LeBron James and the 10th-place Los Angeles Lakers are back in action Thursday in a marquee matchup against leading MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets, and everyone is doubting the guy who has been to eight consecutive NBA Finals.
Doubt him at your own peril … even with the Lakers sitting a game under .500 as the All-Star break comes to an end.
“I enjoy being uncomfortable. I enjoy being counted out,” James told reporters in Los Angeles on Thursday.
The Lakers are currently 25-1 to win the NBA championship, the same odds as the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State remains the prohibitive favorite at -250, and the hometown Brooklyn Nets have the same odds (125-1) as the Eastern Conference team that everyone is sleeping on, the Indiana Pacers.
With DeMarcus Cousins set to have his playing time increased, it makes perfect sense for Golden State to be sitting where they are at various sportsbooks.
But keep in mind that February free agency has not yet ended, so what the Lakers look like today and what the Lakers look like on March 1 when playoff eligibility is determined, remain two very different things. If a roster spot opens up, Carmelo Anthony remains a free agent and could fill it. Or, Jamal Crawford could get a buyout from the Phoenix Suns and join a playoff contender.
For now, the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks remain Eastern Conference co-favorites at 9-1 to win the NBA championship, followed by the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers at 10-1. Indiana will play 10 of its remaining 24 games against Western Conference opponents, and the Pacers still have two litmus test games remaining against the Celtics.
Why the Pacers have longer championship odds than the Charlotte Hornets (90-1), Detroit Pistons (100-1) and Los Angeles Clippers (124-1) is anyone’s guess. Yes, Victor Oladipo is out for the season, but Wes Mathews is no bum, and the Pacers followed a four-game losing streak after Oladipo’s injury with a six-game winning streak.
Whatever the case, the Pacers probably represent the biggest value bet on the board right now for those who believe that Golden State is capable of being beaten — though clearly in a different class than dark horses like the Lakers and Thunder who have the kind of stars that shine in the playoffs. For those who paid attention to the fact that the Orlando Magic strung together five straight wins heading into the break, there is a 200-1 championship prop out there.
Sitting in 9th place in the Western Conference are the Sacramento Kings, who have been one of the biggest surprises of the NBA season. But the bookmakers do not like them, and they are listed at +820 just to make the playoffs.
The over/under on how long James Harden’s streak of 30-point games will last has been set at 39 ½, and he enters tonight’s game against the Lakers having done it 31 consecutive times – tied with Wilt Chamberlain for the second-longest streak ever.
Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, has recorded triple-doubles in 11 consecutive games and is averaging 21.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists for the season. It would take an epic meltdown for him to finish the season not averaging a triple-double, so for those who enjoy short odds, he is at -900 (you need to wager $900 to win $100) to finish the season averaging double figures in points, rebounds and assists.
Harden currently leads the NBA in scoring at 36.6 points per game, and the over/under on his season-ending total is 37.1. Michael Jordan’s highest PPG average was 37.09 during the 1986-87 season.