BetQL's NBA Playoff Predictions

Previewing The Top Contenders For The Larry O’Brien Trophy

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After a four-month layoff, the NBA season will resume on July 31st with 22 teams. The regular season will conclude with each team playing eight regular season games. All regular season games will be played in Orlando with all players restricted to their hotel rooms after games. This preview evaluates the six most likely NBA champions based on their rosters and success before the season’s suspension in March. This preview also offers betting tips for investors to potentially exploit.

  • The Los Angeles Lakers are currently the first seed in the Western Conference and have the second best record in the NBA. The Lakers are considered the favorite to win the NBA championship. Their championship odds are +240, per DraftKings Sportsbook. The Lakers are led by four-time MVP Lebron James and seven-time all star Anthony Davis. Betting Note: The Lakers have performed much better on the road relative to the spread than they have at home.

  • The Los Angeles Clippers are currently the second seed in the Western Conference and have the fourth best record in the NBA. The Clippers are considered the third likeliest team to win the championship. Their championship odds are +333, per DraftKings Sportsbook. The Clippers are led by their offseason acquisitions of two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and six-time all-star Paul George. Betting Note: The Clippers are just 14-14 ATS facing teams that currently have winning records.

  • The Milwaukee Bucks are currently the first seed in the Eastern Conference and have the best record in the NBA. The Bucks are considered the second likeliest team to win the championship. Their championship odds are +250, per DraftKings Sportsbook. The Bucks are led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and two-time all-star Khris Middleton. Betting Note: The Bucks have dominated their opponents in the first quarter but their average margin per quarter against their opponents fell in the second through fourth quarters.

  • The Houston Rockets are currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference and are tied for the ninth best record in the NBA. The Rockets are considered the fourth likeliest team to win the championship. Their championship odds are +1300, per DraftKing Sportsbook. The Rockets are led by former MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Betting Note: No contender underperformed more on average relative to the spread than the Rockets have this season.

  • The Boston Celtics are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference and have the fifth best record in the NBA. The Celtics are considered the fifth likeliest team to win the championship. Their championship odds are +2000, per DraftKings Sportsbook. The Celtics are led by the quartet of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. Betting Note: Of all the contenders, the Celtics’ win-loss record has the strongest correlation with their ATS record.

  • The Philadelphia 76ers are currently the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and are tied for the 11th best record in the NBA. The 76ers are considered the eighth likeliest team to win the championship. Their championship odds are +2800. The 76ers are led by three-time all-star Joel Embiid and two-time all star Ben Simmons. Betting Note: The 76ers were outscored by their opponents in the second half of games this season.

  • The Field is led by the defending champions Toronto Raptors at +2200 championship odds, per DraftKings Sportsbook, and Denver Nuggets at +2500 championship odds, per DraftKing Sportsbook. Longer shots include the Dallas Mavericks at +4000 championship odds, per DraftKings Sportsbook, and the Indiana Pacers at +10000 championship odds, per DraftKing Sportsbook.

Los Angeles Lakers (+240)

  • W/L Record: 49-14
  • Offensive Rating: 112.6 (4th)
  • Defensive Rating: 105.5 (3rd)
  • Key Players: LeBron James (25.7 ppg, 10.6 apg); Anthony Davis (26.7 ppg, 2.4 bpg); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.5 ppg, .394 3p%); Danny Green (8.2 ppg, 1.2 spg)

Why They Will Win: The Lakers have two of the five best players in the league in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The truncated regular season means that the Lakers can get away with playing James and Davis as many minutes as possible. The Lakers have five players in James, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and Javalee McGee who have experience in meaningful roles in the NBA Finals.

While much of the league has placed less emphasis on size, the Lakers boast a massive frontcourt with James, Davis, McGee, and Howard. The Lakers’ size advantage allows them to take easier shots as they lead the league in field goal percentage and rank second in points in the paint per game and fast-break points per game.

