The NBA regular season was tense right until the very last. The final round of games went down to the wire, with a play-in game in Minnesota being forced to overtime as the Nuggets and Timberwolves duelled for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
We have our brackets now. It has only taken a few months and 82 games to find out who is playing who, where they’re travelling to and which stars will be available for the first round. It’s been worth it though, of course.
The playoffs begin on Saturday. So, this seems a good time to take a look at the outright markets…
In possibly the least shocking news of 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers are favourites to make it out of the East. LeBron James and co. sit at EVS to make a fourth straight finals, despite falling into the fourth seed.
We know all too well that The King isn’t bothered by seeding. Fourth is a far tougher challenge than third this year, though, meaning the Cavs will likely have to beat Toronto and Philadelphia if they are to return to the Finals. Cleveland are third favourites for the title at 7/1, a decent price for any team with LeBron.
The number one seed, Toronto, are just behind the Cavaliers at 5/4 to win the East. The Raptors have a less than impressive playoff record and fall into the same challenging situation. Should the bracket fall to form, Toronto will have to overcome LeBron and the Sixers. A big ask.
I don’t see any value in backing Toronto. The 5/4 price is a little short, even after their strong regular season. Compare it with the 4/1 on the Philadelphia 76ers to make the Finals and it’s a no brainer.
Philly are riding a mammoth 16-game win streak into the postseason. Joel Embiid is due to return during the first round and 1/7 favourite to win Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, is improving by the week. The comparisons to Magic Johnson are increasing in regularity, too.
The Process has jumped forward a year or two. Probably not enough to put any value in the Sixers to win the title at 25/1, but certainly enough to make that 4/1 tempting. Philadelphia beat Cleveland recently even without Embiid and have the advantage of a probable second round matchup with a depleted Celtics (14/1 to make the Finals).
If a first round upset is on the cards anywhere in the East, I would look towards the Washington Wizards. John Wall’s team are 40/1 to win the conference after a disappointing regular season.
The Wizards were expected to be a top four seed heading into the year but have had to settle for a Toronto matchup. If they can figure out a few things, they could cause real problems for the Raptors.
Changing time zones and heading towards the Pacific, we see – in more unremarkable news – that the Golden State Warriors are favourites to make it to the Finals. That has been the case since the final basket of the 2016/17 season, but the Warriors’ odds have slipped of late.
Injury to Steph Curry will keep the two-time MVP out of the first round. Steve Kerr’s team have struggled to maintain concentration this season as it is, there’s a sense it’s all been a bit easy. They are no longer odds on to win the title.
A first round matchup with San Antonio is a repeat of last year’s Conference Finals. The absences of Curry and Kawhi Leonard change things drastically, and I fancy the Warriors to progress easily. They were lucky to avoid Oklahoma City Thunder, who have real upset potential in the playoffs. The Thunder, despite their struggles, are third favourites to win the West at 20/1.
The main challengers to Golden State’s dominance are Houston. The Rockets are second favourites for the West at 11/10 and the title, 31/20. It’s widely believed that the winner of the West will win the Finals. These are the best two teams in the league, but Houston rightly have doubters when it comes to playoff time.
I think the Rockets are a bit short at 11/10. James Harden and Chris Paul have been majestic this year, but the second round matchup with OKC is perilous. Beating the Thunder (or maybe the Jazz) could take seven games. I don’t see the Warriors being taken to seven once they have Curry back, and that could prove the difference in the Conference Finals.
Should there be a delay in Curry’s return, the Portland Trail Blazers at 20/1 might provide good value. Portland have hit a rough patch towards the end of the season, but their great run earlier in the year showed what they are capable of.
Without Curry, the Warriors could be very vulnerable in the second round. Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum talk the talk, now it’s time to walk the walk in the playoffs.
The depth of the West makes ‘upsets’ likely. There’s little to pick between the third to eighth seeds. Whether we see any real surprises – like Houston and/or Golden State not making the Finals – is still improbable.
Their quartet of All-Stars still make them the team to beat in the entire NBA. It’s a brave call to bet against the Warriors.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*