BY: JEREMY MORRIS | JANUARY 25, 2018
Three months into a season that was preceded by one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory, most of the NBA’s dust has now had time to settle. Newly assembled or remodeled teams have gelled, developed, and worked out the major kinks. Individuals’ roles and team identities have been established. Coaches, recently departed Jason Kidd notwithstanding, have had time to shuffle and evaluate different lineups and rotations. Early season aberrations and outliers have thinned out and deviated back to the mean.
Less than two weeks remain before the trade deadline and as rumors swirl, subtweets beckon, and options are explored, there may be pieces still waiting to fall in place. But with a few exceptions, the 45-50 games played so far have given teams time to become who they are and have given us enough of a sample size to evaluate them. The following is a look at what we, and Vegas, have seen so far along with several highlighted trends that could be wise to factor into your “investment strategy” for the remainder of the season.
It seems like hyperbole to make the claim that a team with the third worst record in the Eastern Conference has been the most pleasantly surprising in the NBA so far this season. But look at the Nets’ roster.
Jeremy Lin missed significant time dealing with injuries a season ago but led the team in assists and was second in scoring over his 36 games played. He entered this season with a clean bill of health following a healthy, productive offseason and was expected to be a major contributor as a scorer, facilitator, and veteran leader. He was a major contributor for three and a half quarters but thanks to a ruptured patella during the season opener, he won’t be playing again until next year.
As if Lin’s absence wasn’t enough, the Nets’ biggest offseason addition, D’Angelo Russell, has missed all but 15 games this season with a knee injury of his own.
Timofey Mozgov, who the Lakers unloaded on Brooklyn along with Russell, has been healthy all season but is such a defensive liability against today’s athletic big men that he’s only played in 25 games and averaged just 12 minutes per appearance. Oh, and he’s making over $15M a year on a contract that goes through 2020. Last time an Eastern European tried to get one over on an Americans like this, he found himself on the phone with Liam Neeson hearing about a very particular set of skills.
The 2016-17 Nets finished with a record of 20-62. Coming into this season, the team’s projected win total was 26 games. With 35 left to play, they’re only 8 wins shy of officially overachieving despite being arguably the worst team in the league on paper. “Most surprising team this season” might actually be understating what the Nets have done so far considering the injury issues they’ve had and how unexceptional the roster was even before Lin and Russell’s knees became factors.
Nets Head Coach, Kenny Atkinson has done an impressive job in his second year in Brooklyn, his first head coaching job. His Nets have the league’s best record against the spread and have covered at an even higher percentage in a handful of specific situations. It’s time to get off the Bitcoin roller coaster and ride with Brooklyn vs. the spread for the rest of the season.
The Bulls are tied with Brooklyn in the twelve spot of the Eastern Conference and are a game back on the Nets in terms of record against the spread. Their season has been somewhat of a roller coaster and an oddity as they’ve gone 15-10 over the past 25 games with Nikola Mirotic in the lineup after starting the season 3-20 without him.
As anomalous as the 2017-18 Bulls’ season has been, they still fit perfectly into a couple tried and true clichés. If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself that you hate sports clichés, well tough break. At the end of the day, it is what it is, Jim. Look for the reader to go with an uptempo reading style here. You might want to go with an up tempo reading style here.
“They’re their own worst enemy.”
No, I don’t mean they turn the ball over or foul three-point shooters. That would be nice. A fight during practice between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis left Mirotic with a fractured face that required surgery and caused him to miss the first 23 games of the season. While Portis served an eight-game suspension and Mirotic recovered, the two refused to speak to one another and there were daily rumors about division in the locker room, who the front office was backing, and whether or not one would have to be traded. Can’t imagine how the Bulls started the season 3-20.
“Addition by subtraction.”
The Bulls parted ways with 4 of the team’s top 5 players in every statistical category from last season. As it turns out though, losing a 35-year-old Dwayne Wade and a disgruntled 31-year-old Rajon Rondo isn’t incredibly detrimental to a team’s success. They lost Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson as well and they both left bigger shoes to fill but their departure has opened the door for several young players to step up and develop. Eight players in Chicago’s ten-man rotation are 25 or younger and despite their youth, their 15-10 record since Mirotic’s return is the better than more than two thirds of the league during that time span.
“It’s a global game.”
Cristiano Felicio (Brazil), Lauri Markkanen (Finland), Nikola Mirotic (Yugoslavia), Paul Zisper (Germany), Robin Lopez (California, but his dad is Cuban)
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
That’s just a fact that applies to this Bulls team and every other team in sports.
Two words: BRAD F*CKING STEVENS
We knew Kyrie was good and knew he’d be benefit from playing for a legitimate coach on a team that emphasizes defense for the first time in his NBA career. But people underestimated just how seamlessly Stevens would put the pieces together and how much better Kyrie would be at both ends of the court in Boston.
At 36-14, the Celtics have the best record in the East and second-best league-wide behind only the defending champion Warriors. They’ve also covered the spread more often than any teams besides the Bulls, Nets, and 76ers. The Celtics are solid offensively but are the number one team in Defensive Rating and Opponents Points Allowed.
They’ve been so good this year that it’s easy to forget that they lost their $30M franchise player in gruesome fashion the first game of the season. Golden State is the only other team that could handle that kind of adversity and still meet, if not exceed, any expectations.
The Cavs have been HISTORICALLY bad against the spread this season. They’ve covered only 24% of the time so far this season. No team has even been close to that dating back to the 2002-2003 season (and probably further back but I found it a waste of time to look further back than then).
