Two days ago the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors were on the road, on the ropes, and on the outs with the NBA betting public. But both teams tallied dominating victories in their respective playoff series and have vaulted themselves back into the pole position in the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively.
However, both No. 1 conference seeds have proven vulnerable in their conference semifinals series. So which one will hold out the longest before being eliminated and is either of these clubs a true championship contender? Also, what does the NBA futures betting market tell us about what their expectations and what value - if any - do the Hawks and Warriors still possess?
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Let's start in the East, where Atlanta hosts Washington on Wednesday as a rock-solid 7.5-point favorite. The Hawks completely controlled Game 4, a 106-101 win, and have all of the momentum in this series. They have won two of the last three games since dropping the opener, and Washington's lone victory in the last three games came A) courtesy of a wild Paul Pierce buzzer-beater and B) after Atlanta miraculously erased a 19-point deficit in the final seven minutes of action.
The Wizards are still holding out a shred of hope that All-Star guard John Wall will be able to come to their rescue in this series. Wall has missed the last three games with multiple fractures in his right hand. He's not going to play in this series. But the false hope he brings could be a distraction for this young Wizards core.
The travesty for Washington is that I think they would've dispatched the Hawks relatively easily with a healthy Wall, taking no more than five games to close out Atlanta. But without Wall in play Atlanta has the upper hand. That's reflected in the series price at most major sportsbooks, as Atlanta is a hefty -550 to win this series and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
However, despite serving as the top seed, the Hawks don't have anywhere close to the highest odds to win the East. Cleveland is currently at -175 to represent the East in the NBA Finals. Atlanta, on the other hand, is at +250 to win the East.
Further, Atlanta is presently a 10-to-1 long shot to win the NBA title. Those odds are just slightly better than Chicago (12-to-1), and the Bulls are currently on the brink of elimination. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The oddsmakers and the general public seem to be in agreement on Atlanta. They had a brilliant regular season, winning a franchise-record 60 games and locking up the East's top spot in February. But Atlanta's weakness is in the post (they've been outrebounded in three of four games against Washington), and their lack of a true superstar (Paul Milsap is close; Kyle Korver is not) has gamblers shying away. No one really thinks this team is a true title contender despite their consistency throughout the season, and the sportsbooks are daring you to put your money down on the Hawks.
(Interestingly, this Hawks team is walking a similar path to the 2012-13 Atlanta Falcons. That Atlanta team posted a surprise 13-3 record to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC that season. Despite their brilliant regular season and home-field advantage, no one really took them seriously as Super Bowl contenders. In fact, they were installed as a home underdog in the NFC title game to San Francisco. They did, eventually, prove everyone "right" by coming up short in that game, 28-24, and failing to cover the spread in the process. But that only happened after the Falcons blew a 24-14 halftime lead and came up a mere 10 yards short in the title game. A Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers in the East finals would really lock up this comparison.)
On the other hand, we have the Warriors, who are still better than even-money favorites (-120) to win the NBA championship. Those are rather generous odds considering that they haven't cleared Memphis yet, the Clippers are lurking and have been playing out of their minds, and LeBron James could be waiting in the Finals.
Golden State is also a hefty 9.5-point favorite Wednesday in a crucial Game 5 against Memphis. Yet despite their convincing 101-84 victory in Game 4, the public is shying away from laying the points with the Warriors. Over 60 percent of the betting action is coming in on Memphis, whom people feel will adjust to Golden State's schemes.
The Warriors have a similar long-term problem to the Hawks: they lack size inside. This wasn't a problem during the regular season when Golden State was able to run and gun its way to 67 wins. But they've been exposed a bit by the Grizzlies, who were able to pound Golden State into submission while taking a 2-1 series lead. Andrew Bogut is a legit seven-footer, and Draymond Green is doing what he can as an undersized power forward at 6-feet-7. But that's really all the Warriors have had to hold back Memphis' massive front line of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Steve Kerr recognized that his Warriors were losing the arm-wrestling match on the interior with the Grizzlies and made a pretty brilliant adjustment in Game 4. Kerr used Harrison Barnes and Green as the primary defenders on Randolph and Gasol. He had Bogut guard Tony Allen, the all-defense forward for Memphis, but Bogut's primary defensive responsibility was to help on the two big men. Golden State left Allen wide open and he responded by going 2-for-9 with just four points.
Golden State is currently -700 to win their series with Memphis, and they are -250 to win the Western Conference.
I think it is safe to assume that Golden State and Atlanta will prevail in their current series. The Warriors have been all-time good at home this year, going 47-2, and they would have to lose on their home court at least once more to fall to the Grizzlies. Atlanta will hold off Washington simply because Wall isn't available.
From there, the odds paint a clear picture of how these teams are expected to fare from then on out. The Hawks have had an exceptional season and they are a quality basketball team. But they are likely too soft to hold up against the power of either Cleveland or Chicago. So if you were planning on making an investment on the Hawks to win either the East or the NBA titles, I would say go ahead and put that money back in your pocket.
The Warriors are a little different story, however. I don't think there is any doubt that this team is the best in basketball. Their guard play is unstoppable. And unlike the Hawks, they do have enough bodies and athleticism to at least hold their own on the interior. In fact, this series against Memphis could be the best primer they could have before a showdown with the Clippers in the West Finals.
But while Golden State is clearly the best team in the NBA, they are not the best betting value. The Clippers are for real. So is LeBron James. But the books need toshade the numbers heavily to discourage Warriors money from flooding in. To this point it has worked, and I think that their odds are out of whack with what their realistic odds of winning a title are right now.
If you do believe Golden State is headed to the NBA Finals, my suggestion would be to bet them now rather than playing a head-to-head series line against the Clippers (which I think would be around -350). But beyond that I'm not sure I would want to lay out juice on a wager that requires them to win three more series (remember: they haven't actually sealed the deal with Memphis). So Golden State may find its way to a title, but I'll have to find another way to enrich my bankroll rather than bucking the odds in the NBA futures market.
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