The Lakers’ mammoth size advantage also makes them incredibly difficult to score against. The Lakers lead the league in blocks per game and rank in the top 10 defensively in opponent second-chance points per game and opponent points in the paint per game.

Why They Will Not Win: The Lakers have not solved the math problem where three points is greater than two points. While teams are increasingly building their offenses around the three-point shot due to its efficiency advantage over two-point shots, the Lakers have not caught up. The Lakers rank just 22nd in three-pointers made per game and 17th in three-point percentage. James leads the Lakers in three-point field goals this season but at best, he has been a streaky three-point shooter throughout his career. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the team’s most accurate three-point shooter but he has not shot 40% from distance in any season of his career.

The Lakers are also the third-worst free-throw shooting team in the league, which mitigates the advantage that James and Davis generate from being the recipients of “star” foul calls. It is unclear how much longer James can delay “father” time. James is now 35 years old and did exhibit some signs of regression. His value over replacement player rating this season was one of the lowest of his career. While the four-month layoff should have provided James with all the rest he needed to complete the season at full-strength, it also meant that James will be going into these playoffs four months older. These playoffs will be the toughest of his career as it’ll be the first time that James has ever had to go through the playoffs from the Western Conference.

Betting Note: While the Lakers had similar ATS records at home (17-13-1) and on the road (18-14), the Lakers performed much better relative to the spread on the road. The Lakers’ average differential against the spread on the road was +2 while their average differential against the spread at home was -.3. This disparity should make bettors more comfortable with laying points with the Lakers for the remainder of the regular season as the rest of the games will be played away from Staples Center in Orlando.

Los Angeles Clippers (+333)

  • W/L Record: 44-20
  • Offensive Rating: 112.9 (3rd)
  • Defensive Rating: 106.6 (5th)
  • Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (26.9 ppg, 1.8 spg); Paul George (21 ppg, .399 3p%); Lou Williams (18.7 ppg, 5.7 apg); Montrezl Harrell (18.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg)

Why They Will Win: The Clippers have arguably the most clutch player in the league in Kahwi Leonard. He has won two Finals MVPs with two different teams from both conferences. Leonard’s mid-range game has led him to the league’s fifth best player efficiency rating. Leonard is one of the most feared defenders in the league as a former two-time defensive player of the year.

The Clippers are filled with guys who can get their own basket without any assistance. The Clippers have the third best offensive rating in the league despite ranking only 23rd in assist percentage and 20th in assist ratio. The Clippers’ plethora of skilled one-on-one players will allow them to adjust when the playoffs inevitably turn into a halfcourt game.

The Clippers have arguably barely scratched the surface of their potential. They have the fourth best record in the league despite Leonard missing 13 games and Paul George missing 22 games. The Clippers have the deepest roster of all contenders. Nine of the 10 Clippers who average more than 15 minutes per game have positive value over replacement player ratings.

Why They Will Not Win: George and Lou Williams have regressed this season. George has played more like a glorified three-and-d player than a former first-team all-NBA player since he arrived in Los Angeles. Nearly half of George’s field goal attempts are three-pointers. George is averaging fewer points per game than he has in any season in which he played more than six games since the 2012-2013 season. George’s value over replacement player rating is his lowest in any season in which he has played in more than six games since his second year in the league. Williams is shooting the lowest field goal percentage of his tenure with the Clippers despite playing fewer minutes per game and taking fewer shots per game at any time during his Clippers’ career. The Clippers cannot win a championship with the way George and Williams played before the season’s suspension.

With the exception of Leonard, no one else on this roster has played a substantial role on a championship team. The Clippers’ high seed and their gaudy record is largely due to their dominance of the Eastern Conference. The Clippers are 17-6 against Eastern Conference teams but 27-14 against Western Conference teams. While 27-14 is more than a respectable record, the Clippers fared worse against the West than even the Denver Nuggets at 26-13 and much worse than the Lakers at 33-7.

