The NBA is back, baby! After a hiatus of nearly four months, the top 22 teams will travel to Orlando to finish up the season.
There is a lot of uncertainty with how the process is going to work, but that can create some value in the betting market. Let’s break down the Western Conference.
Return to play: How does it work?
Each team will start by playing eight regular season games, and the top eight teams by winning percentage from each conference will advance to the postseason.
The only real wrinkle is the potential for a play-in game for the No. 8 seed. If any team outside of the top eight is within 4.5 games of the final playoff spot, they will be rewarded with the opportunity to win their way in. They’ll need to win two straight games to replace the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, but it gives a bunch of teams a puncher’s chance to qualify for the postseason.
The Western Conference has invited 13 teams to Orlando, so things are still very much in flux. The top seven teams are pretty much locked in — Dallas has a seven-game lead over Memphis for the No. 7 seed — but the No. 8 seed is still up for grabs. Four teams are within 4.0 games of the Grizzlies, and the Suns are also in contention at just 6.0 games back.
There are a variety of bets available across the industry, including team over/unders, who will make the playoffs, and who will ultimately be crowned the NBA champions.
Most teams are offering at least some value in the Western Conference, starting with the odds-on favorites.
Los Angeles Lakers
- Avery Bradley (personal) — Out
The Lakers are in excellent shape heading into the restart. They own a 5.5-game lead over the Clippers for the top spot in the West, so they’ll only need to win three games to secure the No. 1 seed.
They also figure to be one of the biggest beneficiaries from the extended break. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both averaging over 34 minutes per game, and LeBron in particular ranks 16th in the league in total minutes played. That’s not ideal for a player in his 17th season — even a potential cyborg like LeBron — so the rest could be more beneficial for the Lakers than some other teams that focused more on load management.
Bradley is also the only member of the team who will opt out of the restart, and his minutes should be absorbed pretty easily. The Lakers have been significantly better with Danny Green or Alex Caruso on the court than Bradley this season (per Cleaning the Glass), and they also brought in J.R. Smith for some additional depth.
That said, do the Lakers deserve to be the favorites for the NBA title?
They’ve obviously been excellent this season, ranking second in the league in Net Rating. They’ve outscored opponents by an average of +7.23 points per 100 possessions, which trails only the Bucks’ historically excellent mark of +10.76.
LeBron also remains at the peak of his powers despite his advanced age. The Lakers have been +12.0 points per 100 possessions better with LeBron on the court than off the court this season, which puts him in the 97th percentile among all NBA players. The only players who have been as impactful over as many minutes are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul, and Duncan Robinson (seriously).
Still, I don’t think the gap between the Lakers, Bucs, and Clippers is big enough to make them the clear favorites. The Lakers and Clippers also have to potentially go through each other in the Western Conference Finals, so they have a tougher road than Milwaukee does in the East.
My favorite betting value with the Lakers at the moment is the under on their win total during the regular season. The line is currently set at 5.5 games, but their primary focus should be on making sure their team is healthy for the postseason. I wouldn’t imagine seeing a ton of LeBron or Davis once the team clinches the top spot.
The Lakers also have a pretty brutal schedule. It ranks fourth in terms of opponent winning percentage, and it includes matchups vs. the Clippers, Raptors, Nuggets, and Rockets. Their only matchup vs. a team with a losing record is the Kings, and that does come until the final game of the restart. Who knows if the Lakers are even going to suit LeBron up in that contest? LA is obviously capable of winning any matchup — they own a 17-10 record vs. teams with a winning record this season — but that’s a tough gauntlet for anyone. The combination of schedule and a lack of motivation is enough to push me towards the under.
- Under 5.5 wins (-110)
Los Angeles Clippers
- Landry Shamet (COVID-19) — questionable
- Lou Williams (personal) — expected to play
The Lakers may be getting more acclaim at the moment, but I think the Clippers are the superior squad. Their full roster hasn’t played a ton of minutes together this season—that’s what happens when you prioritize load management—but they’ve been absolutely dominant when at full strength.
The combination of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George gives the Clippers a pair of elite two-way wings, and the Clippers have outscored opponents by an average of +11.2 points per 100 possessions with both players on the court. That’s actually slightly better than the Lakers’ duo of Davis and LeBron (+10.7).
