With three superstars who tend to be polarizing personalities, the Brooklyn Nets might not be America’s favorite NBA team. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving inspire emotions that seem to be a mix of love and hate.
During an eventful weekend in Boston, the Nets were showered with boos, and a water bottle was tossed from the stands at Irving.
But the weekend also reinforced a more important notion: When the Nets are hot, their offensive firepower is unmatched, explaining why Brooklyn is the betting favorite and the team to beat as the NBA playoffs move toward the second round.
“The Nets are going to be power-rated No. 1,” said Jeff Sherman, the top NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate SuperBook.
BetMGM lists the Nets as odds-on favorites to win the Eastern Conference at -110 and NBA championship favorites at 2-1.
Offense is never a problem for the Nets, who shredded the Celtics 141-126 on Sunday. Durant scored 42 points, Irving added 39 and Harden finished with 23 points and 18 assists. Durant, Irving and Harden became the first threesome in NBA history to combine for 95 or more points in back-to-back playoff games.
Rotation depth and defense are a couple of the Nets’ weaknesses, but their scoring strength could be enough to put them over the top. In the past, the playoffs often brought on a slower-paced, grinding style of game, so elite defense was mandatory. But the league has morphed into a 3-point-shooting contest.
“Maybe defense doesn’t matter for the Nets,” said VSiN senior NBA analyst Jonathan Von Tobel, who noted Boston averaged 130 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 and 4 but still posted a -4.7 net rating due to Brooklyn’s 134.7 offensive efficiency mark over those two games.
After knocking out the Celtics, the Nets will get a tougher test in a showdown against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, who swept Miami in the first round. Sherman said he plans to open Brooklyn, which holds home-court advantage as the East’s No. 2 seed, as at least a -200 series favorite.
“I upped my power rating on the Bucks,” Sherman said. “I also think the Sixers can give the Nets a good series, but the Nets would be favored over the Sixers.”
If the Nets advance to the East finals, Philadelphia is the likely opponent. The 76ers have a stud, Joel Embiid, who could expose the Nets’ thin front court and weak rim defense.
“Durant is impossible to stop, and Harden is out there running the point and he’s a tough guy to guard,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “But I think there are teams out there that are better than the Nets. The Bucks are a dangerous team.”
On the BetMGM odds board, the second choice in the East is Milwaukee (+ 250), followed by Philadelphia (+ 300) and Atlanta (30-1). The team to beat is obvious. Or is it?
“If you listen to (the media), it’s the Nets,” William Hill book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “But I don’t believe it is because I believe it’s wide open. The Bucks and Sixers are playing lights-out basketball.”
Defensive liabilities aside, the Nets fit the profile of the greatest title teams of the last 25 years because they feature three stars.
The Chicago Bulls, who three-peated from 1996-98, dominated with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. The Lakers of 2000-02 were led by Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Robert Horry, who was a big-shot maker. San Antonio won three titles from 2003-07 with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Boston went all the way in 2008 with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Miami won back-to-back titles in 2012-13 with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Golden State won a championship in 2015 and added two more in 2017-18 after adding Durant to the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson combo.
The Nets probably did not have enough with Durant and Irving, but they turned into legitimate title contenders overnight by trading for Harden in January.
“I think Harden is the most important player because he facilitates so many other things,” Sherman said.
The Nets’ star power is tantalizing to many bettors. Sherman said the Westgate took a $50,000 wager on Brooklyn to win the NBA championship at + 275 before the playoffs. A $20,000 wager that was placed at 14-1 odds before the season became far more valuable after the blockbuster deal for Harden.
Injuries could be a major storyline on the road to the NBA Finals in July. The 76ers would go nowhere without Embiid, who left Monday’s game with a sore knee. The Lakers are the second choice to win the title at 5-1, yet Anthony Davis’ uncertain status with a groin injury has the reigning champs fighting for survival in a first-round series against the Phoenix Suns.
“Davis’ injury changes the complexion in the West, and now the Clippers are coming back,” Sherman said. “These things are so fluid. What I say today could be different the next day.”
The state of the NBA today is often criticized by old-school basketball purists who scoff at petulant stars forming superteams and sour on the addiction to the 3-point shot. Still, the wagering activity is greater than ever.
“The action in the NBA is out of this world,” Bogdanovich said. “The decisions are so big it’s frightening. It’s similar to NFL decisions.”
A Lakers-Nets matchup in the Finals would be a dream for bettors and bookmakers, but both teams have a long way to go to make it reality.