In theory, we’re a little more than two weeks away from the start of Major League Baseball and just over three weeks away from the restart of the National Basketball Association.
The same coronavirus that interrupted/delayed those seasons in the first place is still tearing its way through the U.S., so nobody can be certain whether games will begin and whether, a little further on, champions will be crowned. But in the meantime, the various legal Pennsylvania sports betting operators are accepting futures bets.
And for the first time, sharp bettors need to keep a close eye on a particular form of roster shakeup: opt-outs.
The major team sports are generally adopting an understanding attitude in the time of COVID, allowing players who fear for the safety of themselves or their families to choose not to participate. So far, not a single NHL player among the 24 teams invited to continue the hockey season has opted out. (And a key deadline to do so passed on Tuesday.) No NFL players have opted out either — but, of course, Week 1 for them is two months away.
In MLB and the NBA, though, quite a few players have elected not to take the field or the court. There’s been a bit of futures odds movement as a result. And the respective Philadelphia teams, the Phillies and 76ers, could reap benefits from the opt-outs happening around them.
Baseball’s designated sitters
In MLB, two teams — Cleveland and Minnesota, both in the AL Central — have had coaches opt out (or be asked to sit out by concerned bosses). Five teams have had players opt out so far. And the only two with multiple players making that decision are in the NL East, involving teams with 10 games apiece scheduled against the Phillies.
For the Atlanta Braves, veteran outfielder Nick Markakis and newly signed pitcher Felix Hernandez have both opted out. Neither is an odds-impacting player, and 2010 AL Cy Young winner “King Felix” wasn’t even a sure thing to make the roster. But the Braves’ playoff hopes are being impacted by four-time all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman’s positive COVID test and symptomatic challenges. There’s the indirect effect of Freeman influencing Markakis’ decision. Then there’s the direct effect of uncertainty over the health and availability of one of Atlanta’s best players.
The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals are also being impacted by opt-outs. Pitcher Joe Ross, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and catcher Welington Castillo have all chosen not to play — although none of them are top-line players at this point in their careers. There’s no reason to expect the Nats’ World Series odds (+1800 at all PA sportsbooks) to shift based on any of this news.
While the Phillies have players with positive COVID tests to worry about — most notably, Scott Kingery — the opt-outs are thus far working in their favor. Any slight diminishment of the Nationals’ and Braves’ chances improves the Phils’. FanDuel currently has the highest payout on a Phillies World Series bet at 25/1. FOX Bet has the best price on them to win the division at +350.
Three other teams, all in the NL West, have seen one player apiece opt out so far: the Dodgers (David Price), Rockies (Ian Desmond), and Diamondbacks (Mike Leake). The latter two teams were long shots regardless, and the Dodgers remain the overwhelming favorite to win the division (from -500 at FanDuel to -800 at FOX Bet) and also to represent the National League in the World Series.
Cutting down the Nets
The NBA opt-outs haven’t been as neatly aligned by division so far, but divisions are irrelevant at this stage anyway. The eight remaining regular season games, starting July 30, are all about determining playoff teams and seedings in each conference.
Of the 22 teams continuing on, seven have players opting out so far. For three of them, the impact appears neglible:
- Rockets: Thabo Sefalosha (only averaging 10.6 minutes per game, replaced on roster by Luc Mbah a Moute)
- Mavericks: Willie Cauley-Stein (averaging 12.1 minutes per game)
- Wizards: Davis Bertans (a solid contributor, but the Wiz are 24-40 and can be written off because of Bradley Beal’s injury status)
The Portland Trail Blazers are also on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and their slim hopes are definitely diminished by Trevor Ariza opting out. They’re -550 near-locks to miss the playoffs at FanDuel and FOX Bet and a whopping -670 at DraftKings and the other sites that use Kambi’s odds.
It’s unclear at this point whether the L.A. Lakers, the favorite or co-favorite at all sites to win the title, will be impacted by opt-outs. Point guard Avery Bradley has elected not to play, and he’s certainly a contributor on the team — but the Lakers have gone 17-3 without him this season. Rumors have swirled about a Dwight Howard opt-out, and that might have changed the Lakers’ odds, but the latest reports suggest the veteran center will report to the Orlando bubble.
The most fascinating odds to track during this hiatus have belonged to the Brooklyn Nets, a mediocrity to this point in the regular season at 30-34, in line for the seventh seed in the East. Their odds shortened when the shutdown began because money came in on the possibility of Kevin Durant returning from injury, but now we know Durant and Kyrie Irving won’t play this season, Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince are battling COVID, and Wilson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan have both opted out. The Nets’ depth chart is a mess.
Their odds to make the playoffs are all over the map. The math is decidedly in their favor, even if they’re trotting out a G-League team. Still, you don’t often see odds variation like this: They’re -10000 to make the playoffs at DraftKings, -3500 at FanDuel, and just -1200 at FOX Bet. If you’re the type who’s ever willing to lay -1200, that’s a steal.
The biggest opt-out impact, though, comes from the Indiana Pacers, where star Victor Oladipo, citing re-injury concerns, has decided to sit. The Pacers are the fifth seed right now and can’t fall below No. 6. Their championship odds have plummeted at all sites to 100/1.
And the absence of Oladipo could benefit the Sixers. Philly fans’ dream scenario is now to end up in a 4-5 first-round matchup with a depleted Pacers team, though both teams would need to bypass the Miami Heat for that to happen. More likely, the Oladipo impact will be modest: It makes the 76ers one of five teams, instead of one of six, with a realistic shot at winning the Eastern Conference.
On that front, the best odds available in PA are at DraftKings and the other Kambi sites, which have Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and company at +900 to reach the NBA Finals.
Photo by Brian Spurlock / USA Today Sports