But the Clippers’ talent doesn’t begin and end with Leonard and George. Williams is one of the best sixth-men in the league and is capable of pouring in points in bunches. Patrick Beverley is a nuisance defensively, and the Clippers have been +4.8 points per 100 possessions better with Beverley on the court than off the court. Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell are a perfectly acceptable 1-2 punch at center and gives the team the ability to go big or small.
Marcus Morris is the ultimate X-Factor. He’s only played 340 minutes with the Clippers this season, but his numbers in those minutes have been absolutely insane. The Clippers have been +12.3 points per 100 possessions better with Morris on the court, despite the fact that he’s shot just 38.6% from the field and 28.3% from 3-point range. That is astounding.
Overall, the Clippers’ five-man combination of Leonard, George, Morris, Beverley, and Zubac has outscored opponents by +18.8 points per 100 possessions over more than 124 minutes.
If the Clippers had been focused on winning as many games as possible during the regular season instead of load management, I think they would easily be the favorites to win the title this season. Their A-game has been that impressive.
I’m not so much interested in their win total at 5.5 games — why would they start caring about the regular season now? — but I’m happy to back them to win the title with just the third-best odds across most sportsbooks.
I also don’t hate the idea of grabbing the Clippers vs. the Bucks and the Clippers vs. the Celtics in an exact finals matchup if you’re looking to increase your exposure to them.
- Los Angeles Clippers to win the West — +180
- Los Angeles Clippers to win the title — +333
- Nikola Jokic (COVID-19) — Expected to play
The big news here involves Jokic. He tested positive for the coronavirus while in Serbia and has been unable to rejoin his teammates in Orlando yet. That said, he’s fully expected to be ready when game action starts.
The more interesting question involves his fitness. He showed up at a gym in Serbia looking absolutely svelte. While most people are expecting that to be a good thing for his game, I’m not so certain. He’s never going to beat people with his athleticism, and now his body could be more vulnerable to the NBA grind.
That would not be good for the Nuggets, since he absolutely carried them in the playoffs last season. He averaged a ridiculous 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game during the postseason, and he played an astounding 39.8 minutes per game. All that heavy lifting didn’t kill his efficiency either: He shot 53.7% from the field, 39.3% from 3-point range, and 84.6% from the free throw line.
Only four players have ever averaged at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists per game during the postseason: Oscar Robertson (twice), Russell Westbrook, LeBron, and Jokic. That’s elite company, especially considering that Jokic is a legit seven-footer.
Unfortunately, Jokic will probably need to reach those heights again for the Nuggets to be legit contenders. The rest of the roster just isn’t that inspiring. They have posted the sixth-best record in basketball this season — which is not an easy task in the Western Conference — but their Net Rating of +3.04 ranks merely 10th. That puts them below teams like the Jazz, Rockets, and Mavericks.
Overall, no team in basketball has overperformed their expected record this season more than the Nuggets, which makes them a prime fade candidate in the postseason. I think they’ll be vulnerable regardless of who they match up with in the first round, and I certainly have no interest in backing them with the seventh-shortest title odds.
As for the regular season, the Nuggets’ win total is set at just 3.5 wins on DraftKings. That’s pretty low considering their record prior to the shutdown.
The main reason for the low total? They have an absolute bear of a schedule. They have just two matchups vs. teams with losing records, and they have to face both the Lakers and Clippers.
You can grab the under on 4.5 wins on FanDuel if you want to fade the Nuggets during the regular season, but you’ll have to pay -140. Ultimately, I’m content to just wait until the playoffs.
- None (but I will be looking to fade them in the first round if the price is right)
- Bojan Bogdanovic (injury) — Out
- Rudy Gobert (COVID-19) — Expected to play
- Donovan Mitchell (COVID-19) — Expected to play
The Jazz are a tough team to handicap. They rank eighth in Net Rating this season, but they have just the 10th-shortest title odds currently at the DraftKings sportsbook. The fact that they are +3300 to win the title — behind teams like the Nuggets (+2500), 76ers (+2800), and Heat (+3000) — just feels wrong.
