the running for MVP and Most Improved Player honors, despite not being a threat to actually win either award, he's put together one hell of a season. He's in the top six across the league for points (28.7), assists (8.7), and PER (27.75). On top of that, he's is only 0.3 rebounds per game from the leading the Mavericks in points, rebounds (9.3), and assists. Dallas' offense isn't a one-man show as Porzingis, and their role players have commanded much more attention this season for Rick Carlisle.
Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry both averaged double-digits, and eight different players averaged 20 minutes or more per game. The Mavs will be down Dwight Powell and Courtney Lee due to injury, plus Willie Cauley-Stein because of COVID-19. The Mavericks signed ex-76er Trey Burke, return Dorian Finney-Smith, and Curry from injury to provide depth. The Mavericks won't have the bench to strike fear into their opponents, but their starting lineup alone can cause mismatches and problems defensively for Western Conference foes.
The Mavericks rank fifth in numberFire's nERD rating, a surprising number for a seven seed, but the same model gave the Mavs an equal nERD rating as the Clippers. Despite having the same nERD rating, the Clippers have a 5.4% chance to win the NBA Finals and the Mavs have a 2.4% chance. The Mavericks are a much better team then their odds may suggest, but a matchup with the Clippers in the first round would likely be the hardest route to an NBA Finals.
numberFire's model projects the Rockets with the seventh-best odds to win the Championship at 1.3%, and the Mavericks just ahead at 3.1%. According to that same model, the odds that the title winner is either of the Los Angeles squads, Milwaukee, Boston, or Toronto is 91%, -- adding Dallas and Houston to that group makes it a 95.4% chance it's one of those seven teams. I don't think there are any other squads worth noting if you're betting, but Dallas is the model's favorite long-shot at +3800 odds to win it all, and +1600 in the West, the value is all there.
If either team were to take down the Clippers or Lakers, I'd put my money on the Rockets at +700 to win the West and +1300 to be champion before the Mavericks. Houston's defense causes more offensive/defensive mismatches with their small-ball lineup, and if there were a year for this new trend to work, it would be this 2019-20 resumed season. Harden and Westbrook haven't sniffed an NBA Finals since 2011-2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and that was the last season they were teammates.
The Rockets' best odds for an exact NBA Finals matchup are versus the Bucks (+1100), Celtics (+5500), and Raptors (+6000). All juicy payouts, but are only worth double-dipping if you have the Rockets winning the West at +700. The NBA is all about having that superstar player or multiple stars to get your team over the hump. Houston sits in a better position for playoff seeding, has the overall team health, and the more talented roster to compete with either of the Los Angeles teams -- more than Dallas, or the rest of the Western Conference.
The Rockets have made the Conference Finals twice in five years, and the semifinals four times during that stretch. While Houston isn't a safe bet, they're a solid gamble considering their payout, postseason history, and superstar tandem of Harden and Westbrook. Now that Golden State is sitting at home for the summer, look no further than the Houston Rockets as your underdog play in the West.