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NBA futures: Separating NBA Finals contenders from pretenders

Brian Babineau / National Basketball Association / Getty

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Almost 70% of the NBA season is complete, and we have an idea of which teams can make an NBA Finals run in what should be an unpredictable postseason.

We broke down the top 11 competitors - according to oddsmakers - to win the NBA Finals and whether they're contenders to bet on, pretenders to avoid, or the jury's still out.

NBA Championship odds

Team Odds to win Finals Odds to win conference
Celtics +260 +115
Nuggets +450 +245
Clippers +500 +215
Bucks +650 +315
Suns +1500 +775
Knicks +2000 +600
Cavs +2500 +800
Timberwolves +2500 +750
Thunder +2500 +800
Lakers +2500 +1500
Sixers +3000 +1500
Mavs +3500 +1600
Heat +4000 +1300
Warriors +5000 +2000
Pelicans +6000 +2500
Kings +7500 +3000



The Nuggets have the best player in the world in Nikola Jokic and the same core that won a title last season. They've looked lackluster at times, but they've earned the benefit of the doubt as a team that's coasting until the playoffs begin.

Denver doesn't have a top-10 defense or offense and is ninth in net rating. However, the Nuggets ranked sixth in net rating last season with the same mark it has now. Depth is Denver's primary concern. It'll have to rely on younger players like Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, and potentially Julian Strawther.

The Nuggets should take the final stretch of the regular season seriously. They're currently the fourth seed but three games back of the one seed. Homecourt advantage will be crucial for Denver, which is 21-5 at home and 15-14 on the road.


The Celtics are the favorites to win the NBA Finals and almost even money to claim a dysfunctional East.

Boston has the NBA's best offense, third-best defense, and best net rating by a substantial margin. The Celtics have the most dominant starting lineup.

The team's kryptonite could be its overreliance on threes in the clutch. Jayson Tatum will have to finally break through consistently for four straight rounds, something we've yet to see from the superstar.

Boston also needs good fortune. A healthy Kristaps Porzingis is essential to its operation. Right now, the Celtics are my pick at +260 to capture their first championship in 16 years.


Kawhi Leonard is one of the NBA's best playoff performers, and the Clippers have the perfect complement of guards, wings, and bigs.

Los Angeles leads the league in isolation points. Leonard, Paul George, and James Harden can hunt weak defenders and easily score in one-on-one situations. That's essential when the postseason rolls around. The Clippers' isolation-heavy attack has led them to the league's third-best offense.

Harden consistently underperformed in the biggest playoff moments as a Rocket and Sixer. But he was always the primary or secondary option in those situations. And while Harden is the main ball-handler in Los Angeles, he's the third offensive option behind Leonard and George. Harden is finally on a team with the personnel to overcome his playoff shortcomings.

I was bullish on the Clippers heading into the season - even before Harden's arrival - and advised taking a long-shot future on them to win the Finals at +1800.

The Clippers are still my pick to come out of the West. Leonard and George have been healthy (for the most part), but their bodies have failed them more often than not over the past half-decade. If they stay available, there could be a parade in Los Angeles.



Since the turn of the century, just two teams have won the NBA Finals after finishing the regular season ranked outside the top 12 in offensive rating - the 2004 Pistons and the 2022 Warriors. The Pistons are a rare exception to the rule, and the Warriors had the greatest shooter - and shooting backcourt - in NBA history.

The Timberwolves are 17th in offensive rating.

Forget NBA Finals prospects; Depending on the matchup, the Wolves might not get out of the first round.

Minnesota doesn't have enough reliable scorers in crunch time. It ranks 20th in clutch offense and has the league's fifth-highest turnover percentage in the clutch - defined as the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points.

Anthony Edwards could become a superstar, but it's hard to trust his - and the rest of the Wolves' - decision-making late in games. Ultimately, that'll hold them back from a deep playoff run.


The Cavaliers have put together an impressive two-month stretch. Donovan Mitchell deserves more recognition as an MVP candidate, especially considering that much of Cleveland's ascension came without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley aboard.

