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NBA Contenders vs. Pretenders (Part 1 of 2)

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We’re officially three weeks into the NBA season and, thus far, the regular season has lived up to the hype created by unprecedented interest in offseason storylines and transactions. It’s been a pleasure to watch thus far. The stars are holding up their end of the bargain and incredible performances by young stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis have ensured an investment in the future of the league by fans everywhere and brought an electric feeling to the pants of Bucks and Knicks fans alike.

Hailing from New York, this is already my favorite Knicks team of my lifetime, what with Porzingis proving to be one of the most unique offensive talents of the 21st century, Filthy Frank Ntilikina and his weirdly long arms (larms) making life hell for opposing Point Guards, and a Madison Square Garden crowd that has found its balls again.

Of course it is still early, but with most teams through around 1/8 of their schedule, teams across the league are already beginning to stretch to either side of the success stratum.

A few teams already definitely suck:

Sacramento (the boys took about 5 games to stick it to bettors who went over on the 27.5 win total)

Dallas (Dennis Smith Jr. might be the most overhyped rookie this side of Mitchell Trubisky. If he couldn’t dunk, what do you still like about his game?

Atlanta (Winning at tanking)

Chicago (Gotta love Bobby Portis eating the suspension for beating up ‘Titch and coming back with a 21 and 13 in his first game off the suspension)

Phoenix (Earl Watson bad hire, great fire)

The 25 other teams in the association all have performed with at least a level of mediocrity that’s keeping their season afloat. For a season that was supposed to be a 28-team Sisyphysian struggle against Warriors-Cavs 4.0, the level of parity thus far has been both surprising and welcomed by fans and the media alike. For what it’s worth, the East does seem to be truly wide open, with the Celtics playing fantastic ball, Giannis and John Wall hungry as ever, and the Cavs looking more vulnerable than Ben Mcadoo’s job.

If you’ve missed out on the early action due to the 7-game World Series battle or are too locked into Football to pay attention yet, by way of introduction the 2017 NBA season, it seems to me that the following teams are widely considered “good” and expected to be relevant down the stretch. Let’s take stock of each of them, how they’ve performed for bettors thus far, and classify each as a contender or a pretender going forward.

Part 1 – Western Conference:

Golden State Warriors. 9-3 SU, 6-6 ATS, 8-3-1 O/U.

No reason to panic in the bay as the Warriors may actually be better than they were a season ago. Ripping off 5 in a row against the number, the champs seem to be hitting their stride both on and off the court. Perhaps a good measure of their confidence at this point is Draymond’s undying willingness to go at anybody and everybody, anywhere and at all times, as evidenced by his hilarious mocking of “The King” earlier this week. Their offense has somehow improved upon last season’s incredible performance; taking 2 more three-pointers per game and shooting threes at a higher clip has jacked their PPG up to 118 from 115 a year ago.

Their big-man rotation still needs to be figured out, as Kerr can’t seem to decide where to go on the second unit. Because the Warriors are at their best with Draymond at the 5 and Durant at the 4, the small-ball approach has created a bit of a rotation predicament as Kerr, for some reason, badly wants to give minutes to each of ZaZa, David West, Javale, Jordan Bell, and Kevon Looney. I expect as the season goes along that Bell will begin to eat up more and more minutes, as he’s already shown us why he was heralded as one of the best defensive prospects in the draft. The fucking Warriors, man. Still elite and still the team to beat, no question about it.

The Warriors haven’t been profitable yet due to their slow start, but I’d encourage bettors to be patient and stay with them. I especially recommend playing the Warriors in the 3rd quarter, as their dominance in that part of the game has been well-documented. They have issues with letting teams hang around in the first half, but their Big 4 always come out in the 3rd with their big guns on the table. It can be tough, of course, to pull the trigger on game spreads that are climbing as high as 15 points on a nightly basis, but it’s important to remember that the 15 point number is being taken care of in chunks, instead of a steady 4-point per quarter lead increase. If you’re looking to bet the Warriors and don’t feel confident in the full number, play them in the 3rd Quarter or 2nd Half. And, if they’re ever losing early, jump on the deflated live line. For such a dominant roster, they really are a “second-half team.”

