This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
We're back again with another futures-related piece. The last go-around was focused primarily on team-specific bets, but I think there are at least two player props that should catch everyone's attention this time. With All-Star weekend and the trade deadline fast approaching, it'll be interesting to see how all the odds change with what figures to be a flurry of activity in the coming weeks. Keep track of all the movement on respective awards lines on our handy NBA Futures page!
Jerami Grant Most Improved Player of the Year (-155 on FanDuel)
Christian Wood's latest injury-related absence should all but end his opportunity at winning the coveted award, so it looks like by default Grant should be in prime position. The Pistons are an awful team and could get even worse depending on what sort of trade comes from Blake Griffin, but Grant has feasted on the opportunity, nearly doubling his points per game from last year while easily seeing career highs in every other major statistical category.
Much like Rookie of the Year, a bad team can funnel so much production into a player that winning Most Improved Player of the Year really doesn't mean much. It's still hard to see a way in which Grant falls out of contention, and it's even possible with a few more games like he had against Chicago (43 points), he could become even more of a favorite.
Julius Randle Most Improved Player of the Year (+3300 on PointsBet)
All that being said, if I'm a voter, I'd much rather target a player for Most Improved Player of the Year that isn't on one of the worst teams in the entire league, which makes Randle's case incredibly appealing.
Let's say the Knicks do end up earning a playoff seed, ending their seven-year playoff drought. You know the national media will be eager to anoint someone from such a large market as the "reason" behind the success. Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau feels unlikely given that the Knicks could conceivably make it into the postseason despite a losing record. RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley likely won't be able to produce enough to make a running for any sort of award, whether it be MIP or Rookie of the Year. So why not the guy who is averaging a double-double on the year and is also 21st in terms of points per game across the entire NBA (23.2)?
Considering how much the "front runner" designation for Most Improved Player of the Year has changed over the course of the season, I love this bet. I could easily see it creep closer to near-even odds so long as he stays healthy and the Knicks continue to hang around the postseason conversation.
Hornets to make playoffs (+175 on DraftKings Sportsbook)
We tried this type of bet last go around with the Grizzlies, who promptly lost six of their last 10 games and already sit on the outside looking in after reaching as high as sixth in the Western Conference standings a couple of weeks ago. Still, I feel a bit better this go around with the Hornets.
For one, the Eastern Conference is dreadful. Look no farther than the paragraph above for confirmation. The Hornets are currently eighth in the standings behind the aforementioned Knicks and Raptors, both of which have below .500 records. The ownership and front office has repeatedly shown the propensity to make big moves for small gains, i.e., the right to get blown out in the first round of the playoffs, so I wouldn't be surprised at all if they are legitimate buyers at the trade deadline. Yes, the play-in tournament format complicates things a bit, but I actually think the combination of Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball and whatever scorching-hot guard emerges in a given game is enough for Charlotte to be one of the more competitive teams in a tournament setting.
Of course, both the Hawks and Heat, who were expected to make the postseason to start the year, each sit below the Hornets in the standings. On paper, each of those teams is significantly better than the Hornets, and you can absolutely make an argument the Raptors are getting better as well. That would whittle it down to a Knicks/Hornets two-team race for the final spot, with the Bulls looming as a Zach LaVine-shaped darkhorse complicating matters further. If that's the scenario, I think I'm comfortable taking plus money on the Hornets overcoming those obstacles for a playoff berth.
Trail Blazers to make playoffs (-290 on FanDuel)
Considering other teams in a similar spot to the Trail Blazers are all in the minus four-digits range in terms of making the playoffs, this felt like incredible value. I don't think it's exactly a bet-the-mortgage type deal because one Damian Lillard injury could crater any sort of positive momentum, but Portland has built a fairly safe barrier above the competitively mangled 6-10 slots in the Western Conference.
Four games above the Grizzlies for the eighth spot in the West doesn't seem like a substantial margin, but when you consider the Mavericks are the only team who seemed relatively locked into the playoffs entering the year who don't currently have a spot in the postseason, I think the odds of another Portland playoff berth are significantly higher than FanDuel suggests.