The “second half” (which is actually a quarter) of the NBA season is here with the All-Star break over, and it’s time to get serious about the title chase.
The good news is, for once, we have quite a few options on the menu. The Phoenix Suns are the best team in the NBA by a wide margin, just won the Western Conference last season and should be the title favorites. (They are not, at every book at least.) However, the Suns’ playoff run last year had several injury complications, and Chris Paul is out until the start of the playoffs (and turns 37 in two months, and has an extensive and unfortunate injury history).
So with that in mind, here’s a guide for betting the NBA title … no matter what type of bettor you are.
The Longshot Shooter
Dallas Mavericks (+4000)
You’re not looking for any measly payout. You want the deep ball. You want to take the longshot no one believed in and stake them because you knew they had it.
So let’s look at the Mavericks.
You want a superstar, and Luka Doncic, for lack of a better term, is that dude. Over the last six weeks, Doncic is averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists per game while shooting 46% from the field and 36% from 3. The Mavericks have gone 13-6 in that span, with the eighth-best offense (their season-long weakness) and fifth-best defense.
The Mavericks did take a step back by trading Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, but ultimately, Porzingis was consistently unavailable due to injury. With Porzingis this season, the Mavericks were +1.8 in net rating, but without him, they have a +4.8 net rating.
Dallas is 16-9 this season without Porzingis, per GimmeTheDog.com.
The Mavericks have been stymied by the Clippers the past two years in the playoffs. The odds of them facing the Clippers are tiny given the standings.
If the Mavericks land in the right sequence they can face the Grizzlies who they’ve beaten in the season series and match up well with. They might face the Jazz who struggle with smallball combinations (which the Mavericks feature more of now) and who Doncic can tear up with the Jazz’s drop scheme.
The Mavericks have a player who at any time can reasonably be described as the best player in basketball and a good defense. We’ve been waiting for the Doncic playoff run. Maybe in what feels like a random, unpredictable year, Doncic will come out on top.
The Safe Player
Phoenix Suns (+450)
You’re not here for adventure. This isn’t about self-satisfaction or the big payday. You want to ride Occam’s Razor and the shortest distance between any team and the NBA title belongs to the Suns.
They’re the best team by a considerable margin. Usually, if a team had this kind of run, we’d be asking if they could pull it off in the playoffs. But the Suns literally won the conference last season and were two wins from the title. You can talk about Anthony Davis’ injury, or Jamal Murray’s injury, or Kawhi Leonard’s injury, but every championship team has caught breaks.
Phoenix hasn’t just been better than the rest of the league, it has been better than the rest of the league by a considerable margin outside of Golden State. The Paul injury isn’t thought to be serious and while it will keep him out until the playoffs, he should be able to return for them.
Phoenix presents the same problems for teams as last year, which is that it can switch pick and rolls while keeping a big who can score on the floor, has tough shot-makers and high-percentage shooters on the wing who can defend, is extremely well-coached and punish you with the lowest expected percentage shot in the NBA (the mid-range jumper). There are little to no specific weaknesses on Phoenix.
And yet, this team is still +450.
The Suns don’t have a distinguishable weakness on the floor most of the time. You can’t leave anyone unguarded on defense and there’s no one to really target on their switches offensively. They aren’t quite as versatile as they were last year without Dario Saric, but ultimately, they still present the most matchup issues.
It’s rare that you get a team with the best record and net rating by a considerable gap, this late in the season, at this kind of a price.
The Super Genius
Miami Heat +1000
Boston Celtics +2500
You want to look like a genius. Not just someone who got lucky, or took the easiest path. You want to look like someone who didn’t go for the easy narratives and saw that sleeper coming. These two teams are both worth the bet for you.
Miami is in such a sweet spot. It is leading the Eastern Conference (tied with the Bulls in the loss column) and is top-10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive rating at DunksAndThrees.com. The Heat have tough shot-makers in Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry. They have the size to combat the bigs in the conference and are switchable. (Did you know that Bam Adebayo is 6-3 in his career against Joel Embiid?)
