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New normal makes NBA playoffs unpredictable

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

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© Imagn

With the NBA’s announcement last week that the 2019-20 season would return in late July at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., oddsmakers got right back to work in establishing conference and league title odds. With the neutral atmosphere and everything that has happened since the league last played in March, bettors will have a lot to consider. I’ll examine the teams that will be in the playoff proceedings, looking back at their seasons, forecasting their chances to win each series using my power ratings and analyzing these findings against the odds bookies set last week.

Let’s consider some variables that will be different for bettors. I believe four major factors figure to impact the rest of the season:

— Neutral courts. This will be unlike any NBA postseason, with neutral courts for the rest of the season. Does this mean teams’ road performance will be a huge indicator of how well they do? Does any team, specifically the local Orlando Magic or regional Miami Heat, get a slight edge? Does the prospect of teams potentially being able to ship down their home floors for certain games or the piping in of video-game fan sounds play any role? All we can do is speculate.

— Lost momentum. With what will have been essentially a 4½-month break from games, any momentum teams had developed is essentially moot. This could be important for teams like Milwaukee, Denver and Utah that weren’t playing their best basketball when the season went dark. Alternatively, the Lakers, Thunder and Pacers seemed heading in the right direction then, so will their play fall off from when we last saw them?

— Healthy return of key players. Although neither Kevin Durant nor Kyrie Irving will return for Brooklyn, nor will LaMarcus Aldridge for San Antonio, some players who were not healthy in March will be able to give their teams full contributions again. This includes Victor Oladipo of Indiana, Jusuf Nurkic of Portland, Kristaps Porzingis of Dallas, Jimmy Butler of Miami and Ben Simmons of Philadelphia. The status of these players before the break ranged from day-to-day to slowly recovering to missing the whole season. Take stock of every team’s roster situation when the action returns.

— What if a player contracts COVID-19? This is the ultimate open-ended question. The league is installing medically guided protocols to quarantine players and try to keep the proceedings virus-free, but of course something could happen. Will players miss extended time? How will it impact teams’ psyches? The situation will be hanging over the league like a cloud for three months.

Let’s look at each team expected to be among the eight playoff seeds in each conference, along with my current power ratings. These ratings have road-court performance and key roster adjustments built in.

Steve Makinen’s NBA Team Analysis and Power Ratings (includes road-court points)

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee (SMPR 105.8): The Bucks go into the playoffs as the favorites in the East for a second straight season, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could be headed to a second straight MVP award. The Bucks came up short last year in the East final despite being significantly favored over the Raptors. Toronto would seem to be the biggest East threat to coach Mike Budenholzer’s team again this year. But Kawhi Leonard was the thorn in the Bucks’ side last year, so with Leonard now with the Clippers, the threat isn’t nearly as great. In fact, the Bucks were 2-0 against Toronto this season with two double-digit wins. Miami could pose a challenge in a second-round series as the Bucks have lost twice to the Heat. However, Milwaukee has the added benefit of being able to flush its two most recent weeks of basketball (2-4 SU and 1-5 ATS). But I don’t see much value with the Bucks’ odds, as they are fairly overpriced, and Budenholzer’s playoff failures are an immediate hurdle to overcome. Plus I think this franchise loses a lot in a neutral environment, as its new Fiserv Forum was becoming one of the league’s toughest places to play.

2. Toronto (103.4): The Raptors are the defending NBA champions, and I see a lot of experts weighing in on the supposed value they offer to bettors as the season returns. I can’t say I agree. Leonard is gone, and he essentially carried the Raptors in last year’s postseason. They were also just 1-4 combined against the Bucks and Celtics in the regular season, and those are two probable opponents standing in the way of another Finals appearance. On a favorable note, Toronto was 23-9 both at home and on the road, and that should serve the team well in the new environment.

