“The times, they are a-changin’” in the NBA and superstar players are officially 100% in control. With each subsequent offseason, it appears that the league’s move to stop calling team owners “owners” anymore – going with the alternative “governors” instead – has layers of meaning beyond just addressing uncomfortable racial semantics.
The billionaires just write the checks these days; it’s the athletes who decide who plays where, and who they’ll be teaming up with; contracts be damned. If that sounds like a negative thing, I’m not entirely sure that it should.
For whatever damage is done to parity in the NBA, it sure does make the offseason must-watch TV and around-the-clock social media event. “F5 season,” as we call it on Reddit’s NBA sub – feverishly refreshing our browsers over and over again waiting for the next “Woj bomb” to drop.
The 2019 Offseason Arms Race
Betting on the NBA is a year-long adventure these days. The minute the champions were crowned, and we were all done meme-ing “plant guy, and his Kawhactus,” the collective eyes of the league’s fans were turned towards free agency, and where several of the top players in the NBA would land. However, I’m not sure anybody was ready for the extent of this offseason’s roster shakeups.
As expected, the mass exodus started in Los Angeles, where LeBron and company completed their long-term tampering plan by successfully completing a trade for Anthony Davis — who demanded to be moved last season at the deadline.
That’s when things started to get weird. It was somewhat expected that Kevin Durant would be leaving Golden State, but I don’t think anybody predicted he’d be heading to the Nets. Paired up with Kyrie Irving, who also signed in Brooklyn, they’ll make up one of the more passive-aggressive, sensitive superstar duos of all-time once KD returns in 2020-21.
They’ll also be among the favorites to win the EasFt. Back in the West, with two stars slated for the Lakers’ front-court and enough room under the salary cap for one more max player, the fate of the rest of the NBA waited on Kawhi Leonard.
Would he be headed home to LA – either to play for the Clippers or the Lakers – or would he re-sign with the Raptors, where he just won the title?
The reigning Finals MVP took his precious time, making his free agency decision at the very last minute – at least for the Lakers – who needed to sign the star before July 6th (when the Davis trade would be officially executed), for salary cap reasons. After a week of “inside sources” inferring that Kawhi would be heading to the Lakers to form an unstoppable three with LeBron and AD, the silent superstar’s team and Jerry West pulled-off the shocker of the offseason.
Not only would Kawhi Leonard be snubbing LeBron and signing with the Clippers instead, he was bringing People George with him! Apparently, Kawhi had been recruiting the Thunders’ star behind the scenes and convinced the Clippers front office that making the trade with Oklahoma City would seal the deal for the former Raptor’s signing.
Just like that, the Lakers weren’t a sure-thing to win next season’s championship. They may not even be the best team in their city.
Daryl Morey is a Mad Man
The willingness to move on from Paul George signaled a significant change in direction for the Thunder; for the first time since the franchise moved to Oklahoma, they’d be rebuilding. Sam Presti, their GM, had already received an ungodly haul from LA, and now it was time to find a new home for Russell Westbrook.
By all accounts, that’s when Harden and Westbrook started talking. Enter Daryl Morey with one Chris Paul albatross contract and a boatload of future picks, and suddenly the NBA’s two triple-double machines were reunited for the first time since 2012 – this time in H-Town.
There aren’t too many GMs who consistently swing for the fences like Morey and this may be one of his riskiest moves yet. Exchanging Paul for Russ made them younger and more explosive and definitely raised their ceiling, but their floor may be lower as well.
Whatever the case, the West is as unpredictable as ever. The part that I’m most interested in is how all of this movement has impacted the NBA futures odds. Because the more I look at the landscape of the upcoming season, the more I’m getting the itch to bet heavily on the Houston Rockets to win it all.
Poor Oklahoma City!
One last thing before we get to the updated futures odds; wow, you have to feel absolutely awful for Oklahoma City Thunder fans. I’m not sure there’s ever been a team in history that compiled as much talent over the course of the decade only to lose all of their stars without ever winning a title; while they were all in their respective primes, no less.
At least they’re starting their rebuild with about 300 first-round picks over the next five years or so. Last time he was gifted with a series of lottery picks, Presti put together the Westbrook, Harden, Durant triumvirate in the first place. Hopefully, the new guys hit their primes early enough to get some good runs in before they all start forcing their way to larger markets and/or coastal cities.
