By Jason McIntyre
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
The NBA is nearing the midpoint of its 72-game season, and besides the injury to Anthony Davis of the defending champion Lakers, the biggest story is clearly the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets opened the season at +600 to win the NBA title, and now they’re +360 after trading for James Harden. After winning their fifth straight with an easy victory over the Lakers on Thursday, the Nets (19-12) sit just a game back of Philly for the top spot in the East.
Here’s a breakdown of my ranking of the NBA teams with the best futures odds for the 2020-21 championship right now (all odds via FOX Bet).
Brooklyn Nets (+360)
Let’s start here: Every NBA champion since 2002 has finished 11th or better in defensive efficiency. If you believe defense matters greatly in the postseason, you won’t love the Nets, who are currently 25th in defensive efficiency.
But we’ve never seen an NBA season such as this one, with some of the greatest offense the league has ever produced. Twenty-five of 30 teams are averaging 11 or more 3-pointers made per game; in 2017-18, only 12 teams had that distinction.
Will these Nets buck the trend and win with so many defensive holes? It’s too early to tell, given that Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant haven’t played 10 games together yet, and Brooklyn’s defense has shown recent signs of improvement.
The reason Harden’s Rockets couldn’t get out of the West was because he ran into the greatest dynasty of the modern era. Now, Harden is running point for an offense that rivals that Warriors juggernaut. Bet on the Nets now. As the trio plays more together, this number will only go down.
Boston Celtics (+1800)
You won’t find a better buy-low opportunity on the board than Boston. For the first time since 2015-16, the Celtics are not in the top 10 in offensive or defensive efficiency. There are reasons for that, of course: injuries and COVID-19.
Glass half-full: Payton Pritchard and Tristan Thompson will greatly help bench depth in the playoffs, along with Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye on the wing. At full strength, the Celtics match up great against the Nets and might have enough size to not get bulldozed by Embiid and Giannis.
Just know a futures bet on the Celtics is a big bet on Walker’s knee.
Los Angeles Lakers (+240)
They’ve got the best player in the league, and when healthy, the Lakers are the deepest team in the NBA. But I don’t like the champs at this price. I’d wait for the inevitable dip – coming soon! – when they show some vulnerability without Anthony Davis. LeBron’s minutes have to be a concern because despite his iron-man status, he is 36, and Father Time remains undefeated.
Look under the hood of the Lakers, and they’re only 13th in offensive efficiency but first in defense. The Lakers are fourth in net rating but third in the West (Utah is No. 1 overall, and the Clippers are third).
One massive difference between the Lakers and those two: the numbers against the spread. The Lakers are 14-15 ATS, while the Jazz are at 75% and the Clippers 58%. You’re still paying a Lakers tax, and thus, I don’t like them at +240 to win the title.
Los Angeles Clippers (+550)
Quietly, the Clippers have weathered a Paul George injury, they have a better point differential than the Lakers, they are second in the NBA in net rating, and Kawhi Leonard is fourth in the NBA in PER, trailing only big men Jokic, Embiid and Giannis.
Why aren’t the Clippers higher on the list? Perhaps it’s the small sample, but what scares me about the Clips is they rank dead last (by a lot) in defensive rating in the clutch, at 134.3. Even the allergic-to-defense Nets are better (119.1). The Lakers are fifth at 98.3.
The NBA defines “clutch” as the final five minutes, with the point differential of five or less. The 76ers are 11-3 in such games, the Lakers 12-3 and the Clippers just 6-7. Given last year’s playoff collapse against the Nuggets, when LA led the series 3-1 and was up by double digits at halftime of Games 5 and 6, it’s difficult to trust the Clippers at this price.
Philadelphia 76ers (+1500)
Confession: I have a futures ticket on the 76ers and Lakers to meet in the Finals. It felt good for 20ish games. But reality is starting to set in: A backcourt of Danny Green and Seth Curry is going to be no match for what Brooklyn has.
Yes, Embiid is in contention for the MVP; yes, Ben Simmons might be the best defensive player in the NBA. But between the history of Doc Rivers’ flameouts in the playoffs and some of the 76ers’ advanced stats – 12th in offensive efficiency; eighth in net rating, behind the Nuggets and Suns – I’m going to need to see much more from the 76ers before jumping on them at this price.
Utah Jazz (+1200)
The most baffling team in the NBA so far this season, the Jazz have the NBA’s best record (24-5), are by far the best team ATS (22-7) and rank fourth in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency.
Here’s the strangest part — and why it’s difficult to buy them winning the title: The Jazz don’t have one player in the top 25 in PER. They’re playing team basketball, which works terrifically in the regular season, but when the game slows down, and you need your MVP to take the game by the throat in the final five minutes … does Utah have that player?
Donovan Mitchell has been tremendous (again) and is shooting a career high from 3 (39%). But we’ve seen this Jazz movie before: Remember when they went on a 21-2 tear from January to March 2018? There is a whiff of the 60-win Hawks or the Lowry/DeRozan-led Raptors from the past decade. Great regular-season team but not winning the title.
That said, given the injury situations of Davis and George, the Jazz are worth a look … when they cool down. They were +3600 in the preseason, and somewhere between that and the current price is where they should be.
Milwaukee Bucks (+600)
The past two seasons, the Bucks have rated No. 1 in the NBA in defensive efficiency. This season, they’ve dropped to 12th.
Interestingly, the Bucks opened the season at +550 to win the title, and after 28 games, the sportsbooks see them as a longer shot to win the championship. That should be a big tell.
Another one: The Bucks are allowing opponents to shoot 38% on 3-pointers, which is 26th in the NBA. Mike Budenholzer refuses to change his mentality of protect the rim and permit 3s, and we’ve seen how poorly that works in the playoffs. Given the historic 3-point season we’re seeing in the NBA, stay far away from the Bucks at anything under +1000.
Jason McIntyre is a FOX Sports gambling analyst, and he also writes about the NFL and NBA Draft. He joined FS1 in 2016 and has appeared on every show on the network. In 2017, McIntyre began producing gambling content on the NFL, college football and NBA for FOX Sports. He had a gambling podcast for FOX, “Coming Up Winners,” in 2018 and 2019. Before arriving at FOX, he created the website The Big Lead, which he sold in 2010.
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