3. Boston (103.7): The Celtics are one of the few teams that show up with better odds in my simulated playoffs than the oddsmakers are offering, so there is some value here. In fact, my Eastern Conference title odds for Boston are + 512, and the real odds are + 700. I would endorse wagers in this spot even though the Celtics could have the toughest road to the Finals among the East contenders, possibly having to beat Philadelphia, Toronto and Milwaukee. This talented young team has four players scoring better than 17 PPG, led by Jayson Tatum, who could be ready to take his career to the next level with a big postseason. 

4. Miami (100.3): Miami is a true wild card. I could see the Heat bow out early as easily as I could see a deep run, all depending on how well they shoot. Six Miami players made more than 2.0 3-point shots per game this season, led by Duncan Robinson with 3.7. The Heat also have a nice blend of veterans and young talent. With 2-0 records against Milwaukee and Toronto this season, you have to like their ability to compete with the top seeds. However, since their last lengthy winning streak of five games ending Dec. 28, they are just 17-16 SU and 14-19 ATS, failing to establish a rhythm. Opposing teams took some time to figure out the Heat’s attack, and they’ve had trouble overcoming. 

5. Indiana (100.1): Indiana probably is best served by the delay in the season. The Pacers were staggering before the break as they tried to work stud G Victor Oladipo back into the lineup after he had missed the first 50 games. They were also dealing with injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner. With a full lineup in place, this team is capable of doing some damage in the East playoffs and would be very attractive as an underdog to Miami in the first round. However, their last three losses before the break were to Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto, making a deep run unlikely.

6. Philadelphia (99.7): If the best collection of talent wins this year’s NBA title, the 76ers could be in the running as a healthy Ben Simmons joins Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Al Horford in a formidable lineup. If chemistry is what decides it all, wait till next year, as this team has been one of the biggest disappointments. Having slipped to the sixth seed in the East, the 76ers would be due for a very tough first-round matchup with the Celtics. With eight games left, they are within striking distance of No. 4 seed Miami, just two games back. Considering that Philadelphia was 29-2 at home and 10-24 on the road, I don’t think the upcoming format is going to work well. But the 76ers were favorites 43 times in the regular season and underdogs just 22 times, so experts respect the talent.

7. Brooklyn (96.3): With the Nets and Magic separated by just a half-game in the race for the seventh spot and the Magic set to play in their home city, I’m inclined to think Brooklyn will settle at No. 8 and draw the unenviable task of facing Milwaukee. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out for the rest of the season, this team simply doesn’t have the talent to make a run. I would be apt to wager on sweep possibilities for that series. The Nets were just 12-23 in their final 35 games and really aren’t a worthy playoff team. Look toward 2020-21 and the return of Durant to start backing this franchise.

8. Orlando/Washington (94.9): Orlando owns a 51/2-game lead over Washington for the eighth spot, and considering the Magic were 8-3 SU and ATS in their final 11 games, I believe they were demonstrating they were a better team than the Wizards or the Nets. This is another team with some underrated young talent, led by big man Nikola Vucevic. Orlando’s combined record versus Milwaukee and Toronto this season was 0-7 SU and 1-6 ATS, so neither matchup looks favorable. I could see the Magic winning a game or two against the Raptors, though.

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers (105.5): The Lakers may be the team most affected by the delay, at least considering how well they were playing before the season was postponed. They had just come off a weekend on which they beat the Clippers and the Bucks, the teams considered their biggest threats for the NBA crown. But it also could turn out to be a huge break for them as veteran LeBron James and injury-plagued Anthony Davis should return with fresh legs. Los Angeles also posted a better record in road games than it did at home. Any team with James possesses championship pedigree, and in this unusual circumstance, that could be very important. The odds show the Lakers at + 165 to win the West. Mine show a 45.5% chance — in other words, + 100 odds. There is some real value with this team in that regard.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (105.4): With the third through seventh seeds separated by just four games and eight left to play, it is really difficult to project playoff matchups. However, no team would like to see the standings shift before the end of the regular season more than the Clippers. If they have to go through Dallas and Houston before meeting the Lakers in the West final and potentially Milwaukee in the NBA Finals, that is a murderers’ row that they will be fortunate to overcome. So I don’t think anyone will get better odds than they are getting right now with this team. My projections show L.A. getting out of the West at 30.1%, or + 190, and that is using the current standings. To me, these can get better only if they avoid those treacherous matchups early. Kawhi Leonard has proven he’s a playoff stud, and Paul George is deemed one of the league’s best players. In the end, I believe the James-Davis duo has a slight edge.

