LeBron, Heat 8-5 favorite to win NBA title

Initially, after LeBron James announced the big decision to take his talents to South Beach, where he planned to party and play for the Miami Heat, the knee-jerk reactions were mostly negative.

James was immature in how he dumped Cleveland. The ESPN special he orchestrated to reveal “The Decision,” with goofball Jim Gray asking a series of softball questions, was embarrassing. And then James’ first appearance in Miami — he danced on a stage with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as fireworks went off — was nothing but a clown show.

There was a lot not to like about how James joined the South Beach Heat. But looking past all the foolishness, it’s a fascinating move and a positive one for James and the NBA.

He took less money to team with another great player, Wade, and attempt to win a title. What’s wrong with that?

James, Wade and the Heat are making the NBA more relevant than ever. Relevance is measured by media coverage, TV ratings and the wagering handle, and all will soar this season.

Dominant teams are good for business because they increase interest. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls owned the 1990s. Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers mostly dominated the past decade.

Most of us would be sleeping on the league’s grand opening next week if not for James and the Heat making big waves.

At Las Vegas sports books, Miami is a consensus 8-5 favorite to win the championship in June. The Lakers, my bet to win a third straight title, are at 3-1 odds.

Regular-season win totals are posted at most books, and you will find numbers that differ slightly, but both the Las Vegas Hilton and M Resort are at 64½ on the Heat.

“The only side I would play would be under 64½,” said handicapper Jim Kruger of Vegassportsauthority.com. “Every team will be gunning for the Heat. There are still question marks at point guard and at center. Health is always an issue, especially when there is little upside potential above your number. If it turns out the three superstars can blend well together and also not get injured, they could definitely go over the number.

“But I feel there are better season-win wagers out there than the Heat.”

Hey, you can’t write a preview to this NBA season without some sort of opinion on the Heat. Wade and other key players staying healthy is one of my questions, and I’ll pencil in Miami for 62 wins. Let’s move on now that that’s done.

Last season wrapped with the Lakers storming back to beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Celtics added two brittle O’Neals — Shaquille and Jermaine — and their win total is 55½ (under minus-170) at the M Resort. Kruger bet Boston under the total.

“The Celtics won 50 games last year, starting fast out of the gate by going 23-5. But they followed that up with a 27-27 record,” Kruger said. “Last year, the Atlantic Division’s five teams won 158 games. This year, the M Resort has estimated the total wins for the division at 178½. Only Toronto has a number lower than last year’s total victories. The division has improved with the Knicks, Nets and 76ers picking up good personnel through free agency, trades and the draft.”

What the Celtics lost could be significant. Starting center Kendrick Perkins is injured and out until January, Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen are gone, and assistant coach/defensive architect Tom Thibodeau is running the Bulls.

“The Celtics will be starting four players within the ages of 32 to 35. It is hard to imagine Boston remaining overly healthy the entire season,” Kruger said.

Teams on the decline in the Western Conference could be Memphis (38½ wins) and New Orleans (41½), Kruger said, while Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City (50½) are on the rise.

“It’s hard to believe, but I like the Clippers this year,” Kruger said.

That’s true, it’s always tough to be too optimistic about the Clippers, but if Baron Davis and Blake Griffin stay healthy, the Clippers could top their win total of 36½ at the Hilton.

As for the Lakers, 57-25 last year, their win total is 56½ at the M Resort and 57½ at the Hilton. They added Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, but Andrew Bynum is still hobbled, and Bryant is slowed after knee surgery in July.

Complacency won’t be a problem for the Lakers because James and the Heat have sent a wake-up call to the entire NBA.

■ CLOSING NUMBERS — I opened a six-pack of college football winners last week, capped by Hawaii’s upset of UNR. An avid reader, Becky, also e-mailed in a seventh winner on Florida International as a bonus.

It feels good to be over .500 again. But the goal is to stay there. A 6-3-1 mark elevated my season record to 25-23-3, with all three pushes on Notre Dame games.

Here are eight plays for Saturday (home team in CAPS):

Notre Dame-Navy (Under 50); North Carolina (+7) over MIAMI; IOWA (-6) over Wisconsin; Indiana (+14) over ILLINOIS; Oklahoma (-3) over MISSOURI; Alabama (-16) over TENNESSEE; Hawaii (-3) over UTAH STATE; Georgia (-3½) over KENTUCKY.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the “Las Vegas Sportsline” weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

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