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NBA Notebook: Clippers step up, Knicks bets, 76ers title chances, and more

Welcome to another edition of the NBA Notebook!

This week we’ll examine whether the Philadelphia 76ers are underrated, we’ll place spot bets around Ja Morant’s return to action, and we’ll update you on the back-and-forth Rookie of the Year race. 

Jump ahead here:

Let’s dive in!

Are the Philadelphia 76ers the best team in basketball? 

Coming into the season, the 76ers faced a ton of uncertainty stemming from the unresolved James Harden situation. Many thought the Bucks and Celtics would be in a class of their own and that the 76ers would be a tier or two below. Instead, Joel Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career, Tyrese Maxey is an All-Star lock, and Nick Nurse is proving that his early seasons with the Raptors were no fluke. 

The 76ers stand alone in terms of point differential, two points per 100 possessions better than second-place Boston, who are nearly a full point up on third-place Minnesota. The 76ers are in a tier by themselves, but their +1200 championship odds have yet to reflect that. If the 76ers keep this up, that will soon change.

Whether for their egregious load management rates or their consistent shortcomings in the playoffs, the L.A. Clippers have long been one of the NBA’s punching bags. So, when they decided to trade for Harden — owner of his own spectacular record of playoff flameouts — most believed the move was one of desperation and not prudence.

Not so fast. The Clippers have quietly transformed into a dominant two-way force, rising to fifth in net rating. But most importantly, Kawhi Leonard and Harden are both playing outstanding ball, reversing troubling trends that suggested they were both facing a sharp decline this season. Leonard, in particular, looks like he could still be the best player in any playoff series again, making prop bets featuring his overall production enticing.

Lastly, the Knicks have flipped the script. Starting the season they were a dominant defensive team consistently in the top-5 while being one of the poorer offensive ones. The Knicks have had the fourth-ranked offense over the last two weeks and have been dead last with a 132.1 defensive rating. The injury to Mitchell Robinson is partly to blame, but the Knicks have also just not been as physical or consistent as they were to start the season.

Meanwhile, their offense has begun to skyrocket as Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle take turns turning in All-NBA-level performances. With this imbalanced approach and perhaps some anchoring to prior performance, I’m keeping an eye on any enticing overs featuring the Knicks.

Read more: 2023/24 NBA Power Rankings

NBA Spot Bets: Knicks heat up, Ja Morant returns

My first spot bet might seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. I expect the spread for Knicks vs. Bucks on Saturday, December 23 to be heavily tilted in favor of Milwaukee after they blew the doors off the Knicks in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinal. But that Bucks performance was fueled by one of the five greatest 3-point shooting displays in modern NBA history. That otherworldly shooting obscured what was otherwise a competitive game by New York.

The Bucks were getting crushed in transition, a persistent problem for Milwaukee and a sustainable strength for New York. I think the Knicks are a strong bet to cover what should be a large spread.

Next, I’m keeping an eye on Ja Morant’s return game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. Morant has been away from the NBA since the Lakers swept the Grizzlies at the end of April. He’s traditionally turned the ball over at an average rate, but he’s coming back rusty and to a team with a lot worse spacing and continuity on offense. With strong wing defenders on the Pelicans, I’m backing the Over on Morant’s turnovers if the price is right.

I’m going with Morant again on Saturday, December 23. This will be Ja’s third game back in action, and in my view, that’s time enough to shake off the rust. But what’s more his opponents, the Atlanta Hawks, will be playing the second end of a back-to-back and the third game in four nights. The Hawks’ perimeter defense has been putrid even when fully rested, so I’m eyeing this as a potential breakout scoring game by Morant.

NBA Futures: 76ers' title chances, Rookie of the Year changes again

Are the 76ers’ title chances being undervalued? Some might quibble with their strong point differential because they have beaten up on some bad teams in this winning streak. But the overall body of work remains impressive, and they’ve hardly benefited from a weak strength of schedule overall. Per Tankathon, they have the 11th easiest remaining schedule.

And yet the 76ers hanging at +1200, far behind the inner circle contenders. While I still wouldn’t put them ahead of Denver or Boston, I have them with at least a comparable chance to get to the Finals as the Bucks, who are priced third at +400.

Lastly, as predicted in last week's futures update, the Rookie of the Year race odds have flipped back into Victor Wembanyama’s favor. Chet started the week at -130 and is now at +100, while Wemby is now solidly in the lead at -140 after trailing at +110. 

If you didn’t back Wembanyama while he was available at plus money value, I’m guessing this race will flip at least one more time before all is said and done. If you like Holmgren, this is a good time to strike, but if like me you think Wemby is going to win in the long haul and haven’t bet on him yet, bide your time.

Read more: 2023/24 NBA Championship odds

Injury Update: Garland, Mobley out for Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers received dual blows to their roster this week.

Evan Mobley, who had been missing time with knee soreness, was officially ruled out for six to eight weeks following arthroscopic surgery. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Darius Garland suffered a broken jaw in a collision with Kristaps Porzingis and will be out as long as a month.

The Cavs have not played to the standard they set last season, and now missing two of their three best players for an extended stretch could see them not only fall short of their desire to compete for the top of the Eastern Conference but could push them into the bottom of the play-in race. 

For bettors, it might be time to consider shorting their chances to make the playoffs - Cleveland is -550 to make the postseason and +375 to miss out - and backing prop bets by Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen, who will see dramatically increased workloads.

Lastly, while not strictly speaking an injury, Draymond Green’s wild and dangerous hit against Suns center Jusuf Nurkic was just the latest in a long list of over-the-line actions from Green. 

Following up on his choking of Rudy Gobert where he received a five-game suspension, the NBA took the unusual step of suspending Green indefinitely. Green's return-to-play path is unclear but will include counseling and other conditions that are being kept private. The bottom line is that Green is going to be shelved for at least three weeks, per Shams Charania.

He Said It

“Yeah, that was insane to see. Glad Nurk is all right. Never seen that before on a basketball court in an NBA game. I hope Draymond gets the help he needs. It’s been incident after incident. I know Draymond, and that’s not, he hasn’t been that way when I was around him, coming into the league. So hopefully he gets the help he needs and can get back on the court and put all this stuff behind him.” - Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant

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

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