This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
With not much changing in the awards race, and Nick Whalen giving an excellent breakdown last week regarding the two most tumultuous awards at the moment, most of this column will center around teams in the playoff hunt or divisional races. This also serves as a friendly reminder to check out RotoWire's excellent Futures Odds page which details a number of these respective races and their odds. More tools like these are also now available for MLB (yeah Opening Day!) so if you're looking for some cross-sport fix, we have you covered.
Hornets to make playoffs (-142 on FanDuel)
It's a bit surprising to see this even be an option considering the Hornets are currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. Of course, the difference between fourth and ninth place is separated by a mere 2.5 games, so the respective spot means quite little in the lesser conference.
Just looking at the Hornets schedule it doesn't appear incredibly hard, as the team entered the second half of the season tied for the most games against below .500 opponents. The injury to LaMelo Ball (wrist) is tough, but I think Charlotte is one of the few teams equipped to handle that type of loss considering Devonte' Graham and Malik Monk can step into the role relatively seamlessly. And if you want to dive into the narrative element, if the Hornets fall into a play-in scenario for whatever reason, they also have a proven veteran scorer in Gordon Hayward who should be able to handle the pressure of the moment.
With just 25 games remaining, the Hornets realistically just need to finish around .500 the rest of the way to get a playoff shot guaranteed, and I think based on their schedule alone that should be more than feasible.
Pacers to miss playoffs (+240 on DraftKings)
I know it sounds like a no-brainer type of comment, but I'm trying to look for optimal value when putting these particular pieces. Yes, something like the Raptors missing the playoffs (-315 on DraftKings) is far more likely, but I think the market is just wrong on the Pacers.
On paper, Indiana should be among the top-5 teams in the East, and the addition of a healthy Caris LeVert might legitimately push them into that category over the next couple of months. After all, they are only 2.5 games out of fourth place as of this writing despite a two-game losing streak. But Monday's loss to the Wizards is worrisome on a couple of levels.
Despite Bradley Beal (hip) missing the contest and the Wizards' dreadful play as of late (3-7 in their last 10 games), Washington still managed to score 132 points against the Pacers despite their supposed solid defense and all five of the typical starters healthy. A combined four games against the free-falling Magic and Thunder make the schedule a little bit nicer, especially considering the Pacers still have a game apiece left with the dreadful Central division (Bulls, Cavs and Pistons all included, but also one game with the Bucks too). But if Domantas Sabonis and company can't shut down the Wizards, can you really say any game is a gimme for them at this point?
Considering the odds, I think it's entirely possible the Pacers are forced to find their way into the playoffs via the play-in format, a task that I think might be especially difficult for a team that is only middle-of-the-pack when it comes to points scored per game.
Suns to win Pacific Division (+120 on BetMGM)
Riding a four-game winning streak, the Suns have vaulted to the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference and 2.5 games ahead of the divisional Clippers.
While the Clippers still have eight games remaining against some of the lowly teams in the Association such as the Pistons, Rockets, Timberwolves, and Raptors, we do know Los Angeles is more than fine resting its star players. I don't know if the Clippers will continue to focus on load management if the No. 2 see is legitimately in play like it is now, but it wouldn't entirely surprise me given how they've operated in the past. Meanwhile, the Suns boast an absurd amount of depth to keep them competitive if they decide to adopt a similar strategy with the likes of Chris Paul, who essentially is the only veteran who might legitimately need that type of rest.
I think what makes this a plus-odds situation is the Suns' absurdly challenging schedule the rest of the way. While four of the next eight games will feature some sort of actively tanking team (the Wizards and Kings might not know they are tanking, but we certainly do), the final 17 games will feature just two opponents who will be guaranteed below-.500 records. That probably should scare me away, but given how well the Suns have played, particularly on the defensive end, and the sheer amount of bodies the rotation can consist of each night if everyone is healthy, I have a surprising amount of confidence in a regular-season run.
If you do take this bet now, understand the real key will be an East coast swing in the middle of April which will see the Suns take on the Bucks, 76ers, Celtics, Nets and Knicks over the course of seven days. If they manage to come out of that stretch with a couple of wins, I'd feel much more comfortable laying money on it now. I just doubt the odds will be this good if you choose to wait that long.