A refreshed All-Star weekend has come and gone. The new-look Sunday showpiece was a roaring success, as we were treated to the rarest of things: All-Star defence. We now embark on the remainder of the regular season with so much to play for in both conferences.
There are a pair of relatively surprising teams atop each conference. Toronto lead the East and Houston the West, thanks to their respective ruthless offences. While this does not exactly signal much come playoff time, it at least gives an indication that a repeat of the last three NBA finals is not a guarantee.
In this article, though, we are not here to ponder who will carry home advantage through the playoffs. This is about who will be the NBA champions in 2018. The odd loss in February and March is irrelevant if you win the last game of the season.
You will be astonished to hear that the Golden State Warriors are 1/2 favourites. Since the minute they lifted the trophy in 2017 they have been the clear frontrunners to win this year, which I guess is kind of inevitable when you have one of the greatest teams of all-time. They were the first team in history to have four All-Stars in successive seasons.
The debate circling the NBA is whether it’s even possible to beat this Warriors side if they stay healthy. The foot-off-the-pedal stuff we have seen this year still has them with the second-best record in the league and the highest points-per-game.
I think it probably is possible. Golden State are expected to be a different animal come playoff time, but they are by no means invincible. Houston have beaten them twice already, as have Russell Westbrook’s Thunder.
That nugget leads nicely onto the Rockets. James Harden (1/4) is the MVP as it stands. Houston carried a 10-win streak into the break, and are the one team you can envisage outscoring the Warriors during a seven-game series. Their shoot-on-sight approach makes them not just an enthralling team to watch, but a dangerous opponent, just as the Cleveland Cavaliers found out prior to the trade deadline.
I liked the Rockets at 12/1 for the title at the beginning of the season. Their current price of 6/1 is surprisingly long. This team have shown they can beat Golden State, and that cannot be overvalued in the postseason.
The following team in this market are bizarrely a relative unknown, despite having the best player of a generation. Cleveland rebuilt their roster at the deadline – which looks to have worked splendidly – but that small sample can only tell us so much. The fresh-faced Cavaliers have LeBron James, so that 8/1 price for the championship might seem lengthy. I just feel there are too many uncertainties to back them right now.
Boston come in at 9/1. A slump saw them lose three straight before All-Star weekend and relinquish top seed in the East. The reliance on Kyrie Irving is the concern in the playoffs, where their steely defence will not be enough. They are not going to shutdown offences like Cleveland over a series.
Despite the last two paragraphs, the Eastern Conference does have a chance this season. I see Cleveland as far superior to Boston at the moment – as we saw on Paul Pierce’s jersey retirement night – but the Conference leaders should not be overlooked.
The Raptors have better balance than the Celtics, and a backcourt to rival any team in the league. At 18/1 to win the title they are certainly the best value pick from the East, though that could switch back to the Cavs should they extend their post-trade form.
I think the Rockets are the only team with a solid chance of stopping a healthy Golden State. Their 6/1 price is the best of the bunch as a result, particularly with potential homecourt advantage. It’s pleasantly surprising how competitive this season is, though it would still be a shock to see anyone other than the Warriors finish the year as champions.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*