NBA betting: Which teams should you bet on to make - or miss - the playoffs?

ByAndré Snellings ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 5, 2024

LeBron James is nine points away from another historic landmark. Already the NBA's all-time leading scorer, if James has even a well-below average scoring game he will become the first player to ever notch 40,000 points. That is just a staggering figure.

But did you know LeBron also holds the record for the most playoffs points scored in NBA history? With 8,023 playoffs points scored, LeBron is more than 2,000 points ahead of Michael Jordan's 5,987. The next two active players with the most playoffs points are Kevin Durant with 4,878 and Stephen Curry with 3,966.

The question on the table, is, will LeBron -- or Durant or Curry, for that matter -- get the chance to score more playoffs points this season?

The race for the final two playoffs spots, via the Play-in tournament, will be tight in both conferences.

In the West, only 3.0 games separate the fifth-seeded Suns from the Lakers and Warriors, who are tied for the final Play-in spots. Similarly, in the East, only 1.5 games separate the fourth-seeded Knicks, who would have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today, and the eighth-seeded Pacers, who would have a road-game in the first round of the Play-in.

Let's take a look at a few of the teams vying for a spot that could have value in the futures betting market for making -- or missing -- the playoffs.

Lakers (-105) and/or Warriors (-125) to make playoffs

According to ESPN BET, the Lakers and Warriors are both close to even-money to make the playoffs. The calculus seems to be based on the current standings. If the season ended today, the Lakers and Warriors would play in the second Play-in game with the winner facing the loser of the Kings and Mavericks from the first Play-in game. The winner would then get the eighth seed.

In this scenario, only one of the Lakers and Warriors would have any chance to make the playoffs because they would have to go through each other to get there. And even the winner of their game would have to win both Play-in games to advance.

But. The season doesn't end today.

With most teams having just over 20 games remaining, it should again be noted that both the Lakers and the Warriors are only two games from the seventh spot and only three games from the fifth seed. And, by the way, the Lakers and Warriors are two of the hottest teams in the Western Conference.

The Lakers have won nine of their last 12 games, while the Warriors have won 11 of their last 13. Meanwhile, the seventh-seeded Kings have lost six of their last 11 games and star player De'Aaron Fox sat their most recent game with a sore knee. The fifth-seeded Suns are 2 and 2 in their last four games, while the sixth-seeded Pelicans and eighth-seeded Mavericks are both 2- 3 in their last five.

Punchline: there is still time for the Lakers and/or Warriors to skip the Play-in entirely and make the playoffs outright, and if not, time for either/both of them to at least move out of the nine/10 seeds and thus into more favorable rankings where they'd potentially have to win fewer Play-in games and/or not go through each other to get to the big dance.

According to the ESPN Analytics Basketball Power Index (BPI), the Warriors have a 59.0% chance to make the playoffs while the Lakers have 42.5%. But, interestingly, if sorted by likelihood to win the championship, the Warriors and Lakers both project among the top-7 in the West, ahead of the Pelicans, Suns and Kings who are currently ahead of them in the standings.

Per BPI, the Lakers have the 12th-hardest Strength of Schedule (SOS) remaining while the Warriors have the 17th... both reasonably average. But the Lakers and Warriors are both veteran-laden teams whose cores have each won championships in the last four seasons. And both teams know there may not be very many more opportunities at this, that this could in-fact be their last go-rounds as currently constructed.

With the end in sight, I see both teams finishing this season very strong, and both the Lakers and the Warriors to ultimately make the playoffs. I see futures value in both bets. But if the Lakers and/or Warriors make the playoffs, that means that some team(s) currently favored to make it in would be on the outside looking in.

Suns (+400), Pelicans (+290), Mavericks (+240) or Kings (+230) to miss playoffs

While you could get just below even money to bet on the Lakers and/or Warriors to make the playoffs, you could get significantly plus money to bet on one of the four teams ahead of them to miss the playoffs. I've already laid out that I personally expect both the Warriors and the Lakers to make the dance, which would mean that potentially two of these teams could be out.

By definition, at least one of the Pelicans and Mavericks have to make the playoffs because one of them will win the Southwest Division. Both have stumbled a bit coming off the All-Star break, each losing three of their five most recent games.

Per BPI, the Pelicans have the much harder strength of schedule down the stretch, the eighth-hardest overall compared to the Mavericks' 22nd. I've written that the Mavericks are a team that could potentially make a late push and even a run in the playoffs, and BPI supports that with the Mavericks as the fifth-most likely Western Conference team to win the championship versus the Pelicans at eighth. The Pelicans currently have a 1.5 game lead on the Mavericks for the division, but the race is likely to go down to the wire. I personally wouldn't be surprised if the loser of that division race ultimately misses the playoffs altogether.

The other of this list most likely to miss the playoffs is the Kings. Of every team out West, the Kings are currently the coldest with six losses in their last 11 games and Fox managing a knee issue. The Suns are also dealing with injury, to Bradley Beal's hamstring, but they have still won seven of their last 11 games. But per BPI, the Suns also have the hardest remaining Strength of Schedule in the NBA while the Kings are 21st.

76ers (+400) or Knicks (NA) to miss playoffs

I won't spend as much time on the East as the West because there is a clear demarcation between the top-8 seeds and ninth/tenth seeds. The eighth-seeded Pacers are 5.5 games ahead of the ninth-seeded Bulls and seven games ahead of the 10th-seeded Hawks. Per BPI, the Bulls have only a 12.6% chance to make the playoffs and the Hawks only 11.7%, making it exceedingly likely that the top-8 seeds will all make the playoffs.

That said, keep an eye on both the 76ers (+400 to miss the playoffs) and the Knicks (currently not even on the board to miss the playoffs). While both teams are mentioned as potential challengers to the Celtics in the East if they are fully healthy... neither is anywhere near fully healthy. And both teams have struggled mightily since their star players got injured.

The Knicks are 3-8 in their last 11 games, while the 76ers are 4-8 in their last 12. They currently hold the four and five seeds in the East, but are less than two games ahead of the seventh-seeded Heat and eighth-seeded Pacers, both of whom are playing much better ball right now. If things continue as they have been for another week or two, we could very easily see the Knicks and/or 76ers slide into the Play-in seeds.

Now, the publicly-stated expectations for Joel Embiid, Julius Randle and OG Anunoby are that they should all be ready to return before the season ends. But, you just never know with major injuries. Similarly, even in the Play-in, the Knicks and 76ers would both be major favorites to win their way back into the playoffs. But in 1-and-done formats... again, you just never know.

So, while I wouldn't necessarily find value yet in betting that the 76ers or Knicks would not make the playoffs, or that either the Bulls (+340 to make the playoffs) or Hawks (+700) would, I do suggest monitoring the situation carefully. Because in the near future, this race could get more interesting.