Betting Note: While the Clippers have made money for their backers this season with a 35-29 ATS record, they’ve been inconsistent ATS against the 12 teams currently with a winning record. The Clippers are just 14-14 ATS against teams that have currently have a winning percentage over .500 but are 21-15 ATS against everyone else. Bettors should be cautious when betting on the Clippers as 12 of the remaining 22 teams have winning records.

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Milwaukee Bucks (+250)

  • W/L Record: 53-12
  • Offensive Rating: 112.3 (6th)
  • Defensive Rating: 101.6 (1st)
  • Key Players: Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.6 ppg, 13.7 rpg); Khris Middleton (21.1 ppg, .418 3p%); Eric Bledsoe (15.4 ppg, 5.4 apg); Brook Lopez (11 ppg, 2.4 bpg)

Why They Will Win: The play of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is what makes the Bucks a championship contender. He was considered a strong favorite to repeat as MVP before the suspension of the season and was arguably having a better season this season than last season. Antetokounmpo is averaging a career high in points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per 36 minutes per game. Antetokounmpo again leads the league in player efficiency rating.

The Bucks’ novel defensive approach has worked wonders. Milwaukee prioritizes defending the paint as opposed to defending the three-point shot. While the Bucks give up more three-pointers per game than any team in the league, they also surrender fewer points in the paint per game than any other team. The Bucks rank third in the league in blocks per game. Milwaukee’s top-ranked defensive efficiency rating is over three points better than the next team.

Khris Middleton has also emerged this season as a legitimate secondary scoring option to Antetokounmpo. Middleton has made the leap this season from an elite three-and-d player to a legitimate all-star.  Middleton is averaging a career high in points per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and rebounds per game while taking a career high in field goal attempts per 36 minutes.

Why They Will Not Win: What the Bucks do really well has not always translated to playoff success. While the Bucks lead the league in pace and rank third in the league in fast break points per game, the playoffs tend to be a slower, more half-court oriented game. The Bucks rank fourth in terms of the percentage of their shots that come from three-point attempts but most of these three-pointers are being taken by role players such as Wesley Matthews, George Hill, Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo, and Kyle Korver. Role players have a tendency to underperform as the stage gets bigger in the playoffs.

While Antetokounmpo has made strides this season to diversify his game offensively, his scoring is largely still limited to within three feet of the basket. Antetokounmpo has attempted a career high in three-point field goals per game this season but he has barely hit over 30 percent of his shots from distance. Antetokounmpo is averaging a career high in free throw attempts per game but he is shooting a career low 63.3% from the charity stripe. In a close game, teams will not hesitate to put Antetokounmpo on the free-throw line where he has struggled mightily this season.

The strategy that has made the Bucks an elite defensive unit has not been conducive to playoff success in the past. While allowing opponents to shoot threes in order to protect the paint may work in the regular season against doormat Eastern Conference teams, it may not work against sharp-shooting playoff teams. The Bucks were 38-2 against teams with a losing record but only 15-10 against teams with a winning percentage of .500 or better.

Betting Note: The Bucks have absolutely jumped on teams at the start of games this season. The Bucks have outscored their opponents by an average of four points per game in the first quarter this season. The Bucks’ average margin dips to +2.5 points per game in the second quarter, +2.6 points per game in the third quarter, and +2.2 points per game in the fourth quarter. Backers of the Bucks have had to deal with abnormally large spreads this season. Bettors should consider laying points with the Bucks in the first quarter if that option is available.