Houston Rockets to Win the Western Conference
|Los Angeles Clippers||+180|
|Los Angeles Lakers||+250|
|Golden State Warriors||+750|
So, Russell Westbrook is a Houston Rocket! If there was one player in the league I expected to finish their career having only played for one franchise, it was him. That being said, once Paul George was able to demand a trade one year into a five-year max contract, it was understandable that the one-man triple-double machine would want to go somewhere he could compete.
Nobody that competitive wants to lead a rebuild, which is why Chris Paul’s present conundrum is so hilariously brutal. He’s going to have to earn that $41-million per year – psychologically, at least! Anyway, now that the Rockets and Thunder have swapped point guards, it will be fascinating to see the storylines that branch out from this event.
From the Rockets’ perspective, it seems like much of the reaction has been to question how James Harden and Russell Westbrook – the two most ball-dominant players in the NBA – will coexist in the same offense. “There’s only one ball on the court,” they always say. I remember the exact same questions being posed when Houston acquired CP3 a couple years ago.
One thing is for sure: the oddsmakers seem to believe that the Rockets have improved. Before completing the trade, Houston was Vegas’ fourth-favorite to win the Western Conference at +900 odds. They’re still behind both LA teams, but the line moved somewhat significantly to where it’s now sitting at only +400.
To be honest, I’m not crazy about that line. While I think the Rockets are going to be shockingly good this year, it just doesn’t feel like they’re paying enough. That Clippers team is an absolute nightmare for Houston, with Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George swarming the three-point line and switching on everything to shutdown H-Town’s isolation-based system.
If it moves to +550 or so, I’ll feel much better about taking the Rockets to win the West. In the meantime, I’m more interested in their NBA Finals odds.
Houston Rockets to Win the NBA Championship
|Los Angeles Clippers||+330|
|Los Angeles Lakers||+400|
When people question the abilities of James Harden and Russell Westbrook to share the ball and make this combination work, they’re ignoring a couple vital details. For one, these two are close friends off the court. This isn’t like Dwight Howard or Chris Paul, where James appreciated their on-court contributions, but they never got close.
I’m not talking about them being friends from back in their Oklahoma City days, from 2009 through 2012 when Harden was traded. These two have known each other from back in the day at the Boys & Girls Club when they were kids — back in South Central LA days! They’ve grown up together, competed, and rooted each other on through their respective evolutions and maturation processes.
And, quite frankly, we probably shouldn’t write-off those Thunder days either. The two MVP winners experienced some legitimate success in their short time together, even making a finals appearance – where they came up short against LeBron’s Miami Heat. Sure, James Harden wasn’t the superstar then that he’d ultimately become, but we have seen a glimpse at how it works.
In late-game situations, OKC would often turn ball-handling duties over to Harden, moving Westbrook off-ball. James is the better – and more willing – passer and was able to mitigate Russell’s aggressiveness and run the offense. The offense that they’ll be running in Houston this season will utilize the two players’ skill sets and chemistry even better.
How Houston Plays
What you won’t see when you watch a Houston Rockets game is a ton of ball movement, off-ball screens, and cutting. That’s probably for the best, as neither of their two stars has ever been too thrilled about doing those things.
The Rockets either run the pick-and-roll with Capella or set screens along the perimeter until the defender he wants switches onto Harden, at which point he isos (short for “isolation,” which basically means he goes 1-on-1 while the other players spot up along the three-point line). Once they have the desired matchup, James either shoots a step-back three or drives past his man to finish at the rim or kick it out to an open shooter for three.
It may not be the most beautiful form of basketball, but it’s been extraordinarily efficient and effective. Their most significant issue last season was that Chris Paul couldn’t beat his man off the dribble anymore. After suffering a hamstring injury during Game 6 of the 2017-18 Western Conference Finals, he never fully recovered his “umph.”
Before his injury, the two superstars were the best team in the regular season trading-off possessions. Harden would win his 1-on-1 and the next possession he’d stand around the three-point line while it was Paul’s turn.
Then Houston would stagger their minutes so that one of them was on the court at all times and they were unstoppable against everyone but the Kevin Durant Warriors – a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent only made possible by a fluke salary cap increase and an all-time move of free agent cowardice.
Replacing CP3 with Westbrook
If you plug Russell Westbrook into that role now, I think it’s undeniable that the Rockets have drastically improved. Sure, he’s not much of a three-point shooter, but how many players can stop Russ from driving into the lane? When he is hot and hitting his shots, fantastic; but when he’s not, James can minimize the damage by keeping the ball on more possessions so Westbrook can’t shoot them out of the game.
