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NBA Notebook: In-Season Tournament group stage ends, Warriors struggles, defense bets and more

Welcome to another edition of the NBA Notebook!

Today marks the last day of the In-Season Tournament group stage, with 16 teams in action and six of the quarterfinalists yet to be decided. 

This week we’ll look at some teams struggling on the glass, what’s gone wrong with the Warriors, some spot bets featuring strong perimeter defenses, and more. 

Jump ahead here:

Let’s dive in!

There’s an old adage that young teams don’t win in the NBA. Somebody ought to let the Thunder know. Oklahoma City is beating the spread by 15 points per game over its last six games, the largest margin in that span. 

The Thunder have an elite creator and closer in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, defenders and scorers on the wing, and Chet Holmgren is an All-Star caliber player as a rookie. The Thunder are good now, and they’re here to stay. Their only flaw is that they’re weak on the glass, so teams with size like Minnesota are the best bet to cover against them.

After a promising start, the Warriors have stumbled to an 8-9 record. The Warriors' starters were the best starting unit for two years running while their bench was the issue. Now the opposite is true. 

Their second unit run by Chris Paul is what is keeping them in games along with Steph Curry’s MVP-level play. Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins are struggling on both ends, and more often than not it’s the bench that bails them out with three minutes to go in the first. As such, there’s potential to bet on teams with strong first quarter net ratings to beat them in the race to 10 points.

The Washington Wizards can’t even rely on their bench to save them. After last night's win over the equally inept 2-15 Pistons, Washington now sits at 3-14. 

Washington is hard to watch. The Wizards give poor effort, and Jordan Poole shows no attention to detail. One of the most damning statistics is that they’re 29th in defensive rebounding and 30th in offensive rebounding. They simply show no fight, and their production on the glass reflects that. Eye player props by the NBA’s best rebounders against Washington as they will outwork the Wizards on the boards.

NBA Spot Bets: Defense first, tough Suns back-to-back

For my first NBA spot bet this week I’m spotlighting Donte DiVincenzo of the New York Knicks. The Knicks added DiVincenzo in free agency, and so far, he’s been everything they could hope for. Despite having a sound defense in principle last year, the Knicks created very few turnovers, something they have prioritized this season. 

DiVincenzo is a stellar defensive playmaker. He adds an element of on-ball pressure and chaos creation that the Knicks desperately needed. The Knicks play the Pistons on Thursday, who are young and have among the worst spacing in basketball.

The Pistons have the second highest turnover rate and DiVincenzo’s steal rate is 2.2%, good for the 94th percentile among all wings, per Cleaning the Glass. Consider taking his steals prop.

In contrast to the Knicks, the Miami Heat are a team that racks up steals from every position. They put immense pressure on opposing guards because they have elite defenders on the perimeter and Bam Adebayo is an outstanding switch big. 

They made Trae Young disappear in a playoff series a few years ago, and while Tyrese Haliburton is arguably better than Young already, they have somewhat similar games. The Orlando Magic shut down the Pacers on November 19 because of their strong guard defense, and I think the same could happen when the Heat host the Pacers on Thursday. I’m considering the Under on the Pacers team total if it comes in high enough.

Lastly, the Nuggets are on the second end of a back-to-back and third game in four nights on Saturday. Denver is one of only two teams scheduled for four games this week, and unfortunately for them, three of them are happening in a four-day span. Following what is sure to be a charged playoff rematch with the Suns, they head to Sacramento to take on the Kings the night after.

The Kings are one of the worst teams in the NBA to play on a back-to-back because of their pace and 3-point aggression, but Sacramento also has no shot at guarding Jokic. I’m keeping a close eye on the total of this one and snagging the Over if it comes in low enough.

NBA Futures: SGA for MVP?

Jokic continues his dominance atop the MVP board this week. Even though the Nuggets suffered two tough losses to the Magic and the Rockets, Jokic is now +180 after starting the week at +220. While Luka Doncic trails him in second place at +550, I like another Western Conference guard to give the Joker a run for his money: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

SGA has the Thunder at 11-5, second place in the West, and is putting up eye-popping averages: 30.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 63.4% true shooting. He’s the best guard in the NBA at generating steals and is making defensive plays at the rim as a shot blocker as well. SGA has slowly climbed the MVP ladder over the past week, going from +1600 to +1400. It is time to treat him as a serious MVP candidate.

In other futures news, Chet Holmgren has narrowed the gap in the Rookie of the Year race. While Victor Wembanyama is still the favorite at -140, those are longer odds than -300 last week. Holmgren's odds have shrank from +250 to +120.

I was among those who believed that Holmgren had a chance to be the rookie with better statistics than Wembanyama this year due to age and team context, but who would still lose due to the phenomenon of Wemby as a prospect. 

But even I didn’t expect Holmgren to be anywhere near this good right away. Even though the odds favor Wembanyama, Chet has unequivocally been the better player this season.

Click here for the odds to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.

Injury Update: Murray, Middleton, McCollum

After missing nearly all of November, Jamal Murray is eyeing a return to action this week as soon as Wednesday against the Rockets. Even though Jokic has been brilliant, the Nuggets have struggled without Murray. 

It will take him a few games to ramp up, but Murray makes the Nuggets a much more competitive team the minute he returns because he pushes other players into their proper offensive roles.

Khris Middleton is missing time for Achilles soreness. Middleton’s health has been a cause for concern ever since Adrian Griffin dodged questions about his minutes to begin the year. If Middleton isn’t healthy, and he hasn’t been since early last season, the Bucks simply do not have enough to win the East. Even with questions facing the Celtics and 76ers, I would favor both over the Bucks to win the conference at +150 and +650 respectively.

CJ McCollum is making his return this week after suffering a collapsed lung. It creates lineup questions as the Pelicans have thrived on defense in his absence, and if McCollum immediately returns to the starting lineup he could make it easier for opposing teams to attack mismatches. 

Keep an eye on player prop opportunities for guards and big wing scorers against the Pelicans once McCollum is back in the fold.

He said it

“I’m a part of history now, it feels like. It means a lot. If you’re a fan of the game and you’re a fan of history, you should feel that upon arrival, right? When we touch down in New York City, even when I’m here in the summer and I get the chance to drive by MSG, it just gives you a certain feeling.” - Devin Booker after hitting a game-winning 3-pointer in Madison Square Garden.

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