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Eight NBA Bets We Wish We Could Make This Season

The beginning of the season is the best time to do a bit of gambling—it’d just be nice if the lines offered were a bit more fun

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My favorite part about the NBA season beginning again is the NBA season … beginning … again. My second-favorite part is taking advantage of early betting odds. (Read: Trying to take advantage; if I was really able to take advantage I’d be watching the open slate of games in an all-inclusive resort somewhere warm.) It’s the perfect time to test your NBA intuition: Vegas will never again know as little about the regular season as it does this first week.

However, I do wish the futures bets were wonkier. I want to bet on how many weeks we’ll make it without messy Lakers drama. And whether the Kings can somehow get even faster under Luke Walton. If this is the year Markelle Fultz does something. And until some sportsbook picks up these mostly vague and unprovable futures, I’ll just give them to you. Here are eight lines I wish I could bet on this NBA season:

Number of Games Before DeAndre Jordan Moves to the Bench

Over 41 games (plus-110), under 41 games (minus-110)

I can’t say with absolute certainty that friendship got Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract with Brooklyn, but we do know that Jordan is a close friend of Kevin Durant’s, Durant landed in Brooklyn the same day DAJ did this summer, Brooklyn desperately wanted to sign Durant, and no other team was throwing $40 million at Jordan.

Maybe you can put a price on friendship after all. Still, Brooklyn should want Jordan to do more than just entice Durant to be there. And so Jordan’s been given the starting center job, which belonged to Jarrett Allen last season. The 21-year-old averaged 10.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 26.2 minutes in 2019-20. Meanwhile, Jordan had his worst playing stretch in years, averaging fewer points (11) and rebounds (13.1) than he had in six years and becoming a borderline defensive liability. There are advantages to Jordan starting for the Nets: he’s a veteran who’s played in six postseasons and is a near-guarantee to put up a double-double each night. But it’s unlike this Nets team to be stuck in the past, and Allen is inevitably the future of their frontcourt.

Allen will get ample playing time behind DAJ, no doubt, and he’ll be able to make his case for the starting spot. It’s only a matter of how long before Brooklyn accepts it. (The number’s set at the season’s halfway mark because it’s in the middle of a particularly rough stretch for the Nets.)

Games Before Draymond Green Yells at D’Angelo Russell

Over 11 games (minus-110), under 11 games (plus-110)

We’re all underestimating just how frustrating this season could be for Golden State. Their entire identity as a team is about to be majorly adjusted.

Here’s what’s counting against Russell, who is a hard worker with something to prove: (1) Green values defense more than any facet of basketball. (2) Russell’s skills don’t include defense. (3) And he’s replacing Klay Thompson, who (4) is one of the best defenders in the NBA.

In short, the perimeter could be an open starting gate. (Any frustration could also be exacerbated by the fact that Russell sometimes throws up shots like another Russell in this league.) The line is set at 11 games, four games into a difficult stretch where the Warriors will face the Jazz after three road games in four days.

Rookie Most Likely to Be the Devil’s Advocate Argument Against Zion Williamson Being Rookie of the Year

Ja Morant (plus-100), RJ Barrett (plus-250), Tyler Herro (plus-350), Michael Porter Jr. (plus-1,000)

Before Williamson’s injury, it was ridiculous to suggest anyone could rob him of the ROY award. Now that Williamson will likely miss the first six to eight weeks of the season, the suggestion that he’ll lose the ROY is … still a little ridiculous. Not you-should-be-stoned-in-public ridiculous, but definitely how-do-you-sleep-at-night ridiculous.

The fewest games a ROY winner has played in his first season is 50, which is right around what Williamson would play if he missed the full eight weeks. However, two of those instances—Vince Carter (50 games played in 1998-99) and Kyrie Irving (51 games played in 2011-12)—came during lockout-shortened seasons. The last true 50-game ROY winner is Patrick Ewing, who won despite multiple injuries in 1985-86 that limited him to just 50 games played.

That said, Zion is still the heavy favorite. Here are the current odds for ROY, courtesy of BetMGM:

  • Zion Williamson, plus-100
  • Ja Morant, plus-275
  • RJ Barrett, plus-550
  • Tyler Herro, plus-1,500
  • Michael Porter Jr., plus-1,600

Morant is in the best position to be the devil’s advocate choice this season. Let’s call this the “But what about …?” guy. Or the “But y’all aren’t ready for that conversation” guy. Or the “But the numbers say” guy. Vegas tends to underestimate how much narratives matter in these awards, which are voted on by human beings and not entirely decided by statistics. But I agree with the oddsmakers in this instance: Morant will be on a terrible team, which in recent history is a huge advantage for ROY hopefuls. Rookies in that kind of situation usually see higher usage rates and more prolific overall numbers.

That said, Morant will still be nowhere as efficient as Williamson. The former has an inclination to turn over the ball and needs to fine-tune his jump shot; the latter almost never misses. The modern NBA fan is far more likely to go to bat for an efficient player. (Efficiency seems to be the end-all to most Player X vs. Player Y arguments.) RJ Barrett doesn’t push the needle—or his team’s field goal percentage—either, plus the Knicks probably won’t be as much of a “feel-good” team as the Grizzlies. (Remember, narrative is important.) And then there are the outliers: Porter probably won’t have enough time or responsibility alongside Denver’s stars (or Denver’s deep bench) to make a case for himself. Herro, though, has already impressed in preseason play. Miami’s roster is Jimmy Butler, a collection of up-and-comers, and two expensive backcourt players who need to be phased out. His odds are interesting, which I recognize is an odd thing to say as the faux-bookie here.

