When the NBA Finals begin Wednesday night, the Miami Heat will be facing a formidable opponent on the court — the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, role players like Danny Green and Rajon Rondo, who’ve played key roles on previous title teams. Heck, even L.A.’s benchwarmers — J.R. Smith, JaVale McGee, and Quinn Cook, all of whom are averaging less than 10 minutes per game in the playoffs — have championship rings.
As if that’s not enough, however, the Heat will also be swimming upstream against a torrent of NBA media narratives: LeBron chasing a fourth title and turning the endless NBA greatest-of-all-time argument into more of a pick ’em between him and Michael Jordan; the Lakers hanging another championship banner less than nine months after the tragic death of franchise legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in a January helicopter crash; LeBron sticking it to the franchise he famously took his talents to 10 years ago, only to leave after the San Antonio Spurs trounced Miami in the 2014 Finals. (Let’s not forget, however, that LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh took the Heat to four straight Finals in those years, and won two championships.)
The members of this year’s Heat squad were reminded of the latter narrative before the sweat dripping from their brows had time to dry after Sunday’s Game 6 victory over the Boston Celtics. While presenting the Eastern Conference championship trophy, ESPN’s Rachel Nichols reminded Miami Head Coach Erik Spoelstra that he’d be facing his former star — the best and most famous player he’d ever coached — and Spoelstra pleaded for at least one night of freedom from the narrative.
“That’s a great storyline,” Spoelstra said. “Can you let us enjoy this for a little bit right now?”
ESPN already throwing the LeBron vs his former team/coach storyline in Spo's face 😂 pic.twitter.com/1V3IGRfAPx
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) September 28, 2020
“We’ll give you that,” Nichols said, but despite her courteous response, a more truthful answer probably would have been, “No, Spo, we can’t.” The NBA, like all major professional sports, is an entertainment product, and the narrative is non-negotiable.
For fans and gamblers interested in sports betting on these NBA Finals, the question of where to wager your money largely depends on whether you believe the Miami Heat will overcome or succumb to the championship-caliber opponents and the deluge of narratives stacked up against them.
Lakers clear favorites in odds and storylines
Heading into the series, major online sportsbooks view the Lakers as between 3½- and 4-to-1 favorites. For straight-up Los Angeles to win Finals bets, FOX Bet offers the best value at -350 and PointsBet offers the highest price at -400. The highest value currently available on Miami is +300, which oddsmakers BetMGM and William Hill are offering, while FanDuel’s +260 provides the least bang for your buck on underdog bets.
However, if the Lakers’ pattern of dropping one game in each series holds — L.A. specifically lost Game 1 in their first two 2020 playoff series, only to sweep the next four games — patient bettors may prefer to give Miami a chance to steal Wednesday’s opener, then hit the Lakers’ championship bets after a potential 0-1 start generates more favorable odds.
Likewise, decades’ worth of NBA narratives and conventional wisdom appear to favor the Lakers at about a 4-to-1 clip.
- The team with the best player usually wins over a seven-game NBA playoff series. L.A. has the two best players in this one: LeBron and Anthony Davis; advantage, Lakers.
- LeBron is playing for history, legacy, and destiny. Time is running out on 5-seed Miami’s Cinderella success; advantage, Lakers.
- Veteran players shine under the NBA Finals’ megawatt spotlight. The L.A. roster oozes experience, while three crucial members of the Heat rotation, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson, have all been in the league less than three years; advantage, Lakers.
- Referees give star players the benefit of the doubt in a star-driven league. LeBron is the NBA’s greatest star in the past 15 years; advantage, Lakers.
- LeBron has struggled against his former team, going winless in his first 14 games in Miami after leaving the team as a free agent. Advantage, Heat … except in this year’s bubble-bound NBA Finals, there won’t be any games in Miami.
The style matchup
Beneath that deluge of token NBA wisdom, however, there’s a lot of substance to the Lakers-Heat matchup, and bettors would be wise to consider some Xs and Os before backing the favorite.
