NBA playoffs: How to bet title, conference, Finals MVP futures

It’s showtime! We’ve made it through the marathon of the NBA regular season, and now it’s time for the real season to begin.

The question on everyone’s mind: Who will be the next champion? You can get odds on the answer to that question, as well as related futures, on ESPN BET.

Like we did for the individual awards in the regular season, let’s take a running look at the status of the main playoffs futures at each stage of the NBA playoffs. Here’s where we stand as the play-in ends and the playoffs begin.

Eastern Conference Winner

Leader: Celtics (-200)
In the Hunt: 76ers (+675), Bucks (+800)
Longshots of interest: Knicks (+1100), Cavaliers (+1700), Pacers (+2200)

The Celtics have been the frontrunners to win the East all season and enter the playoffs as prohibitive odds-on favorites…for good reason. The Celtics won the Eastern Conference by a whopping 14 games over the second-place Knicks, and were the healthiest of the contending teams in the East with the Knicks, Bucks, 76ers, Cavaliers and Heat dealing with injuries to star players. In addition, the way the brackets broke down, the Celtics wouldn’t have to face any of the three teams with the next-shortest odds to win (the 76ers, Bucks or Knicks) until the conference finals. But, at -200, there isn’t enough juice for me, so I’m actually fading the Celtics unless/until the odds get closer to at least even money.

The 76ers have won 32 of the 40 games Joel Embiid has played in this season including the play-in tournament, an 80.0-percent win rate even better than the Celtics’ 78.0-percent rate (64-18) that led the NBA this season. Embiid was likely on-pace to win a second straight MVP before a knee injury cut his season short, but he has returned and averaged 33.0 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1.7 BPG and 1.0 SPG in 30.3 MPG over his last three regular-season contests. He appeared to struggle a bit physically in the play-in win over the Heat, but he still notched 23 points, 15 boards, 5 assists and a steal. He also hit some huge shots late in that win. If Embiid is and can stay healthy, the 76ers would be excellent value at +675, when their healthy level is probably very similar to that of the Celtics.

The Bucks were preseason favorites after trading for Damian Lillard this offseason, but never seemed to fully click in the regular season. They changed coaches midstream, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. More importantly, they lost their MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to a calf-strain in the last week of the season. It isn’t clear if or when he might return, making them a risky bet at the moment. They could be high-risk/high-reward, though, because if Giannis does return and Khris Middleton continues to get his legs under him, the Bucks are another team that could win it all.

The Knicks, Cavaliers and Pacers are all longshots because they are tough teams that have the upside to win some series, but with their current personnel they are unlikely to defeat the Celtics. With that said, anything can happen in the playoffs, and we’ve already mentioned how injuries have struck the majority of the contending teams. The Knicks (76ers) and Pacers (Bucks) face the two highest-rated non-Celtics contenders, but get them in the first round when their MVP bigs still have the most injury question marks.

Western Conference Winner

Leader: Nuggets (+130)
In the hunt: Mavericks (+550), Thunder (+550)
Longer shots of interest: Timberwolves (+900), Lakers (+1200)

The defending champion Nuggets are favorites to win the West again this season, though the toughness of the conference prevents them from being listed as odds-on favorites. Based on the regular season, the line between the Nuggets and the rest of the West seems much thinner than last season, with the Thunder finishing as the top-seed and the Timberwolves just a game back of the Nuggets for the two. In addition, the Nuggets are in the tougher half of the West bracket, with a first-round matchup against last season’s conference final’s foe, the Lakers, and a potential second-round matchup with either the Timberwolves or the Suns. The difficulty of the West, mixed with the shortness of their odds, has me fading the Nuggets entering the playoffs.

The Mavericks netted the second-shortest odds to win the West on the strength of a scorching finish to the regular season. They won 16 of 18 games before clinching their playoffs seeding and resting players in the last two games, with Luka Doncic leading the way and surging up the NBA MVP ballots. In that stretch, Doncic averaged a virtual 30-point triple-double with 31.3 PPG, 10.2 RPG and 9.9 APG. With the Mavericks on the other side of the bracket from the Nuggets, their path to the conference finals would go through a Clippers squad dealing with injury to Kawhi Leonard and potentially a very good, but also young and inexperienced Thunder team.

Speaking of the Thunder, so much has been made about their inexperience and lack of dominant size that it’s easy to overlook just how good they were this season. The Thunder went 55-20 in the 75 games Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played, a 73.3-win percentage, with SGA leading the way and making the leap to MVP-tier. The Thunder have winning records against both the four-seed Mavericks and the fifth-seeded Clippers, as well as against the Nuggets this season. With home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs, the Thunder are good value at +550.

The Timberwolves and Lakers are both getting longshot odds despite having teams capable of winning the conference. The Timberwolves vied for the top seed all season, even staying in the race after Karl-Anthony Towns was injured. With Towns back, human highlight film (shoutout Dominique Wilkins) Anthony Edwards displaying a career-long history of upping his game and scoring average in the postseason, and Rudy Gobert providing the defensive anchor with the size to match up against the Nuggets, the Timberwolves are strong value at +900.

The Lakers have well-publicized difficulties with the Nuggets, losing all nine of their most recent games including last season’s sweep in the conference finals and all three regular-season matchups by at least eight points. With that said, they finished this season on a similar run, winning 12 of their last 15 games including the play-in. Despite their losing streak to the Nuggets, the Lakers have been competitive in almost every game before fading late. If they are able to figure out the Nuggets, which is admittedly a huge, Jokic-sized if, the Lakers would match up well against any other team in the West. I consider them reasonable long-shot value at +1100.

NBA Champion

Leaders: Celtics (+145)
In the hunt: Nuggets (+275)
Longer shots of interest: Thunder (+1400), Mavericks (+1500), Bucks (+1600), 76ers (+1600), Lakers (+1800), Timberwolves (+1800)

Finals MVP

Co-Leaders: Jayson Tatum (+230), Nikola Jokic (+320)
In the hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+1500), Luka Doncic (+1800)
Longshots of interest: Anthony Edwards (+2200), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+2200), Joel Embiid (+2500)

These two futures are paired, for now, because the Finals MVP almost always comes from the winning team.

Tatum’s and Jokic’s Finals MVP odds are almost the same as the odds of the Celtics and Nuggets to win the chip, and they are the two frontrunners. As with the conference races above, I’m actually fading the frontrunners because there isn’t enough juice to justify them against such strong competition in a deep playoffs field.

I do find some value in each of the other teams/players listed above, though. All are teams that have the upside to win it all, with clear-cut best players that would be very likely to win the Finals MVP if their teams won the chip. Doncic at +1800 and Embiid at +2500 are of the most interest, because both play for scorching teams entering the postseason and both are at the points in their careers where they are arguably the best player on the planet and overdue for playoffs success.

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