This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
With less than three weeks remaining in the NBA regular season, it's time for another check-in on some of my favorite futures bets. Although a number of key injuries continue to cloud the long-term playoff picture, the Nets and Lakers remain the odds-on favorites to represent their conferences in the 2021 NBA Finals. But do they make for the best bets?
This week, we'll focus exclusively on team-related wagers, as there does not appear to be much value remaining in most of the individual awards. Nikola Jokic (-500) has pulled away as the last man standing in the MVP race, while Julius Randle (-2000) is a virtual lock to take home the Most Improved Player award. Jordan Clarkson (-2000) also has a firm grasp on Sixth Man of the Year, and LaMelo Ball (-500) is back to being the heavy Rookie of the Year favorite as his return from a wrist injury looms.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the best bets on the board.
All odds via the DraftKings Sportsbook
Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title (+350)
Even as Anthony Davis struggles to keep the Lakers competitive against the Washington Wizards, I'm back in on the Lakers. The rag-tag cast of role players was able to tread water better than I expected while Davis and LeBron James sat out, and while they're just 1-3 since Davis returned, a few other developments in the Western Conference have moved in their favor.
For one, the Lakers' most likely first-round opponent, the Denver Nuggets, lost their second-best player for the remainder of the season. Assuming James is healthy, the Lakers would be favored in that series either way, but it would've been far from a walk in the park – especially if James is only able to get a few games under his belt before the end of the regular season.
On top of Murray's injury, the Clippers – perhaps the team best-equipped to slow down James and Davis – have several key players banged up. Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley haven't played in weeks, while the Clippers' most important player, Kawhi Leonard, has missed nine of the last 10 games. No one is quite sure just how serious Leonard's foot injury might be, but as the playoffs draw nearer, it becomes more and more of a concern.
Meanwhile, the Jazz have lost some of their luster amid an injury to Donovan Mitchell. Utah and Phoenix will continue to duke it out for the one seed over the next two-plus weeks, but at the end of the day the question has to be asked: Do the Lakers really fear either of those teams? If the Lakers do end up in the 4 or 5 spot, a meeting with either the Jazz or Suns likely looms in Round 2. My bet is that LA would prefer either of those matchups over facing the Clippers.
On the other side of the bracket, the one team the Lakers don't want to see is the Brooklyn Nets. If the Nets are at full strength, they're my pick to win it all, but the injury situation continues to be a massive question mark. At this point, there's a good chance Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden enter the playoffs having only appeared in seven games together. If any of those three are still hobbled late in the postseason, the Lakers should be in a great position to take advantage.
Milwaukee Bucks to win the Eastern Conference (+350)
This doesn't exactly qualify as a longshot, but if you're going away from the Nets in the East, the Bucks are the team to roll with. And if you really believe in Milwaukee, go ahead and parlay Giannis and Co. to win the East and win the Finals at +3725.
The Bucks may not be mauling teams on a night-to-night basis like they were the last two regular seasons, but that's partially by design. Milwaukee stil ranks third in net rating, third in pace, fifth in offense and seventh in defense, despite integrating new pieces and sampling new defensive schemes on the fly. Talent-wise, Milwaukee can't measure up to Brooklyn at full strength, but the Bucks are one of the few teams that can feel OK about their defensive matchups against the Nets' three stars.
Charlotte Hornets to make the playoffs (+135)
Given the current standings, Charlotte is almost assured to be a part of the play-in tournament – likely as the eighth or ninth seed. A matchup against Miami or Boston (or even Atlanta) in the first "round" of the play-in would be difficult, but Charlotte should feel pretty good about its chances to hold off Indiana and Washington – especially with LaMelo Ball set to return as soon as this weekend.
Not having Gordon Hayward healthy is a tough blow, but Indiana is dealing with concerning injuries to both Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The Wizards are capable of beating almost any team in the league on the right night, but they're equally capable of losing focus and falling back into bad habits on the defensive end. The Hornets are far from a lock for the postseason, but at plus odds they're worth considering.
Golden State Warriors to make the playoffs (+125)
With a full 4.0 games separating Golden State from 11th-place New Orleans, the Warriors are in prime position to finish somewhere between eighth and 10th in the West. The oddsmakers like Memphis (-118) to grab the final playoff spot, but in a potential one-game, win-and-you're-in scenario, it feels foolish to bet on Ja Morant over Stephen Curry.
Of course, there's more to it than just the point guard matchup. But while Memphis may be the deeper team, Golden State has by far the best player on the floor. And in this scenario, you can bank on Curry playing 40-plus minutes and giving the opponent – whether it's the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Spurs or Mavericks – all it can handle.
Miami Heat to win the Southeast Division (+200)
I'm not even sure most NBA fans could name all six divisions, but if there are bets to be made, lord knows we're going to learn them. Getting Miami – a team almost everyone believes is superior to Atlanta – at +200 to win a division it currently trails by 1.0 game could be a potential steal. It much be considered that NBA teams don't really care about winning their division, but what they do care about is avoiding the play-in tournament.
Miami, Boston, Atlanta and New York are currently separated by 2.0 games for seeds 4 through 7, so all four should remain plenty motivated through the end of the schedule. Focusing on Miami and Atlanta, in particular, the Hawks are still without Trae Young, while Bogdan Bogdanovic and a few key role players are also banged up entering Friday's game in Philly.
The teams face similar schedules the rest of the way, though Atlanta does have the advantage of playing games 71 and 72 against the Magic and Rockets. Miami has a tough four-game stretch in which it plays Boston twice, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, but other than that the remaining schedule includes dates against Cleveland, Charlotte, Dallas, Minnesota and Detroit. The Heat have two back-to-backs remaining, while the Hawks have three.
In the end, the division will probably come down to health and a little bit of luck, but Miami is the team I'm willing to trust – especially considering there's very little value in backing the Hawks at -305.