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NBA Notebook: Bucks struggle, Embiid returns, Kawhi Leonard's injury status for playoffs & more

Welcome to the final regular season edition of the NBA Notebook.

We’re looking at the struggling Eastern Conference, spot bets for critical upcoming games, and a batch of important injury updates.

Jump ahead here:

Let's dive in!

This is the time of year that NBA teams work all season to be playing their best, but two Eastern Conference hopefuls are currently mired in dysfunction.  

The Milwaukee Bucks have now lost four straight games, including three to non-playoff teams. Prior to this week the Bucks had all but locked up the No. 2 seed. Now, lists them as more likely than not to fall to at least three, if not four.  

The Bucks have simply not played well enough to contend this season. They fired Adrian Griffin for going 30-13 with an uninspiring point differential. They were eking out narrow wins with an elite offense but no defense.  

Doc Rivers was hired to fix that defense, but is now 15-17, and the much-ballyhooed defensive improvements are nowhere to be seen. Since the beginning of March, they are the 24th-ranked defense and only a middling offense. Now the entire formula is broken.  

In the past two weeks, the Bucks are underperforming the spread by an average of -9.1 points a game per Cleaning the Glass. They’re a real threat to lose a potential first round series.  

The only team doing worse against the spread in that time? The Cleveland Cavaliers.  

The Cavaliers’ problems are numerous and multiplying. There are core issues like the fit between Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. There are injuries, including extended absences by Dean Wade and Donovan Mitchell’s ongoing knee ailment.  

Then there’s the head-scratching regression of Darius Garland, who is nowhere near the All-Star level form that he is capable of. In the past six weeks, the Cavs are 8-13 straight-up, and their -4.9 point differential is only better than the dregs of the NBA. Their defense over the past two weeks is only better than the actively tanking Toronto Raptors.  

Last season’s ending has hung over his team's neck like an albatross. Mitchell has pointedly not given any indication yet that he will sign an extension and remain a Cav. If they want to re-sign him, they need to prove that this team would give him a chance to contend for the NBA championship.  

This season was supposed to be proof of concept. Now they look likely to lose another bitter first round matchup, and perhaps their best player shortly afterward.

Lastly, one of the reasons the Bucks and Cavs both need to be concerned is that Joel Embiid returned from injury last week. Philadelphia is a different team with the reigning MVP in the fold and has a chance to escape the play-in race if it runs the table in its three remaining games.  

The 76ers are 29-8 with Embiid and just 15-27 without him. With the 76ers climbing the standings, they could potentially face either Cleveland or Milwaukee in a three vs. six first round matchup. In either potential series Philadelphia will have serious value as an upset pick.

NBA Spot Bets: Value on Aaron Gordon, Eastern Conference clashes

This week's NBA Spot Bets all highlight games with massive playoff seeding implications. First off, we turn to the West.  

The battle for the No.1 seed in the Western Conference might very well come down to the Wednesday matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. As of right now, these teams are tied at 54-24 for the best record in the West.  

In games that the Nuggets really want to win, they play closer to a playoff rotation. What that means in practice is that they eschew a traditional backup center, instead running minutes with Jokic off the floor by having Aaron Gordon man the middle.  

With the expectation that Gordon is going to get more run than a typical regular season game, I’ll be looking to pick between the Over on points, rebounds, or assists props by AG to see where I think the best value lies.  

Next, we return to those struggling Bucks and their pivotal game against the Orlando Magic, also on Wednesday.  

Milwaukee is far from playing its best, but even at its best, the Bucks would find this a tricky matchup. Milwaukee is a slow team going both ways and it doesn’t get into transition much at all. The Magic have one of the Association's best defenses in the half-court, and they can match the Bucks everywhere size for size.  

They’re also the rare team with size that has a player to really bother Damian Lillard in Jalen Suggs. I’m looking at the boards for value on Unders for this one, including the Bucks team total, the game total, and Brook Lopez points, depending on where they come in.  

Lastly, In yet another game with critical seeding implications, I’m zeroing in on the Indiana Pacers vs. the Cavaliers on Friday.  

It seemed inconceivable that the Pacers could catch the Cavs for a chance at homecourt advantage, but Indiana has come on strong just as Cleveland has faded.  

The Pacers haven’t quite recaptured their early season magic from before Tyrese Haliburton’s hamstring injury, but they’re still solidly elite on offense. With Cleveland’s defense looking shaky, I’ll be looking at the potential of a Pacers cover or the Over on the Pacers team total.

NBA Futures Update: Lakers to make the playoffs

At this late point in the season, most of the awards races are all but decided. For example, Nikola Jokic is now listed at a whopping -5000 to win MVP after running away with last week’s ESPN straw poll. So, I’m looking away from the mostly decided awards races for futures value, and toward the fight just to make the playoffs.  

There are some interesting odds on the board, but the best value lies in the Los Angeles Lakers listed at -115 to make the playoffs.  

L.A. is 9-2 in its last 11 games, its offense has been second best in the NBA for over a month now, and its defensive ceiling remains sky-high with Anthony Davis playing at a high level. LeBron James is also a nightmare to go against in a win-or-go-home scenario, and they match up incredibly well against the Golden State Warriors, their likely opponent in a potential nine vs. ten game.  

That’s without digging into the odds that they could rise out of nine. According to, the Lakers have a 40% chance of finishing above the eighth seed, and a non-zero chance of finishing sixth. Getting basically pick ‘em value on this future is great value.

Injury Update: KAT and Trae ramp up, Kawhi and Randle out, OG returns

There is hope that Karl-Anthony Towns could return to the court before the end of the regular season after scrimmaging this week. It would be a big boost to the Minnesota Timberwolves and could result in a dip in Naz Reid and Anthony Edwards’ prop value.  

Trae Young is also ramping up and could return in time for a potential play-in game appearance. Clint Capella’s points prop is worth watching if he does, as Young and he have an otherworldly connection in the pick and roll.

Kawhi Leonard remains out due to undisclosed soreness in his surgically repaired left knee. He’s now missed four straight games, and while he’s listed as “day to day” the same designation preceded Leonard’s surprise meniscus surgery. If Leonard isn’t fully healthy one week from now, the Clippers’ playoff hopes are all but dead.  

Lastly, Julius Randle underwent season ending surgery after attempting to rehab from his shoulder dislocation. Randle will be reevaluated in five months, and his loss is a big blow to the New York Knicks’ playoff ambitions.  

However, OG Anunoby made his return this week giving the Knicks some much needed size on the wing, and another floor spacer that should see Jalen Brunson’s assist totals rise.

He Said It

“I don’t know. He’s the doctor.” - Josh Hart when asked about whether he agreed with Doc Rivers’ comments that “he’s the heart of the Knicks”.

Odds mentioned in this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.

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