With LeBron still injured, is it time to bet against the Lakers?
By Sam Panayotovich
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
LeBron James is weeks away from returning to the hardwood, yet the Los Angeles Lakers are still top contenders in the NBA futures betting markets.
FOX Bet, for instance, has a bet boost on the Lakers at +350 right now, so a $10 wager would win you $35, plus your $10 back.
"No matter what seed the Lakers get, they’re going to be favored in the series price, no matter what," Westgate SuperBook Vice President of Risk Management Jeff Sherman told FOX Sports.
"And there’s no doubting the power LeBron has at the window," Sherman added. "People generally bet on him, not against him. We saw that in the Cleveland series when they were down against Golden State in the Finals. We took so much support on the Cavaliers – even when they got swept.
"It’s LeBron. He brings in action no matter what. Everywhere he’s been, he’s been received. And it’s more pro-LeBron support than anti-LeBron support."
Sprinkle in all the Laker liability that has already accumulated the past five months, and sportsbooks aren’t in any rush to write any more bets on the defending champs.
That explains why the Lakers are between +300 and +350 to win the title at most American sportsbooks, including FOX Bet's +350 bet boost.
"We got as high as 6-to-1 on the Lakers a few weeks ago before their East Coast road trip," Sherman recalled. "It looked like there was a chance they might end up in the play-in game. If that was the case, then you compound those series prices together. But they just beat the Hornets to finish the road trip 4-3 and are getting closer to getting some guys back in a few weeks.
"It’s looking more and more like they’re going to avoid the play-in, so we’ll come back down a little bit on their future odds. We only raised the stakes because it looked like there was a chance for the play-in. Without the play-in, you’re going to write that Laker money. They’re going to be favored in a series, and you don’t have to go too high to get that support."
I needed Sherman to give me a crash course on the new NBA playoff format because I was pretty confused about how all this play-in nonsense works. Apparently, the 7-seed plays the 8-seed, and the winner of that gets the No. 7 spot. Then the 9-seed plays the 10-seed, and the winner of that plays the loser of the first game for the No. 8 spot.
Hypothetically speaking, what would happen if the Lakers wound up with the 7-seed and faced the Phoenix Suns in the first round? What’s the price?
"They’d be a pretty big favorite in that series," Sherman said before making a couple of lightning-quick calculations. "Lakers – three bucks."
Translation: Lakers -300! That implies a 75% chance for the Lakers to advance, and a $10 wager on LeBron & Co. to knock off the Suns in this situation would win you $3.33, plus your money back.
But back to the title futures. The only team in the NBA with better odds to win the championship right now is the Brooklyn Nets, who are +270 at FOX Bet courtesy of a bet boost (bet $10 to win $27, plus your $10 back).
"We still haven’t seen them come together," Sherman said. "They haven’t had ample time to play together. The one thing that I’m impressed with is the way Harden has carried the team without help from the other guys. Durant and Irving have been in and out of the lineup. When Harden is out of the lineup, they’re not nearly as solid.
"[Harden's] going to have to be the focal point in the playoffs. If he’s not healthy or he’s not on, the Nets are very susceptible to a slip-up. If he’s on, that makes them dangerous. But there’s no doubt who the most important player is in Brooklyn."
For all the talk about the prowess of the Lakers and Nets, one team is on the opposite end of the spectrum, and that's the Denver Nuggets, who are trending in the wrong direction after Jamal Murray’s devastating season-ending ACL injury.
Sherman raised Denver from 14-to-1 to 100-to-1 to win the title.
"We looked back at their playoff run last year and how much Jamal Murray meant to it," Sherman explained. "He’s the guy that gets hot from 3 and carries them on runs. You can’t just remove that dimension from the Nuggets and expect them to be a title contender. There’s no replacement for Murray."
I’ve argued for decades that the NBA championship is the easiest to win of the four major American sports. It’s always the same teams and the same players lacing ‘em up in the Finals. The past nine titles have been won by a team with LeBron, Durant, Steph Curry or Kawhi Leonard.
That said, Sherman believes there are more contenders than usual this year.
"I have it down to six," he said when asked how many teams could win the title. "Lakers (+350 at FOX Bet) and Clippers (+500), yes. If things went right for the Bucks (+650), they could. The Nets could (+270).
"The Sixers (+1300) definitely could, and I think the Jazz (+1000) have the potential. I don’t think the Suns (+1400) could. It would take a lot of things to go right for them to have a path to the title.
"So I can comfortably say the Lakers, Clippers, Sixers, Nets, and I think the Jazz and Bucks could pull it off if things open up."
If I were taking a flier at this point in the season, it would be on Utah (+1000 at FOX Bet, so a $10 wager wins you $100, plus your $10 back).
The Jazz play an unselfish style of ball, with six players who score in double figures. They have the best defensive player in the league and a cold-blooded killer who wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Rudy Gobert's impact can neutralize Anthony Davis and turn the Lakers into a team that will need to make 3-pointers to advance.
As long as I’ve known Sherman, he has stressed the importance of a team’s path to the championship. Sometimes, you miss the biggest roadblocks along the way. Sure, the Miami Heat fought tooth-and-nail to the 2020 Finals, but Giannis Antetokounmpo got hurt early in Game 4 of the Bucks-Heat series and didn’t play the rest of the series. Miami also missed Toronto; the Raptors were knocked out by Boston.
"Let’s just say the Bucks are able to get the No. 1 seed over the last 20 games," Sherman explained. "Then you potentially have the Sixers and Nets playing each other the round before. That would make the road much easier for Milwaukee.
"Last year, the Lakers avoided the Clippers and the Bucks, and those were considered the top two contenders. Even the Warriors got some breaks over their run. If you get the breaks you need, the path to a championship opens up for you."
Last but not least, it felt absolutely necessary to have a veteran NBA oddsmaker make us odds for a potential super-championship showdown between the Lakers and Nets.
"I would have the Lakers as a small favorite in the series, probably minus a quarter [-125]," Sherman admitted after a short pause. "The way the Lakers are built with LeBron and AD, they have the right pieces around them to be a very good team when healthy.
"Ben Simmons made a very interesting comment about the Nets. He said there’s only one ball, and you need to play defense to win. The Lakers don’t have either of those issues. The one ball isn’t a problem, and they play defense. That’s a very fair knock on Brooklyn."
If all the stars align and Los Angeles and Brooklyn meet in the Finals, Sherman expects an all-time betting handle behind the counter. Five superstars on the floor is enough to entice sports bettors to make a wager. Then you add all that Angeleno money that would flock into Vegas on the Lakers.
"It would be incredible how much handle we would write," Sherman forecasted. "It would be unbelievable.
"But you can’t make the Lakers an underdog. We would be so overwhelmed with Lakers bets at plus money or even money. So they would be a small favorite. That way we could attract Nets money as the dog, and we’ll obviously write plenty of Lakers money."
N.Y. vs. L.A. in the Finals?
Sam Panayotovich is a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports and NESN. He previously worked for WGN Radio, NBC Sports and VSiN. He'll probably pick against your favorite team. Follow him on Twitter @spshoot.
For more up-to-date news on all things NBA, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!