Jarrett Allen has turned into a dominant big on both ends, and the Cavs' scoring depth is as deep as any team in the East. However, as Cleveland reeled off 18 wins in 20 games and catapulted to the two seed in the East, it's important to look at the competition.

Of the Cavs' 18 wins in that stretch, 13 came against teams below .500. And seven of those were versus either the Wizards, Spurs, or Nets.

I'm not quite ready to classify Cleveland as a real contender. There's scar tissue from last year's first-round series in which the Knicks physically dominated and embarrassed the Cavs' frontcourt.

Cleveland's bigs appear to have matured - especially Allen - but can they withstand the size of some of the East's best teams? And are Allen and Mobley even playable together as two non-shooters? That pairing ruins the Cavs' spacing and makes it easier for defenses to pack the paint when they don't have to worry about a non-shooter on the perimeter.

While the Cavs' odds have shortened dramatically over the last month - from around +6000 to +2500 to win the finals - I'm writing them off.


Everyone underestimated the impact swapping Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard would have on the Bucks' defense, which ranks 17th. Milwaukee entered the season at +400 to win the Finals and is now +650. Maybe Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo's offensive firepower will be enough to carry them.

However, Khris Middleton is an aging and unreliable third option, and most of the Bucks' opponents will have the coaching advantage with Doc Rivers roaming the sidelines in Milwaukee.


It's become a trend where a team has a fluky run to the conference finals, makes few impactful moves in the offseason, and then has a disappointing following season. The Hawks did it in 2021, the Mavs in 2022, and the Lakers in 2023. The Mavs missed the playoffs the following campaign, and the Hawks were the eighth seed. The Lakers are favored to make the playoffs, but they'll likely be in the play-in.

Don't expect Los Angeles' porous offense to make another run if it sneaks into the dance.

Hear them out...


The Thunder's greatest flaw is their inexperience.

It's almost unheard of for most of a team's contributors to enter the postseason with zero playoff experience and make a run. However, Oklahoma City has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a superstar with some - albeit little - playoff experience and capable of creating any shot.

The Thunder's younger studs have been unfazed against the league's stiffest competition. Chet Holmgren has been a dominant rim-protector, but that's mostly come out of help situations.

As a younger, skinnier center, big teams may try to tactfully bully him on the glass and inside in the playoffs. Oklahoma City has little center depth, so that could hurt it in the postseason.


The Knicks may stumble their way to the Eastern Conference championship because of the dysfunction at the top of the East. Although, they have to avoid a second-round bout with Boston.

Jalen Brunson is a proven, reliable playoff option. New York's success will depend on Julius Randle, who has been flaky and disappointing in the postseason. When Randle, OG Anunoby, and potentially Mitchell Robinson return from injury, the Knicks are as tough defensively as anyone. New York was 12-2 after it traded for Anunoby and before Randle went down.

It may be worth grabbing a 20-1 ticket on the Knicks.


The Sixers' entire season hinges on the health of reigning MVP Joel Embiid, who has never finished a campaign fully healthy. His timetable to return is uncertain. If he's not 100%, Philadelphia will likely go home in the first round. It's slipping in the standings and probably won't even earn a first-round home playoff series.

If the Sixers were healthy, they'd be in the contenders section. They were as low as +1100 to win the Finals before Embiid's injury.


The Suns were +600 to win the NBA Finals before the season and my pick to come out of the West. Another dabble at +1500 now could be a decent investment.

After a discouraging start to the campaign, Phoenix is fifth in the West and has won 14 of its last 18. The key has been the health of the Suns' big three: Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. Phoenix is 19-11 when Beal plays.

If those three have the durability to last over the next few months, Phoenix has enough complementary pieces to make a run. Jusuf Nurkic may struggle against bigger teams like the Nuggets in the playoffs, but the Suns' health is the bigger mystery.

Sam Oshtry is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on X @soshtry for more betting coverage.

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