Welcome back to the NBA, fans who boycotted the league for the last few years knowing their favorite team had no chance of beating a super team that eventually carried five future HOF candidates in their primes. Speaking as a fan who couldn’t give the league up no matter how predetermined and anticlimactic it projected to be, it’s a major breath of fresh air to look at the championship odds and see this much parody. Injuries reminded us that anybody could always win a ring, but now with KD, Klay, and Boogie all limping into free agency the Warriors will no longer have the league by a stranglehold. A stacked free agency class will headline a frenzy of an offseason that was officially kicked off when the Lakers gifted LeBron James arguably the best teammate he’s ever had. A LeBron and Anthony Davis combo scares the league, just ask Vegas who adjusted the Lakers to +320 despite having no starting backcourt or bench contributors on the roster. With all the names set to move around over the next few months and considering that basketball is the sport most heavily influenced by a single dominant player, there are so many teams that you just can’t rule out at the moment. Think of it like this: How many teams in the NBA would be just as good or better than the Raptors if they added Kawhi? Kawhi Leonard, Devon Booker, Deandre Ayton, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, and Mikal Bridges, does that sound considerably worse than the team that just lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy? They’re less experienced and disciplined, but add a PG to that team and how big is the talent discrepancy? That team won 19 games this year and Kawhi is one of many big names available this summer, so prior to free agency there aren’t many bad bets.
Below is my pick to win the championship, as well as a couple of other teams who provide great value. What I learned during the 2018 NBA season is how important chemistry, fit, and personalities really are when it comes to constructing a championship contender. The Celtics had all the talent they needed, but they hated playing together. The 76ers traded for their “big five” but failed to find any consistency or fluidity in their half-court offense. My long shot picks are teams who pass the ball well and enjoy playing their roles, things that we may have overlooked concentrating on the madness that is NBA super teams.
First, let’s check out the odds courtesy FanDuel:
|Los Angeles Lakers||+350|
|Golden State Warriors||+1100|
|Los Angeles Clippers||+1400|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||+2400|
At +4200 the Jazz offer about as good a value as any team in the league. The Jazz looked completely out of sorts in their lone playoff series this year, but given how well they played in the playoffs two years back we can’t write this team off as a pretender. Their impressive showing in the 2017 playoffs looked like a fluke as they began their 2018 season 18-19. They bounced back in a huge way, finishing the season 32-13 over the last 45 games. The only teams to finish the season with a higher net rating than Utah were the Bucks, Warriors, and Raptors. The Jazz are known for their defense, but they made strides offensively over the second half of the season with phenom Donovan Mitchell running the show. They finished fifth in the NBA in effective FG%, fourth in FT rate, 10th in threes per 100 possessions, and eighth in AST per 100 possessions. For a team lacking star power offensively, this is the recipe required for success; move the ball around, knock down threes, and get to the line. Analyzing their defensive numbers reveals that the Jazz were surely a top-two defensive unit in the league during 2018. They allowed the second-least points per 100 possessions (0.5 behind Milwaukee), held opponents to the second-lowest effective FG%, and tied for first in both DRB% and fewest threes allowed.
The Jazz have a clear identity that the current roster buys into, so the only question marks that remain are the key offseason decisions left to be made. The Jazz are rumored to be the current favorites to land veteran PG Mike Conley, which would instantly slingshot them toward the top of the contender rankings. In Conley, the Jazz would get a veteran with playoff success to quarterback their offense, and a major defensive upgrade over Rubio. If what is possibly already the top defense in the league can add one of the best defensive point guards, we could see if a defensive-minded roster is an antidote to today’s hyper-efficient perimeter offenses. If they don’t pick up Derrick Favors’ option they’ll have room for a max contract, but Utah has never been known for their free agent allure. A trade for Conley is likely their ticket to championship contention, but pull the trigger now because Vegas will obviously adjust the second the rumors intensify.
Editor’s note: Following the acquisition of Mike Conley, Utah has moved up from +4200 to +3000 on FanDuel.
The Nuggets were a game away from the WCF and would’ve given the hobbled Warriors a run for their money had they not been eliminated. The 2018 season was a coming out party for this Denver squad in every sense. The Warriors were off to a slow start, so the Nuggets were actually the name on top of the West’s standings for much of the year. Jokic emerged as an MVP candidate, young players continued to develop, and bench guys stepped up and filled in for vital injuries. The Nuggets players were fourth in the NBA in games missed due to injury and still managed to overachieve expectations. Murray is on the cusp of elite play, and the tools are there to lead Gary Harris, Will Barton, Monte Morris, and Malik Beasley into the discussion for the best backcourt in the league. I loved the Michael Porter Jr. pick when they made it. He would’ve been the top prospect in his HS class had Bagley not reclassed. MPJ looks like somebody’s attempt at building a KD replica in 2K, and we’ve seen rookies develop immensely during this virtual red-shirt season. The Nuggets could only focus on improving their core from last year and still offer good value at +1900. If MPJ breaks out, or Millsap’s option is declined in lieu of a free agent upgrade, the Nuggets will be making a deep run come next summer.
Mark Cuban’s business and persuasion skills will be put to the test this offseason, as the European Mavericks look like a better destination than they have in recent years. The sky is the limit for Luka, and pick and rolls with KP will shred opposing defenses. If it wasn’t for Oscar Robertson almost putting up a triple-double in 1960, Luka would’ve been the first rookie in NBA history to ever average 21, 6, and 6. Not enough is being made about the cap space Cuban will have at his disposal, as Dallas is one of the largest and most attractive markets in the NBA. One big signing to pair with Luka and KP surely expedites the building process. There’s a very real chance that Dallas finishes as the 11th seed in the West next year, but two young stars plus all this cap space in a major market like Dallas is a nice template to start with. At these odds, I’d much rather take Dallas over the Knicks (+3500) or Clippers (+1400), bets that are just as speculative.
Pick to Win
The Lakers were my pick as 2020 NBA champions prior to the AD trade, and although the value and their depth are both gone, they are still worth taking. LA is going to be doing everything they can over the next few weeks to open enough cap space for a possible third max contract to pair alongside LeBron and AD. In a loaded free agency class such as this, the odds of every single player turning down the option to live in Los Angeles and play alongside LeBron and AD are quite low. If a player on the level of Kawhi, Kyrie, Kemba, or Jimmy Butler decides to turn the Lakers into a super team, every other championship pick will be a waste of money. LeBron is still the best player in the league and all those who claimed otherwise know the truth deep down. Anthony Davis might be the best teammate he’s ever had, and together these two may form the most dangerous pick and roll in NBA history. The Lakers now have two of the seven players to ever post multiple seasons with a PER over 30. LeBron’s taken zero-star rosters to the finals before, so LA might opt to spend their money on depth as opposed to another max contract. They need to add role players to knock down threes and play defense, and there are certainly veterans willing to take a pay cut to chase a ring and enjoy the weather.