They will have the coaching advantage in any matchup. They have beaten the Bucks. Last year, Milwaukee swept them, but Bryn Forbes was a big part of that series and he’s no longer there, so was PJ Tucker, who’s in Miami, and the Heat added Kyle Lowry. The Heat were also one of the final four teams from the bubble and all but the Nuggets (who were swept in the second round) were eliminated in the first round.
The Heat offense stalls from time to time, but you know what? So does Milwaukee’s and Philadelphia’s and Boston’s. The Heat are absolutely more of a threat than they are treated as.
Speaking of Boston, the Celtics have been the best team in the league over the last month and a half. Since January 8th, the Celtics have the 11th-best offense and the best defense in the league (six full points better per 100 possessions than the second-best team on defense), per CleaningTheGlass.com.
Jayson Tatum has rediscovered how to be a bad, bad man and Derrick White has helped shore up their rotations. Marcus Smart is also playing his best basketball. Robert Williams is a serious DPOY threat.
The Celtics are switchable and have matchup advantages all over. They have the athleticism to go against Milwaukee, the perimeter defense to hound the Nets, Al Horford is Joel Embiid’s kryptonite, they have the lineup versatility to combat Miami, and their scheme will give Chicago issues.
For most of the season, the Celtics were ranked highly in advanced metrics but their record was dragged down by their miserable clutch record (11-18, 6-14 before Jan 1). So there’s an argument this team was always better than its record and was just having big issues in coin-flip situations.
Tatum is averaging 24-8-5 over the past 10 games. If he plays at that level, the Celtics have the top-end scorer to make a run.
With either of these picks, if they pay off, you can bask in your intellectual superiority to your smuggest delight.
The Super Fun Team Coattails Rider
Memphis Grizzlies +2500
You want to ride the rollercoaster, and there’s no more fun team than the Grizzlies.
Memphis plays a breakneck style. It is the No. 2 team in points added by transition, per CleaningTheGlass, and No. 1 off steals. The Grizzlies relentlessly get downhill with Ja Morant. They have extremely fun role players like Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. They’re deep and versatile, and play with the most swagger in the league.
If you’re betting the Grizzlies, you’re betting on youth and an upstart team with no regard for convention. You won’t be cheering for the veteran, grizzled, boring, conventional team. Your hedge opportunities will be almost nil because the Grizzlies will be underdogs in almost every series.
A fun comparison for this team is the 2011 Thunder. They had made the playoffs for the first time the season before, just like this Grizzlies team, and had put up a good showing in a loss to the Lakers. (The Thunder put up more fight vs. LA than the Grizzlies did vs. Utah last season, and the Thunder also, you know, had Kevin Durant and James Harden and Russell Westbrook, three future MVPs, but I digress.) That Thunder team made the leap the next season and stunned everyone by making it to the conference finals. It seemed like they were destined to jump all the way, but the Mavericks showed up and shut that idea down.
The Grizzlies are a team you can root for with a clear conscience; no grumpy whiny superstars, no player empowerment drama, just good basketball, and a fun style. They may not make it, but it’ll be a ride watching them go. And if they do? That payout is fat.
The Superstar Reductionist
Brooklyn Nets +475
The team with the best player wins the NBA championship. I don’t really know where this idea came from, since LeBron James hasn’t won 15 titles, but it’s a thing. There’s always been the idea that in the NBA, talent trumps everything. Having the best individual player or players beats out any other advantage.
The Nets are the obvious play here. Kevin Durant, on any healthy given night, has a claim to the Best Player On Planet Earth moniker. Kyrie Irving’s skill and scoring acumen make up for whatever floor-raising he lacks or flat-earthing he engages in. Ben Simmons is still a top-end defensive talent with elite athleticism.
They’ve even got stars of yesteryear: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, LaMarcus Aldridge are all former big-name players. They have a 3-point contest champion in Joe Harris.
But really it just comes down to: they have KD and Kyrie, and you don’t.
The Nets will also be favored against just about every team outside of the Finals, so you have hedge opportunities along the way.
This is boring and dull, but you can also make the argument that the best player won the title in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021. It’s got some backing.
Bet the big bad. Bet the Nets.
The Believer In The Team No One Believes In
Denver Nuggets +3500
Utah Jazz +1700
Denver last year had the best team in basketball for about a week, and then Jamal Murray tore his ACL. Around these parts here in Denver, they call that “Nugglyfe” where whatever must go wrong, will.
However, there remains optimism that the Nuggets will get back Murray and Michael Porter Jr. by the end of March. They won’t be fully themselves, and there will be growing pains in re-integrating them, which may cost them in the postseason, but they’ll be some version of whole, most likely.
They also have the MVP. Bear in mind that Nikola Jokic has never been eliminated in the first round, and has won three series as an underdog. Their defense is better with the addition of Aaron Gordon, their bench unit has been shored up by Bryn Forbes and DeMarcus Cousins. Their coach, Michael Malone, doesn’t get enough credit for having outcoached Quin Snyder, Doc Rivers and Terry Stotts in various series, and with MPJ and Murray back, you can’t double Jokic as often, which leaves him free to wreak havoc.
Denver would feel confident in series vs. the Jazz and Grizzlies (despite losing the season series to them this year), and would have a puncher’s chance vs. the Warriors. The Suns are a tougher deal, but the Nuggets are eager to prove last year’s sweep was more about exhaustion.
The Nuggets may be a sleeping dragon.
I can give you a lot more reasons to bet against the Jazz than bet them. Their issues with switch, their faulty chemistry, their compromised point-of-attack defense. But this team has faced a lot of internal adversity and is somehow still here. Should the Jazz land the Nuggets in the first round, they were up 3-1 on them with a healthy Murray two years ago. If it’s Dallas, they have the ability to hang with the Mavs’ offense and just on Friday were able to stop Doncic by switching Rudy Gobert onto him.
The Jazz still have the No. 1 offense in the league and the No. 1 halfcourt offense. They punish you for mistakes. They have some sneaky weapons on the bench including Hassan Whiteside, who has been quietly great, and Rudy Gay gives them a smallball five look.
Utah has failed in such spectacular fashion so many times in the last few years. But is still here. Maybe this is like the Raptors and the Jazz just need to finally catch the playoff breaks.
Philadelphia 76ers +700
Joel Embiid likes to destroy you and let you know about it. He helped create the situation with Simmons and then kept throwing barbs at him, and then in the end he’s rewarded with a former MVP for a teammate. He’s likely going to win the MVP this season and let everyone know about it.
Embiid and James Harden will combine for one of the most disgusting brands of basketball you’ll see this year. Just a constant parade to the free-throw line, causing conniption fits from opposing fans about the officiating. But ultimately, it’s a reliable strategy for success. Even if the rate of fouls decreases in the postseason, it slows the game down and lets the Sixers control the pace.
Daryl Morey is an analytics darling who doesn’t care about chemistry and somehow made everyone look like an idiot for doubting he’d get a return on Simmons. Harden ran himself out of three different spots. Embiid is regarded as a titan of the industry despite his most impressive playoff win being vs. either the pre-KD Nets or the Westbrook Wizards.
If you like having a ticket on the team everyone is rooting against, this might be the team for you. The Nets also qualify here. But make no mistake, the Sixers are also excellent after the trade for Harden and have the talent to make a title run, despite being dogs in almost every series.
The Feel-Good Storyteller
Milwaukee Bucks +750
Now of course, just as the Sixers aren’t actually villains, the Bucks are no heroes. They’re just a basketball team. But these are the defending champs who finally got over the hump last season and won their first title. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a hyper-competitive lunatic who gets better every game. Jrue Holiday is a veteran’s veteran who makes all the right plays. Khris Middleton was a second-round pick, for God’s sake.
The Bucks are the defending champs but most everyone is writing them off for various reasons. Having a ticket on them means you have a ticket on the champs so you’re respecting accomplishment, and you’re backing a player who might be the best in basketball. Either way, as great as the story of their redemption was last year, beating the Nets with a more healthy team, taking out the Sixers’ star power, and then going back-to-back would be a hell of a story for a squad that once seemed doomed to lose their best player to the lures of big markets.