The wait is finally over. After four long months without the NBA, it finally returns on Thursday with a doubleheader. The Pelicans and Jazz kick things off at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Lakers vs. the Clippers at 9:00 p.m. ET.
The first game will go a long way towards determining the final playoff picture in the West. The Jazz currently occupy the No. 4 spot in the standings, but only 4.0 games separate the No. 3 seed from the No. 7 seed.
Meanwhile, The Pelicans are fighting for their lives just to get into the playoffs. They’re currently in 10th place — just a few percentage points behind the Blazers — and they’ll need to move into ninth to have any shot at forcing a play-in game.
The Lakers and Clippers have basically secured the top two spots in the Western Conference. The Lakers are currently 5.5 games up on the Clippers for the No. 1 seed, so they could virtually lock in the top seed with a win on Thursday. A win would drop the Clippers to 6.5 games behind the Lakers with just seven games left to play.
With that in mind, let’s look at where the betting value lies for Thursday’s matchups.
Also, feel free to check out some of my previous work if you’re looking for additional information. I’ve already broken down my favorite futures bets for the Eastern and Western Conference, as well as everything you need to know to successfully bet on NBA player props.
Utah Jazz vs. New Orleans Pelicans (-2.5) — 223.0 total
The Jazz have been better than the Pelicans all year, so why are they getting points in this contest? It’s because these two teams are headed in opposite directions.
Let’s start with the Jazz. Things were actually looking up for the Jazz prior to the shutdown. They had won five of their past six games, albeit against some relatively weak competition. Mike Conley was starting to show signs of life. Overall, they owned the seventh-best record and eighth-best Net Rating over their first 63 games.
So why the negative outlook in Orlando? It has to do with the absence of Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been one of their most important players this season. He ranks third on the team and minutes per game and second in usage rate, and it will be hard for them to fill that void.
More importantly, he had one of the best Net Rating differentials on the team. The Jazz were +9.8 points per 100 possessions better with Bogdanovic on the court this season, which puts him in the 93rd percentile among all players.
They will likely ask a combination of Royce O’Neal, Jordan Clarkson, and Emmanuel Mudiay to absorb his minutes, but none of those players can fully replicate his skill set.
On the other hand, the Pelicans are a team on the rise. It coincides with the addition of Zion Williamson to their rotation, who has lived up to even the most optimistic projections this season. He’s averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds through his first 19 games, and he’s done it over just 29.7 minutes per game.
As good as those numbers are, they probably undersell his impact on the Pelicans. They have increased their Net Rating by +12.2 points with Williamson on the court, outscoring opponents by a mark of +9.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s very possible that the Pelicans would already have their playoff spot clinched if Williamson was playing all season.
You will have to monitor his status for this contest — he’s currently listed as a game-time decision — but he’s practiced on a limited basis on Tuesday and Wednesday. Considering the stakes for the Pels, I would be shocked if he isn’t in the lineup.
The combination of Williamson and Derrick Favors has been particularly impressive:
They should have no problem playing those guys together for a healthy amount of minutes vs. the Jazz, who are a team that typically plays big.
Overall, the Pelicans’ projected starting lineup of Williamson, Favors, Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram has posted a Net Rating of +25.9 over 229.8 minutes. To put that in perspective, the Bucks’ starting lineup has posted a mark of +19.2. The Pels have the potential to be one of the best teams in basketball next season, and I think they start showing that during the Orlando restart.
The Pick: New Orleans Pelicans -2.5
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers (-4) — 216.0 total
The Clippers and Lakers are both dealing with their share of absences at the moment. The Lakers will be down both Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo for the entire “regular season”, while the Clippers will be missing Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams for their first contest.
That said, both teams should be able to fill those gaps pretty easily.
Let’s start with the Clippers. Williams and Harrell will both have to quarantine after leaving the Orlando bubble — Harrell for a family emergency, Williams for chicken wings from a strip club — but their impact on the Clippers is probably overstated.
Williams is a volume scorer off the bench, but volume comes at the expense of efficiency. He’s shooting just 41.6% from the field and 36.3% from 3-point range this season, and his 47.6% effective field goal percentage ranks just 89th out of 94 qualified players. Add it all up, and the Clippers have actually been 3.8 points per 100 possessions worse with Williams on the court.
Harrell will be the bigger absence, but the Clippers have tons of bodies to fill the void. They already employed Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green, and they brought in Joakim Noah for some additional depth.
Speaking of depth, the Clippers roster is truly an embarrassment of riches at the moment. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George get the majority of attention — and rightfully so — but Marcus Morris has been a godsend for them. He’s only played 340 minutes with the Clippers, but they’ve increased their Net Rating by +12.2 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court. That puts him in the 98th percentile for all players.
Ultimately, the Clippers’ projected starting lineup of Leonard, George, Morris, Zubac, and Patrick Beverley have posted a Net Rating of +18.8 over 124.3 minutes.
The Lakers’ openings should be even easier to fill. Rondo has been one of the worst members of their rotation by Net Rating differential, and they have a plethora of SG options to fill in for Bradley.
Danny Green should see a large chunk of those minutes, and the Lakers have been +5.5 points per 100 possessions better with Green on the court this season. He’s an excellent floor spacer — he’s shooting 37.8% from 3-point range this season and over 40% for his career — and he also has the ability to guard the opposing team’s best wings.
He has spent plenty of time this season guarding Kawhi and George, and he’s limited them to 8-18 shooting from the field. That’s nothing to write home about, but it’s still solid against two of the better wing players in the league.
The big X-factor for the Lakers is how much the hiatus will benefit LeBron James. He continues to produce at an elite level in his 17th season, and his longevity is frankly pretty scary. I’m not 100% sure this guy is actually human at this point.
He was already one of the most impactful players in the league — his Net Rating differential of +12.0 puts him in the 97th percentile — and now he should be fully rested and fresh for the restart. The Lakers didn’t prioritize load management nearly as much as some of the other top teams in baseball, so the layoff should be particularly helpful to them.
Ultimately, this should be a really entertaining contest between two of the best teams in basketball. That said, I’m siding with the Clippers. I think they’re the best team in basketball at this point, even without Williams and Harrell in the lineup.
Siding with the Clippers gives us the added benefit of getting to fade the public. Approximately 66% of the spread bets have landed on the Lakers, which would make this just the fourth time this season that the Clippers would be a contrarian target. Unsurprisingly, the Clippers have gone 2-1 in those contests.
The Pick: Los Angeles Clippers +4