This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
We're about 85% of the way through the season. The play-in race will be interesting, but that's not what I'm looking at for bets. Now is the time of year that's interesting for potential longshots. We've seen enough from teams and players to get an idea of who could pull off upsets. Below, I've listed three longshot bets that I think are worth looking into.
Suns to win NBA Championship (+2000)
The Suns (42-18) are just two games back of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, as they've been chasing the Jazz all season. Utah is down Donovan Mitchell for at least another week, so Phoenix can strike. Getting the top seed obviously doesn't guarantee a title and shouldn't even mean you're the favorite, but it would give the Suns the easiest path possible.
Phoenix boasts the NBA's seventh-best offense and fifth-best defense. That's within the threshold of what we would consider a contender. Maybe more important, the Suns have the sixth-best halfcourt offense and fifth-best halfcourt defense. In the playoffs, the game slows down, and there are fewer transition opportunities. The teams that are best in the halfcourt often thrive.
Chris Paul is the man behind this revolution for the Suns, who were an average halfcourt offense and bottom-tier halfcourt defense last season. He's putting together yet another All-NBA season at age 35 (he'll be 36 during the playoffs). While Paul has never made it to the Finals, I don't consider that as much of a blemish on his resume as other people do. He has 109 games of playoff experience, which is a ridiculous number.
I have some concerns that the rest of the roster doesn't have enough collective experience to step up in the postseason. Devin Booker has never played in a playoff game. But that's why the odds are what they are. A bet on the Suns is essentially a bet on Chris Paul leading the team through his play and IQ. For 20-to-1 odds, I don't mind taking that chance.
Hawks to win Eastern Conference (+4000)
The Hawks (34-27) are having an up-and-down season, but much of that can be blamed on injuries. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Cam Reddish and De'Andre Hunter have only played a combined 123 games. That's a big deal when you consider Gallinari is third on the team in point differential (+5.5), Hunter is fifth (+3.5) and Bogdanovic is seventh (+2.1).
Betting on the Hawks to win games, and the East, in this case, is essentially a bet on their offense. There's no question the Hawks have firepower. Three of the Hawks' nine-most frequent lineups have an offensive rating of at least 134.5, which ranks in the 95th percentile of offensive lineups. Trae Young can be a one-man force on that side of the ball. He has 17 games with at least 30 points and 25 games with at least 10 assists this season. Atlanta also gets to the free-throw line the second-most in the NBA, and they have the sixth-best offensive rebounding rate. Both those skills are important in the postseason when the game grinds down and gets physical.
So, what's the catch? Well, the Hawks don't defend. They have the 20th-ranked halfcourt defense in the NBA. However, they've been missing their good defenders. Hunter and Reddish are some of the team's best defenders. Kris Dunn, an elite backcourt defender, also has yet to debut. If that trio can be healthy by the time the playoffs come around, the Hawks will be much more intimidating. If Atlanta can at least post an average defense, they might be able to ride their offense in the playoffs.
Zion Williamson for Most Improved Player (+2500)
Julius Randle (-500) appears to have this award locked up, but I think there might be a late push to get Williamson into the discussion. The Pelicans (26-34) haven't had the Knicks' (34-27) success, but that's through no fault of Williamson. No one can look at New Orleans' roster and argue that it was built to succeed. There's no spacing, and the bench is awful. I don't think that should be held against Williamson.
Second-year players also don't typically win this award, but maybe this will be the exception. Williamson has been unquestionably dominant on offense. Over his past 32 games, he's averaging 29.3 points on 62.8 percent (!) shooting, including a passable 70.0 percent from the free-throw line. He's also averaging 7.5 boards and 4.2 assists compared to just 2.8 turnovers during this stretch.
Williamson, in this form, is a phenomenon you have to see to believe. His improvement over last season is real, and it might not bear out in the numbers as much as it should. People should probably be asking if he's a better offensive player than Giannis Antetokounmpo. That discussion is not far-fetched.