LeBron James is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers. And if all you saw was the line movement at various sports books on his new team to win the 2018-’19 NBA title, you’d think that time-traveling prime Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were going with him.
This isn’t your father’s “Showtime” Lakers, at least not yet. But don’t tell that to the bettors who have forced some books to assign this team the second shortest odds to win next year’s championship.
Coming off a 35-47 season, the young Lakers team, with a promising core of Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball, opened at 20/1 at Westgate Las Vegas, 12/1 at Wynn Las Vegas, and 10/1 at MGM. Other teams that finished near L.A. in the standings were 100/1 or more. But on the strength of James possibly saying goodbye to Cleveland and hello to Hollywood, sports books significantly shortened the odds. They thought they were playing it safe.
From 3.0 to 3/1
Lines wavered over the last couple of weeks, and on Sunday, even before James’ Decision 3.0 had been announced, they plummeted based on the strength of well-sourced rumors.
They opened 20-1 and were +650 yesterday before odds were taken down.
— Ben Fawkes (@BFawkesESPN) July 1, 2018
Once LeBron made it official, odds in the 3/1 or 7/2 range became the norm everywhere. Which begs some questions: Do people really think James can win a title all by himself? Are they that convinced Kawhi Leonard is going to join him in L.A.? Or can they just not resist the urge to place an impulsive sucker bet on that shiny new thing in the bright purple and gold?
Soon after James’ intentions were announced, three veteran free agents signed with L.A. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope re-upped for $12 million, Lance Stephenson hopped aboard for $4.4 million, and JaVale McGee crashed the party for the veteran’s minimum.
Not to knock that trio of players, but they aren’t exactly Steph, Klay, and Draymond.
On Monday, the Lakers renounced their leading scorer last season, 23-year-old Randle, and added 32-year-old Rajon Rondo.
LeBron has proven that he can instantly turn a mediocre team into a contender. But he’s also proven that he can’t quite get all the way across the finish line without a credible supporting cast.
He’s emerged from a soft Eastern Conference with minimal help a couple of times. Just five weeks ago, he did it with Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and spare parts. Then reality set in against the Golden State Warriors.
In 2007, 22-year-old James carried the likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes all the way to the finals, where they got swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Now James is in the stacked Western Conference, with another middling bunch of teammates. If Kawhi comes along, 3/1 odds look almost vaguely attractive. But conventional wisdom suggests that a Leonard-LeBron tandem has more of a 2019-’20 feel. And that’s not very helpful if your betting slip reads 2018-’19.
Wild, wild West
Even if James peels off a first-rate second banana, the Lakers will need to get past a juggernaut Warriors team that has won three of the last four titles and just added all-star center DeMarcus Cousins. And, sure, in one series, anything can happen — especially when you have LeBron. But it’s not just one series. In the Western Conference, just to get to Golden State, the Lakers will have to get through some combination of the Rockets, Spurs, Pelicans, Thunder, and Jazz. And let’s say they were to beat two of those teams and Golden State. They’d still have another series to win against the Eastern Conference champs.
The Lakers’ odds are unrealistically short, but they’re the definition of a public team. They’re one of basketball’s two most storied franchises in one of America’s two biggest markets. And they just went out and added the most famous player in the game.
Money coming in on them to win it all is no surprise. It’s like if Tom Brady suddenly went to the Dallas Cowboys. Would that make them one of the two or three teams most likely to win the Super Bowl? Probably not. But the public would jam fistfuls of cash in as if they were.
It seems irrational, but, depending on where you look, the Lakers are either the most popular or the second-most popular bet in town.
Most money bet to win 2019 NBA title @WilliamHillUS Nevada books:
Most money to win 2019 NBA title @WilliamHillUS New Jersey books:
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) July 2, 2018
Those New Jersey reports are particularly telling. All the money is pouring in on East Coast teams, two of which, the Knicks and Cavs, might be among the very worst teams in the NBA next season. But there are the Lakers, 3,000 miles away, attracting crazy action.
Jump into the lake, cause ripples
James’ decision has done more than just shift money toward the Lakers. At Westgate, the Warriors, once 5/4, shortened to 10/11. It makes sense: LeBron chose a team that wasn’t already a contender, so the Warriors’ vice grip tightened a little when the faint possibilities of Houston, Philly, or Boston landing the King came off the table.
Along similar lines, the Rockets and 76ers’ odds got longer. Both opened at 7/2 at Westgate, but those numbers baked in a slight chance of James putting on their uniform. Now they’re 7/1 and 14/1, respectively.
The Celtics are an interesting case. They opened at 8/1 at Westgate, but now they’re just 7/2. Without the Cavs to contend with anymore and with the Sixers unlikely to add a superstar, Boston just stumbled into a much easier path to the finals.
And then there’s Cleveland. They opened at 30/1. The odds bounced around as various whispers about LeBron’s chances of sticking around floated through the air. Now they’re 500/1.
Finalists a month ago, the Cavs are suddenly as long a shot as anyone.
That’s the power of LeBron. Lose him, and all hope is lost. Sign him, and you’re bringing home rings. Or at least that’s what the squares think.