Why betting big NBA playoff favorites could be a bust in 2020

  • ESPN Sports Betting Analyst
  • Host of Daily Wager
  • Behind The Bets podcast host

To what extent will the coronavirus pandemic, “bubble life” and a 141-day layoff impact the NBA playoffs? Every basketball bettor is asking that question. Those unknowns and uncertainties are why I believe long shots have a better chance to raise a championship banner than ever before in the league’s 73-year history.

The betting favorite prevails in the NBA postseason more than any other popular betting sport. That stems from a combination of a best-of-seven format, home-court advantage and a perception of home crowds swaying the officials. That all lends itself to a more predictable and truer outcome than the single-elimination formats of football and March Madness. Even other sports that feature a series are heavily influenced by extreme variance, such as an NHL goalie or MLB starting pitcher.

The Los Angeles Lakers are consensus championship favorites, with odds in the neighborhood of +275. The Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers have similar offerings — around 3-1 — to form a top tier of true contenders. Every other team has at least 12-1 odds, given champagne celebrations are typically reserved for the elite. Since seeding began in 1983, 31 of the 36 champions entered the playoffs as a 1-seed or 2-seed.

Over the past nine NBA postseasons, the top three seeds have advanced to the second round in 49 of 54 first-round series. Just look at some of the moneylines from last season’s first-round series. The top-seeded Golden State Warriors were -50,000 favorites over the Clippers. The Bucks were -10,000 against the Detroit Pistons, and the Toronto Raptors were -1,400 over the Orlando Magic.

Meanwhile, the largest MLB favorite was -300, and the NHL featured a perceived mismatch with the Tampa Bay Lightning (-400) against the Columbus Blue Jackets. However, Tampa Bay was actually swept. Even with a first-round bye entering the playoffs, the Kansas City Chiefs still had 4-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. NCAA tournament favorite Duke had three of the NBA’s top 10 picks, but Caesars still offered +255 on Selection Sunday. The second favorite was Gonzaga at +550 and neither reached the Final Four.

The 2019 season featured championship runs by the St. Louis Blues and Washington Nationals. St. Louis was the lower seed in all but one series yet hoisted the Stanley Cup behind rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who was called up during the season. The Nats hosted a wild-card game and then won as the road underdog over the next three rounds. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer both shined, each starting two of Washington’s four wins in the Fall Classic.

The NBA is just different. But 2020 is unprecedented and thus could level a playing field that has been anything but level. It starts with the neutral court. The Bucks are inexplicably -230 favorites to win the Eastern Conference, yet that price was -220 in March prior to the pandemic — and under the assumption Milwaukee would have a home edge.

“The Bucks were the team whose chances suffered the most from the pandemic, based on my model,” ESPN colleague and professional bettor Preston Johnson told ESPN. In his projections, Milwaukee wins the championship 12.5% of the time less with the bubble than if the virus had never disrupted the season.

Another contributing factor is the nearly five-month delay. “They were always good about resting their stars. Giannis [Antetokounmpo] is the best player and he was not even playing 31 minutes per game,” Johnson said, also explaining how Milwaukee’s eventual playoff opponents would have had to log more intense minutes to reach the postseason. The Bucks’ ability to clinch the top seed and recharge before the playoffs would have been advantageous, but this pandemic allowed all teams to rest.

The layoff also has helped organizations restore health. The Philadelphia 76ers now have All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at full strength — the two were uncertain for the pre-pandemic playoffs. Personally, I think they are an enticing wild card at 25-1 to win the title and 7-1 to win the East. Milwaukee’s main competition — the Boston Celtics (5-1), Toronto Raptors (7-1) and Miami Heat (10-1) — now all have a better chance to win the conference than they did prior to the pandemic.

The Lakers (+135 at Caesars Sportsbook) and Clippers (+150) sit atop the Western Conference betting board, but the Houston Rockets (6-1) and Denver Nuggets (9-1) present potential matchup headaches. Additionally, the Portland Trail Blazers (35-1) will also be healthy for the first time all season, welcoming back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, but they have a lot of work left to even reach the playoffs.

And naturally, the coronavirus’ giant unpredictability looms large. The NBA has gone to extreme measures to isolate and protect players in the Orlando bubble. However, if a player tests positive, he is prohibited from exercising for 14 days; in order to return to action, he must pass a cardiac exam and produce two negative COVID-19 tests over a 24-hour period. And when you break it down, given the random nature of potential transmission, a team’s best player is just as likely to contract the virus as the worst player. Thus, it makes no sense to bet the favorites, especially on a neutral court.

With all that being said, ultimately it might not matter. The favorites could easily still reach the NBA Finals — and perhaps the aforementioned obstacles only will make that path more difficult, rather than producing actual upsets. After all, the nature of basketball is undeniable, given the increased number of possessions over the past few seasons, which lend themselves to a truer outcome. It’s similar to the logic that you are more likely to achieve an average outcome of 50% heads the more frequently you flip a coin.

But 2020 has not exactly been the year for logic and predictability.

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