That said, they are dealing with one of the biggest injury absences among all the contenders in Orlando.
It is impossible to overstate how important Bogdanovic has been for them this season. He ranks second on the team in Net Rating differential, with Utah being +9.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off. That puts him in the 93rd percentile among all NBA players. He’s averaged 20.2 points per game while shooting 41.4% from the 3-point line this season. That has been a godsend for a team that struggles for offense outside of Mitchell.
Making matters worse, the Jazz really have no competent replacement for him. Royce O’Neal has been the best option of the bunch, but he doesn’t pack nearly the same offensive punch as Bogdanovic. That likely means more Mike Conley and Emmanuel Mudiay, and those guys have not been very good during the regular season.
The one beacon of hope for Jazz’ backers is that Conley was starting to turn a corner prior to the shutdown. He averaged 16.5 points and shot 44.4% from 3-point range over his final 13 games, and Conley has obviously been an all-star caliber contributor in the past. If he can bring that kind of production to Orlando, the Jazz are definitely not dead in the water.
The Jazz have also been blessed with the easiest schedule among the top-seven teams in the Western Conference in terms of opponent winning percentage. They have two matchups vs. the Spurs, one vs. the Pelicans, and one vs. the Grizzlies, all of which are currently below .500. They also avoid the Clippers and all three of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Seeding doesn’t figure to be hugely important in this range — everyone who finishes three through six avoids the dreaded first-round matchup vs. the LA teams — but the Jazz have the potential to leapfrog the Nuggets in the standings.
Their light schedule does make the over on their win total of 3.5 somewhat appealing, but I’m ultimately going to stay away given the injury to Bogdanovic.
- David Nwaba (injury) — Out
- Thabo Sefolosha (undisclosed) — Out
The Rockets have garnered some hype as a title contender recently, and that is being reflected in their betting odds. They currently own the fourth-best odds to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at +1200, which puts them ahead of teams like the Raptors and Celtics.
It’s easy to see why people are gravitating towards them. They revamped their lineup during the season, opting to ship Clint Capela to the Hawks and go all-in on small ball. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington made up their starting frontcourt, and both players are 6’7” or shorter.
That was definitely a risky decision, but the public believes that risk paid off. James Harden and Russell Westbrook have thrived given the extra spacing, and they recorded victories over the Lakers, Celtics, and Jazz following the trade.
Overall, their five-man lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Tucker, Covington, and Danuel House posted a Net Rating of +12.8 points per 100 possessions over more than 163 minutes. That’s pretty impressive!
Still, their overall numbers following the Capela trade leave a lot to be desired. They posted a record of just 8-6 over 14 games, despite the fact that their schedule wasn’t all that difficult. Yes, they had some impressive victories immediately following the trade, but they also lost contests to the Knicks, Hornets, and Magic. They actually lost four of their five final games prior to the shutdown, and their overall Net Rating was just +1.7 during the total 14 game stretch.
Of course, we also have to address the elephant in the room when it comes to the Rockets and the postseason. They have never been able to live up to their lofty expectations, including last year when they lost to a Warriors team without Kevin Durant at home in an elimination game. The year prior, they missed a record 27 consecutive 3-pointers in Game 7 vs. the Warriors. Regardless of whether you think the criticism is fair or not, this team has simply been unable to get over the hump in big moments.
I think this team is definitely being overvalued by the general public at the moment. I think their title odds should be more in line with teams like the Nuggets, Celtics, and Raptors, but they’re being priced in a tier above. If I’m going to pivot away from the obvious title contenders, I need a better payday than what the Rockets are currently offering.
As for the regular season, the Rockets schedule is on the tougher side. They have the eighth-hardest schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage, including matchups vs. the Bucks and Lakers. They also have a huge matchup vs. the Mavericks right out of the gates that could go a long way towards determining playoff seeding. The Rockets are currently tied with the Thunder for the No. 5 seed in the West, but they hold just a 1.5 game lead over the Mavericks. Houston needs to finish in the top six to avoid the Clippers or Lakers in round one, so that game will have big implications for playoff seeding.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Andre Roberson (Injury) — questionable
Remember when the Thunder traded away Westbrook and George and everyone thought they were going to tank? So much for that.
