Almost no pundit’s preview of the 2020 NBA reboot is focused entirely on what the hoops competition is all about. Many are focused on what “bubble” basketball in Orlando will not include.
Not every club has been invited. Orlando’s events are not a comprehensive NBA regular-season restart, but rather a 22 team contenders’ tournament for the league title. Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors will not participate after bottoming-out at 15-50 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor will the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, or Detroit Pistons take part. Given the league’s plans for a conventional 16-team postseason tourney, clubs in 7th and 8th positions in their conferences will have had long to ponder the task of holding on. Teams in 9th, 10th, and 11th will utilize 3 months of hungry game-planning.
The bottom-8 teams are negotiating to play separately, perhaps in a “consolation” tournament held in Chicago. I’m not expecting much to come of that outside of maybe a round of exhibition games. Consolation titles fall outside the milieu of modern professional sports. Nobody wants to see the last-place finishers of a golf tournament in an 18-hole Monday playoff. (The NFL tried the Playoff Bowl for a while, a game to decide 3rd place prior to the NFL-AFL merger and 12-team postseason brackets. Nobody liked it. Vince Lombardi called it the Toilet Bowl.) Bloggers have suggested that the NBA let its 8 lowest-ranked clubs play to determine a #1 overall draft selection. But aren’t #1 draft picks supposed to benefit the very worst teams?
(An 8-team Anti-Tournament to decide the worst NBA team and corresponding #1 draft choice, in which the rosters each tried to lose, could be a scream.)
It’s time to recognize the NBA bubble competition for what it is rather than what it is not. For a start, the restart has – quietly – become a dream scenario for Las Vegas and London.
Why do sportsbooks and betting blogs push NBA futures odds early in autumn, before the basketball season has tipped-off? A cynic might say it’s because we want you to place bets while everyone is still ignorant of what clubs can do. But sportsbooks do offer “floating” futures odds on an NBA champion during the season, they’re just impossible to tout in print because the numbers are always changing. The COVID-19 pause has created a rare opportunity for stand-still futures lines on active teams with big sample-sizes of outcomes.
Prop bookmakers are throwing a party too. Speculators can pick nifty win-total lines on the 8 regular-season games each club will play in Florida. Fans can bet on the horse-race to earn 8th playoff seeds in the 2 conferences, and – of course – wager moneylines, spreads, and O/U point-totals on opening Orlando tip-offs with the benefit of long-term reflection and stable gambling markets.
Let’s sift through all 3 categories and find the best bets to wager before the NBA’s restart on July 30th. Scroll to-bottom for WagerBop’s pick of traditional futures odds on potential 2019-19 champions.
NBA Bubble Betting: Total Wins in 8 Seeding Games
(Selected lines courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook)
Los Angeles Lakers (O/U (5.5) Total Wins)
Los Angeles Clippers (O/U (5.5) Total Wins)
Boston Celtics (O/U (4.5) Total Wins)
Milwaukee Bucks (O/U (5.5) Total Wins)
Toronto Raptors (O/U (4.5) Total Wins)
Miami Heat (O/U (4.5) Total Wins)
Denver Nuggets (O/U (4.5) Total Wins)
San Antonio Spurs (O/U (2.5) Total Wins)
Wiseguys are squinting at each team’s 8-game bubble schedule to try to handicap the win totals. Just as when gambling on NFL and FBS win-total lines, calendar-squares and circles are overrated. There is too wide of a range between an NBA club’s floor and ceiling for scheduling analytics to tell us who has the easiest slate, especially once many playoff seeds have already been decided. You’d rather play a disinterested B-squad from the Clippers than a hot-shooting lineup from the Spurs.
A better strategy is to analyze the standings. WagerBop has nothing bad to say about Lebron James and the L.A. Lakers’ performance this season, as King James continues to perfect an unselfish style of basketball. Lebron has averaged about 25 points per game while dishing-out 10+ assists and grabbing 7-ish rebounds per game, allowing scorers like Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma to flourish in transition. L.A.’s (5.5) bubble win-total market is in my opinion a “sucker” market on the Over, however, when viewed in context of the race.
