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NBA Notebook: Heat and Pelicans struggle on defense, Thunder surge, Suns' injuries, MVP race, and more

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first 2024 edition of the NBA Notebook!

This week we’ll look at two teams struggling to close games, a championship contender hiding in plain sight, and some key matchups to watch for value bets on Wednesday.

Jump ahead here:

Let's dive in!

First up are two teams that have looked like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so far this season, starting strong and closing miserably with disturbing regularity.

The first is the Miami Heat. The Heat have a well-earned reputation as clutch killers. They’re smart, tough, and often wear opposing teams out over the course of games with their physicality. Or at least, they used to. The Heat have taken so many injuries that their core identity has been compromised. 

Their available plus defenders can be counted on one hand (or perhaps more accurately one finger: Bam Adebayo). This has seen the Heat become the ones who wear down late in games, their smoke and mirrors zone defense often figured out over the 48 minutes. Their -13.7 fourth quarter net rating is behind only the Suns and makes them a good target for a plus value moneyline bet when holding a small lead, or just an outright fourth quarter spread.

The New Orleans Pelicans also seesaw from one half to another. While they don’t have a single quarter that is nearly as disastrous as the Heat, it’s crucial to note the disparity between the Pelicans in the first half vs. the second.

The Pels’ first half net rating is +13.1, second only to the Boston Celtics. But their second half -6.6 net rating is the fifth-worst in the NBA. This has led to opposing teams leading dramatic comebacks at their expense, perhaps best illustrated by their epic collapse to the Memphis Grizzlies in Ja Morant’s return game. No lead is safe in New Orleans.

Lastly, the Oklahoma City Thunder are ready to win now. The Thunder are 7-1 over their last eight games, with dominant wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, and Denver Nuggets (twice). They’re outperforming the spread by an average of 10.2 points over their last seven games. 

Unlike the Cavaliers, who projected similarly by net rating last season, the Thunder have the two-way balance to compete in the playoffs. No futures bet for this team should be off the table right now, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to win MVP (+450), Oklahoma City to win the West (+1000), and even the championship (+1800).

Read more: Latest NBA Championship odds

NBA Spot Bets: Nets-Rockets, Anunoby's defense

All three of my spot bets for this week feature back-to-backs coming up on Wednesday night.

The Brooklyn Nets have quietly been on a serious slide lately. Brooklyn is 2-8 in its last 10 games and has lost three straight. And no team is underperforming the spread worse relative to expectations since Christmas. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nets have a -8.7 point spread differential over their last eight outings, with a Bottom-10 offense and a Bottom-5 offense. 

Most troubling of all? That stretch included two games against the Pistons, and a game each against the Wizards and Jazz. They are underwhelming against the league’s worst teams. They’re in for a tough one against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, who have been consistently excellent at home and will have a strong rest advantage. I’ll be looking at a Rockets cover at anything below -7.

Next up, the Milwaukee Bucks will seek revenge on Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers after dropping their third game against them this year on Monday. It is very difficult to beat the same team twice in a row, and the Bucks have serious motivation to get this one back. Damian Lillard had a truly poor offensive showing, so I’m expecting the team to work to get him better shots. I’ll be looking at the Over on Dame’s scoring prop if it’s around his season average of 25.5 points.

Lastly, I have my eye on the Chicago Bulls playing a back-to-back against the new look New York Knicks. OG Anunoby didn’t take long to win over the Garden faithful. In his debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves, The Knicks' newest acquisition seamlessly switched between defending Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards from play to play, stonewalling each on multiple occasions and turning defense into offense. 

The Bulls are also going to be licking their wounds after a matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, and DeMar DeRozan, like most older players, is typically worse off following quick turnarounds. I’m expecting OG to lock down DeRozan and will be looking at the Under on his points prop.

NBA Futures: MVP straw poll sees odds shift

ESPN released the results of the first MVP straw poll just before Christmas, and the numbers show that Joel Embiid has a commanding early lead in the race for MVP.

Embiid received 63 first-place votes and 848 total points. Embiid has seen his MVP odds jump from +350 to +275 in the time since the straw poll results were made public.

However, Nikola Jokic remains the odds leader at +225, having come in second while receiving 21 first-place votes and 630 total points.

Jokic is having a less efficient season than in years past, while Embiid has ramped up both his efficiency and his playmaking. But will the voters ultimately vote for Embiid again despite his lack of playoff success? Not to mention the buyer's remorse many felt when they failed to give the trophy to Jokic only to see him cement himself as the NBA’s best player en route to winning his first ring. 

From a value standpoint, there is a third candidate worth considering. If the Bucks finish with one of the three best overall records, Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to get a serious look for his two-way play and his soaring efficiency.

At +1400, he has the fifth-shortest odds for the award and is easily the most valuable ticket to hold among favorites who stand a real chance of winning. Giannis received the third most votes in the straw poll, ahead of Luka Doncic (+350) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+450), who have much shorter odds.

There’s reason to believe Giannis will make a bigger impression with voters going forward now that the Bucks have begun to play even better than the sum of their parts.

Read more: NBA MVP race, odds, past winners, and more

Injury Update: Suns still struggle, Wembanyama caution

At some point, I am going to have to rename this section of the NBA Notebook after the Phoenix Suns, because they are constantly playing injury musical chairs. So, while Bradley Beal was (finally) able to make his return on Sunday, Kevin Durant was immediately ruled out for Monday’s game against the Trail Blazers due to hamstring soreness. 

The Suns have been playing Durant heavy minutes while trying to keep the team afloat while Beal and Jusuf Nurkic both missed time. That he’s suffered a muscle injury is not surprising, but it is another bad indicator for Phoenix’s chances to not only win the title but just to make the playoffs.

Victor Wembanyama suffered a fluke ankle injury while stepping on a ball boy’s foot in warmups. The Spurs are taking a cautious approach with Wemby’s return and have ruled him out of back-to-backs for the foreseeable future while also putting him on a minutes restriction. That’s in part why Chet Holmgren has cemented himself as a strong favorite to win Rookie of the Year at -225 to Victor’s +180.

Lastly, Markelle Fultz is nearing a return to the court for the Orlando Magic, having been out since November 9 with a knee injury. The Magic guard rotation is already crowded, with uncertainty about Fultz’s return and immediate role, I’d shy away from backing any player props featuring Jalen Suggs or Cole Anthony until the rotation questions are settled.

Read more: NBA Rookie of the Year race, odds, trophy

He Said It

“Even dating a pretty girl gets boring after a while if she can’t guard anybody,” - Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle, mixing metaphors while discussing his team’s defensive struggles. 

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

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