Chris Paul was basically untradable during the offseason, but he’s revived his stock in a major way in OKC. Apparently all he needed to do was escape Harden’s shadow and switch to a plant-based diet, because he’s played some of the best basketball of his career this season. His counting stats aren’t gaudy — 17.7 points, 6.8 assists, and 4.9 assists per game — but he hasn’t been asked to carry a huge workload. The Thunder have plenty of other guys who are capable of pitching in, which has allowed him to post excellent efficiency numbers.
Overall, he’s been one of the most important players this season in terms of his on/off splits. The Thunder have been +13.4 points per 100 possessions better with Paul on the court this season, which puts him in the 98th percentile. Even at 35 years old, CP3 is still one of the best in the business.
The biggest problem with the Thunder at the moment is their lack of depth. Their key starters and Dennis Schroder have all posted strong numbers this season, but they have found very little success with those players on the bench. That shouldn’t be as big of a problem during the postseason, when the rotations typically get shorter.
They are an interesting team to target in the futures market at +10,000 at the moment. That ties them with the Pacers for the 10th-shortest odds and puts them just one notch above the Pelicans. The Thunder are definitely better than both of those teams.
Do I think this team can actually win the title? Not really. But I do think they can win in the first round as long as they avoid the Lakers or Clippers. If they do that, I should be able to successfully hedge out of my bet and turn a profit, and isn’t that ultimately what we’re all trying to do in the betting market?
- Thunder to win NBA Title — +10000 (half or quarter unit wager with the intention of hedging)
- Jalen Brunson (injury) — Out
- Willie Cauley-Stein (personal) — Out
- Courtney Lee (injury) — Out
- Dwight Powell (injury) — Out
The Mavericks are without a doubt the most interesting team in basketball from a statistical standpoint. They rank merely seventh in the Western Conference, but they’ve actually posted the sixth-best Net Rating in the entire league. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that they’ve underperformed their expected win total by the second-largest amount in basketball.
The Mavs are led by wunderkind Luka Doncic, who is doing things on a basketball court that are virtually unheard of for a 21-year-old. He’s averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game this season, which puts him in the top 20 in all three categories. Oscar Robertson is the only other player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists per game before his 23rd birthday.
While Doncic has been incredible all season, the most important development for the Mavericks has been the reemergence of Kristaps Porzingis. He was acquired last year from the Knicks — who are probably the only team in basketball that would trade away a player with Porzingis’ skill set — but was coming off a significant knee injury. The Mavs eased him into the rotation to start the season, but he’s been a full go since the beginning of February. He averaged 24.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks over 14 games, and he continues to provide above-average perimeter shooting for a big man.
The Mavs need him to continue that production following the break in order to reach their full potential. The extended layoff allowed him to get even further removed from his knee injury, so that could work as a benefit.
They will be missing a few players headed into the restart, but they’re not as shorthanded as it seems. Powell was never going to be available after tearing his Achilles, but Porzingis should be able to absorb most of his minutes. The Brunson injury stings a little — the Mavs were +3.4 points per 100 possessions better with Brunson on the court this season — but they do have solid depth in their backcourt. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been very solid for the Mavs this season, and Seth Curry is one of the best shooters in the league. Overall, the four-man combination of Doncic, Porzingis, Hardaway, and Curry have outscored opponents by an average of +10.6 points per 100 possessions over more than 205 minutes.
If you want to consider the Mavs as a dark horse — and they definitely have some merit — it is vital that they move up from the No. 7 spot in the West. Unfortunately, their schedule is far from ideal. They only have one matchup vs. the Jazz and one matchup vs. the Rockets, and they don’t play either the Nuggets or Thunder. That doesn’t give them a ton of ability to control their own fate.
That said, they do have two matchups vs. the Suns, who have the worst record among the Western Conference teams invited to the bubble. They also have one matchup vs. the Kings, so those are three very winnable games on their schedule. That is balanced out by two matchups vs. the Bucks and Clippers, so their overall strength of schedule is on the tougher side.
Ultimately, I would love to see this team move up and earn a first round matchup vs. either the Nuggets or Jazz. If that happens, I will gladly back them at what will likely be better than even money.
