The NBA season begins Oct. 19, and it will be interesting for a variety of reasons. The offseason was much shorter, and teams will be going back to the traditional 82-game season. We’ll still have the play-in round for the playoffs, so there will be some incentive to claiming one of the top six spots, but teams are likely to prioritize players’ rest and health at all costs.
It has been a talking point across all sports, but a lot of bettors are unsure how much stock to put into the previous season’s results and stats. COVID-19 altered lineups, changed life on the road and led to fewer games overall, so teams may have played things a little differently.
While the schedule was only 10 games shorter, it was also a lot more condensed. It had a first half and a second half, and teams were unaware of their schedules for the latter part of the season until right around the All-Star break. Teams played their 72 games over 146 days from Dec. 22 to May 16. Teams will play 82 games over 174 days from Oct. 19 to April 10 this season.
Perhaps the biggest change last season was at the top. We got some new blood in the playoffs. The Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks took enormous strides in the Eastern Conference. The upstart Phoenix Suns went all the way to the NBA Finals to represent the Western Conference. The Dallas Mavericks made a big push. The Utah Jazz won more games than they had in a decade, and that was with fewer chances to accumulate wins.
It was a treat to see some new teams there, but the usual suspects were also present. The Milwaukee Bucks won the title, the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers were still high seeds and the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat added more playoff appearances.
Even though some new teams made the playoffs and made good runs, the odds board for the NBA championship looks about how you would expect. The Nets and Lakers have the shortest prices by far, typically in the 2-1 to 4-1 ranges, respectively. The Bucks and Warriors are in the next tier around 9-1 or 10-1 and are followed by the Jazz, Clippers and Suns in the 15-1 to 18-1 range.
The NBA has been tough for championship and conference championship futures because it has been so top-heavy. Attacking player markets or win totals might make more sense, something Jonathan Von Tobel did in the 2021-22 NBA Betting Guide.
My goal with making futures bets is to try to position myself to guarantee profit in some way. If you hit the jackpot and cash the full value of your futures wager, that is awesome. My approach is to find a team to bet to win the NBA championship or the conference that can win a playoff series or two at a big price. Basically, I’m looking to get an invitation to the dance and then see if I can make something of it at that point. I don’t see a lot of equity in betting the Nets at 2-1 or the Lakers at 4-1.
First, you might get a better price as the season goes along due to injury or poor play. Second, you’re tying up your money for eight months for a low return on investment, and if you are a good NBA bettor, you’d be better off keeping it liquid to maximize it on a daily basis.
I’d rather take a big price with some hedging margin and hope I can find a team capable of making some noise in the postseason or a team good enough to capitalize on injuries that hurt a top team’s chances — in essence, a team with a lot of upside on which I can get a good price before the season.
Futures bets I like
Chicago Bulls (80-1 at DraftKings): The Bulls are a lot better on paper and show a lot of positive regression signs coming out of the 2020-21 season. The Bulls were just 31-41 but underachieved by three games based on their expected win-loss record of 34-38. Chicago was outscored by less than a point per game on average and went just 14-21 in games decided by five or fewer points. That win percentage ranked 26th in that category.
The Bulls were a top-10 offense in Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFGpercent). Chicago counterfeited some of its success from the floor by being the worst team in the league in free throws per field-goal attempt. Those free points at the line are very important.
This year’s Bulls will have DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and a full season of Nikola Vucevic, who had over 21 points per game in the 21 games he played for Chicago. The Bulls were 27th in turnover percentage (TOVpercent) on offense, an area that should be quite improved this season with Ball and other veterans.
Second-year forward Patrick Williams, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, should be better offensively with more scoring options to take away the defense’s attention. Zach LaVine was a very efficient scorer with over 27 points per game. In general, the roster is much better. Thirteen players started for the Bulls last season, and only three started at least 50 games.
Defensively, the Bulls were 14th in eFGpercent and defended the 3-point line well. Chicago was 12th in Defensive Rating (DRtg) and was the best defensive rebounding team in the league by DRBpercent, which is an estimate of the percentage of available defensive rebounds the team was able to grab.
The Central Division looks very weak again, besides the reigning NBA champion Bucks. The Bulls should be able to rack up some wins in the division, and the Southeast Division is also below average. Don’t be surprised if Chicago is not only a top-six seed and avoids the play-in round but also winds up being a team that can win a couple of playoff series.
You could also look at the Bulls at + 950 to win the Central Division. If something happens long term to Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, that door is wide open.
Something else to consider is that Billy Donovan is the third choice at 10-1 for Coach of the Year. That wouldn’t happen by accident. Coach of the Year is typically reserved for a team that takes a huge step forward relative to the previous year. This is a good context clue in terms of the projections for this team.
Utah Jazz (16-1 at BetMGM): It appears that the sportsbooks are being a bit presumptuous about the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors. LeBron James will turn 37 just before the calendar turns to 2022. Anthony Davis is 28, but his body might as well be 48 with all the injuries he has battled.
The Warriors are getting back Klay Thompson from a torn ACL and a torn Achilles tendon, but he’ll likely be out until after Jan. 1. Steph Curry is also approaching his mid-30s, and Draymond Green’s effectiveness as a scorer is long gone. He’s more of a facilitator and a pest on defense. The Warriors are not a picture of youth and may not be a picture of good health either.
Enter the Jazz. Utah had to contend with Donovan Mitchell’s bum ankle last season but still won 52 games to grab the top seed and had an expected win-loss record that was three games better. The Jazz are playing a revolutionized style of basketball with a lot of 3-pointers and a lot of made 3-pointers. They also defend really well.
A lot of NBA teams will be trying to jell early in the season. The roster turnover rate for the Jazz is quite low, so they should be able to hit the ground running and get off to a nice start. In other words, this price will likely go down early in the season.
By Pythagorean Win-Loss, the Jazz were six games better than anybody in the league last season. They were far and away the best defensive team in the Western Conference and blew away the league in Net Rating (NetRtg).
At 16-1, this looks like a top-three seed in the West that could benefit from continued injuries for the two Los Angeles teams and a Warriors team that looks to be overpriced.
The risk factor pales in comparison to the other one, but it won’t be surprising to see Utah in the 10-1 or 12-1 range early in the season and probably in single digits as the playoffs begin, if not sooner.
Trying to get some line equity you can use to your advantage during the regular season or the playoffs is a sound strategy for the NBA futures market.