3. Denver (99.1): Though dealing with injuries to Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Paul Millsap down the stretch, the Nuggets’ play in the month before the break has to be of concern. They were just 5-6 SU and 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games and had allowed eight opponents to top 110 points. Continuing that trend would be disastrous in a first-round series against Houston, the current projected opponent. Denver also proved much tougher at home (25-8) than on the road (18-14), so the neutral-court format has to be worrisome. I don’t like this team’s chances in the West and wouldn’t be surprised to see them slip out of the No. 3 seed or lose in the first round of the postseason.

4. Utah (100.2): The COVID-19 crisis in the NBA started with Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. A lot was made about internal strife in the organization during the initial stages of the situation. One would have to assume enough time has passed that chemistry won’t be an issue for Utah, but you never know. The question for almost all West teams beyond the two from L.A. is: Which ones will be able to make it out of the first round? A Lakers-Clippers conference final seems almost foregone. The Jazz were just 4-5 against the third- through seventh-seeded teams in the West and 5-5 in their final 10 games. Other teams are better values to bet on than Utah.

 

5. Oklahoma City (100.3): Oklahoma City is an intriguing possibility for at least a first-round playoff win in that coach Billy Donovan boasts a very balanced and perhaps underrated team with a point guard capable of leading it deep into the postseason. The odds certainly indicate that oddsmakers don’t give the Thunder much of a chance. My figures show OKC at 4%, or + 2500 to win the West. The real odds show + 3500, so the value is there. I’m not endorsing a bet on the Thunder to win the West, but if their price for winning a first-round series or pushing one of the L.A. teams deep into a later series reflect that value, I would certainly be willing to call for it. They were quietly 17-5 in their last 22 games and boasted an incredible 23-8 ATS record away from home. If there’s a potential sleeper in the West, OKC is it.

6. Houston (101.2): With James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela, Houston is not short of talent. If the Rockets have taken this extended break as an opportunity to hit the reset button, they could be very dangerous. They proved capable of winning in bunches this season, achieving winning streaks of six and eight games. They also proved they could lose three or more straight games on three occasions. With Harden scoring 34+  PPG and Westbrook adding 27.5/8/0/7.0, this team has the star power to compete. I certainly wouldn’t want to play the Rockets in an early series if they land in the bottom half of the West playoff standings.

7. Dallas (102): The team that had the third-highest power rating on my scales in the West had settled into the No. 7 playoff spot when the season got postponed. Dallas had proven at times to be very capable when fully healthy, with Luka Doncic emerging as a star. He, Kristaps Porzingis, Seth Curry and Dwight Powell missed significant time, but only Powell is expected to be out when play resumes. The Mavericks, like OKC, were a fantastic road team, going 21-12 SU and 23-10 ATS, making them a dangerous opponent in an early series. With that type of demonstrated success, I would be inclined to believe Dallas will climb higher than the No. 7 spot.

8. Memphis/Portland/New Orleans/Sacramento/San Antonio/Phoenix (96.9): Let’s face it: Watching Ja Morant or Zion Williamson in the playoffs as the No. 8 seed would be fun. But if any of these teams is more dangerous than the others, it would have to be Portland, which possesses lights-out shooters in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Plus they figure to be joined by Nusuf Jurkic, and between him and Hassan Whiteside, they would have two of the league’s premier rebounders. The Trail Blazers, along with the Pelicans, were 31/2 games behind Memphis for the final spot in the West, and no one was going to catch Dallas for No. 7. So Portland just needs to win enough in the final eight games to stay within four games of Memphis and force a play-in tournament. I believe that’s very likely and would be willing to back Terry Stotts’ team at + 450 to make the playoffs.