- None (but I will monitor the seeding in the Western Conference)
- Grayson Allen (injury) — Uncertain
Now we can start digging into the fun stuff. The top seven in the conference are set in stone outside of seeding, but the final spot in the playoffs is going to be like the wild west. There are six teams ultimately vying for just one spot, and the odds of a play-in for that spot seem pretty high.
The Grizzlies enter the restart in the best position from a record standpoint. They own a 3.5 game lead over the Pelicans, Blazers, and Kings, a 4.0 game lead over the Spurs, and 6.0 game lead over the Suns. With that in mind, it would be a major disappointment if they didn’t at least qualify for the play-in series.
Unfortunately, the Grizzlies will have to traverse a difficult regular season schedule. They have the seventh-hardest schedule of all 22 teams, and the third-hardest schedule among the bottom-six teams in the Western Conference.
That said, there are some reasons for optimism. For starters, their toughest games are loaded at the backend of their schedule. Their final three games are vs. the Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks, and who knows what kind of lineups those teams will be rolling out at that point. If all three teams have solidified their playoff positions, their best players might not see their usual complement of minutes.
They also at least have some control of their own destiny. They start the restart with games against the Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans, who are arguably their biggest competition for the No. 8 seed. The outcome of those games will go a long way in determining the final standings. The Pelicans have had the Grizzlies’ number so far this season, posting a 2-0 record, but the Grizzlies have gone 3-1 against the Spurs and Blazers.
Ultimately, the prediction model at the Ringer gives the Grizzlies an 87% chance of hanging on to the No. 8 seed, and an 11% chance of qualifying for the play-in game via the No. 9 seed.
With that in mind, I think the Grizzlies’ odds of making the playoffs are simply too low at -140. That translates to an implied probability of just under 60%, and I think the Grizzlies’ odds are much better than that. Even if they can’t avoid a play-in game, finishing with the No. 8 seed means they would have to lose twice in a row to lose their spot. That’s a huge advantage that I don’t think is being priced into the market enough.
- Memphis Grizzlies to make playoffs — -140
New Orleans Pelicans
The Grizzlies may be the most likely team to grab the No. 8 seed in the West, but the Pelicans are the team everyone wants to see in the postseason. The thought of Zion Williamson squaring off with LeBron in the first round would create must-see television.
Apparently the NBA agrees, because they have rewarded the Pelicans with the easiest schedule of all the bubble teams. Not only do they have a matchup vs. the Wizards — who have been decimated by injuries and COVID-related withdrawals — but they also have two matchups vs. the Kings, a matchup vs. the Magic, and a matchup vs. the Spurs. Overall, only two of their eight matchups are against teams with a winning record.
For that reason, it would be slightly disappointing if the Pelicans couldn’t hold onto the No. 9 seed and force a playoff at a minimum.
Not only has Williamson made the Pelicans an exciting team to watch, he has also elevated their level of play. They’ve been +12.2 points per 100 possessions better with Williamson on the court, and they’ve outscored their opponents by a ridiculous +9.5 points per 100 possessions in those situations. That is an elite mark up there with some of the best players in the league. It’s fair to say that if the Pelicans had Williamson all season, they probably wouldn’t even be in this situation.
That said, they didn’t have Williamson all season, and he was limited to around 25 minutes per game when he first joined the rotation. That put them in a hole that they need to climb out of, and that might be just a little too much to ask.
The Pelicans are currently priced at +290 to make the playoffs, which translates to an implied probability of 25.46%. Is that a reasonable number? I would say no. Not only do they have to fight off a bunch of teams to keep the No. 9 seed, but they would also have to win two games vs. the Grizzlies if they’re unable to jump them in the standings.
There are definitely ways that the Pelicans can qualify for the postseason, but you are going to have to pay a tax if you want to bet on them. That is the cost of siding with a public team. I think they have a much better chance of hitting the over on their win total of 4.5 than they do of actually reaching the postseason — so that’s the bet I’m most interested in making — but I don’t see a ton of value with such a public team.