Much has been made of the string of 4-1 series victories the Lakers have piled up en route to the Finals, but Miami’s performance has been similarly if not more impressive, despite needing six games to get past the Celtics in the conference finals. Both teams went 12-3 through the first three rounds, with Miami beating two teams — Boston and the Milwaukee Bucks — who were better on paper than any team Los Angeles has faced this postseason.
Since the NBA resumed its season inside the Orlando, Fla., based bubble, Miami has surprised opponents with versatility. On offense, the Heat don’t rely on a star primary creator like LeBron on the Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Bucks, or James Harden on the Houston Rockets. Miami’s multiple points of attack include center Adebayo, who coordinates possessions from the high post, freeing Miami shooters with dribble handoffs and passing to baseline cutters and corner-three specialists; point guard Goran Dragic, who can run an archetypal NBA high screen-and-roll offense with Adebayo setting picks and diving to the rim to attract defenders and open up driving lanes for Dragic and open looks for perimeter shooters; guard Jimmy Butler, who gives Miami a classic wing-scorer look and a capable isolation option for grind-it-out fourth quarter possessions; and young gunners Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, who have shown that despite their lack of postseason experience, they’re capable of taking over high-pressure playoff games.
Likewise, Miami will give LeBron and the Lakers several different looks on defense. There’s no such thing as shutting down LeBron James or Anthony Davis for an entire series, but the Heat have defensive personnel that can make L.A.’s stars work. Butler, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder all profile as the kind of stout wing defender coaches want to check LeBron, while Adebayo may be the only other big man in the NBA who can keep up with Davis’ speed and inside-out scoring ability.
Miami’s man-to-man dilemma will be over switching. The Heat have switched screens throughout the regular season and playoffs, and doing so has showcased Adebayo’s skill at bottling up opposing guards’ drives. But if Adebayo switches off Davis, no other player in Miami’s small-ball rotation has much of a shot at containing Davis’ size and finishing at the rim. And the sight of LeBron dissecting switching defenses has become something of a playoff tradition in recent years — it won’t matter if Miami schemes to have Butler or Iguodala on him, because LeBron will summon ball screens from whoever Herro or Robinson is guarding until one of Miami’s frailer, overmatched wings gets stuck on him.
Fortunately for the Heat, Miami has also employed a much-ballyhooed zone defense to give opposing offenses a different look, and this could prove to be a crucial tactic against the Lakers, whose three-point shooting has been inconsistent throughout the regular season and playoffs. If Miami packs in their zone to guard the paint and L.A.’s shooters can’t make them pay, the Heat can make this a series. If Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and LeBron catch fire, however, Miami may run out of adjustments.
Finals MVP bets: The narrative vs. the longshots
The sportsbooks make LeBron James a wide favorite to polish off his fourth NBA Finals MVP trophy, with odds ranging from -140 at FOX Bet to -213 at PointsBet. This makes strategic and storyline sense. James is the Lakers’ team leader and prime mover, the orchestrator of its offense and a triple-double threat every time he steps on a basketball court. He also seems to have convinced a sizable bloc of the national NBA media that the league’s raison d’être is to provide a stage for him to achieve greatness.
If LeBron is the public bet for Finals MVP, then, there may be value in some of the other options. Advanced statistics like win shares suggest that LeBron’s teammate, Anthony Davis, has been the Lakers’ best and most consistent player throughout the playoffs, and his Finals MVP odds range from +250 at DraftKings to +300 at FanDuel. If Davis dominates in the Lakers’ wins en route to a championship, all the narrative pressure in the world may not be enough to deny him the Finals MVP.
Or, if you believe Miami is a live underdog in the series, most oddsmakers are offering Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo at around +800 for Finals MVP. Win or lose, Adebayo will almost assuredly be the Heat’s most impactful player in the series, and if he managed to outplay Davis that would generate a powerful “star is born” narrative of its own. Butler, on the other hand, is the more established star who’ll have the ball in his hands at the end of close games, with a chance to hit the kind of series-defining shots that swing awards voters’ opinion.
And, as fellow Heat wing and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala can remind Butler, exceeding expectations in a head-to-head matchup with LeBron James can turn into such an overpowering narrative that it can deliver the award even if both LeBron himself and Stephen Curry were more deserving.
Photo by Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports