Fast Break: What The NBA’s December Start Means For Sports Bettors

Inside the title odds, MVP prices, and win totals ahead of the scheduled Dec. 22 tipoff
lebron james dunking

The typical NBA offseason lasts about four months. This offseason, with the 2020-21 campaign now officially set to begin on Dec. 22, will span only 72 days.

That will be the fewest days between the conclusion of one season and the start of the next in major American team sports history.

But while the world champion Los Angeles Lakers and runner-up Miami Heat will have only 10 weeks off, eight other NBA teams will have been resting up (and/or rusting up) for more than nine months by the time the first games tip off.

Attempting to play sports during the COVID-19 pandemic has severely tested the adaptability of every league, and it in turn tests the adaptability of everyone who wagers on sports.

These are unprecedented times. There is no historical record on which to build statistical models of what happens in a 72-game NBA season that begins on Dec. 22 after the previous season was interrupted for 4½ months by a pandemic.

That, of course, is no good reason not to place a few futures wagers.

Will the ‘King’ rest on his throne?

Over the weekend, the Westgate Superbook became the first legal U.S. sportsbook to publicize over/under win totals based on the proposed 72-game schedule:

The book has spelled out that teams must play between 69 and 72 games for bets to be graded. As other operators release their lines, those stipulations might vary.

In addition to being forced to do a little extra math to convert from the usual 82-game season to 72, the challenge for bettors is to figure out whether some teams will be particularly impacted by the short turnaround.

The Lakers and Heat, and to a lesser extent the conference finalist Celtics and Nuggets, might be inclined to limit their veterans’ minutes early in the season. The best players for Boston and Denver, however, are on the younger side. The team most likely to be impacted here is the Lakers. LeBron James will turn 36 eight days after the season begins. The Lakers’ total is set at 46.5 wins. That’s almost exactly 53 in an 82-game season. L.A. finished with 52 wins in 71 regular season games in the paused-and-restarted 2019-20 season. Bettors are faced with a fascinating decision here.

On a related note, DraftKings Sportsbook has posted MVP odds. Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luca Doncic are co-favorites at +600, with LeBron and teammate Anthony Davis next at +700. If you expect the Lakers to rest their superstars more than usual, the odds gap between the first two candidates and the next two should probably be wider.

And Stephen Curry at +1000 is probably a better bet than either Laker.

Draft considerations

Curry’s Warriors are one of the most intriguing teams heading into this next season. They’ll be well rested, having not played a game since March. Curry and Klay Thompson will both be back from the injuries that drove the team to a league-worst 15-50 record last season. And that dreadful season scored them the second pick in the Nov. 18 draft.

This is not considered a particularly strong draft class. Starting with Phoenix with the 10th pick, we’ll start seeing some potential contenders drafting. But it seems unlikely that true impact rookies will be available at that stage.

In the top nine, we’re talking strictly about teams that are more than one impact player away from being contenders — except Golden State at No. 2.

The rumor mill has them taking Memphis center James Wiseman if he doesn’t go first overall, or possibly trading down and adding an established NBA starter (such as LaMarcus Aldridge) if Wiseman does go No. 1.

Of course, with the season starting 34 days after the draft, rookies won’t have very long to get up to speed. (Free agency signings will begin Nov. 22.)

There might be wisdom in betting the “over” on teams that played in the Orlando bubble and will have largely the same roster when the new season begins. Note these win-total lines (with equivalent win totals in an 82-game season in parentheses):

  • Boston Celtics: 46.5 (53)
  • Denver Nuggets: 43.5 (49.5)
  • Toronto Raptors: 43.5 (49.5)
  • Dallas Mavericks: 42.5 (48.5)
  • Phoenix Suns: 34.5 (39)

All of those teams, with the exception maybe of the Raptors, are led by young players likely to be better in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20.

L.A.’s two teams atop title odds

Betting on regular season wins, of course, is not the same as betting on postseason success (though there is obviously some correlation). Every mobile sportsbook we checked had the same top 12 teams (if not all in the same order) in terms of championship odds, and here’s the best price we found on each:

  • Lakers +400 (BetMGM)
  • Clippers +550 (multiple books)
  • Bucks +800 (FOX Bet)
  • Warriors +850 (FanDuel)
  • Nets +1000 (FanDuel)
  • Celtics +1200 (multiple books)
  • Heat +1600 (multiple books)
  • Raptors +2000 (multiple books)
  • Nuggets +2500 (DraftKings)
  • Mavericks +2700 (FanDuel)
  • Rockets +2800 (DraftKings)
  • 76ers +3200 (FanDuel)

With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the court together, Brooklyn makes for a high-upside wild card — similar to Durant’s former team in the Bay area, but with more uncertainty.

Philly flopped in 2020, but hope will spring anew with Daryl Morey as GM, Doc Rivers as coach, and, assuming Morey doesn’t trade either of them, a renewed effort to figure out how to fit Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together.

And if you believe either Doncic or the Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray combo are going to elevate another notch above where they were last season, Dallas and Denver look like potential bargains.

Then again, sometimes the move is not to overthink it. While most books have them closer to +350, that 4/1 from BetMGM on LeBron, AD, and the defending champs could turn out to have value. They might not go all out for the top seed in the West. You might be smart to short them in December and January. But the Lakers are the team nobody will want to face in June.

Photo by Kim Klement / USA Today Sports


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