Houston Rockets (+1300)

  • W/L Record: 40-24
  • Offensive Rating: 113.4 (2nd)
  • Defensive Rating: 109.9 (16th)
  • Key Players: James Harden (34.4 ppg, 7.4 apg); Russell Westbrook (27.7 ppg, 8 rpg); PJ Tucker (7.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg); Robert Covington (12.8 ppg, 2.5 bpg)

Why They Will Win: The Rockets’ full transition to a small-ball team with the trade deadline deal  of Clint Capela and acquisition of Robert Covington has a much stronger chance of success following the four-month layoff. The skepticism over the Rockets’ small-ball approach is based on the belief that their players would gas out after having to play at a frenetic pace against larger players for a prolonged period of time. 6’5 PJ Tucker is Houston’s starting center and 6’7 Robert Covington is usually the tallest player on the court for the Rockets most of the time. The long layoff and shortened regular season should mitigate any concerns over the Rockets falling victim to fatigue.

Russell Westbrook was arguably playing the best basketball of his career before the season’s suspension. While Westbrook struggled at the beginning of the season, Westbrook has looked very much like a former MVP in his last 30 games. During this stretch, Westbrook has averaged 31.3 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game, 6.7 assists per game, 1.7 steals per game, and shot over 50% from the field. 

The long lay-off should benefit Westbrook and James Harden. Both players failed to match their regular season performances in last year’s playoffs partly because both of them played so many regular season minutes that it drained them for the playoffs. Both Harden and Westbrook should be fresh for the playoffs this season. The only team that has defeated the Rockets in the playoffs the last two seasons is the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were not invited to finish the regular season.

Why They Will Not Win: The small-ball approach requires the Rockets to overwhelm their opponents from the three-point line. However, shooting from distance has been a problem for the Rockets in previous postseasons and there’s reason to believe that their issues will persist. Nobody on the Rockets is an elite three-point shooter. Harden attempts the most threes on their team but his three-point field goal percentage is one of the lowest of his career. Only two of their regular rotation players shoot over 38% from the three-point line.

Eric Gordon is having the worst season of his career. In the past, Gordon has been a reliable third scoring option who could provide solid perimeter shooting for the Rockets. This season, Gordon is shooting a career low 37% from the field and an abysmal 31.9% from the three-point line. Gordon’s value over replacement player rating is negative for the first time in his career.

The Rockets’ offense still depends heavily on free throws. They rank second in free throw attempts per game while Harden leads the league with 11.8 free throws attempted per game. But referees have tended to swallow their whistles in the playoffs much to Houston’s detriment. If the referees are again not going to call fouls on 50/50 plays, it’s tough to envision a Rockets’ championship.

Betting Note: No contender has underperformed more on average than the Rockets have relative to the spread. The Rockets are -1.8 points per game against the average spread from their games. Part of the issue is that oddsmakers give the Rockets a ton of respect, deservedly so for their past regular season success. However, even bettors who expect the Rockets to win should be cautious with laying points with Houston. The Rockets are less likely to blow out teams or hold large leads with their small-ball approach.

Boston Celtics (+2000)

  • W/L Record: 43-21
  • Offensive Rating: 112.3 (5th)
  • Defensive Rating: 106.2 (4th)
  • Key Players: Jayson Tatum (23.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg); Jaylen Brown (20.4 ppg, .490 fg%); Gordon Hayward (17.3 ppg, .502 fg%); Kemba Walker (21.2, 4.9 apg)

Why They Will Win: No team better represents the change in how the modern NBA is played than the Celtics. Boston relies on their explosive quartet of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Kembaa Walker. No member of the quartet is taller than 6’8 or weighs over 230 pounds. All four of them are versatile enough to play multiple positions. Each player is skilled enough to create his own shot and to distribute the ball effectively to others. All four players are good three-point shooters and are talented enough to get to the rim if necessary. Though Brown has not made an all-star team, every member of the quartet has played at an all-star level very recently in their careers. The Celtics can play every member of the quartet on the court at the same time. 

Tatum and Brown are averaging career highs in points per game. Hayward is shooting the best field goal percentage of his career. Boston is more well-balanced at the top than any contender. The Celtics are the only contender with three players averaging more than 20 points per game.