For instance, their game against Minnesota last night (-8.5 Spread):

1Q: Even

2Q: -1

3Q: +18

4Q: +5

A 24-point win and easy cover with the first unit going off in the 3rd — even without Durant.

Pinpointing where those chunks of lead accumulation are occurring is a great way to get a more palatable number for the best team in the league.

VERDICT: CONTENDER OF ALL CONTENDERS.

Houston Rockets. 9-3 SU, 6-6 ATS, 6-6 O/U.

Call your Daddy and tell him the Rockets are taking 45 threes per game this season. *Gulp*. The Moreyball revolution is in full tilt mode right now, with the Rockets feverishly committed to being “the team who can beat the Warriors with Mathematics.” Their historic aversion to the midrange has now become an outright allergy. Per Basketball-Reference, not a single player on the Rockets (aside from CP3) is taking more than 15% of their shots from between 10 feet and the 3-point line.

Their approach is high-variance, of course, but with a juggernaut like the Warriors in place in the Western Conference, the Rockets are putting themselves in the best possible position. It is most definitely not out of the question that, while jacking 50 3s per game in a 7-game series against Golden State, they could get hot at the same time as the Warriors going cold. “We could get hot” is basically Houston’s thesis this season, one which I’d normally shy away from in favor of a more consistent approach, but also one I’m sympathetic to in the face of the Warriors’ dominance.

I questioned CP3’s fit here during the offseason and those questions have only gotten hotter; CP3 at this stage of his career is just not fit for this type of offense. I know he choked in the playoffs last year, but Harden is still too good of a creator to take the ball out of his hands. Though I like multiple superstars within a democratic offensive approach like the Spurs or Warriors use, the P&R-heavy offense of the Rockets just makes me wish that, every time CP3 (or anyone else) has the ball, Harden had it instead. He’s that good right now.

Daryl Morey has to be shitting his pants over the thought of paying CP3 over 200 million this offseason, a contract that, barring a great performance from him down the stretch, would be totally indefensible. Look for CP3 to end up on the trading block before the deadline.

VERDICT: Team best situated to theoretically unseat the Warriors.

Minnesota Timberwolves. 7-4 SU, 5-5-1 ATS, 7-3-1 O/U.

The T-Wolves are off to a nice start, but there’s no chance I’m buying into their 7-4 record when they actually have a negative point differential thus far. Yes, he’s played good defense and has seemed to provide nice leadership to KAT and Wiggins, but I’ll be damned if the Wolves brought in Jimmy Butler to score 15 points per game and play third fiddle on this roster. He had 1 1 points last night against Golden State.

Wait, what? I’m not sure how or when this happened but their offensive hierarchy now seems to go 1) Wiggins, 2) KAT, 3) Butler. It’s weird. Towns has looked solid overall as his scoring should bump back up once his 3-point shooting regresses back to his high-30s mean, but I would only really be scared of this team if they had Bulldog Butler as the alpha of the pack. It’s impossible to back a Thibodeau team that is 27th in the league in defense, so I’m gonna buy their -.4 Net Rating and -.4 Point Differential and sell the 7-3 Start.

VERDICT: Pretender.

Oklahoma City Thunder. 4-7 SU, 4-7 ATS, 2-9 O/U.

In an exact reverse situation of the T-Wolves, the Thunder are 4-6 but maintain a 5.7 point differential that is good for third in the conference. As expected, they get AFTER you defensively, streaking up to 2nd in the league defensively already. Their offense has been slightly concerning, as Westbrook has almost taken too much of a backseat thus far. Their “Big 3” are all taking 17 shots per game, and weirdly all average 20.1 points per contest. It will be interesting to see how this game script shifts as the year goes on, as I fully expect Westbrook to turn it up a bit once he feels Melo and PG13 are properly settled in OKC.

Certainly it is not time to panic, but it is a bit concerning that these three, playing together for the first time, have all essentially been worse as a result of the conglomerate. It’d be nice to see the three of them feeding off each other to make each other better rather than their current reality of taking turns and trying to make each other happy. If the fact that they’re all taking 17 shots per game means anything, it’s that they’re thinking too much about shot quotas and none of them want to shoot too much for fear of what that would mean. I hope Russ starts to give a bit less of a fuck, potentially at the encouragement of his sidekicks.