The Lakers are likely to begin preparing for the playoffs within a few games. Milwaukee will soon surpass the W total at which Los Angeles cannot catch up to finish 1st overall, and a Laker win over the Clippers on Thursday all but clinches 1st place in the Western Conference. If you wanna pick a non-motivated team full of resting stars to go 6-2 by the middle of August, that’s your call. I’m taking the Under.
The defending-champion Toronto Raptors are a solid Over (4.5) pick and getting undervalued in NBA Finals futures odds. More on Toronto a bit later.
The Los Angeles Clippers (5.5) have the misfortune of facing the Lakers on the night on which Lebron’s team could sew-up its postseason plans with a victory. Milwaukee (5.5), meanwhile, may soon have less to play for than the Lakers, at least temporarily speaking.
But what about the Denver Nuggets (4.5) going 5-3 or better and paying-off Over bets? Denver’s Nikola Jokić is the latest scorer to translate FIBA domination into a ruthless NBA presence. Jokić’s game against the Mavericks on March 9th showcased the big man’s versatile production. Jokić dished-out 13 assists, launching a pair of 3-point attempts to keep Dallas defenders spread out, and otherwise going 7-of-8 from the field. Denver lost the game – its last before the COVID break – thanks to a poor 4th quarter. But scoring depth, hustle, and crafty defense built around the Serbian 7-footer’s skill set should carry the Nuggets to 5 wins or more.
2020 NBA Futures: 8th Seeds in Each Conference
Fantasy contestants know the conundrum of cheering for their athletes to impress, but not to impress too much. For instance, if an underdog keeper is blanking an opposing Premier League club with amazing saves, Fantasy GMs with his name on the ledger are pleased to rack-up save and clearance points. But they’d prefer that the team’s manager doesn’t call for forward numbers and rely on the hot GK to stop everything, because then the side might give up a goal and ruin an impending Clean Sheet bonus.
FanDuel’s 8th Conference Playoff Seed betting odds apply the same kind of squeeze on gamblers. Suppose you pick the Brooklyn Nets (-260) to earn the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the club immediately wins a game or 2 to widen the gap over current #9 Washington. That’s great. Except unless the Orlando Magic is also winning its games, Brooklyn might surpass the bubble’s only “home team” and finish 7th, more than good enough to play onward but losing the 8th-seed “prop futures” wager.
Then there’s the wrinkle of “play-in” tournaments for the final remaining seeds should either conference’s bubble teams (excuse the pun) lie within 4 games of each other at the end of the regular season. It’s an eminently fair setup which extends an escape-ladder to teams which thought they would have more time to catch up in the NBA playoff race. If a club begins 5 games behind but plays championship-worthy basketball for about a 10-game span, it deserves to play in the postseason. Yet the possibility of unpredictable play-in games also calls the wisdom of betting on (-260) lines into question.
Take the Western Conference, in which Memphis (-145) is the favorite to qualify #8 with Portland (+480) and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans (+310) lagging behind in betting action. 7th place is already out-of-reach thanks to the Mavericks having won 40 games prior to the pandemic. Led by 20-year-old March Madness phenom Ja Morant at point guard, the Grizzlies have won 32 times in 2019-20 and are a solid 3.5 games ahead of #9 Portland with a chance to play and beat the Trail Blazers on 7/31. It’s not the gap in the standings causing Memphis’ 8th-seed betting line to hover near 1-to-1 odds, but the sheer number of clubs that could nip-up close to 8th position and force a “First Four” type scenario that even Morant wouldn’t be experienced in. New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix are each mathematically in the hunt.
Brooklyn’s line could be valuable if “floating” futures odds offer a better price at a later date. I do like Orlando’s chances to remain in 7th place with the benefit of a backyard arena to play in.
However, the best line is New Orleans at (+310) since it’s not an actual injury holding Williamson back at the moment. Once he’s through quarantine and solidly in the Pelicans’ starting 5 again, Big Easy has a shot to make noise 1 time zone over.
