With less than a week remaining in the regular season, it's time to take one final glance at the NBA futures market before the real fun begins. As has been the case for several weeks now, there's little to no value in wagering on any of the individual awards. Nikola Jokic is a -2000 favorite to win the MVP, LaMelo Ball is -1000 to win Rookie of the Year, and the league might as well ship out the Most Improved Player trophy to Julius Randle (-10000) this afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Jazz are heavy favorites to sweep Defensive Player of the Year (Rudy Gobert, -2000) and Sixth Man of the Year (Jordan Clarkson, -1250). Clarkson's grip on Sixth Man appeared to dwindle a bit in recent weeks, but he made a statement Monday night with 41 points (on 33 shots) against Golden State. If Clarkson somehow loses the vote, it would likely be to his teammate, Joe Ingles (+500).
With all of that in mind, we'll focus on the team futures market, which includes an intriguing selection of To Reach Playoffs bets. Below, I've laid out a couple of my favorites, in addition to weighing in on why I still believe we're headed for a Lakers-Nets showdown in the NBA Finals.
All odds via the DraftKings Sportsbook
It's true that the play-in tournament may put a certain injury-riddled defending champion in a difficult spot, but it's hard to argue that it hasn't made the end of the season significantly more exciting.
With less than a week to go, Charlotte sits in eighth place in the East -- 1.0 game ahead of Indiana and 1.5 games ahead of Washington. The Hornets have a difficult schedule the rest of the way that includes a date with the Wizards on the final day of the regular season. Before that, they'll face Denver, the Clippers and New York, though at this point in the season it's difficult to predict which versions of those teams they'll ultimately see. Plenty can -- and likely will -- change between now and Sunday night, but there's a good chance Charlotte ends up facing off against either Boston or Indiana for a final playoff spot.
At full strength, the Celtics are the best team of the group, but with Jaylen Brown done for the year and Robert Williams hobbled, Boston is significantly more vulnerable. Even without Gordon Hayward, Charlotte versus this current iteration of the Celtics for the seventh seed would be a virtual toss-up. And if the Hornets are matched up against Indiana, they'd likely be favored -- particularly if Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner are still out of the lineup.
Washington presents an interesting matchup with a pair of ultra-explosive guards in Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, but there's a strong argument to be made that the Hornets are the more complete team.
With a 2.0-game edge in the standings for the No. 7 spot, Boston is still in the driver's seat. But Charlotte and Washington are the teams that feel like they're carrying the most momentum heading into the final stretch.
The argument for Washington is nearly the same as that for Charlotte. Boston is banged up, Indiana is even more banged up, and on the right night the Wizards can have the two best offensive players in any matchup. The health of Bradley Beal's hamstring is a major concern right now, but if he's back for Thursday's game against the Cavs, the Wizards should be in good position to make a run at the nine -- or even the eight -- seed in the East. With Indiana finishing out with a tough four-game run against Philadelphia, Milwaukee, the Lakers and Toronto, the eighth and ninth spots could be determined by Sunday's Wizards-Hornets showdown.
If that's the case, Washington should be glad to land either Indiana or Boston, both of which are arguably at their weakest points of the entire season heading into the play-in. Anything can happen in a single-game sample, but the Wizards appear to be hitting their stride at the right time. They've won 13 of their last 17 games, with the four losses coming by a combined six points.
Both the Suns and the Jazz (to a slightly lesser degree) are in precarious situations as the playoffs near. With the Lakers currently lurking in seventh place and destined for the play-in tournament, one of Utah or Phoenix will likely be stuck facing off against the defending champs -- and the team with the second-best odds to win the whole thing again -- in Round 1.
If the Lakers take care of business right away in the 7-8 game, as expected, then it's probably the Suns (currently 1.5 GB of Utah) who draw the short straw. But if the Lakers falter and have to win a do-or-die game to get in as the eighth seed, then it's the Jazz who would draw LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Round 1.
Catching the Lakers early, when James is still getting his legs back, could be a minor consolation, but LA will still be favored to win a series against either team. While losing the first play-in game would carry significant risks, there's a case to be made that falling to eighth could be the Lakers' clearest path to a repeat.
LA likely views Utah and Phoenix as relatively equal opponents, but matching up with one of Denver, Dallas or Portland (the current 4, 5 and 6 seeds) in Round 2 is much more appealing than facing Kawhi Leonard and the third-seeded Clippers, who will be favored to dispatch whichever of those three teams finishes sixth (assuming the Clippers hold onto the third seed, of course).
Another advantage to seeing Utah in Round 1 is the fact that Donovan Mitchell hasn't played since April 16. With only three games left, there's a reasonable chance his first game back -- after what would be a five-week layoff -- is Game 1 of the first round. Meanwhile, Mike Conley has missed the last eight games and remains without a clear timetable.
All of this is to say that if LeBron looks like LeBron right away and the Lakers can make it past the Jazz or Suns, the path through the rest of the Western Conference may not be all that treacherous -- especially if they can avoid the Clippers until the Conference Finals. The Lakers have plenty of work to do before we start talking about a repeat, but they're still the best bet to represent the West in the Finals.
Shortly after the Nets traded for James Harden, I officially pivoted away from the Lakers as my pick to win the Finals. Injuries to Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have prevented Brooklyn from dominating to the level it's capable of, but with Harden set to return this week, I expect the Nets to issue a sharp reminder to the league that in the modern NBA, talent almost always wins out. I'd love to present an intricate, stat-based argument as to why Brooklyn will absolutely win the title, but for me it really is as sample as the talent advantage.
I will concede that, depending on how the final seeding shakes out, Brooklyn's path to the Finals could be fairly perilous. If they fall to third, there's a chance Miami could be waiting in Round 1. And either way, a highly anticipated matchup against the Bucks -- who handled the Harden-less Nets twice last week -- almost certainly looms in Round 2.
With Harden back in the fold, however, the Nets will be almost impossible to defend. Stopping the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid could prove to be equally difficult, but the Nets have three of the best offensive players of the last 20 years in the same starting lineup.
At times -- partially because they've played only seven games together -- it feels like we've lost sight of that fact. Kevin Durant + James Harden + Kyrie Irving is a cheat code, and it will take four near-perfect efforts from Milwaukee or Philadelphia -- supremely talented teams in their own right -- to knock off the +200 title favorites.