A 500-1 longshot: Why the Oklahoma City Thunder have become a popular bet to win the NBA Finals

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Kawhi Leonard had the ball in his hands with 16.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Los Angeles Clippers trailed by a single point to the Oklahoma City Thunder. With Luguentz Dort hounding him, Leonard took screens from Russell Westbrook and Marcus Morris in an attempt to shake Dort off, but it was to no avail. Leonard did not even get a potential game-winning attempt off before time expired, and the Thunder won and covered for the eighth time in 10 games.

Oklahoma City would go on to lose the rematch with Los Angeles on Thursday, but this team is still 8-3 SU and ATS in its last 11 games and a playoff berth is a very real possibility due to this late run. In fact, DraftKings has them as -130 favorites to participate in the Western Conference play-in tournament.

 

For a franchise which has won 46 games over the last two seasons an appearance in the NBA postseason would be an accomplishment, but what if Oklahoma City could do more than just get to the dance?

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What if they could win the Western Conference? Or the NBA Finals?

On Wednesday the Thunder were 250-1 to win the West and 500-1 to win the NBA Finals at BetMGM and other books around the country. Over the last 48 hours the odds have been adjusted to 250-1 consensus to win the Finals and 100-1 to win the Western Conference. Part of the reason that books made an adjustment is the injury to Paul George, but at some shops the liability is building up on Oklahoma City.

DraftKings has liability on the Thunder in two markets: to make the playoffs and to win the Western Conference. When it comes to the latter, bettors cannot get enough.

“They’re betting it everyday,” said DraftKings sportsbook director Johnny Avello. “People see a number like 250-1 and know they don’t have to bet much to win a lot.”

The SuperBook recently took a $500 wager on the Thunder to win the NBA Finals at 240-1 and they have “huge liability” on them to win the NBA Finals.

“We thought they were tanking,” said Westgate director of race and sports John Murray. “Especially after Holmgren got hurt in the offseason.”

Circa Sports confirmed liability on Oklahoma City to win the title as well, which was mostly due to longshot flyers from bettors throughout the season.

Some reading this might think that any money on a longshot like the Thunder to win either the Western Conference or NBA Finals is foolish, but it might not in a season like this one, where no one in the West has proven to be a dominant force and every team is flawed.

Denver has slipped to 17th in non-garbage time defensive efficiency, and they will bring one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA into the postseason. It ranks 24th in opponent points added per 100 possessions through transition offense (3.0) and 28th in transition defensive efficiency off live rebounds (127.6).

Memphis has suffered multiple injuries to its frontcourt. Brandon Clarke is out for the season and Steven Adams is sidelined until the postseason begins. The Grizzlies also happen to rank 21st in halfcourt offensive efficiency (96.5) and 24th in both overall 3-point shooting (35.2%) and non-corner 3-point shooting (34.1%).

Golden State is 9-29 SU/10-28 ATS away from home, and it has the third worst non-garbage time road defensive rating in the NBA (121.3). Sacramento might lead the league in non-garbage time offensive efficiency (119.6), but it ranks 25th in defensive efficiency (117.4).

Each of the teams above Oklahoma City carries major flaws in some form or fashion, and should the Thunder make their way to the dance they would be a problem for any team they face in a series.

VSiN senior producer Kelley Bydlon and contributor Will Hill recently put bets on Oklahoma City to win the NBA Finals, and I joined the party as well. These bets might be lottery tickets, but there are still realistic paths for these tickets to cash.

“This team has simply been one of the best in the west in the month of March,” said Bydlon. “They are allowing the fourth fewest points per 100 possessions over that time period, and if you bring it back even further, to the start of 2023, this team ranks sixth in the NBA in net rating.”

That’s right, it’s not just about the teams above them. The Thunder might actually be a decent team too.

Oklahoma City is 11th in non-garbage time defensive efficiency this season, having allowed 114.2 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder also rank second in defensive turnover rate (16.6%) this season, and they allow the fourth fewest points per 100 plays in halfcourt settings (95.6), according to Cleaning The Glass.

Those are traits of a team that can win playoff games, and they have a weapon that no other team has: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“This team will have the best player in the series in many potential matchups,” said Hill. “They can be a threat to steal a round or two if they get on the right side of the bracket.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is a contender for Most Improved Player for a reason. He is the league’s fourth leading scorer at 31.4 points per game, and he ranks in the 94th percentile at his position in points per shot attempt (126.1). He is hardly the only talented player the Thunder have as well.

Luguentz Dort is one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders who is capable of guarding multiple positions due to his size, as evidenced by his performance against Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday night. The Thunder also have rookie Jalen Williams who is finishing his season strong with 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 55.2% shooting from the floor over his last 18 contests. Josh Giddey is a fantastic point forward who ranks in the 100th percentile at his position in assist rate (29.1%) and the 96th percentile in defensive rebounding rate (18.1%).

According to SportsOddsHistory’s database, which goes back to 1972, the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks and 1994-1995 Houston Rockets at 18-1 were the two teams with the longest odds prior to the first round to win the NBA Finals. The 2019-2020 Miami Heat at 14-1 prior to the first round were the longest shot to win its conference since the 2008-2009 season.

History shows that Cinderella runs do not happen in the NBA. But, in a unique season in which the Western Conference seems to be in shambles there is upward mobility for a team like Oklahoma City, and remember what we have seen recently.

The Boston Celtics were as high as 80-1 to win the NBA Finals last season, and at one point led the series against Golden State. Atlanta peaked at 65-1 to win the Eastern Conference when it made a run to the conference finals in the 2020-2021 season. Those Miami Heat in the Orlando bubble were 80-1 to win the NBA Finals at one point that season.

Even if Oklahoma City cannot win the conference or title, there is certainly a reality in which it wins a series or two, and bettors can take a position to make some financial gain. In a Western Conference that has been the weakest it has been in many years that is not an improbable outcome.