Gambling Lines and Best Bets on Thursday and Friday Tip-Offs
Thursday 7/30 – Utah Jazz (+108) vs New Orleans Pelicans (-126)
Over/Under lines for Bubble Night #1 feel a little inflated, as you might expect with casual gamblers taking a maiden stab at the Association after a long wait. But strangely enough, it’s bookies doing just as much inflating, almost expecting recreational bettors to think differently than they’re thinking in real-life.
Consensus O/U totals for the Pelicans vs Jazz tip-off Thursday (there are of course protocols for home-and-away and “at” vs “vs” for these games, but I prefer to ignore them as potential bias-inducers for neutral-site hoops handicapping, unless the Orlando Magic are involved) began around (222.5), a hefty total with a favorite struck by COVID-19 and still piecing its lineup together. Bettors wisely disagree with Las Vegas.
Betting action has reduced the O/U line by 4-5 points at some sportsbooks but FanDuel is still offering lines in the 220s, potentially bad news if you’re a newbie odds-manager at a formerly 100%-Fantasy website.
Friday 7/31 – Phoenix Suns (-6.5) vs Washington Wizards (+6.5)
It’s hard to look at Phoenix and Washington and understand where a marked discrepancy would be reflected in the betting odds, until you consider how the Wizards’ roster is thinning week by week. Leading scorer Bradley Beal is already out for the season with a shoulder injury. Latvian power forward Dāvis Bertāns has chosen not to play in the Orlando bubble. Gary Payton and Thomas Bryant have tested positive for COVID-19. Phoenix has its share of COVID concerns and injured contributors, but Kelly Oubre Jr. is the crucial cog on that short list, and he’ll be back from injury as early as this week.
Pick: Suns ATS
Friday 7/31 – Milwaukee Bucks (-200) vs Boston Celtics (+170)
Boston’s moneyline is the “sexy” popular pick of a 2nd night of NBA action. The Over/Under is also shrinking for the marquee contest too, down to (214.5) points at sister sites BetOnline and Sportsbetting.ag. Under normal circumstances I would concur with both betting trends. A soon-to-be #1 conference playoff seed would be more likely to rest a bunch of starters, and not to sacrifice to win in the waning moments.
2020’s bubble-restart, needless to say, is not an ordinary circumstance. The Greek Freak and his teammates know that a best-overall record and an absolute clinch of all postseason goodies is just 1 or 2 wins away. Rest will be available in abundance for the Bucks once business is handled this weekend.
Pick: Bucks (-200) or ATS (-5.5)
Bonus Pick: WagerBop’s Futures Bet on a 2020 NBA Finals Winner
NBA Championship Futures Odds from FanDuel:
Milwaukee Bucks (+240)
L.A. Lakers (+260)
L.A. Clippers (+320)
Houston Rockets (+1700)
Boston Celtics (+2000)
Philadelphia 76ers (+2000)
Toronto Raptors (+2000)
The maxim “if it’s not 10-to-1 or longer, forget it” doesn’t always apply to wise futures betting, but it might as the NBA goes in a frightfully unique season.
There are a number of unknown postseason quantities in single-digits-to-1 payoff odds, and a big fat known quantity in the Toronto Raptors. Sure, the team isn’t exactly what it was last year, with Kawhi Leonard’s absence the most-glaring on score sheets. But in a landscape of teams missing players due to COVID complications and lingering injuries, the Raptors are as healthy as flying dinosaurs. Marc Gasol returned to action this weekend as Toronto beat Portland 110-104 in a rousing practice game.
Do handicappers believe the Freak will stop Toronto before the Raptors can try to repeat? Not necessarily, since the Canadian club is a (+600) wager to win the Eastern Conference in the playoffs. I’m sold at those odds even though I think the Raptors stand equal chances against L.A. and Milwaukee. If the 6-to-1 wager is safer for a reason other than eschewing the final series-result, it’s because a Toronto squad with thinner scoring and less margin-for-error could be more easily worn-down by the Finals than any of the 3 current favorites.
Pick: Raptors (+2000) or Raptors to Win Eastern Conference (+600)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.