NBA Betting: Why the Cleveland Cavaliers are a good bet on the futures market

Zachary Cohen explains why the surging Cleveland Cavaliers have a shot in the Eastern Conference.

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Feb 1, 2024; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) reacts after a three point basket during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics are currently viewed as the best team in the NBA. Joe Mazzulla’s group is a league-best 37-12 on the year, and the team is first in adjusted offensive rating and third in adjusted defensive rating (all adjusted efficiency numbers from Dunks & Threes). However, the Celtics still need to prove that they’re capable of generating good looks against playoff-level defenses. They have been a jumper-heavy bunch under Mazzulla, and it’s important to have variety in the postseason. More good mid-range looks and shots at the rim would benefit Boston greatly. Until we see that healthier shot diet, it’s hard to consider this team a lock to make the NBA Finals. That’s why there’s still some value in betting NBA futures for Eastern Conference teams. And the one that stands out right now is the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

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The Cavaliers look like a good bet to win the NBA Finals at +4500 right now. That doesn’t mean that Cleveland is going to win it all. But that number seems a little long for a team with a real shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals. And that’s all the Cavaliers would need to do before hedging for guaranteed profits becomes an option. Realistically, that’s the endgame with a play like this.

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A lot of people have bad tastes in their mouths because of the way the Cavaliers went out against the New York Knicks last year. But that Cleveland team didn’t have enough firepower from behind the 3-point line, and that put J.B. Bickerstaff in a tough spot. The Cavaliers lacked the spacing necessary to allow Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland to thrive, as they frequently played two-center lineups with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Neither one of those bigs can knock down outside shots. And the rotation wasn’t deep enough with shooters to overcome that.

Cleveland addressed all of that by going out and signing Max Strus to a four-year, $63-million deal in the offseason. Strus is shooting just 33.6% from deep this year, but he launches 7.4 triples per game and defenses know they can’t leave him. Strus is also a sturdy enough defender that opposing offenses can’t consistently pick on him. Georges Niang is another offseason addition that spaces the floor, as he’s shooting 36.3% from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game. The Cavaliers also get some good minutes out of Sam Merrill, a 27-year-old sniper that has fought an uphill battle for playing time early in his career. 

All three players have played a big role in Cleveland rattling off 12 wins in its last 13 games. And while none of them are perfect, they provide Bickerstaff with mix-and-match options for the playoffs. He won’t be forced to play Isaac Okoro, a great defender with a limited offensive game, or Caris LeVert, a good isolation scorer that doesn’t play a lick of defense. Bickerstaff can now look at how things are going and experiment with the combinations he has at his disposal. 

The Cavaliers have simply become a more dangerous offensive team, and they did it without sacrificing their defense. In fact, they’re second in the league in adjusted defensive rating this season, giving up 111.2 schedule-adjusted points per 100 possessions. That’s not far off last year’s NBA-best 110.4 schedule-adjusted points per possession allowed. And when you’re defending like that, you have a shot in any playoff match-up. 

On top of all of that, Mitchell is playing the best basketball of his career, by far. The 27-year-old is averaging 28.1 points, 6.4 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game this year. Mitchell’s Offensive EPM is +4.7, which is a little lower than last year’s +4.8. However, his Defensive EPM is up from +0.1 to +1.2. He’s making a real effort defensively and he hasn’t been as big of a liability as he once was. That will likely change in the playoffs, as he’ll be matched up against the best scoring guards in the league. But those scoring guards also have their defensive issues, so it’s not like they’ll be able to cover him. That said, Mitchell will have his chance of out-dueling anybody over the course of a playoff series. 

It also isn’t out of the question that the Cavaliers will do something to improve their rotation before the NBA trade deadline. For all of the positives we’ve seen with this Cleveland team, the fit between Allen and Mobley is questionable. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Cavaliers made the difficult decision to move off one of them, especially with most of the team’s success coming when Mobley was sidelined with an injury. Cleveland has been special because of its ability to spread teams out and knock down 3s, while also playing elite defense. The identity changes significantly when the Cavaliers have everybody healthy — especially considering Garland doesn’t launch as many triples as he should. 

The Cavaliers are simply going to be a tough out for whoever they play. And the uncertainty atop the Eastern Conference makes this a shot worth taking. Cleveland has a real chance of finishing as the second or third seed, which would allow the team to avoid Boston until the Eastern Conference Finals. And I like the Cavaliers’ chances against a Milwaukee Bucks team that doesn’t defend, a Knicks team that still feels like it’s a piece away and a Philadelphia 76ers squad that is dealing with a messy Joel Embiid injury. The Cavaliers just need to find a way to make the second round. They should have a puncher’s chance from there — especially with their electric home crowd. That’s enough to make them a worthy play on the NBA futures market.

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