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Friday, November 27, 2009

NBA Futures

Futures are the closest thing sports gamblers have to stocks. They're investments we keep an eye on throughout the year, hoping we can cash them in for a handsome profit in the future.

The obvious difference is you can't sell your futures wagers mid-season. However, you can choose to invest in futures at any point in the season. The odds change, and while the most outrageous odds (the Tampa Bay Devil Rays opened the '08 MLB season at 70-1) are found in pre-season futures, it can be profitable to invest once we know who the real contenders are.

There is more value in leagues with best of five or seven game series as opposed to single elimination sprints (NCAA hoops, NFL playoffs). The NBA is a strong example. How many teams realistically have a shot to win a best-of-seven playoff format every year? Maximum four or five, right?

This year is a bit trickier with the Eastern conference no longer the whipping boy of the West. Let's take a look at some contenders and darkhorses from both conferences.

Eastern Conference

Boston Celtics (11-4 record, opening odds 4-1, current odds 3-1)
Predicted playoff seed: #1(East)

Kevin Garnett's shakey right knee undoubtedly cost the Celtics a chance to repeat last season. The unexpected surplus was the offensive development of Glen "Big Baby" Davis in his absence. The offseason additions of Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels solidify Boston as the deepest frontcourt in the league.

With KG back at full strength the Celts came out of the gates hot, dropping the Cavaliers in Cleveland (where Lebron and company lost just once last season) en route to a torrid 8-1 start. Home losses to Phoenix, Atlanta, and Orlando squelched early discussion the C's would threaten MJ's 1996 Bulls for regular season dominance but the Celtics remain the favorites in the East.

Why they can win it: Despite their offensive star power, this team has always dominated on the defensive end. They have a hard-nosed, physical team mentality on D and can control the game's tempo. Their preference is to turn big games into a slow, grinding slugfest until the fourth quarter when they turn to Paul Pierce to close it out.

Why they might stumble: The durability issues for Garnett remain. The big three is aging and declining in production but the rise of Rondo and veteran presence of Wallace has helped pick up the slack. Wait to see if you can grab this team at 4-1 or higher before the all-star break.

Atlanta Hawks (11-3, opening odds 50-1, current odds 25-1)
Predicted playoff seed: #4(East)
Even with an Eastern conference best .786 winning pct, it's hard to imagine the young Hawks hoisting the NBA championship this soon. Still, this season's "it" team is loaded with young talent up front but will ultimately only go as far as veteran guards Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby takes them.

Why they can win it: The addition of Jamal Crawford has vaulted this team into the first tier of Eastern Conference contenders. With SF Marvin Williams finally playing up to his potential, there are no weak positions on this roster. GM Rick Sund has quietly put together a talented core of players who are meshing early under head coach Mike Woodson.

Why they might stumble: The Hawks road woes were well documented during their surprising competitive seven game series with the top seeded Celtics last season. A championship team can't give away twenty points every time they travel into enemy territory. Don't expect this squad to hold onto the #1 seed, if they want to make noise in the postseason they're going to have to prove they can win games away from Philips arena first. Those who were lucky enough to get in at 50-1 found great value, but 25-1 still good enough odds to consider the only legit darkhorse contender this season.

Other teams to watch in the East:

Cleveland Cavaliers (11-5, opened 3-1, current odds 4-1) The Shaq trade has already stalled, can Lebron shoulder the load or is he already thinking ahead to New York?

Orlando Magic (12-4, opened 9-1, current odds 8-1) Last year's finalists took a big blow when Hedo Turkoglu departed via free agency. Not sold on Vince Carter (.411 fg pct, 2.3apg) bringing this team back to the finals.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers (11-3, opening odds 2-1, current odds 2.5-1)
Predicted playoff seed: #1 (West)
Eleven of the Lakers first fourteen games have been in the Staples center. It'll be interesting to see how they fare on their first East coast road trip in mid-December. The Artest experiment has produced modest results thus far (12.5ppg, 5.3rpg, 4.1apg) while Trevor Ariza has surprised no one by upping his production in Houston as a starter (18.4ppg, 5.1rpg, 2.1spg). Regardless, these are the defending champs for a reason. It's hard to see any team in the west giving them a real series come April.

Why they can win it: The Lakers remain the league's most potent offensive machine. They still have the league's top all-around weapon in Kobe Bryant (not yet, Lebron) and newly minted ten-time champion coach Phil Jackson. Expect the Lakeshow to pull away from early contenders (Phoenix, Dallas, Denver) and coast to the #1 seed after the all-star break.

Why they might stumble: Pau Gasol's health. While he returned to form quickly after missing the first eleven games with a hamstring injury, Gasol needs to stay on the court for the Lakers to repeat. While Bynum and Odom give them viable alternatives to fill up the lane, Gasol is in a class by himself when it comes to post savvy scoring and reliable free throw shooting down the stretch. Still, it's hard to take any team at less than 3-1 futures odds. The season is just too long.

Phoenix Suns(12-3, opening odds 60-1, current odds 28-1)
Predicted playoff seed: #3(West)
Atlanta aside, Alvin Gentry's Suns has been the NBA's other surprise team. The Suns were wise to declare the Shaq experiment over and return to their run n' gun roots (they are averaging an NBA best 111.4ppg). Steve Nash's early play (16.7ppg, an NBA best 11.9apg) quickly erased whispers that he was past his prime after last season's disappointing finish.

Why they can win: The Suns are back to their bread and butter: running pick and roll with Stoudemire and Nash and kicking it out for the three ball when the duo gets doubled. Jason Richardson (17ppg, 46.6 3pt%) finally looks comfortable in the offense. Thanks to Nash, the Suns are distributing the ball and have reliable shooters on the perimeter. This team struggled to find an identity last season with the arrival of O'Neal, it's clear they've found one early and it makes them a scary matchup come playoff time.

Why they might stumble: Lack of defensive intensity has been the same old story for Phoenix since Mark D'antoni installed their supercharged offense in 2006. The hiring of defensive minded Terry Porter was a disaster, so the Suns front office gave interim (now full-time) coach Gentry the green light to run again. The Suns also lack muscle on the boards, their leading rebounder is 37-year old Grant Hill (7.2rpg). There is simply no intimidating shotblocking or rebounding post presence, making this the least likely of the four teams to go all the way.

Other teams to watch in the West:

Dallas Mavericks (12-4, opening odds 25-1, current odds 20-1)

Mark Cuban did his best to surround Nowitzki with more pieces (Drew Gooden, Shawn Marion, Tim Thomas). Despite Dirk playing to his utmost potential the last couple seasons, there is no value in wagering on the Mavs unseating the Lakers this year.

Denver Nuggets (11-4, opening odds 14-1, current odds 14-1)

Melo is enjoying an MVP season so far (29.7ppg, 6.1rpg). This is the only team in the West that matches up well with the Lakeshow, if they somehow end up at 20-1 or higher this season make sure you grab the Nuggets.


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