Is the Lakers' collapse opening the door in the Western Conference?
By Jason McIntyre
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
The NBA playoffs are nearly upon us, and this much we know about the West: It’s wide open.
The defending champion Lakers have battled injuries to their two best players. The Jazz and Suns are slugging it out for the No. 1 seed. The Clippers are quietly lurking as something of a sleeper. MVP leader Nikola Jokic has the Nuggets playing well after the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray.
Is there a gambling edge to betting any of the top five teams to win the Western Conference?
We break down the contenders (with all odds via FOX Bet).
The Lakers ended a 1-6 skid with a big win over Denver without LeBron James on Monday. But at best, they’re going to finish fifth. At worst, they’re in the play-in. The schedule is unforgiving, with the Clippers on Thursday and a huge seeding game against Portland on Friday – and they won’t have LeBron for either. After that back-to-back, the Lakers play the Suns and Knicks.
Yes, with a healthy LeBron, AD and Schroder, the Lakers are the team to beat. The problem is the first two still aren’t 100 percent. Anthony Davis missed 30 games with a calf injury, and LeBron missed six weeks with a high right ankle sprain.
Even though the Lakers have the best depth in the West, you are rolling the dice with the Lakers at +225. Remember this: Since 2003, when the first-round playoff series went to seven games, only one No. 7 seed has taken down a No. 2 seed. That was the Spurs over the Mavs in 2010.
If the Lakers fall to the 7-seed, they’ll have to play one or two games before facing the Suns or Jazz. Where this bet gains value: If LeBron and AD get to 100 percent, +225 looks like a bargain come late May.
LA won 11 of 12 last month and then dropped three straight. The Clippers lead the league in 3-point shooting (41%) and are second in offensive efficiency, but there are still major questions about their rim protection and the backcourt rotation. Frankly, they were fourth in the NBA in 3-point shooting last season, and then they hit only 33% from deep in the series against Denver.
As well as Reggie Jackson has played in the second half, how will he handle being on the bench when Beverley returns? And when Rondo gets fourth-quarter minutes?
Also, can they trust Luke Kennard in the fourth quarter?
I’m fine with being wrong, but I won’t trust the Clippers in a big spot until I see them get it done. I can’t take them at +225.
A longstanding NBA theorem is that you have to walk before you can run in the NBA playoffs (Pistons and Bulls in the '80s; Lakers in the '90s; Warriors in the '10s). The Suns haven’t been to the postseason in 11 years.
Only two players in the rotation have real playoff experience (Chris Paul and Jae Crowder). Still, the numbers love the Suns, who are seventh in offensive efficiency, sixth in defense and second in net rating. We’re talking about a team that was +4000 to win the title in the preseason. Nobody’s betting the Suns because of the aforementioned theory.
Here’s why I like their chances against the Clippers and Lakers: wing defense. Phoenix can trot out Crowder and Mikal Bridges to try to slow Leonard and George. They have the backcourt advantage of CP3 and Devin Booker over everyone in the West, including Utah, which they swept 3-0 this season. Worth noting: Suns coach Monty Williams has never won a playoff series (0-2).
My best bet to win the West is +650. If Chris Paul suffers another postseason injury, you can say, "I told you so!"
Yes, Denver peeled off a 9-2 streak after the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray. And yes, Nikola Jokic will win the MVP (narrowly over Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid). And yes, Michael Porter Jr. has stepped up since Murray went down, averaging 25 points per game, shooting 56% from the field and 49% on 3-pointers.
But eventually, reality will set in.
The Nuggets are extremely limited offensively after Jokic and Porter Jr. Aaron Gordon, who came from Orlando via trade, was a consistent 14-point scorer with the Magic, but he’s down to 10 per game with Denver, and he’s attempting only eight shots per game.
For Denver to advance in the West, they must find a third scorer, and Gordon has to be the guy, especially with injuries to Monte Morris and Will Barton. I’m passing on the Nuggets +1000 to win the West.
This Utah group has been bounced in the first round two years in a row, but if a Mike Conley 3-pointer goes down in Game 7 last year, the great Nuggets story is never written because the Jazz – who blew a 3-1 series lead – would have prevailed.
How are these Jazz different from any previous Donovan Mitchell incarnation? Well, Conley, Joe Ingles and Georges Niang are all shooting above 40% on 3-pointers, and Jordan Clarkson is perhaps the Sixth Man of the Year. No top-four team will be as impacted by the draw as the Jazz. If they can avoid the Lakers or Clippers until the conference finals, they’ll have a chance.
Utah’s weakness is defending the wings. The Jazz have no answer for Kawhi, George or "The King." It's extremely difficult to envision a scenario in which they beat both. I’d bet the Jazz +375 if their path included only one of the Lakers or Clippers.
For more up-to-date news on all things NBA, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!
Jason McIntyre is a FOX Sports betting analyst, and he also writes about the NFL and NBA Draft. He joined FS1 in 2016 and has appeared on every show on the network. In 2017, McIntyre began producing gambling content on the NFL, college football and NBA for FOX Sports. He had a gambling podcast for FOX, "Coming Up Winners," in 2018 and 2019. Before arriving at FOX, he created the website The Big Lead, which he sold in 2010.