The 2017-2018 Houston Rockets are not just good – they are positioned favorably in a historical context to advance to and win the NBA Finals. The No. 1-seeded Rockets posted a league-best 65-17 regular season mark and have home court advantage over the No. 2-seeded Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, which begin on Monday, May 14.
The Rockets also won the regular season series over the Warriors, including a win at Golden State on the opening night of the season. Still, oddsmakers at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook have opened with the Warriors as a -185 betting favorite (implied probability of about 65%) in the Western Conference finals, with the Rockets a +155 underdog (implied probability of about 39%).
On paper, the Rockets-Warriors matchup looks to the be a clash of the titans that NBA fans haven’t been treated to in decades. The opening betting line, offering the Rockets as a plus-money underdog, appears on its face to offer good amount of value for a team that not only won 65 games during the regular season but also has home court advantage in the series. As an added bonus, the Rockets won the regular season series 2-1 over the Warriors, including an epic 122-121 Rockets win on opening night at Golden State with the teams splitting two later games played in Houston.
Jay Kornegay, Vice President of Race & Sports Operations at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook is excited about the action from the Rockets-Warriors matchup and told Sports Handle that the series will “probably produce the biggest handle outside another Cavaliers-Warriors final.” Let’s drill down into this highly anticipated matchup.
NBA Western Conference Finals Preview, Pick: The Rockets’ Red Glare
In the over 60-year history of the NBA, only 17 teams playing a full 82 game schedule have finished with a better regular season record than the 65-17 mark achieved by the Rockets this season. As an item to consider in our analysis, 12 of the 17 teams with a better regular season (70.5%) ultimately went on to win the NBA championship that season.
On an individual basis, James Harden is a virtual lock to win his first league MVP award after posting career best numbers in numerous categories. Harden led the league in points per game (30.4 ppg) and finished fourth in assists (8.8 apg). With the offseason addition of Chris Paul and the emergence of Clint Capela as a defensive presence at center, the Rockets have steamrolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs over the “just happy to be there” Minnesota Timberwolves and injury-depleted Utah Jazz. Through the playoffs, the Rockets have not been held to under 100 points and boast an average margin of victory of 14.75 points, largely casting aside the well-earned reputation of past Rockets teams that didn’t see merit in crossing onto to the defensive end of the court.
To Quickly Recap:
- Historic season? Check.
- Best record in the NBA? Check.
- Certain league MVP? Check.
- Improved supporting cast? Check.
- Playing some defense? Check.
- Home court advantage? Check.
Las Vegas Books: Rockets Not Ready for Lift Off
And with all of the proverbial boxes checked, one would generally assume that the Rockets would be the prohibitive favorites to win the NBA championship. Las Vegas oddsmakers disagree. As noted above, the Westgate SuperBook opened the Warriors as relatively heavy road favorites. While a number of complex factors can influence a betting line, such as public perception and potential futures liabilities a sportsbook might face if a certain team wins the championship, it is clear that the bookmakers put very little stock in both the historic regular season record of the Rockets and the disappointing (by Golden State standards) regular season for the Warriors.
The Rockets only went 41-40-1 against-the-spread (ATS) this season, a surprisingly low cover rate for a team that blew its projected win total of 55.5 wins out of the water. On the other hand, Golden State was a dismal 34-47-1 ATS, no surprise given they won 10 games fewer than the initial betting line set at 68.5 wins. Oddsmakers have instead focused on the fact that the Warriors’ season was riddled with injuries to stars like Stephen Curry and may believe that the team otherwise suffered from boredom from the grind of another long regular season. Clearly, the opening betting line displays a “champs until dethroned” mentality, which is fairly difficult to dispute given that Golden State has won three consecutive Western Conference titles, two of the past three NBA titles (which as we all know, should have been three consecutive titles absent inexplicably blowing a 3-1 lead over Cleveland in the 2015-2016 NBA finals) and Stephen Curry appears to be fairly healthy for the first time all season.
The Price is Right?
Part of the initial perception of value in the Rockets comes from the fact that Houston has home court advantage in the series. While Golden State sported matching records of 29-12 both home and away, Houston, on the other hand, had a brisk 34-7 record at home and a 31-10 record on the road in the regular season. Contrary to what one would think, Houston has actually performed better on the road in the playoffs over the past few seasons than at home.
