Updated NBA Championship Odds: Fading Favorites
Seven weeks into the NBA season, and the standings look strange based on preseason expectations. The Clippers are first in the West, led by a band of cast-offs and role players. Meanwhile, the Rockets are sitting on the outside of the playoff race, looking to work their way into the mix after dumping Carmelo Anthony.
The Eastern Conference playoff picture looks amiss as well, as the Celtics are hanging on to the 7th seed, while the Bucks are still sitting on top of our power rankings. Detroit is even making some noise behind new coach Dwayne Casey and a rejuvenated Blake Griffin.
However, the two teams that have disappointed most, based on their original odds, have been the Celtics and the Rockets. Now assuming full seasons from Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston was the favorite to win the East. While Irving and Hayward have each played the majority of the Celtics’ first 20 games, they’re sitting at just above .500. Houston is just below .500, although both James Harden and Chris Paul have missed four games this year.
Let's examine what has gone wrong for these two teams this season along with our current probabilities for them to win the title.
numberFire Probability: 7.0%
FanDuel Odds: +750
Boston has been great on defense this year, ranking second in defensive rating, but they’ve been awful on offense. The Celtics rank just 22nd in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and their younger players aren’t taking the expected leaps this season. For instance, Jaylen Brown ranks dead last in offensive real plus/minus (ORPM) among qualified shooting guards. Terry Rozier has also taken a step back after filling in for an injured Irving in last season’s playoffs. Over half of Rozier’s shot attempts per game are open (closest defender within 4-6 feet) or wide open (6-plus feet), according to NBA.com, but he’s shooting just 36.5% and 42.6%, respectively, on those shots.
While the Celtics have managed to limit opposing teams’ second chances by rebounding well on the defensive end of the floor, they haven’t created many second chances for themselves. Boston’s best offensive rebounder (on a per-game basis) is Aron Baynes, who plays less than 15 minutes per game. The Celtics also average under 35 drives per game, and while the limited action at the rim has proved successful for other teams like the Warriors, Boston hasn't been able to draw many fouls -- they've only averaged 19.8 free throw attempts per game, which ranks 26th.
The bottom line for Boston is that other options need to develop around Kyrie Irving, otherwise they’ll continue having a difficult time scoring. While we can expect disappointments like Hayward and Brown to bounce back in the shooting department (both have eFG% well below their career average), the odds haven’t been adjusted enough to reflect the Celtics’ struggles so far this season.
numberFire Probability: 4.7%
FanDuel Odds: +1000
We’ve discussed why the Rockets haven’t been a good bet in the division futures market in the past, and although the subtraction of Anthony will help Houston on both ends of the floor, they have deeper issues to address if they want to contend in the West.
Houston has been good on offense (10th in offensive rating) behind the stellar scoring of Harden, who is 2nd in the league to Kemba Walker in ORPM, but bad on defense (23rd in defensive rating). In essence, they have the opposite problem of the aforementioned Celtics. One key area that the Rockets have fared poorly in so far this season has been rebounding -- Clint Capela is the only player averaging more than 6 boards, at 11.9 per game.
The Rockets have fouled opposing shooters at a high rate as well. They rank last in free throws per field goal attempt, and both Harden and James Ennis average over three fouls per game. By allowing opponents second chances on the glass and free scoring opportunities at the line, Houston makes winning more difficult.
Houston lost much of their depth that made them great in the offseason and haven’t had their role players step up with meaningful minutes this year. While our model still sees the Rockets as a team capable of getting one of the top seeds in the West, with 45.9 projected wins, the Rockets have a long way to go to get back to having the same success they enjoyed a season ago.