NBA First-Round Series Wins Projections:

Eastern Conference

1. MILWAUKEE: 96%

2. TORONTO: 87.5%

3. BOSTON: 73.6%

4. MIAMI: 51.5%

5. INDIANA: 48.5%

6. PHILADELPHIA: 26.4%

7. BROOKLYN: 12.5%

8. ORL/WAS: 4%

Western Conference

1. L.A. LAKERS: 92%

2. L.A. CLIPPERS: 71.2%

3. DENVER: 36.9%

4. UTAH: 48.5%

5. OKLAHOMA CITY: 51.5%

6. HOUSTON: 63.1%

7. DALLAS: 28.8%

8. MEM/POR/NOP/SAC/SAN/PHO: 8%

NBA Conference Semifinals Series Wins Projections:

Eastern Conference

1. MILWAUKEE: 78.5%

2. TORONTO: 48.0%

3. BOSTON: 41.3%

4. MIAMI: 10.9%

5. INDIANA: 9.8%

6. PHILADELPHIA: 8.7%

7. BROOKLYN: 2.0%

8. ORL/WAS: 0.8%

Western Conference

1. L.A. LAKERS: 73.5%

2. L.A. CLIPPERS: 55.9%

3. DENVER: 7.3%

4. UTAH: 11.5%

5. OKLAHOMA CITY: 12.7%

6. HOUSTON: 19.6%

7. DALLAS: 17.2%

8. MEM/POR/NOP/SAC/SAN/PHO: 2.3%

NBA Conference Finals Series Wins Projections:

Eastern Conference

1. MILWAUKEE: 52.5% - Actual Odds: -180

2. TORONTO: 21.9% - Actual Odds: + 800

3. BOSTON: 19.5% - Actual Odds: + 700

4. MIAMI: 3.6% - Actual Odds: + 850

5. INDIANA: 3.2% - Actual Odds: -180

6. PHILADELPHIA: 1.4% - Actual Odds: + 900

7. BROOKLYN: 0.2% - Actual Odds: + 4200

8. ORL/WAS: 0.0% - Actual Odds: + 10000

Western Conference

1. L.A. LAKERS: 45.5% - Actual Odds: + 165

2. L.A. CLIPPERS: 30.6% - Actual Odds: + 190

3. DENVER: 2.1% - Actual Odds: + 1000

4. UTAH: 3.5% - Actual Odds: + 1200

5. OKLAHOMA CITY: 4.0% - Actual Odds: + 3500

6. HOUSTON: 6.7% - Actual Odds: + 700

7. DALLAS: 6.5% - Actual Odds: + 2000

8. MEM/POR/NOP/SAC/SAN/PHO: 0.3% - Actual Odds: + 8000

NBA Finals Series Wins Projections:

Eastern Conference

1. MILWAUKEE: 30.3% - Actual Odds + 250

2. TORONTO: 9.4% - Actual Odds + 2200

3. BOSTON: 8.8% - Actual Odds + 2000

4. MIAMI: 1.0% - Actual Odds + 3000

5. INDIANA: 0.8% - Actual Odds + 10000

6. PHILADELPHIA: 0.3% - Actual Odds + 2800

7. BROOKLYN: 0.0% - Actual Odds + 8000

8. ORL/WAS: 0.0% - Actual Odds + 30000

Western Conference

1. L.A. LAKERS: 26.5% - Actual Odds + 250

2. L.A. CLIPPERS: 17.2% - Actual Odds + 333

3. DENVER: 0.4% - Actual Odds + 3000

4. UTAH: 0.9% - Actual Odds + 3300

5. OKLAHOMA CITY: 1.1% - Actual Odds + 10000

6. HOUSTON: 2.1% - Actual Odds + 1300

7. DALLAS: 2.4% - Actual Odds + 4000

8. MEM/POR/NOP/SAC/SAN/PHO: 0.0% - Actual Odds + 15000

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