The Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers have spent much of the season leading their respective conferences. But according to futures odds, those teams have just the fifth and sixth best chances, respectively, of winning the NBA championship.
Why is that? Well, for starters, teams that are full of young players who haven’t experienced deep playoff runs tend to lose before they’re supposed to. Utah and Philadelphia both fit that bill. Both of the teams’ stars – Donovan Mitchell and Joel Embiid – are yet to experience significant playoff success in their careers. Both also experienced disappointments last season. Mitchell’s Utah team lost in the first round after losing a 3-1 series lead against Denver. Embiid’s Sixers made the playoffs but were easily dispatched in the first round.
Were those experiences proof that those teams aren’t ready for title contention? Or motivation that will lead the Jazz and Sixers to new heights this season? Here is our ranking of the top six NBA championship contenders.
The Bucks have the fourth best futures odds of winning the title. After two straight great regular seasons, two MVP awards for star Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Defensive Player of the Year award, multiple All-Star appearances, and a Coach of the Year award for Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee is satisfied with a quieter regular season. The Bucks have strategically rested players all season, something the team hasn’t done much the two previous seasons. Milwaukee also added to its supporting cast by trading for Jrue Holiday in the offseason. Holiday gives the Bucks two of the best defensive players in the league in their starting lineup and a capable secondary scorer, something they haven’t had behind Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton the past two seasons. Antetokounmpo is one of the most brilliantly talented and unique players in NBA history. This will be the year he shows it in the playoffs after past disappointments.
The Nets are the favorites to win the title according to futures odds, with good reason. Kevin Durant was considered a leading MVP candidate in the first half of the season before an injury just before the All-Star break kept him out more than a month. So, the Nets simply subbed in another MVP. James Harden asserted himself into the MVP conversation with Durant out. He’s leading the NBA in assists and has taken over the team’s playmaking responsibilities, freeing Kyrie Irving to be the relentless scorer he was always meant to be. The Nets have weaknesses – their defense is suspect and, even with adding Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge on the buyout market, their center spot isn’t particularly strong. But they have good perimeter depth with Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, and Joe Harris. Durant is healthy again, and the trio of him, Harden, and Irving is better than any top three in the league.
In this season’s NCAA basketball season, Gonzaga went undefeated until the final game. That team relied on strong fundamentals, depth, balanced scoring, and great perimeter shooting, all of which took them a long way. But it doesn’t necessarily translate to postseason success, and the Utah Jazz are victims of that same belief. Utah is one of the best shooting teams in the league. They have multiple players capable of being the primary scorer on a given night, they play good defense, and they share the ball. Mitchell is an All-Star, but isn’t always respected as a player who can get his own shot whenever he wants in a playoff series, hence the disrespect he gets from analysts like Shaquille O’Neal. Utah is exceptionally good, though, and teams should be leery of facing their defense in a playoff series. Rudy Gobert is still among the best defensive players in the league, and Royce O’Neale and Mike Conley are both exceptional perimeter defenders. The Jazz should use last season’s first round disappointment as motivation and make a deep run this year. And if their shooters are hot, that run could take them to a championship.
It feels weird putting the defending champions so low in these rankings, and assuming everyone is healthy, the Lakers vault to the top of this list. But everyone hasn’t been healthy. Anthony Davis hasn’t played since February and LeBron James hasn’t played since March. Both are expected to return soon, and the Lakers have actually been solidly competitive without them. But unless James and Davis are fully healthy, the Lakers aren’t title contenders. The Western Conference has improved this season, and the Lakers have fallen to fifth in the standings, so their path to defending their championship is also tougher than last season when they were the No. 1 seed entering the playoffs and cruised to the Finals with just three losses. The team recently added Andre Drummond, but he doesn’t address their defensive issues or lack of shot-blocking. The team isn’t as good defensively as they were a year ago, which makes getting Davis back to full strength especially necessary.
Philadelphia was in control of the East much of the season, but recent injuries to MVP candidate Joel Embiid have slowed them a bit. The good news for Philadelphia is that Embiid is back in the lineup, and the team also played competitively without him. Notably, Tobias Harris stepped up and looked great as the primary scoring option. The team also has one of the best defensive players in the league in Ben Simmons, and solid albeit unspectacular perimeter play from Seth Curry, George Hill, and Danny Green. Green is a good luck charm as well – he’s been a part of two straight championship teams with the Raptors and then the Lakers, and head coach Doc Rivers has also won a championship.
The Clippers have had another good regular season, but they won’t be judged on that. After a disappointing second round loss last season to Denver in which they blew a 3-1 lead, the Clippers have been intent on proving they’re legitimate title contenders. Kawhi Leonard has had an MVP-caliber season (again), and his talent as the team’s No. 1 option is unquestioned. Paul George is also a star, but after his playoff slump last season and some injuries he’s working through this season, his reliability in the postseason is a question. The Clippers also have some challenges in the backcourt. Patrick Beverley is injured again, his replacement Rajon Rondo has also dealt with injuries all season, and Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard are big time defensive downgrades. Los Angeles is also missing veteran center Serge Ibaka. The Clippers are talented, and Leonard has led a surprising team all the way to the championship before, but they have more flaws than some of the other teams above them on this list.