I’m not exactly sure what good-luck charm David Stern keeps in his back pocket (a horseshoe, a rabbit’s foot, one of Marv Albert’s hairpieces), but whatever it is, it’s working. The NBA commissioner won a game of chicken with the players association, saving the 2011-12 campaign at the 11th hour, then watched those same players deliver one of the most compelling regular seasons in recent memory. Among the highlights:
• After completely emasculating the union in labor negotiations—the players might as well have just handed their wallets to the owners, then sent them a thank-you note—Stern announced the season would shrink from 82 to 66 games and start on Christmas Day, nearly two full months late. The consensus reaction among the fan base to this plan: “Why don’t they do this every year?”
• LeBron James proved once more he’s the most unstoppable force in the league, averaging 27 points, more than six assists and nearly eight rebounds per game, while playing suffocating defense—all during a truncated season in which he was often required to play five games in a week. And yet, what will we most remember Bron-Bron for this season? His hot-potato moment in the All-Star Game, when he passed up the game-winning shot in the waning seconds not once, but twice.
• The Heat (17-9), Bulls (13-1) and Lakers (5-2) posted a combined 35-12 record when superstars Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant didn’t play.
• An Asian-American point guard for the New York Knicks (by way of Harvard) reminded us during a stirring three-week stretch in February how swiftly someone can blow up (and then fade away) in the Information Age.
• And last (and most certainly least), the historically awful Charlotte Bobcats, who beat Milwaukee in their season opener … then went 6-57 over their next 63 games, including 21 straight defeats from March 19-April 22. Here’s your 2011-12 Bobcats in a nutshell: Through 64 games, they were outscored by almost 14 points per contest and were an NBA-worst 22-42 against the spread. (Oh, now is when I mention that Michael Jordan—he of the six NBA titles and a reputation as the most competitive SOB on the planet—owns and operates the Bobcats. Go figure.)
As fascinating as the last four months were, the NBA’s second season, which tips off April 28, figures to provide even greater drama—and an abundance of wagering opportunities. Here are my four favorite prop bets (note that playoff matchups weren’t finalized at press time) …
$100 on Magic to win first-round playoff series (estimated odds: +270): No, Metta World Peace didn’t just crack open my skull with his elbow—although I understand why you’d think so. After all, I’d have to be concussed to suggest the Dwight Howard-less Magic can win a best-of-7 series, especially when they’re likely facing the Pacers, who sport the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (and fifth-best in the entire league).
Well, what if I told you Orlando went 3-1 against Indiana this season? Granted, Howard played in all four contests, but two of those wins were by double digits. And what if I told you the Magic are one of the NBA’s best 3-point-shooting teams, while Indiana ranks in the middle of the pack at defending the arc? Finally, what if I told you Orlando’s players (and embattled coach) would love nothing more than to win a series sans Howard after all the drama their big man put them through this season? Throw in Indiana’s lack of playoff experience, and those near 3-to-1 odds look mighty enticing.
$400 on Bulls and Heat to meet in Eastern Conference finals (estimated odds: +150): Do the lingering health issues of Rose and Wade scare me? Of course. Still, both teams have proven all season they can win without their big guns. Trust me: The only thing that’s more of a lock than this matchup is LeBron wilting in the fourth quarter at least twice in the series.
$200 on Western Conference to win NBA title (estimated odds: +140): You get whoever’s left standing after the Bulls-Heat bloodbath (which is destined to go seven games). I get the young Thunder, savvy Spurs, Kobe-led Lakers and upstart Grizzlies (who went 2-1 against Miami and Chicago this season). And I get plus-money? Sign me up! (Now watch the Utah Jazz catch fire and win the West.)
$75 on Grizzlies to reach Western Conference finals (estimated odds: +800): Three weeks ago, the monkey said to take Memphis at 30-to-1 to win the NBA title. Since then, Memphis is 10-2 (part of a 15-4 run that dates to March 25). Yeah, like I’m gonna argue with the monkey.
RESULTS FROM APRIL 12: 5-6 (-$279); Bankroll: $4,441.