You now have the two-star players with the highest usage rates over the past few seasons taking turns attacking the weakest defender on their opponent’s floor. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like when Harden and the other team’s starters are on the bench resting and Russell freaking Westbrook gets to mercilessly attack their backups for 9-10 minutes a night?!
Westbrook to Steven Adams on the pick-and-roll. The first was James Harden to Clint Capella. The Rockets’ center is quicker, more explosive, and has a wider catch radius than Adams – he’s going to absolutely feast with these two guys slashing to the basket and deciding whether to finish at the rim or toss the alley-oop to Capella at the last moment. And since he’s better suited to collect Westbrook’s occasionally wild passes, the point guard’s turnovers are likely to decrease as well.
Houston Rockets to Win the NBA Finals
Before the blockbuster trade was completed, the Houston Rockets’ futures odds to win the 2020 championship climbed to +1400, on average, by July 6th. Now, most online sportsbooks have their chances listed at between +700 and +800. Personally, I think any line higher than +700 contains a ton of value.
People have forgotten how phenomenal this Houston team was two seasons ago. Adding a second play-making, all-star-level scoring threat that’s bigger, stronger, quicker, and five years younger than the point guard he’s replacing seems like a no-brainer to me!
Plus, the Rockets are returning the vast majority of their supporting cast. PJ Tucker, Clint Capella, Eric Gordon – a high-octane scoring threat in his own right, Gerald Green, and Danuel House are all back. That’s a lot of rangy “three-and-D” guys! Austin Rivers – who was a revelation coming off the bench last year – even agreed to return for far less than his market value.
This squad is insanely deep and built to perfectly support their two offensive leaders. Westbrook has never been surrounded by shooters like this; he’s going to see spacing like never before!
While the two Los Angeles teams have to adjust, grow familiar, and learn how to play together, the Rockets are ready to run. Any growing pains that could be caused by replacing CP3 with Russ are basically eliminated by his personal friendship with James and the Rockets’ system, and everyone else has been around for a while and are happy to play their specific roles.
The Clippers are going to be Houston’s most substantial threat; they present some significant matchup problems, especially on the perimeter. That being said; Paul George hasn’t shown himself to be all that reliable staying healthy. At +800 odds, it seems worth betting that he either won’t be available or won’t complement Leonard well on offense. Beverley has struggled with injuries here and there as well, and nobody gets hurt more often than an athlete who just signed a big new contract.
The Lakers I’m not too worried about. Yes, the LeBron James – Anthony Davis frontcourt looks absolutely filthy on paper, the rest of their roster is less inspiring. They’re better than before, but I don’t see them keeping up with either the Clippers or the Rockets.
Davis hasn’t exactly been the picture of health throughout his career either, and LeBron relies more on “load management” every year. What if they can’t keep up with Houston and their flurry of alley-oops and threes?
At +800, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is and find out!
2019-20 Regular Season MVP
James Harden and Russell Westbrook have won two of the last three MVP awards (and James has an argument that he should have won it in 2019). However, being traded to the same team has drastically dropped both of their odds of taking home the honor again. This season will both allow and require both of them to seriously lower their individual usage rates, so I suppose it makes sense.
I’m strongly considering putting $100 on both of them. Barring any devastating injuries, I’m expecting the Rockets to start the year extremely hot. Their chemistry and familiarity will give them a considerable advantage and regardless of how they perform in the playoffs, I’m confident that they’ll finish with the best regular-season record in the NBA.
In the past, having either the first or second-best record was a prerequisite for winning MVP. While they both may take a slight step back in terms of usage, I think their pairing will result in them also improving in terms of efficiency and limiting turnovers. We can’t know what the narrative will be next year, but I’m willing to bet one of them will be in the mix when it’s time to vote.
Now We Wait
The great thing about betting on the NBA is that there’s not much parity. More often than not, you know who the top three or four teams will be before the opening day tip-off. Sure, this year probably has more contenders than we’ve seen in five years, but it’s still a relatively narrow field.
While the eyes of the rest of the world stay fixated on the Staples Center, Houston looks poised to finally get over the hump and get James Harden his much-deserved NBA Championship ring. With his childhood friend by his side to take on more of the scoring load and a roster full of top-shelf role players and shooters, you won’t find a franchise in the league offering more betting value right now.
I wish I had placed my bets before the trade! Oh well; at least I’ll get my picks in before the rest of the world realizes that they’ve slept on the most dangerous team in the NBA.