Now that both All-Star weekend and the trade deadline are behind us, three themes have developed that bettors must be aware of.
First up is the tanking “epidemic,” which has reached new lows since the eight teams at the bottom of the league had a combined 44-game losing streak entering Monday’s action. Lines could become increasingly inflated as a result, which could lead to a profitable situation by simply taking points since you’re not expected to. Beyond that, there’s always an eye on Cleveland.
After turning over nearly more than a third of the roster in a 24-hour span, they’ve got enough to win it all but are currently seeing how all the new parts work and will remain without Kevin Love until next month. That means teams like the Raptors and Celtics will continue to get national play as potential options. Rest assured, if LeBron is healthy, throughout May and into June, no one in the East is beating the Cavs. At the moment, they’re 11/10 to reach the Finals according to Westgate, which are still solid odds if you didn’t get in at even money or better (like I wrote you should weeks ago).
The question with the most validity that’s being explored of late revolves around who Cleveland will see once it gets there. Will it be nemesis Golden State or the new blood, Houston or Oklahoma City?
The Warriors crushed the Thunder over the weekend as Paul George and Carmelo Anthony again went cold in a big game and Russell Westbrook got beat up by Zaza Pachulia, among others. After resorting to gimmicks like letting players coach themselves and making a lineup change by placing JaVale McGee back at center, it appears Golden State is locked in once again.
That’s bad news for every West contender, but if you had asked me who I trusted more to dethrone the Dubs a few weeks ago, I’d have gone with OKC. As we come down the stretch, I’ll now amend that answer and give the Rockets their props.
Houston entered play this week one half-game ahead in the standings, which is why it is currently 3/2 to get out of the West while OKC is at 25/1. Golden State remains a huge favorite (5/13), but could be vulnerable if the Rockets find a way to sustain their current edge.
In all, the Rockets are navigating a 15-game stretch where 13 of the opponents are currently above .500, playing 10 of the games on the road. They’re just at the beginning of the run and have managed to not only win the first few games, but cover them as well. Will Houston succumb to fatigue at some point? It’s likely the franchise-record 22-game run they made a decade ago is safe, but the Rockets do have a lot going for them, suggesting they can carry this success into March.
Despite not making a conventional move at the trade deadline, they got stronger earlier this month by adding waived veterans Johnson and Brandan Wright, both of whom got minutes in Sunday night’s win in Denver. Trevor Ariza returned from a lengthy absence, which cuts into the minutes of wings P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, but keeps that frontcourt rotation fresh since Ryan Anderson, Nene and Tarik Black are all capable.
Eric Gordon hasn’t even played due to an illness that has hampered him post-All-Star, so getting him back probably pushes Houston past Golden State as the deepest team in the league. It remains to be seen whether that will help keep everyone fresh as they come down the stretch.
With Minnesota having lost Jimmy Butler for over a month and San Antonio casting doubt on whether star forward Kawhi Leonard will return to action this season, the herd is thinning itself out some. Although the Western Conference remains far superior to the East, there is now a divide between the elite teams and the ones who will simply become challenging obstacles to be cleared.
Unless the Timberwolves and Spurs get their top two-way players back, they could be first-round casualties. With DeMarcus Cousins done in New Orleans, the Pelicans will be lucky to make the playoffs on the strength of Anthony Davis’ exploits. It remains to be seen whether Oklahoma City can get its act completely together, but the season-ending injury to its best defender, Andre Roberson, could prove to be too large a personnel loss to overcome.
That leaves the Rockets, who at this point have been placed at 2-to-1 to win it all. That could be a wise investment, but it’s one you’ll have to wait on until after this month-long stretch of tough competition is said and done. If Houston still has a shot to finish ahead of Golden State to claim home court advantage for a Game 1 and a potential Game 7, it could well be worth backing.
In any other scenario, the Warriors look like they’re destined to win another title.