Portland Trail Blazers
- Rodney Hood (injury) — Out
- Trevor Ariza (personal) — Out
- Jusuf Nurkic (injury) — Expected to play
The Blazers actually have a slightly better win percentage than the Pelicans at this point because they’ve played two additional games. That leaves them with one extra win and one extra loss, which is enough to give them a slight edge in the standings.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the good news ends with the Blazers.
They’ve been dealt the hardest schedule among the bottom teams in the West and the third-toughest schedule overall in terms of opponent win percentage. They do get to end the regular season with a matchup vs. the Nets, but that is the only real cupcake game on their schedule. They start the restart with a matchup vs. the Grizzlies, and then each of their following six opponents has a winning record. That is a brutal task for a team that needs a bunch of wins to qualify for the postseason.
The Blazers are also going to have to navigate that gauntlet without Ariza, who has been a huge part of their rotation. He wasn’t acquired until midseason, but his impact on the team was monstrous. The Blazers improved their Net Rating by +14.0 points with Ariza on the court this season, which ranks in the 99th percentile for all players. He is definitely going to be missed in Orlando.
The one positive for the Blazers is the likely return of Nurkic, who was arguably their second-best player last season. He averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists over 27.4 minutes per game, and the Blazers’ increased their Net Rating by +12.0 with Nurkic on the court.
That side, the Blazers brought in Hassan Whiteside in the offseason, and he has been solid. His Net Rating differential is excellent — although that is probably inflated by the Blazers’ lack of depth behind him — but the Blazers have outscored opponents by +2.4 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court.
With that in mind, it’s fair to question how much better the Blazers will get with Nurkic. Can they play him and Whiteside together? That doesn’t seem like the best idea. The more likely scenario is Nurkic will absorb the backup center minutes, which doesn’t figure to raise their ceiling all that much.
The Blazers have made a living by exceeding expectations, but this is a really big hill for them to climb. You have to lay -550 to bet against them making the playoffs, but I think that’s a worthy investment. Those odds give the Blazers roughly a 15% chance of making the playoffs, but I think that number should be under 10%.
- Blazers to miss playoffs — -550
- Buddy Hield (COVID-19) — expected to play
- Alex Len (COVID-19) — expected to play
- Jabari Parker (COVID-19) — expected to play
On the surface, the Kings are not a particularly appealing team to target. They’re currently sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference, so they’d have to jump two teams just to be eligible for the play-in game. Even if that happens, there’s still no guarantee that they’d finish within 4.5 games of the No. 8 seed.
Sacramento also ranks just 21st in Net Rating, which puts them behind the Spurs and the Suns. The Wizards were the only team invited to the bubble that was actually worse than Sacramento in that department.
Unsurprisingly, Sacramento has struggled against teams with a winning record, limping to a mark of just 9-21.
So with all of that in mind, why am I leaning towards betting on Sacramento to actually make the playoffs?
For starters, this is basically the first time all year that their entire team is healthy. De’Aaron Fox has played just 45 of a possible 64 games. Bogdan Bogdanovic has played 53. Marvin Bagley — who was the number two overall pick in the draft two years ago — has played just 13. It will be nice to see what this team can do at full strength.
They were also blessed with a very manageable schedule. They have two matchups vs. the Pelicans, which are going to be huge for the Kings’ playoff chances. If they can win those games, they will basically control their own destiny for the No. 9 seed. They also have very winnable games against the Nets, Magic, and Spurs.
Best of all, they only have to play the Lakers out of the big three title contenders, and they don’t have to play them until the final game of the season. The Lakers should have the No. 1 seed in the West wrapped up at that point.
Overall, the Kings’ schedule isn’t quite as friendly as the Pelicans, but it’s pretty darn close.
Finally, we’re getting pretty tasty odds on Sacramento to actually make the playoffs. Remember, they’re only a half game behind the Pelicans and Blazers, yet their odds to make the playoffs are listed at +1100 on DraftKings. That’s a huge discount considering how close these teams are in the standings.
Ultimately, I don’t expect to win this bet all that often, but I can potentially hedge towards the end of the regular season or if they make it into the play-in game. That’s good enough for me to consider a small wager.