Why They Will Not Win: Tatum and Brown are still only 22 and 23 years of age, respectively, and it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that neither is ready to take the leap to the next level this postseason. Young players tend to shrink when the lights turn on and Tatum and Brown may need more seasoning before they can lead a team in such a moment. The Celtics’ more experienced players, like Hayward, Walker, and Marcus Smart, don’t have Finals experience.

While size matters less in today’s NBA than it has previously, the Celtics’ frontcourt is incredibly thin. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter are the biggest players on the Celtics who receive playing time. Neither Theis nor Kanter are elite rim protectors.

Betting Note: The beauty of betting on the Celtics is that they tend to cover games when they win. No contender’s win-loss record had a stronger correlation with their ATS record than the Celtics. Of the Celtics’ 43 victories, they have covered the spread in 34 of those 43 games. What that means is that bettors can feel comfortable laying points with the Celtics as long as they believe that Boston will win.

Philadelphia 76ers (+2800)

  • W/L Record: 39-26
  • Offensive Rating: 109.7 (18th)
  • Defensive Rating: 107.6 (6th)
  • Key Players: Joel Embiid (23.4 ppg, 11.8 rpg); Ben Simmons (16.7 ppg, 8.2 apg); Tobias Harris (19.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Al Horford (12 ppg, 6.9 rpg)

Why They Will Win: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are two of the most talented young players in the league. Both players are former no.1 draft picks and have largely met expectations. Joel Embiid has the 10th best player efficiency rating in the league while Simmons has the 35th best player efficiency rating. Any team with a core of Embiid, Simmons, and Tobias Harris will have a chance to compete for a championship.

The biggest knock against the 76ers as legitimate title contenders is their road record. The 76ers were 29-2 at home but just 10-24 on the road. Part of the reason why the 76ers struggled so badly on the road is that at least one of Embiid or Simmons missed half of their 34 road games. The 76ers’ porous road record is no longer relevant as the rest of the season will be played in Orlando, where no team but the Magic will have any home court advantage.

The 76ers are one of the deepest contenders. 11 players in the 76ers’ rotation averaged more than 15 minutes per game and only one of the 11 players had a negative value over replacement player rating. Team depth may be more meaningful this postseason as teams will be starting the playoffs with having played just eight regular season games following a four-month layoff.

Why They Will Not Win: The 76ers are behind the times when it comes to the three-point shot. One reason why the 76ers’ offense is so mediocre is because they don’t hit very many threes. The 76ers rank just 19th in three-point field goals per game. While Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton are solid three-point shooters, neither takes very many attempts. Their trade deadline acquisitions of Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks have yet to pay dividends. Simmons has still not developed a perimeter shot. Simmons has only attempted six total three pointers this season.

The 76ers lost all-star Jimmy Butler this offseason but signed Al Horford to a 4-year/$109 million dollar contract. Horford has pretty much been a bust for the 76ers. Horford is averaging fewer points per game this season than any season since his second year in the league. Horford is shooting the worst field goal percentage of his career. He is averaging fewer blocks per game this season than any season since his rookie year. The 76ers will not have any chance to win a championship unless Horford reverts back to all-star form.

Betting Note: The 76ers have been terrible in second halves this season. Their opponents actually outscored them on average in the second half of games. Bettors who have the option to live bet should consider placing wagers that fade the 76ers in the second half of games.

The Field

  • Possible Contenders: Toronto Raptors (+2200); Denver Nuggets (+2500); Dallas Mavericks (+4000); Indiana Pacers (+10000)

The NBA playoffs are often criticized for not having any surprises. The best team almost always wins in a seven-game series. However, this year has been so crazy that the cliche “anything can happen” may actually extend to the NBA playoffs. However, bettors should still not waste their money by placing a wager on the Phoenix Suns, for example, to win the championship. Bettors should reserve their longshot championship wagers on teams like the Raptors, Nuggets, Mavericks, and Pacers that have unique rosters and styles capable of pulling off upsets and running hot.