There are only so many certainties in life. One of them, as Circa Sports Operations Manager Jeff Benson told US Bets, is “anytime the Lakers win the NBA championship, you expect to lose and lose big.”
“You,” in this case, is your average American sportsbook. Not only are the Lakers the NBA’s most recognizable franchise nationally, but sports betting is not legal in the Golden State, meaning plenty of Californians still make the pilgrimage to Nevada to get money down on LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and their purple-clad peers.
“The Lakers normally get a lot of attention in Nevada, and this year wasn’t any different,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sportsbook operations at the Westgate SuperBook.
What is different this year is that the Lakers, who have advanced to the Western Conference Finals despite starting the season horribly and sneaking into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, were priced as high as 200/1 to win the NBA title at some books — including the SuperBook — after losing 10 of their first 12 games to start the regular season.
Acknowledging that the SuperBook is “facing a tremendous amount of liability attached to the Lakers winning the title,” Kornegay added, “The title liability reminds me of 2017 when the [NHL’s] Golden Knights opened at 500/1 for the Cup, 250/1 for the conference, and 100/1 on the division. We had [the Lakers] at market value (200/1) early on when they were well below .500. But most of the liability came in around 40/1 through 60/1. It’s a big number for us, so we’re certainly rooting for the Nuggets.
“Being from Denver originally, I haven’t rooted for the Nuggets in 25 years, but that will change starting May 16th.”
Analysts for Betfred, BetRivers, and Caesars also confirmed that the Lakers were their biggest championship liability, with only BetMGM deviating from this norm. According to a spokesperson for the sportsbook, it’s Los Angeles’ upcoming opponent, the Denver Nuggets, that represents BetMGM’s’s largest liability in both the Western Conference and NBA title markets.
Like a lot of leading mobile sportsbooks, BetMGM has offered wagering in Colorado and numerous other states since PASPA was repealed in 2018. As Kornegay explains, that’s changed the liability landscape a bit.
“This is a preview of what we and other operators will face when their local team comes out of nowhere to contend for a title,” he said. “If the local team is a contending team, the liability won’t add up versus a ‘non-contending’ team with long odds. I can only imagine if the Raiders were to make a run at the Super Bowl and the liability it would create for the local Las Vegas bookmakers. Operators from other states will get their taste once their ‘longshot’ team advances and challenges for a title. These are the days of our lives.”
Celts favored, but Heat hold value
This year’s conference finals matchups are an encore of 2020’s league semis, which were played in a COVID bubble with no fans in central Florida. The Lakers and Heat wound up advancing, with Los Angeles winning its first — and thus far only — title of the LeBron-AD era.
Sportsbooks expect things to go differently this time around, favoring the Nuggets and Celtics — the top seeds in their respective conferences — to play into June. Boston is a heavy favorite to topple Miami after the Celtics and Heat split their four-game regular-season series. The SuperBook is the most bullish on Boston, pricing the Celtics at -650 to beat the Heat and +100 to win the NBA Finals. The other books have series and championship prices ranging from -500 to -550 and +105 to +110, respectively.
The shortest odds on the Heat getting by Boston are +375 at BetMGM, which gives Miami a 12/1 chance of capturing an NBA title. The SuperBook is offering the longest odds in both of those markets at +450 and 16/1, respectively.
As for Game 1, which will be played in Boston on Wednesday, the spread — ranging from 7.5 to 8.5 points — was moving in the favored Celtics’ direction Monday morning. But let’s not forget that Philadelphia managed to steal the first game of the conference semis in Boston without the services of league MVP Joel Embiid. It wasn’t until rookie head coach Joe Mazzulla made the belated decision to start the rangy Robert Williams III alongside Al Horford that Boston was able to take care of business in that series, and now he’ll be matched against arguably the best sideline tactician in the league in Erik Spoelstra.
Boston should win the opening game and the series, absolutely, but for bettors in search of value with only four teams remaining, the Heat are it.
Roster overhaul adds intrigue
Like their Eastern Conference counterparts, the Lakers and Nuggets split their four-game regular-season series. But Los Angeles has looked as formidable as any squad in the league since a roster overhaul at February’s trade deadline, and the two teams haven’t faced each other since Jan. 9.
Denver’s balletic offense revolves around triple-double machine Nikola Jokic, who has been unstoppable in the playoffs thus far. But the Lakers will counter with Anthony Davis, who, if healthy and engaged, is one of the few players in the league capable of slowing Jokic down. On the other side of the ball, while James can be counted on to contribute at an elite level no matter who’s guarding him, the Nuggets’ stout wing trio of Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown, and ex-Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a member of Los Angeles’ 2020 title team) will make him work for it.
Oddsmakers expect a tight series but universally favor Denver to emerge victorious, with odds ranging from -145 at BetMGM to -160 at the SuperBook, which is offering the fattest price (+140) on the Lakers to advance. The Nuggets are seen as the second likeliest of the surviving quartet to win the NBA championship (+220 at Betfred, +260 at the SuperBook), while Los Angeles is a consensus 3/1 shot to cement LeBron’s legacy in Laker lore.
Game 1 will be played Tuesday night in Denver, with the Nuggets a consensus 6-point favorite to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
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