NBA 8/1 betting preview. Defending champions and their challengers

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Saturday features another full slate of basketball, with five games starting at 1:10 p.m. ET. Four teams will be playing their second game, while the other six will be playing their first.

The Pelicans vs. the Clippers (6:10 p.m. ET) is the game with the most playoff significance at this point. The Pelicans dropped their first game on Thursday vs. the Jazz — a game which they were winning by 12 at halftime — which puts them behind the 8-ball for a spot in the postseason. They now trail the Grizzlies by 3.5 games and the Blazers by 1.5 games, and they’ll need to jump at least one of those teams just to potentially force a play-in.

Let’s break down where the betting value lies in that contest and all the other contests on Saturday’s slate. The initial rundown will focus only on the games themselves, but I will add in some thoughts on prop bets later in the day.

Denver Nuggets (-1.5) vs. Miami Heat — 210.5 total

The Nuggets enter this contest as slight favorites, which makes sense given their record this season. They’ve posted the sixth-best record in basketball, trailing on the Clippers and Lakers in the West and the Bucks, Celtics, and Raptors in the East.

That said, there is very little doubt in my mind that the Nuggets are overrated at this point. As I pointed out in my Western Conference Futures preview, virtually no team in basketball has outperformed their expected record by a larger margin than the Nuggets.

They will also have to deal with a host of injuries in this contest. Will Barton and Gary Harris have already been ruled out, while Jamal Murray is listed as questionable. Those three players have been vital to the Nuggets success this season, so those are going to be tough losses to overcome.

Overall, Barton ranks third on the team with a Net Rating differential of +8.4 points per 100 possessions, Murray ranks fourth at +7.9, and Harris is third at +1.8. The Nuggets have posted a Net Rating of -1.6 with Barton and Harris off the court this season, and that number drops to -3.9 without Murray as well.

The Heat are far from a perfect team — mainly that they were 14-19 away from Miami this season — but they don’t deserve to be underdogs in this situation. I will gladly grab the points here.

The Pick: Miami Heat +1.5

Oklahoma City Thunder (-2) vs. Utah Jazz — 214.5 total

The Jazz were able to secure a win in their first game in Orlando, but they had a lot of things work in their favor. For starters, Zion Williamson was limited to just 15 minutes due to conditioning concerns. He has been the best player for the Pelicans by a significant margin this season, but that was not the case on Thursday. The Pelicans were outscored by 16 points with Zion on the floor in that contest, but the Pelicans posted a Net Rating of +9.5 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the court prior to the shutdown. It seems like they caught the Pels at the perfect time.

The Jazz also predictably struggled without Bojan Bogdanovic. He was one of their best and most important players during the regular season, ranking second on the team in usage and third in minutes.

His absence led to a whole lot of Jordan Clarkson, who is the definition of an empty scorer. Clarkson played about as well as humanly possible in that contest — 23 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals — yet the Jazz were still outscored by 15 points with Clarkson on the floor.

The Jazz being outscored with Clarkson on the court is not new: They decreased their Net Rating by -1.9 points with Clarkson on the floor prior to the restart.

Basically, Clarkson is a dream for fantasy basketball but a detriment to actually winning games.

The Thunder enter this contest below the Jazz in the standings, but they enter this game at basically full strength. The only member of the squad who is unavailable for tomorrow’s contest is Terrance Ferguson, and his absence should be a blessing in disguise. He ranks sixth on the team in minutes played this season, yet the Thunder have decreased their Net Rating by a ridiculous -10.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. That puts him in the ninth percentile for all NBA players.

The Thunder are centered around Chris Paul, who has had an excellent season after escaping James Harden’s shadow in Houston. In fact, no player has been more important to his team’s success this season than Paul, who ranks in the 98th percentile in Net Rating differential.

OKC’s supporting cast is no joke either. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroder have all put together solid campaigns.

Overall, the five-man combination of Paul, Schroder, SGA, Gallo, and Steven Adams has outscored teams by a ridiculous +26.8 points per 100 possessions over 117.3 minutes this season. We should see plenty of that combination in this contest, which should be enough to get them past the Jazz.

The Pick: Oklahoma City Thunder -2

Los Angeles Clippers (-5) vs. New Orleans Pelicans — 226 total

This might be the toughest game on the slate for me to handicap.

On one hand, the Pelicans have the clear edge in motivation, which should work in their favor. On the other hand, it seems likely that they will have to play their second straight game with Williamson on the bench for long stretches of time.

GM David Griffin has a clear plan with Williamson, so he will likely be limited for the foreseeable future. That is a huge problem for a team that needs wins to get into the playoffs.

Williamson’s impact on the Pelicans can not be overstated. Prior to the restart, their Net Rating dropped from +9.5 points per 100 possessions with Williamson to -2.5 without him. That is a monster difference.

Overall, their closing lineup of Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick, and Derrick Favors has been outscored over 149.9 minutes. That is not good.

