Best Bets for 2021–22 NBA Season: Bucks Undervalued to Repeat As Champions

By Michael Shapiro

Opening night of the 2021–22 season is rapidly approaching as we roll through another abbreviated offseason, and a presumed league hierarchy is beginning to be established by various oddsmakers. The Nets are considered the championship favorites, while Luka Dončić and Steph Curry lead the field of MVP candidates. Does being a preseason favorite guarantee any hardware in ’22? Not in the slightest. But perhaps there are some things we can glean as we scan through the odds.

As we anticipate the start of the season, let’s sort through the best value bets available in Vegas and around the globe:

(All odds provided by SI Sportsbook and Vegas Insider.)

Bucks to win Finals: +850

The Bucks are anything but a lock to repeat as champions, a feat achieved by just three teams in the post-Jordan era. Brooklyn enters 2021–22 considered by most to be the Eastern Conference favorite, and the Lakers sport a clear championship ceiling if their Big Three can stay healthy. While it’s fair to consider this triumvirate the top tier of championship contenders, the market is treating this situation a bit differently. The Nets and Lakers enter Tuesday at +260 and +325 to win the championship, respectively. Milwaukee, by contrast, sits at +850, closer to the Warriors than the pair of coastal favorites.

Why the chasm in odds? The sheer talent in Brooklyn makes the Nets a sensible favorite, and the public’s love of the Lakers likely shifts their odds to a degree. But don’t let the disparity in odds alter the true picture of the chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Bucks retained much of their core from last year’s championship squad, and Giannis Antetokounmpo may not yet be at the peak of his powers.

There’s a realistic path to the No. 1 seed for Milwaukee if Brooklyn battles injuries again or looks to rest its stars, and it’s hard to see the Bucks as true underdogs against any Western Conference champion. There’s also an outside chance Antetokounmpo is ready to channel prime Shaq and rip off a few Finals MVPs in a row. Better to seize these odds now before Milwaukee turns in another dominant regular-season campaign.

Jalen Green to win Rookie of the Year: +280

It’s hard to seriously consider anyone but the top two picks in the 2021 draft for Rookie of the Year. Evan Mobley is unlikely to put up the counting stats necessary for the award as he adjusts to the professional game. Scottie Barnes is more of a role player than a top option at this point. Some prefer Jalen Suggs as the top guard in the draft, though frankly, the Magic could be one of the toughest watches in the league. Unless a Warrior (Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody) surprises with a standout campaign, there is unlikely to be stiff competition outside of Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green.

So where should we lean when deciphering between the top two picks? Perhaps deviating from the favorite (Cunningham at +245, Green at +285) is once again a wise decision. This isn’t a judgment on which prospect will emerge as the premier player of his draft class. But regarding just 2021–22, Green should be placed in a position to seal the award by virtue of sheer counting stats. He was an electric scorer at the G League level, and his brief dalliance in Summer League only entrenched Houston’s faith in his immense talent. Green looks like an oversized Ja Morant as he slithers around defenders at the rim. He’s already comfortable as an off-the-bounce shooter, and he should get plenty of chances to rack up 40-point contests alongside emerging point guard Kevin Porter Jr. With a year of G League experience under his belt, Green may be able to hit the ground running.

Perhaps Cunningham emerges as the better player in future years. He’s a truly gifted floor general with significant size, and perhaps the Pistons surprise some folks and flirt with .500 for a large portion of the season. Yet that feels like a bit of a hyper-specific scenario at the moment. Green’s scoring brilliance could sway voters come April.

James Harden to win MVP: +2,000

From the Rockets’ current franchise cornerstone to their prior one, James Harden is perhaps the best value bet on the board for MVP. This isn’t to say he’s the favorite. Harden is one member of an elite trio, and after being so prominently featured in MVP races of years past, there’s likely an element of voter fatigue at play. Eleven players have shorter MVP odds, including Harden’s teammate Kevin Durant. Yet at +2,000, the sheer value at play may be too good to pass up.

Harden has finished in the top three of the MVP voting in five of six seasons from 2014 to ’20. He could average 30 points per game next season, or he could very well go full facilitator and lead the league in assists for the second time in his career. Harden’s ugly Houston exit and subsequent injury-riddled season have obscured the conversation regarding his standing in the league. He’s one of the greatest offensive players in league history, one who is still relatively at his peak. If Durant and/or Kyrie Irving miss significant time, we could see a narrative for Harden’s second MVP emerge sooner than later.

Pelicans under 39.5 wins

There’s no denying Zion Williamson’s immense talent as he enters his third year in the league. The Duke product is one of the most prodigious young scorers in league history, jumping to 27 points per game on a startling 61.6 effective field goal percentage in 2020–21. Williamson in transition is more frightening than a young Charles Barkley. His low-post efficiency draws comparisons to Kevin McHale. Yet while Williamson may actually be a once-in-a-generation talent, the cast around him doesn’t lend to much optimism.

The Pelicans have felt like a wayward franchise for much of Williamson's tenure. They dismissed Alvin Gentry after a 30–42 campaign in 2019–20, and the Stan Van Gundy era didn’t exactly go much better. The acquisition of Steven Adams quickly proved to be a spacing disaster, and New Orleans looked very much like a bottom-tier defense for the majority of the season. Is there reason for a rosier outlook in ’21–22? Not exactly. Lonzo Ball has been effectively replaced by undersized guard Devonte’ Graham. There’s little backcourt depth, and while Jonas Valančiūnas should be a solid offensive complement to Williamson, he’s not exactly an imposing force in the middle. Expecting this roster to flirt with .500 is a risky bet in the Western Conference. There’s a very good chance we see the Pelicans underwhelm again, and rumors of Williamson’s discontent grow.

Raptors over 36.5 wins

I get it. The Raptors are without their franchise point guard, won 27 games last year and, by most indications, isn’t necessarily gunning for the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2021–22. But doesn’t 36 wins feel a bit light for a team with such a strong infrastructure? Nick Nurse remains one of the game’s top tacticians. Fred VanVleet earned a master’s degree at the Kyle Lowry School of Point Guard Play. Toronto is terrifying on the wing, armed with a deep collection of lanky forwards. Pairing Barnes with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam should wreak absolute havoc on opposing offenses, and I think Goran Dragić may still have a bit more left in the tank than many assume.

Thirty-seven wins isn’t some unattainable number, even for a middling team in the Eastern Conference. There’s institutional experience here as the Raptors return to Canada for a full season in Toronto.

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