“Public” teams almost always end up south of .500 against the spread. The more national awareness there is surrounding a good team, the more bets there are coming in from casual sports fans, and the more money Vegas makes. Is there anyone on the planet that generates more attention or occupies a larger space in public consciousness than Lebron?
James’ teams have covered more than 50% of games just once in the last 5 seasons (’15-’16 Cavs were 50-51-2 including the playoffs). The Cavs traded one of the NBA’s five best players in Kyrie Irving this offseason and have filled the void at Point Guard with Isaiah Thomas, the single biggest defensive liability in the NBA, coming off of a major injury, what’s left of Derrick Rose, and 36-year-old Jose Calderon.
Outside of Lebron in the playoffs when he’s really trying on D, Tristan Thompson is the Cav’s best defender. Thompson has only played in 26 games this season and in those games, has averaged only 5.7 rebounds, .03 blocks, and 5.3 points all down from last year’s 9.2 boards, 1.1 blocks, and 8.1 points per game. Worst of all – he’s sired a Kardashian child, with the WORST Kardashian (besides Kris, obvi). When your best defender is a big man who is averaging 3 times as many Kardashian babies a season than blocks per game, it’s bad times.
The Cavs have ranked in the bottom half of the NBA in team defensive rating every season since Lebron took his talents back to Ohio. Most of their roster has played in three straight NBA finals which translates to an extra 59 games and three straight offseasons that began in mid-June rather than April. They’re all now a year older and have added Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, and Dwayne Wade. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they rank 29th in Team Defensive Rating and 26th in Opponent Points/Game this season. Lebron James is still the best basketball player on the planet and the Cavs have still been a good team outside of the last month so they’ve been favored in 36 of their 47 games. People have to figure out at some point that they don’t deserve 3 points against Boston, San Antonio, or OKC nor do they deserve 10 points against Brooklyn, Orlando, or Sacramento. Until then, keep taking whoever is matched up with Cleveland.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have been bad against the spread for reasons that are not so different than Cleveland – but to a lesser extent and they haven’t been anywhere close to as bad.
Unlike the Cavs, the Thunder are a good defensive team, in fact one of the best in the NBA. Russell Westbrook has always been a very good defender and just having to keep up with him at both ends of the floor usually takes something away from opponents’ best perimeter players. Stephen Adams is one of the best defensive Centers in basketball and Andre Roberson was a 2nd Team All-Defense selection last year. Add Paul George who is a 3-time All-Defense selection and is second in the NBA in steals this season and you have a Thunder team that’s holding opponents to just over 101 points per game (3rd best in the NBA).
The problem with OKC though, is that they’re also a hugely public team. Westbrook is the defending MVP and the team’s two offseason additions were two of the highest profile moves in the NBA. They brought in a two-way superstar, All-Star, and Olympian in Paul George and a household name, who was all those things in 2010, in Carmelo Anthony.
The Thunder have been mediocre, decent, unstoppable, and awful at different points this year depending on the night. As they’ve worked through the growing pains of trying to figure out how to play three ball dominant stars, they’ve been favorites in 42 of 47 games. They’ve won 27 of those games but only covered five.
The Celtics, Spurs, Warriors, and even bad teams like the Nets are teams that can be described as greater than the sum of their parts. The Thunder are not.
But hey, they’re 4-1 as underdogs. Don’t tell Russell Westbrook that he’s not expected to win. When oddsmakers do, maybe think about betting on Westbrook.
THE OVER (and a couple UNDERS)
These are teams that haven’t been remarkably good or bad against the spread or in outscoring or underscoring the point total except in certain situations. Don’t bet them every night but if you catch them in the right circumstances, they’ve been hitting (or missing) with incredible consistency.
Golden State Warriors After a Loss: OVER 8-2 (80%)
Good teams usually bounce back and play well after a Loss. Golden State is no exception and as one of the most prolific scoring teams in NBA history, 8 of 10 times so far this season, it’s meant a lot of points the next night.
Boston Celtics as Underdogs: UNDER 7-1 (87.5%)
It has to be a very good opponent for Boston to be an Underdog. Boston vs. a good team means it’s a big game and as good teams up their level of play in big games, it should be a surprise that the #1 defensive team in the NBA usually forces the under in big games.
Milwaukee Bucks on 2-3 days’ rest: OVER 10-3 (76.9%)
Philadelphia 76ers on 2-3 days’ rest: OVER 9-3 (75%)
These are all good offensive teams but Milwaukee and Philadelphia are 25th or worse in both bench minutes and bench scoring. When they’re rested, they rely less on their below average benches and score a lot of points.
LA Clippers on 2-3 days’ Rest: OVER 9-2 (81.8%)
The Clippers also lack depth and although they’ve gotten better scoring from their bench, they’ve dealt with injuries all season so only play a couple players off the bench and those overused bench players need the days in between games to keep fresh legs as much as the starters
New York Knicks on No Rest: OVER 7-1-1 (87.5%)
Godzingis doesn’t sleep, he waits.
Cleveland Cavaliers on No Rest: Under 8-0 (100%)
7 of the Cavs’ 10 players with the most minutes are over 30. They need their rest. I bet they lead the league in nap minutes but I couldn’t find that stat anywhere.
Sacramento Kings as Favorites: OVER 6-1 (85.7%)
The Kings are not a great team at 14-33. They’re 28th in the league in Defense and on the rare occasion that they’re favored, it usually means they’re playing another really bad team defensive team.