That said, I have my concerns about how seriously the Clippers will take this contest. They just played a grueling contest vs. the Lakers, where they leaned heavily on their two stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers have prioritized load management all season, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see those guys get a little more rest in this contest. Leonard in particular had looked sluggish during the exhibitions, and his long-term health is obviously vital to the Clippers’ success.

The Clippers will also still be without Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Their impact on the team is probably overstated in the long run, but it matters if Patrick Beverley is still limited. He played just 16.1 minutes on Thursday, which had a domino effect on their rotation. Reggie Jackson moved into the starting lineup, and Landry Shamet ended up seeing 22.1 minutes off the bench. The Clippers were absolutely dreadful in that situation, getting outscored by 19 points with Shamet on the court.

If I knew that Beverley, George, and Leonard were all going to play a full complement of minutes, the Clippers would be my choice here. As things stand, it’s a pass.

The Pick: Pass

Indiana Pacers vs. Philadelphia 76ers (-5.5) — 215.0 total

Both of these teams have big question marks heading into the bubble.

The Pacers are dealing with a bunch of key injuries at the moment. Victor Oladipo has been noncommittal about his status in Orlando. He initially was going to opt out of the restart, but there is a growing belief he will attempt to play after multiple strong team practices. Malcolm Brogdon was a late addition to the injury report, and he is considered questionable with a cervical strain.

Oladipo was the Pacers’ best player last season — they increased their Net Rating by +4.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court — and Brogdon has been their top backcourt option this season. It’s fair to say that both players will be missed if they are unable to suit up.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only injury that the Pacers are dealing with. Damontas Sabonis has left the Orlando bubble after a “severe foot injury”, so it seems likely that his season is done. Sabonis was in the midst of a special season prior to the shutdown, leading the team with a Net Rating differential of +6.4. Here’s what I had to say about Sabonis in my Eastern Conference Futures preview:

“Domantas Sabonis has arguably been Indiana’s best player this year. He’s excelled in all facets of the game, averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. That puts him in some elite company. Only 10 previous players have averaged at least 18 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists in a season, and eight of them are Hall of Famers. The only two who aren’t enshrined in Springfield are Giannis and DeMarcus Cousins, and they obviously won’t become eligible until they retire. Ultimately, you can’t find a much more impressive group of cohorts.”

Overall, the Pacers have been outscored this season with Sabonis and Brogdon off the court, so expect them to struggle if both players are out of the lineup.

On the other side of this matchup, the 76ers will be embracing an entirely new style of play in the bubble. Ben Simmons is expected to slide to the PF position, while Shake Milton would replace Al Horford in the starting lineup.

That lineup should theoretically lead to more floor spacing, which would undoubtedly be a good thing. The three-man combo of Simmons, Horford, and Embiid have struggled when paired together this season, posting a Net Rating of -1.0 points. Just Simmons and Embiid together haven’t been much better — they’ve posted a Net Rating of just +1.1 — and the 76ers getting their two best players to thrive at the same time is essential if they want to find success.

Simmons has been experimenting with a 3-point shot during the exhibitions, and that’s a huge development if he can carry it into the restart. He’s attempted just six 3-pointers all season, and moving Simmons to the perimeter would allow Embiid more space to operate in the paint.

That said, consider me skeptical that actually happens. It seems very unlikely that Simmons would go from a complete non-threat behind the arc to a competent shooter in just a couple of months, so I’m expecting some growing pains for this new lineup.

Ultimately, all this uncertainty is pushing me towards the under in this contest. Both of these teams ranked in the top-seven in defensive efficiency and bottom-12 in pace prior to the restart, so I’m expecting this to be somewhat ugly.

The Pick: Under 215.0 points

Toronto Raptors vs. Los Angeles Lakers (-3.5) — 216.5 total

The Lakers pulled out a win vs. the Clippers on Opening Night, which has all but assured them of the top spot in the West. They currently lead the Clips by 6.5 games for the No. 1 seed with just seven games remaining.

They will likely be looking to rest their guys at some point during the regular season, but it doesn’t appear like Saturday will be that day. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma are all listed as probable.

LeBron was mediocre in that contest as a scorer, which is not surprising given the Clippers’ duo of Kawhi and George. Those are two of the best wing defenders in the league, and they held LeBron to just 6-19 from the field.

He should have a much easier go of things vs. the Raptors. They don’t have nearly the same wing defenders as the Clippers according to ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus.

That’s a good thing because it could be a tough night for Anthony Davis. What the Raptors lack in wing defenders they make up for in big men. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are still very capable of getting the job done on that end of the court.

As for the Raptors, they’ve exceeded almost every expectation for them this season. They’ve actually been better in terms of Net Rating than they were last year with Kawhi, and they currently own a 3.5-game cushion over the Celtics for the No. 2 seed in the East.

That said, they have struggled this season when facing top-tier competition. They’ve gone just 11-14 vs. teams with a winning record this season, and the Lakers’ certainly fit that description.

Ultimately, I’m going to back the Lakers here assuming LeBron and Davis are indeed active. If they can take care of business with a win here, they can go on cruise control for the rest of the seeding games.

The Pick: Los Angeles Lakers -3.5

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