NBA All-Star Weekend is upon us, and there’s one absolute sure bet: These three days will be a nonstop tribute to the life of Kobe Bryant.
The Lower Merion High School graduate was seen as both a hero and a villain to Pennsylvania sports fans during his pro career, but since his death on Jan. 26, the world has mostly seen an outpouring of love for the former Lakers great. And the NBA went so far as to drastically change its All-Star Game rules to honor Kobe.
The numbers “24” and “8” have prominently figured into countless tributes over the last couple of weeks, but we’ll go with a different number: In honor of the five NBA championships Bryant won, here are five betting subplots to watch in the first All-Star festivities since legal online sports wagering began in PA:
1. Too close a spread?
Team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo drafted their ASG rosters last week, and both decided to stick with their respective conferences for starters. And when you look at the names, what can you possibly say except advantage Team LeBron? James took Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, and James Harden. Giannis selected Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Kemba Walker, and Trae Young. It’s not a stretch to say Team LeBron might have five of the six best players, or at least five of the top seven.
And even off the bench, Team Giannis is probably at a slight disadvantage because Antetokounmpo showed loyalty to the Bucks and took teammate Khris Middleton with his first pick. TeamLeBron, despite losing Damian Lillard to injury, boasts the likes of Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic, and Russell Westbrook among its reserves, whereas the best bench players on the opposite side are Jimmy Butler, Rudy Gobert, and Bam Adebayo.
All of which is a long way of saying Team LeBron — which, by the way, beat Team Giannis by 14 points last year — should be a comfortable favorite here. But the sportsbooks in Pennsylvania have only made them a small favorite. Team LeBron opened at -4.5 at FanDuel Sportsbook. They’re -5.5 at FOX Bet. (The various sportsbooks operated by Kambi, including Play SugarHouse and DraftKings, did not yet have odds on the game as of Friday morning.)
But on top of the fact that LeBron’s team is several notches better on paper, we also have to consider the Kobe factor. The only two Lakers in the game are both on Team LeBron. Can you envision them easing up during a game built around memories of Bryant?
And if you’re looking for a bonus bet, endorsed by John Brennan this week on the Gamble On podcast, LeBron at +425 for MVP at FOX Bet is loaded with value under this year’s unique circumstances.
In terms of a PA subplot, we have 76ers Embiid and Simmons on opposite teams. The sportsbooks haven’t posted a head-to-head prop yet, but if they do, given that Embiid is a starter and Simmons isn’t, we’d make the Sixers’ center at least -5.5 over Simmons in the scoring department.
2. You won’t find a lower total
As we analyzed when assessing the impact of the new Kobe-fied rules last week, instead of a point total of around 340, the assuredly abbreviated fourth quarter should translate to a total of about 303 points.
The sportsbooks are going a little under that. FOX Bet has set the line at 301.5, and FanDuel is all the way down at 298.5.
Last year, 342 points were tallied in the game. Three years ago, the teams racked up 374!
There figures to be a bit more defense this year, at least in the fourth quarter and toward the end of the first three quarters. As always, the books are putting bettors to the test in trying to calculate just how much impact the new rules will have.
3. More Luka, more Trae, plus Zion and Ja
Friday night, all eyes will be on the Rising Stars game, pitting “Team USA” against “Team World” with only first- and second-year players eligible. Actual all-stars Young and Doncic lead those respective squads, but much of the excitement centers around two rookies on the American team: Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
Morant is currently a -560 favorite at DraftKings to win Rookie of the Year, but Williamson is closing on him at +450 after playing only 10 games. The most he can play is 37; is that enough to win the hardware?
Anyway, Team USA is favored by 4.5 at FanDuel and FOX Bet and by an even 5 points at the Kambi books. But if you believe Doncic is a special enough talent to carry a slightly thinner team to victory, you can get Team World at +165 on the moneyline via Kambi.
4. The Trae-point — err, three-point — contest
With Lillard dropping out of the three-point contest due to injury, the player to watch is Hawks sophomore Trae Young. He’s a +320 co-favorite (with defending champ Joe Harris) at FOX Bet and he has the second-shortest odds (behind Harris) at +390 at FanDuel, but at Play SugarHouse, you can get a price of +500.
There are new rules this year, which some believe are there specifically to benefit Young. In addition to the one-point shots and the two-point “money balls,” there will be two balls available six feet behind the arc worth three points apiece. With Stephen Curry missing the competition this year, that makes Trae the obvious beneficiary of these literal long shots.
Then again, as noted this week on Gamble On, first-time participant Davis Bertans of the Wizards won’t be hurt one bit by the extra-deep option. At a high price of +550 at FOX Bet and some Kambi sites, the 6’10” Latvian sharpshooter is a very dangerous dark horse.
5. No slam dunks in the dunk contest
Sorry for the possibly misleading subhead there. Obviously, there will be slam dunks in Saturday’s dunk contest. But in terms of betting options, there’s no slam dunk.
FanDuel doesn’t have odds posted on this one currently, but FOX Bet and some Kambi sites do, and here are the best prices on each of the four participants:
- Aaron Gordon: +150
- Derrick Jones Jr.: +165
- Pat Connaughton: +450
- Dwight Howard: +700
Remember: This will be a nostalgia-themed weekend loaded with tributes to Kobe Bryant. And you’d better believe half the dunks will contain some sort of shout-out to the late Lakers great.
At a 7/1 return, isn’t the 34-year-old Howard, a current Laker and semi-contemporary of Kobe, worth a flyer?
If there’s one thing past dunk competitions have proven, it’s that with subjective scoring, the actual best dunker doesn’t always win.
Photo by Cary Edmondson / USA Today Sports