The start of the 2013-2014 NBA season is just one week away, as preseason games wind down in the next three days. According to Las Vegas casinos, the Eastern Conference is heavily favored to take home the NBA championship once again.
The reigning champion Miami Heat are once again the odds on favorite, followed by the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Brooklyn Nets in the East. The L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs are the favorites to come out of the slightly depleted West.
The best odds call for a rematch of the 2012 Finals, with Miami squaring off against Oklahoma City.
Bolstered by another expected MVP-caliber year from LeBron James and several key additions to the bench, the back-to-back champions come in as heavy 21/10 favorites. Last season, Miami captured the title despite 23.0 points per game off the bench, but the signings of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden are expected to improve the second unit, and the Heat will have a healthy Chris Andersen to start the season.
Miami could be the fourth franchise in NBA history to complete a three-peat, the last coming from the L.A. Lakers in the 2000s. In a recent poll of 30 general managers, the Heat were chosen as the favorites to win the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
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Derrick Rose, the only player in the last five years to win an MVP award other than James, makes his triumphant return and automatically makes the Bulls contenders at 11/2 odds. Without Rose’s career 21 points and 6.8 assists a game, Chicago lacked an elite scorer, yet still made the playoffs at the No. 5 seed, upsetting Brooklyn in the first round before falling 4-1 to Miami.
Fatigue and injuries were a huge part of the Bulls downfall last year, but the signing of Mike Dunleavy gives them a solid outside shooter, who can also crash the boards and provide some relief for center Joakim Noah. One issue to keep any eye on is the status of soon-to-be-free agent Luol Deng. The Sudanese forward could prove too expensive for Chicago next summer, and he’s been tied to multiple trade rumors in recent years.
At the cost of a $101.2 million payroll, the Nets transplanted much of the Boston Celtics winning core to the Barclays Center in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry. That trio, along with All-Star Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, has enough size and scoring to keep up with the Heat and can take advantage on the boards.
Indiana and their balanced, young squad represent the monkey wrench that could shake up the East this season. At 9/1, the Pacers are five months removed from their epic seven-game series with Miami, and likely will remain the thorn in the Heat’s side.
Indiana wrapped up combo-forward Paul George to a six-year deal, re-signed David West, added some depth at point guard with veteran C.J. Watson, and picked up a smooth-shooting forward in Chris Copeland. The Pacers can also dangle the $14 million expiring contract of Danny Granger when the trade deadline rolls around, and further pad the roster with another big man behind center Roy Hibbert, arguably the East’s best.
Head coach Doc Rivers took over the Clippers this summer, and he along with Chris Paul make L.A. one of the biggest favorites out West. Paul re-upped this summer largely because Rivers was taking over, while L.A. addressed some of their glaring needs.
The Clippers are already one of the league’s best defensive teams allowing 94.6 points per game, fourth best in the NBA last year, but really needed to surround Paul and big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with more shooters. In a three-team trade, L.A. brought in guards J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, at the cost of back-up point guard Eric Bledsoe, but signed veteran Darren Collison to a two-year deal to protect Paul.
Kevin Durant and the Thunder, at 17/2, have the best odds to make the Finals for the second time in three seasons, but concerns still surround All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. The 24-year-old continues to rehab from arthroscopic knee surgery, and though he participated in practice on Monday, Westbrook is still expected to miss another six weeks.
The Thunder let guard Kevin Martin walk, and for the most part remained quiet this summer, placing even more pressure on Durant in the first half of the season.
Despite their robbery of seven-footer Dwight Howard, the Rockets aren’t the biggest favorites at 12/1. That could be due to head coach Kevin McHale still tinkering with his lineup, and center Omer Asik’s unhappiness with Howard’s signing. It should be pointed out that with Asik starting all 82 games last season, the Rockets were 28th in the league in points allowed, and 24th in blocks per game.
Houston will also need a huge improvement from guard Jeremy Lin, who struggled with his shooting all of last year. James Harden should carry the offense and contend for the scoring title once again.
Then there’s San Antonio coming in at 14/1 with another year of Tim Duncan in the middle. Wear, tear, and age have been the excuses to jump off the Spurs bandwagon before, but time and again they’ve proven everyone wrong. San Antonio re-signed guard Manu Ginobili and center Tiago Splitter in the offseason, while adding pesky shooter Marco Belinelli.
Forward Kawhi Leonard remains the club’s X-factor after his huge showing in the playoffs with 13.5 points, nine rebounds and 39 percent shooting from three.
Some other odds to consider: The New York Knicks are 25/1 shots to win the title and Carmelo Anthony has said he wants to be a free agent in 2014. The Los Angeles Lakers are currently at 40/1, as Kobe Bryant's return is still mired in doubt.
Their odds to win it all are 16/1, yet the Golden State Warriors are listed as 7/1 odds to represent the West. The Warriors are a very young team that played beyond their years in the playoffs last season, and could be poised for another run with guard Stephen Curry running the show. But they will likely need a healthy Andrew Bogut and David Lee to make a real impact in the postseason.
Conference Finals: Miami over Brooklyn
Conference Finals: Clippers over Houston
Finals: Miami over Clippers in 4-2.