“The Empire Slate” is a weekly look at betting angles and trends involving New York sports.
In the coming weeks, the Brooklyn Nets either will make the bookmakers look like visionaries for holding the line steady despite mounting evidence to the contrary or will look like one of the great sucker bets in recent memory.
That’s how wide the gulf is between where the Nets’ future lines stand coming out of the NBA all-star break and how some analytical entities peg their chances.
With the Nets currently the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and just three games above .500, FiveThirtyEight.com puts their chances of winning the conference at 3% and their chances of winning an NBA title at 0.9%.
But the star-studded Nets remain the consensus betting favorites to win the East despite their mediocre record, the 11-game losing streak they recently withstood, and a hazy outlook on how Ben Simmons will fit. DraftKings is the most bullish on their chances, pegging them as the top choice in the East at +245. The most bearish book taking bets in New York, PointsBet, pegs them at +300. The consensus next choice is the Milwaukee Bucks, who are +270 at FanDuel and +330 at DraftKings.
So, what gives?
The crucial piece of missing information is the state of Kevin Durant, who has a knee injury, and Simmons, who is working his way into playing condition after sitting out all season to express his unhappiness at playing for Philly. The bookmakers’ working theory seems to be that the Nets still haven’t found out who they are and, when they do, look out.
Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook operations at DraftKings, points out that Kyrie Irving’s return to play in home games and the addition of Simmons could help push the Nets forward and adds, “the East isn’t that difficult. The Nets would be the favorite in almost every matchup.”
So, when will Durant and Simmons share the court? Depends on the source. ESPN NBA reporter Ramona Shelburne said on NBA Today this week that it would be “more like weeks than months” before Simmons is ready. Nets general manager Sean Marks told a group of season ticketholders this week it might be just a matter of days for both players.
“It’s probably going to be tough playing in the next three or four days, but we’ll see how it plays out,” Marks said. “I’m certainly not going to bet against either one of those guys.”
Another factor: parity in the conference. It’s deeper but less top-heavy than in a typical season. Five teams enter Thursday night’s games within 2.5 games of first place, and the sixth through 11th place teams are separated by just six games. There’s going to be a lot of jostling for playoff position in the final couple dozen games left in the season.
The Nets’ opportunity to prove the bookmakers right and the computers wrong begins Thursday night at Barclays Center at 7:30 vs. the Boston Celtics, the current sixth seed in the East. By the way, the bookmakers have placed the Celtics as high as +1200 (BetMGM) to win the conference despite their recent hot streak and despite FiveThirtyEight now giving them the best chance of winning the championship.
Handicapping Thursday night’s game
The primary difference between the Celtics and Nets is that one of the teams plays serious defense. Boston has the second-best adjusted defensive rating in the league while the Nets rank 20th.
Bear in mind that while New York City plans to phase out the vaccine mandate, eventually allowing Irving to play in home games, he’ll remain out for this contest against Boston. The Nets haven’t performed well when Durant and Irving are sitting. They have a -8.8 point differential across their 950 possessions without Irving, Durant, or James Harden (who was traded to the 76ers for Simmons on Feb. 10).
Meanwhile, the Celtics won nine of their last 10 games entering the break. If you like Boston on Thursday night, you would have done well to bet them over the weekend. The line has widened steadily since opening at Boston -2, probably because it’s been looking less and less likely Durant will play. Caesars and FanDuel had Boston at -9 as of about noon Thursday, while others, such as DraftKings and BetMGM, favored it by 8.5.
Another intriguing number is 110.5, the Celtics’ team over-under total. While Boston hasn’t shown the most dynamic offense in the league, the Celtics averaged 123.5 points over their past two games, including the 135 they put on the 76ers, a team that plays better defense than Brooklyn.
Rangers casting a wide net?
With just a few weeks left before the March 21 NHL trade deadline, the Rangers are trying to add a little scoring punch to a third-place roster that is only four points behind the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. The Athletic’s Rangers beat writer Arthur Staple (subscription required) lists Rickard Rakell of the Canucks, Andrew Copp of the Jets, and Andy Greene of the cross-town Islanders as potential targets.
DraftKings has the Rangers as the No. 10 choice to win the Stanley Cup at +2200, as the No. 7 choice to win the Eastern Conference at +1100, and as the No. 3 choice to win the Metropolitan Division at +600. While FiveThirtyEight thinks they’re a virtual lock to make the playoffs, it pegs their chances of winning the East at just 8% and their chances of winning it all at just 4%.
A trade could change all those numbers quickly.
MLB futures begin to emerge
Books have been releasing their MLB future lines lately even as Major League Baseball and the players’ union try to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement by Monday to avoid canceling early-season games. The Yankees (+900) are the No. 2 choice at DraftKings to win the World Series and the No. 3 choice after the Astros at +1200 at FanDuel. Aaron Judge is the No. 3 choice to win AL MVP at +1500 (DraftKings) behind Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The Mets are two spots behind the Yankees to win it all at DraftKings at +1000. Also per DraftKings, Francisco Lindor is the No. 7 choice to win NL MVP at +3000, and Jacob deGrom (+450) and Max Scherzer (+800) are the first and third choices for NL Cy Young.
MLB recently announced that any games canceled due to the lockout will not be made up, which makes it worth peering ahead at both teams’ early-season schedules.
The Yankees open with four in Texas, which was among the most active teams in free agency, before playing their next nine against the Astros, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. It might benefit the Yankees to miss the first couple of weeks of the season. Starting April 15, they play their next 15 games against the Orioles, Tigers, Guardians, and Royals.
With seven of their first nine games scheduled against the awful Washington Nationals, the Mets would just as soon start on time.
What about the Bonnies?
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi lists St. Bonaventure among his bubble teams, putting them among his “first eight out,” but the Bonnies have three games left (against St. Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth, and Richmond) to fortify their case to the NCAA selection committee.
DraftKings lists St. Bonaventure at 500/1 to win the NCAA tournament and 80/1 to make the Final Four. And yes, “Empire Slate” is aware you can’t make bets on in-state college teams in New York state. But hey, it’s only about a 20-minute drive from campus to Pennsylvania and, let’s be honest, New Yorkers have been known to cross a border if they think they can get a big payoff.
Photo: Brad Penner/USA TODAY