LAS VEGAS - LeBron James says it will take time to turn the Cleveland Cavaliers into a championship team. Oddsmakers in this gambling city aren't so sure.
The decision by James to return to Cleveland immediately turned the Cavaliers from also-rans into title contenders Friday, at least at the betting window. Most sports books listed Cleveland as 4-1 favorites to win the NBA championship next season, the same odds many posted for the San Antonio Spurs to successfully defend their title.
At the same time, the Miami Heat went as high as 100-1 to win the championship, up from 3-1 when odds first were posted for next season.
"As far as basketball is concerned this kid is the biggest odds and points mover since Michael Jordan," said Sonny Vaccaro of the South Point hotel-casino sports book. "The only thing you can compare it to is when Peyton Manning was being courted around the country. That was the only time I saw things go as wacky as this."
At the Westgate Las Vegas sports book, oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said the Cavaliers were 60-1 picks to win the NBA title when betting opened last month. That price began dropping as speculation grew that James would return to Cleveland, with some bettors taking credence in a report by the basketball news site SheridanHoops.com earlier this week that James would definitely join the Cavaliers.
Now the Westgate Las Vegas has Cleveland and San Antonio as co-favorites at 4-1, with the Heat at 100-1.
"We took a lot of money at the higher odds, but it kind of slowed down when they got in the single digits," Sherman said. "Anytime people hear speculation from the media they'll come and support it."
James said in a piece told to writer Lee Jenkins on SI.com announcing he was going to Cleveland that the Cavaliers would be a young team that would need some time to develop before contending for a title.
"I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver," James said in the piece. "We're not ready right now. No way. Of course I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010."
Vaccaro said that might be true if the Cavaliers were in the Western Conference, but that the path to the finals in the Eastern Conference is much easier. The addition of James to a team that already has substantial young talent makes the Cavaliers a contender in a weaker conference, he said.
"It's still apparent the Cavaliers won't be better than the Spurs individually or better than some other teams out west," Vaccaro said. "But it's a lot easier to get to the championship rounds. If they were in the Western Conference even with LeBron they would be a fifth or sixth pick."
Sherman agreed, saying the Spurs and Oklahoma Thunder would probably still be the favorites if they ended up meeting Cleveland in the finals. Still, he said, the impact of James on the odds can't be overestimated.
"A few years back when LeBron first left for Miami the Heat went from 25-1 to 5-2 to win it all," he said. "It's somewhat similar to that, even without the other two players."