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NBA Playoffs 2021: Should the Lakers be Favorites to Win the West?

Who is the best bet to come out of the Western Conference?

The 2020-2021 NBA season has been unique to say the least. What has truly made this season different than any other has been the implementation of the play-in games.

There are more teams in the mix for a postseason berth than ever before with several teams hanging in the 4-6 seed range that need to keep their play up to avoid stumbling into the elimination style tournament. 

The play-in game is sure to be compelling with Stephen Curry and the Warriors likely in the game, but also because the defending champions, Los Angeles Lakers, may be involved after a recent skid.

What to make of the Lakers

After winning the 2019-2020 NBA Championship, the Lakers have spent most of this season battling injuries. Anthony Davis missed several months with a lower leg ailment. LeBron James sprained his ankle, leading to 20 missed games.

The Lakers treaded water without both, hanging in the middle of the Western Conference standings in hopes that the two would come back healthy and ready for another Finals push. 

Well, now that both are back, the early returns aren’t great. Davis is shooting below 40% from the floor in his six games in the lineup and LA has dropped both games since James returned. Now, the Lakers are tied with the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers for the five seed with the deck stacking against them.

Looking at Tankathon’s strength of schedule metrics, the Lakers have the fifth toughest left in the league, consisting of four back-to-back sets, which includes the second leg of a b2b on Monday night. Conventional wisdom is that James and Davis will sit most, if not all of those for injury management, making those games even more crucial with the Lakers now in a heated race to avoid the play-in game.

For reference, Portland has the eighth toughest schedule, but Dallas has the fifth easiest. The Mavs do have the key tiebreaker of being the likely Southwest division winner, so this may be a race between Portland and LA to avoid the play-in.

What should we make of all this? I believe that the taxing bubble playoff run is starting to show on the Lakers. There are eight regular season games left for the L.A., not all that much time for a 36-year-old James to ramp up to full speed, even hinting that his ankle may not be 100% right after Sunday's loss. Not to mention, Dennis Schroder has been ruled out for 10-14 days due to health and safety protocols, per The Athletic.

Futures Market

Long term, the futures market hasn’t budged very much on L.A. The team still has the second shortest title odds at +350, per DraftKings Sportsbook despite the fact that they may be coming into the postseason through the play-in.

I see this as oddsmakers privy to the fact that the club will attract a ton of money if the line climbs too high. To be fair, L.A. is the defending champs and if the team is able to get healthy and put together a run, they have two of the most dangerous threats in the league James and Davis. 

Despite likely being the lower seeded team in every series, the Lakers will likely be favorites in any Western Conference matchup.

Not to mention, the Lakers have the second-best defense in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, even without their two stars for much of the season. In the playoffs, the Lakers may be able to fall on their elite defense to get grind out victories.

I also believe the market hasn’t budged too much because of the lack of other proven commodities in the West. No one will trust the Utah Jazz yet. The Phoenix Suns have been an outstanding story, but it’s a team with next to no playoff experience outside of Chris Paul. 

The Denver Nuggets lost Jamal Murray and proceeded to rip off a 9-1 stretch behind the league’s MVP Nikola Jokic. However, there are still concerns about what they can do in a full postseason without their lead guard. If Michael Porter Jr. can keep up his stellar play, things may change. MPJ is averaging nearly 23 points and eight rebounds on an astounding 56/46/79 shooting splits. 

That brings us to the other team from L.A.; the Clippers.

Kawhi Leonard has a nagging foot issue, but he has been playing through it, per the star wing. Paul George has quietly put together a fantastic season after struggling in the bubble. The Clips are +10.6 with him on the floor this year.

The mid-season acquisition of Rajon Rondo has provided a huge spark to a bench unit that had some concerns early in the year. Since joining the team, the Clippers are in the 94th percentile with Rondo on the floor, +9.7, per CtG.

The Clippers are tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the best offense on a points per possession basis, and the team does have the second shortest odds to win the West, +240. But are they worth a bet heading into the postseason?

Where is the value?

Maybe it’s the residue of last season’s implosion, but I can’t take the Clippers +240 to win the West. I think the conference is more wide open than many are leading on, and would rather take a stab at the Suns at +900 or the Nuggets at +1500. 

It’s tough to project matchups with the play-in games and so many things up in the air despite so few games left, but I find these two as interesting teams to buy now. 

While I mentioned the lack of playoff experience, Paul is still playing at a high level and is the identity of this gritty Suns team. With wing defenders in Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder to complement Devin Booker, Phoenix will be a tough out no matter what. 

The key to this one is how DeAndre Ayton performs in his first postseason. We have seen traditional bigs like Rudy Gobert get played off the floor in the postseason, Ayton needs to be able to adapt. Playoff matchups will be key, but 9-1 is very enticing. 

Then there are the Nuggets. Left for dead after the Murray injury, the team keeps battling back. What I find most fascinating about Denver is how they play against top competition, namely the Clippers. After storming back to win in seven against them in the playoffs last year, the Nuggets have taken two of three from the LAC this season, including last weekend in impressive fashion on the road. 

Denver may have lost it’s star in Murray, but Jokic and the emerging Porter may be enough to hold the line. This team is resilient, top five in point differential this season, and has the MVP. 15-1 may be too high even without Murray after what we have seen them do over the past two seasons.

*Odds as of Monday morning

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