Buying or Selling NBA Division Leader as Championship Contender
NBA championship odds come courtesy of TopBet and are accurate leading into games on March 8. These lines shift quite a bit this time of year, particularly for division leaders who are trying to fend off other squads, so be sure to review the numbers at your sportsbook of choice before making any decisions.
Atlantic Division: Toronto Raptors (+1200)
Start taking the Toronto Raptors seriously if you haven’t already.
Yes, you know the knocks against them. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have traditionally entered postseason slumps, never once turning in a trademark playoff series together. Their big-men corps is limited in switchability. Serge Ibaka has peaked. Their offensive style won’t hold on a collective level when defenses get more brutal.
Well, here’s the thing: It’s time to forget everything you know.
The Raptors have completely reinvented themselves. DeMar DeRozan is shooting and making threes while establishing himself as one of the game’s best pick-and-roll playmakers. Kyle Lowry is used to moving off the ball more. The team as a whole has never been deeper on offense; their second unit ranks third in offensive efficiency and first in point differential per 100 possessions.
Things are even looking up on the defensive end. Head coach Dwane Casey’s conservative zone-heavy system will play in the postseason. The Raptors will coax teams into enough low-percentage jumpers in the half-court, while both Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam provide them with switchability Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas cannot.
Indeed, the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. But if there’s one outfit that can take them down in a best of seven series, it’s this one—rendering the Raptors title contenders by default.
Verdict: Buy as contenders
Central Division: Cleveland Cavaliers (+600)
Whether or not the Cavaliers adequately stack up against the Western Conference’s most likely NBA Finals representatives almost doesn’t matter. And for the record, they probably don’t. But getting back to the NBA Finals is more than half the battle in this discussion, and they’re primed for a return after overhauling roster at the trade deadline.
In the 10 games the Cavaliers have played since shaking things up, they rank sixth in points scored per 100 possessions and, more importantly, 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions. Their defensive numbers still aren’t great. Their pick-and-roll coverage is bizarre, if dysfunctional, and they don’t always make an effort to get back in transition or defend off the ball.
Any improvement, however, is a huge deal. And the Cavaliers are finding out they have some nifty defensive combinations following the arrival of Larry Nance Jr. He can defend nearly all five positions, taking the burden off a version of LeBron James that isn’t interested in guarding too hard in the half-court these days.
Case in point: During the 156 minutes LeBron and Nance have played together thus far, the Cavaliers are outscoring opponents by more than 21 points per 100 possessions, with a defensive rating that would rank second overall on the season. They’ll have some issues to iron out once Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are healthy and back in the rotation, but those are good problems to have.
Cleveland is, once again, a viable contender.
Verdict: Buy hard as contenders
Southeast Division: Washington Wizards (+6000)
The Washington Wizards’ performance without John Wall should inspire confidence in their immediate outlook. They’re 11-6, with a top-10 offense and good enough defense.
And yet, we’re left wanting more.
The Wizards still don’t profile as elite in any one area of the game. Their bench is topsy-turvy, their defense is hot and cold, and their offensive shot distribution is flat-out bad. They also seem to respond better on the offensive end when playing without Wall. This is a huge problem.
No, it doesn’t mean the Wizards are better without their All-Star floor general. They’re not. But it could take time for them to re-adjust when he returns and starts dominating the ball again.
If Wall is fully healthy and humming on all cylinders, the Wizards will no doubt be a dangerous postseason squad. But they haven’t fully recaptured their previous selves from last spring or the one before at any point this year. That cannot be overlooked.
Verdict: Sell as contenders
Pacific Division: Golden State Warriors (-200)
Imagine not buying the Golden State Warriors as title contender.
These are the reigning champions. They’re probably the best team ever assembled. Yes, they’ve sleptwalk through much of the regular season. But they still have the league’s best offense and top-five defense to show for it. They could arguably remain in cruise control all year and still hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Except, the Warriors won’t be in chill mode all season. In fact, they’ve already exited it. They’ve spent the bulk of their post-All-Star performances putting every team in its rightful place—significantly behind them.
Golden State does need to keep tabs on some of the league’s other contenders. The Houston Rockets, Cavaliers and even Raptors register as real threats should they meet in a postseason series. Otherwise, though, the Warriors are sitting pretty, with a burgeoning effort level and the championship-winning resume to make you believe even better play is just around the corner.
Verdict: Buy, buy, buy
Northwest Division: Portland Trail Blazers (+30000)
The Portland Trail Blazers are perhaps the Western Conference’s biggest surprise. They don’t have a ton of offensive talent or general spacing, and yet they continue to climb their way up the points-piling ladder.
Damian Lillard is showing out like an MVP candidate. Anthony Davis, James Harden and LeBron James are the only players having a better individual season right now. The Blazers have also unlocked some highly effective defensive combinations. Jusuf Nurkic is staying in position when he’s jumping center, and the pairing of Ed Davis and rookie Zach Collins has done wonders on both ends of the floor for protracted periods of time.
Still, the Blazers have their issues—specifically on offense. They don’t have the half-court shooting outside of CJ McCollum and Lillard to go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s top defensive units, and there’s no telling whether head coach Terry Stotts’ conservative scheme that emphasizes opposing jumpers will hold up against three-point-drunk squads like the Rockets or Warriors.
With very little in the way of high-end wild cards, the Blazers look to be one or two players short of making any real noise. Hell, given how the West’s playoff race is shaping up, they may not even cage up the Northwest Division. Both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder are nipping at their heels.
Verdict: Very strongly sell as contenders
Southwest Division: Houston Rockets (+300)
And now for an ode to the Rockets, who remain the Warriors’ biggest roadblock to another title.
Make no bones about it, the Warriors remain the league’s foremost superpower. Everyone is chasing them. But the Rockets are on the verge of catching them. They hold the NBA’s top record at this writing, and like their presumed Western Conference Finals foe, they are built to play almost any style.
Looking to roll with size? Well, the Rockets can throw out Nene at the 5.
Trying to play really small? Head coach Mike D’Antoni can use PJ Tucker as a pocket-sized center.
Hoping to balance the two? That’s what Clint Capela is for. He grabs a ton of defensive rebounds and finishes well out of the pick-and-roll yet is able to survive when defending in space. That makes him the perfect big for Houston’s system.
Not surprisingly, the Rockets are money when Capela shares the floor with James Harden and Chris Paul. Actually, forget that. This undersells how well they’ve played. They’re an indomitable 34-1 through games in which Paul, Harden and Capela see the floor together. And their differential per 100 possessions is, somehow, even better when rolling out Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza at the same damn time.
Don’t buy the Rockets as the Warriors’ surefire makers just yet. They are, however, the closest thing to such a pipe dream existing.
Verdict: Buy, buy, buy
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