- Sacramento Kings to make the playoffs — +1100 (half unit with the potential to hedge)
San Antonio Spurs
- LaMarcus Aldridge (injured) — Out
The big news with the Spurs is obviously the injury to LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss the restart after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder. Aldridge was the Spurs’ leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, so that is obviously a huge blow.
At least, that’s what most people want to believe. I’m not so sure. Don’t get me wrong, Aldridge was an absolute monster in his prime, and his counting stats still look good on the surface. But if you dig a little deeper, you could actually make a case that the Spurs might be better off without him.
In terms of his on/off court value, Aldridge has actually been a major negative for the Spurs this season. The Spurs have posted a Net Rating of -4.5 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the court, and that number increases to +0.8 with Aldridge on the bench. Sure, the Spurs aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire when Aldridge is sitting, but they’re getting crushed when he’s on the court! Overall, his on/off court differential of -5.3 puts him in the 22nd percentile for all NBA players.
Jakob Poeltl will be asked to carry the load in his absence, and he has been up to the task so far this season. The Spurs have increased their Net Rating by +6.9 points with Poeltl on the court, so the addition of Poeltl and the subtraction of Aldridge has the potential to be a monster swing.
The loss of Aldridge will also allow them to do what they have historically done best: space the floor. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli have been two of the Spurs’ best role players this season, and the injury should open up a few additional minutes for them. Rudy Gay has also been solid in short spurts, and perhaps the Spurs will allow him to play a little more with their season basically over.
Like Sacramento, they also benefit from a juicy combination of odds and schedule. They’re currently listed at +1300 to make the playoffs on DraftKings, and they have the fifth-easiest schedule of all 22 teams invited to Orlando. They are also well within striking distance, sitting just 1.0 game behind the Pelicans and Blazers and 0.5 games behind the Kings.
I like the idea of grabbing the Kings and Spurs for a small wager each and banking on one of those two teams or Memphis grabbing the final playoff spot. That would require a slightly larger wager on Memphis, but the odds on the Kings and Spurs make that feasible.
- San Antonio Spurs to make the playoffs — +1300 (half unit with the potential to hedge)
- Kelly Oubre Jr. (injury) — Out
Finally, we arrive at the end of our tour of the Western Conference. The Suns were invited to Orlando, but I’m not entirely sure why. Mathematically they are still in contention for a playoff spot, but they will need to have so many things break in their favor. They will have to jump at least four teams in the standings just to force a potential play-in, and that still might not be enough to catch the Grizzlies. They are currently 6.0 games back, so it will be extremely tough for them to get inside the required threshold if the Grizzlies can play .500 or better.
To make matters worse, the Suns will have to navigate a brutal schedule. It ranks sixth in terms of opponent winning percentage, and seven of their eight games are against teams with a winning record. When you look at their schedule compared to the Pelicans, I honestly think the NBA may have just invited Phoenix to troll them.
This isn’t meant to be a hit job on the Suns either. They have shown some legitimate improvement at times this season. The acquisition of Ricky Rubio has allowed Devin Booker to concentrate less on distributing and more on lighting up the scoreboard. Deandre Ayton has flashed as a legitimate two-way big man. His offensive game still needs some improvement, but he made the Suns a better team on the defensive end. They allowed a ridiculous 112.3 points per 100 possessions with Ayton off the court, but that dropped to 109.0 while he was playing. That’s still not very good, but like I said — improvement!
The only real question with the Suns is whether or not they can hit the over on their win total of 2.5. It’s a pretty low bar to clear, but the under is still juiced up all the way to -205.
I would love to make a case for a contrarian over, but I just don’t see it happening given their schedule. They open up with a juicy matchup vs. the Wizards but then real off seven straight matchups against teams that will undoubtedly be in the playoffs. To make matters worse, their final four games are against teams that will likely be in a fight for playoff seeding (Heat, Thunder, 76ers, Mavericks). It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in terms of rest with any degree of certainty, but it doesn’t feel like a huge leap to think that those teams will be less likely to rest their players than teams like the Lakers or Bucks.
Overall, the Ringer’s projection model gives the Suns just a 1% chance of forcing a play-in game and a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs. I may look to bet on or against them in certain games once the spreads are announced, but other than that, I’m just going to pretend that they weren’t invited after all.