The Thunder’s performance down the stretch of games has likewise been historically awful. Their tendency to stagnation thus far this season is just as bad as it’s ever been — think back to the playoff series when they had the 73-9 Warriors on the ropes, only to give up games in the 4th quarter because their offense always seemed inevitably end with 4 guys watching an isolation, performed alternately by Westbrook and Durant. Take a peek at these numbers, taken from the TNT broadcast of the Denver game last night.

In clutch situations (within 5 points in last 5 minutes of Q4/OT)

0-5 Record

Net Rating – 60.7 (Gulp)

Opp FG – 61% (29th NBA)

Opp 3-Pt – 56% (LAST NBA)

FG 43% (15th NBA)

3-PT – 26% (23rd NBA)

FT% 60 (LAST NBA)

+/- Per Game: -8.4 (LAST NBA)

Yuck. The Thunder’s impotence in the clutch this season is more than just a regression from the unbelievable play of Russ in the 4th a season ago… it’s a massive, massive hamstring, one that must necessarily resolve to have any chance in the loaded West.

I struggle with their potential going forward because not only are they objectively worse than the Warriors, but they don’t have the mathematical vantage point of Houston or the veteran discipline of San Antonio. They have no specific creative strategy to go from the middle of this conference to the top of it.

VERDICT: Pretender, but imagine them in the east.

Best of the rest:

San Antonio Spurs. 7-4 SU, 6-5 ATS, 5-6 O/U.

The Spurs have been very Spurs-y thus far this season, chugging along to their usual rhythm. I just worry that the consistency and solidity of their approach means Kawhi’s return will mean less to them than it would to a team that featured its stars more prominently. They’re really good, of course, but has their ceiling raised since last season? I’d say no.

VERDICT: Pretender.

Memphis Grizzlies. 7-4 SU, 6-5 ATS, 3-7-1 O/U.

Grit n Grind forever baby. The Grizzlies are the best team at beating the best teams, which is why I’m gonna hang onto them throughout this season. Gasol and Conley are still the most underrated duo in this league, and NOBODY wants to play these guys in the playoffs.

VERDICT: NO ONE SHOULD FEEL COMFORTABLE AGAINST THEM.

Portland Trail Blazers. 6-5 SU , 5-6 ATS , 4-7 O/U.

Damian Lillard has started off this season like an MVP candidate, and Portland is off to a fine start with a 5+ point differential to start the season. A slimmed-down Nurkic has added the punch they hoped he would bring to start the season, but there’s just not enough firepower on this roster outside of their Big 3 to sustain any kind of serious run down the stretch.

VERDICT: Pretender.

Denver Nuggets. 7-5 SU, 4-8 ATS, 4-8 O/U.

The Nuggets were a trendy pick at the season’s offset and, after a rocky (mountain) start to the season, they’ve steadied the ship and have been playing quite well in the last couple of weeks. Their offense, which I documented before the season began, has been good but not great. It’s been tough to integrate Paul Millsap into their cut-heavy offensive approach, and the loss of Gallinari is hurting them more than most (I included) thought it would. Not much should be expected from their defense, but they’ve been decent enough thus far, coming in at 19th in the league. If their offense can find a spark and climb up into the top 5 (where they were projected to be), the 19th best defense is a fine place for them to be.

VERDICT: Pretender, for now, but a team to watch.

LA Clippers. 5-5 SU, 5-5 ATS, 4-5-1 O/U.

Point Blake has been fun to say the least but it seems these boys are still the Clips of old. I really cannot comprehend what it must feel like to get daddied every single time playing against the Warriors, and that mental inferiority complex alone makes me want to fade the shit out of this team going forward.

VERDICT: Potentially not actually good.

Part 2 will be coming soon with The East.

 

Zach is currently a college senior on the East Coast, and loves to write about sports as well as record his NBA podcast. An avid fan and notable consumer of sports content, the descent into the application of the handicapping lens to sports analysis was only inevitable.

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