The Los Angeles Lakers are currently the favorites to win the 2019-20 NBA Championship, but would those odds change if they were without two of their key players?
That's the question that oddsmakers will have to ask themselves if players such as Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley decide not to return when the season resume on July 30.
For the first time in the history of the National Basketball Association, the NBA playoffs will look drastically different this year. Occurring four months after they were originally scheduled to begin, and inside a "bubble" at Disney World in Orlando, Florida without fans in attendance, 22 teams will battle for a championship that nobody will likely ever forget in their lifetime.
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According to sports books, the Lakers have the best odds according to win the championship when the season resumes. The Western Conference leaders have even better odds than the team with the best record in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks (53-12), and the team with the reigning NBA Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers.
According to oddsmakers, one of those three teams will likely hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy in October. No other team has odds of less than +1200 to win the championship behind the Lakers (+190), Bucks (+230), and Clippers (+300).
However, in recent days, several players led by currently injured Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, have voiced their concerns about returning to play basketball in Orlando. Irving, and other players including Bradley and Howard, Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony, and Clippers' guard Lou Williams, believe that the resumption of the season would potentially distract fans from the ongoing social injustice and police brutality protests occurring nationwide.
After initially saying that "something smells fishy" when it came to the NBA's plan to resume the season in Orlando, Irving took it a step further on Tuesday when he reportedly told several NBA players in a group that that they should form their own league.
A night prior, Howard joined Don Lemon on CNN, and said he agrees with Irving and added, "There's so much stuff going on in our world, man, and I just feel like we don't need to get distracted by anything. I would definitely want to play and win a championship, but I don't want anything to distract us from really what's going on in our world...No basketball until we get things resolved."
Irving is reportedly urging players, including his own teammates to sit out the restart of the season. In response, the NBA has announced that a central goal of their season restart will be to utilize the league's platform to bring attention and sustained action to issues of social injustice, including combatting systemic racism, expanding educational and economic opportunities across the Black community, enacting meaningful police and criminal justice reform, and promoting greater civic engagement. They have given a deadline of June 24 for players to decide whether or not they are going to join their teams in Orlando and play out the season.
Players who chose to not return will not be penalized, although many of them will lose the remainder of the money on their contract for the 2019-20 season. Nonetheless, if multiple players across all 22 teams (reportedly an average of 2-3 players per team are considering not playing), than how does that affect the current odds to win the NBA championship?
In the case of the Lakers, although neither Bradley or Howard have officially stated they will not return when the season resumes, there is certainly a strong chance given their recent statements that they will choose not to play when it does.
Therefore, without two of their key role players, how does that affect the Lakers chances of winning the championship?
First and foremost, losing Bradley and Howard is not the same as the Lakers losing LeBron James or Anthony Davis. Without one or both of their superstars, the Lakers chances of winning the NBA Finals would most certainly be zilch. If they lose Bradley and Howard, their odds would certainly be lower, but they would still remain among the top three title contenders without them.
Bradley and Howard are only averaging a combined 16.1 points per game, but it's their elite defense that makes them invaluable to the Lakers title hopes. Their defensive win shares are a combined 3.8, that's more than any other two players on their team not named Anthony Davis.
Bradley's wing defense and ability to shoot from beyond-the-arc, is crucial against teams like the Clippers, Rockets, and Bucks. Outside of Davis, Howard is arguably the team's best interior defender. He averages 1.2 blocks per game and protects the rim, the combination of both Howard and Bradley is immeasurable for the Lakers on the defensive end. Needless to say, there is no one on the current roster that could travel with the team to Orlando that could replace what Howard and Bradley bring to the table.
If Howard choses to not return to Orlando, the Lakers would be without a backup center. It's possible Davis could shift more to the five, but he's played a majority of the season at the four, and has already said publicly he prefers to play the four. The Lakers could also sign DeMarcus Cousins if Howard decides not to return, but Cousins hasn't played basketball in over a year, and has a completely different skillset than Howard.
Without Bradley, Kentavious-Caldwell Pope will be asked to step up both on the offensive and defensive end, and players like Quinn Cook, Talen Horton-Tucker, and even Dion Waiters—who has yet to play a single second in a Lakers uniform—will all be asked to step up and likely will get more playing time in Bradley's absence.
However, it's doubtful any of those players can replace what Bradley brings. Take for example the Lakers penultimate game before the season was suspended by the coronavirus. In their first and only victory over the Clippers this season, Bradley was the Lakers' third best player, scoring 24 points, draining six three-pointers, grabbing two steals, and providing a game-high plus/minus of +13. That was more than LeBron James (+7) and Anthony Davis (+12).
Without Bradley and Howard, the Lakers championship odds would probably drop behind the Bucks and Clippers, but if those teams have players who decide not to return as well, it could level the playing field. There's still a week for Bradley and Howard to decide, but certainly everyone will be interested on what decision they make and the oddsmakers will adjust accordingly once they do.