Last season, Houston, despite being a 9-point favorite in Game 6 of the Western semi-finals against the San Antonio Spurs, were dismantled 114-75 at home (playing without scoring leader Kawhi Leonard) and sent packing for an early vacation. This year, Houston was also whipped 116-108 in Game 2 of the Western Conference semi-finals at home by the Utah Jazz in a contest (which I had the pleasure of watching in person) where the final score was not indicative of how badly the Jazz thumped the Rockets in every facet of the game.
While it’s unfair to pay too much attention to the Rockets taking a night off against an injury-depleted Jazz team that ultimately laid down in final three games of the series, the loss against the Spurs in a must-win game is impossible to ignore when assigning value to having home court advantage. Likewise, it is critical to focus on how phenomenal the Warriors have been on the road in the playoffs over the past several seasons. Golden State lost only a single road game in its 2017 title run, and while the Warriors have already dropped a couple of games on the road in the 2018 playoffs, one of which was without Stephen Curry and both to opponents that were clearly outmatched in other games. While there is no doubt that home teams do have an advantage historically in the playoffs, Golden State’s track record when Curry is healthy wipes out what in most cases would be a boon. Advantage: None
While there is little doubt that James Harden will ultimately win the 2017-2018 NBA MVP award, few general managers would select Harden over two-time MVP Curry if they had their druthers. Harden still faces demons from several catastrophic playoff meltdowns, including a 10-point, 6-turnover stink bomb in last year’s home blowout loss to the Spurs that ended Houston’s season. While Curry can proudly display a trophy case full of championship rings and MVP trophies, Harden still has much to prove when the lights shine the brightest. Advantage: Golden State
There is no doubt that the addition of Chris Paul has been a major jolt for the Rockets, as his veteran leadership and ability to distribute the ball takes a great deal of pressure off of Harden to be a “one man show.” Clint Capela has emerged as a rising star at center, particularly on the defensive end and while other starters Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker are decent players, they are little more than role players that spend most of their time camping out at the three-point line like an overweight, middle aged man (hey, that’s me) in a YMCA pickup game. The Warriors, on the other hand, counter with Kevin Durant, who arguably is every bit as good a player as Curry and Klay Thompson, who many consider to be one of the top 10 players in the league. Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green aren’t slouches either and round out a starting five that may be without an equal over the past few decades. Advantage: Golden State
The only real advantage in this series for the Rockets comes from its bench. Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Luc Mbah a Moute would likely start for a dozen of the other 14 playoff teams, with Gordon and Green both extremely capable of putting up big numbers in a hurry when (and if) they get hot. The Warriors bench doesn’t offer much, but does it really need to? Shaun Livingston and Kevin Looney are serviceable, yet largely forgettable. Advantage: Houston
In full disclosure, I grew up a die-hard Rockets fan and still remember watching playoff games in the early 1980’s as a young kid growing up in Houston. My family had season tickets for over a decade, beginning in a stroke of luck in the 1993-94 season where the Rockets bested the Knicks in a knock-down drag out seven game series that most casual fans only remember due to it being interrupted during Game 5 by some guy driving a white Bronco down the freeway in Southern California. [Editor’s Note: As a lifelong and long-suffering New York Knicks fan, thinking back again to their Game 7 loss to the Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals is causing great distress.]
While my interest in the NBA is certainly nowhere near its peak (thanks largely to things like having a wife, kids, fantasy football and some football handicapping thing known as the SuperContest – in no particular order), I still consider myself to be a bigger Rockets fan than most. Setting personal bias aside, as one must do to successfully handicap any sport, there are insurmountable advantages favoring Golden State when you compare the Warriors’ starting five and recent dominance (aside from that whole blowing a 3-1 lead thing), particularly on the road to the Rockets starting five and the team’s (and Harden’s) recent history of cataclysmic playoff failures.
Even with Houston possessing coveted home court advantage, I think that the experienced Warriors will find a way to win at least one – and perhaps two – games in Houston and will be able to protect successfully protect its home court after returning home.
The Pick: Golden State in 6 (and Golden State in the Finals in 5 over the LeBrons)
Barry McFadden is a co-founding partner of Greathouse Holloway McFadden PLLC in Houston, Texas and has significant experience representing clients in the gaming and sports betting industry. In addition to his legal practice, Barry and a partner finished in 3rd place in the prestigious Westgate Las Vegas NFL SuperContest in 2015, besting nearly 1800 other entrants, for a payday of $181,335.