First Serious Trade Rumor

Kyle Lowry (plus-200), Kevin Love (plus-300), the field (minus-100)

This bet is based entirely on gossip, which is probably why it exists only in the sportsbook of my dreams and not in any real one. I wrote about Love, Lowry, Dragic, and other leftovers from this summer’s trade market last week. Lowry’s extension temporarily quieted his trade rumors, but his new contract keeps him in the sweet spot for a trade. The Raptors extended Lowry another season, meaning he’s no longer on an expiring contract but is also not a substantial risk to take on if it doesn’t work out between the 33-year-old and any team considering an acquisition.

Then there’s Love. Cleveland might receive better offers for him down the line, despite his four-year, $120 million contract. Executives are far more desperate for stretch-4s than they are point guards. The catch here is that it’ll take time for Love to prove he can play like his old self again after foot and toe injuries.

Bigger Second-Season Improvement

Luka Doncic (minus-150), Trae Young (plus-100)

Year 2 of the Luka-Trae debate will be even better than their Rookie of the Year race (or robbery, depending on your allegiances). Both the Mavericks and the Hawks have improved so significantly that they’re both playoff bubble teams in their respective conferences. If Young’s momentum from the latter half of last season carries over, he could push Atlanta to being the surprise of 2019-20. Doncic, meanwhile, no longer has to worry about doing a weird dance with Dennis Smith Jr. for possessions, and instead has Kristaps Porzingis and shooter Seth Curry—who finished with a better 3-point percentage than his brother last season, mind you—to bump his assist count.

First Coach to Get a “Vote of Confidence”

Mike D’Antoni (minus-150), Frank Vogel (even), Brett Brown (plus-100), the field (plus-150)

To be clear: This is not the same as the first coach to be on the hot seat. This is the step after the seat’s grown warm, when a general manager feels the need to say something along the lines of, “We have complete faith in [Coach Doing A Really Bad Job] and stand behind him, 100 percent.” It’s a public endorsement that seems to have a subsequent divorce rate on par with the actual divorce rate.

This often happens to the coaches under the most pressure, which is why D’Antoni, Vogel, and Brown have better odds than the field. D’Antoni leads because throwing Russell Westbrook alongside James Harden is a risk, one of many big swings that GM Daryl Morey has taken the past couple of years. Roster experimentation isn’t often the coach’s fault, but it frequently falls on them if expectations fall short time and again.

Vogel is self-explanatory. He’s with LeBron James, whose coaches don’t have “tenures” so much as “extended tryouts.” That’s multiplied by the bet the front office took landing Anthony Davis. If the Lakers can’t win after acquiring another superstar and trading their future away, someone will be needing to take the fall.

And finally, there’s Brown, who has momentarily turned off his seat warmer after last postseason, when it seemed he was coaching for his job each game. The Sixers had the least serious turnover of any of these three teams, which means Brown will have the least adjusting to do. (Adding Al Horford is hardly adding a flamethrower like Westbrook or an injury-prone unicorn like Davis.)

Whether This Is the Year Markelle Fultz Is Relevant on the Court Again

Not relevant this season (minus-300), relevant this season (plus-150)

This is a pretty vague bet to fulfill. But we can all agree that we’ll know it when we see it (sorry, Markelle, for indirectly comparing your on-court success to pornography). Orlando seems to think Fultz will blossom eventually. The Magic picked up Fultz’s $12.3 million option last month after trading for him in February, and he’s played in the preseason.

First Fringe Player to Be in the “This Guy Deserves to Be in the MVP Conversation” Conversation

Kemba Walker (plus-150), Jrue Holiday (plus-300), Zion Williamson (plus-1,000)

To qualify for this bet, the player has to have never seriously been in the MVP conversation before. So Paul George doesn’t qualify, nor does Damian Lillard, who’s on the bubble of the bubble every season.

Walker is the favorite because of his change of locales. It’s easy to forget a player exists in Charlotte. That’s not the Hornets’ fault, as they’re never on national TV; it’s also most definitely the Hornets’ fault, as they’ve never put a decent team around Walker. He’ll now be on a competitive team coached by Brad Stevens, who is known to maximize the potential of his guards.

The case for Zion Williamson is almost nonexistent after his injury. It’s one feat to win Rookie of the Year despite missing major time. It’s another to win MVP as a rookie. (It’s been done only twice, by Wilt Chamberlain in 1959-60 and Wes Unseld in 1968-69.) But a rookie who missed major time winning MVP? That’s unprecedented. But so is a 6-foot-6, 284-pound big man with a 45-inch vertical, so anything could happen.

Williamson’s lower odds bump Holiday’s chances. This bet is for the player whom a small army on NBA Twitter decides we’re not talking about enough, and Holiday with an open floor fits that description. He’s healthy, playing at his favorite position, off the ball, and next to Lonzo Ball, who’ll feed him like a grandma worried her grandkids aren’t eating enough. Vice president of basketball operations David Griffin already started talking about Jrue as an MVP this summer.