Welcome to another edition of the NBA Notebook.
This week I’ll be looking at how the Portland Trail Blazers are finding a defensive identity, the Houston Rockets' troubling road record, why I’m skeptical about the Milwaukee Bucks and more, including bets for this week, futures markets to keep an eye on, and an injury update.
Jump ahead here:
Let’s dive in!
The Portland Trail Blazers began the year on a rough note. They lost Anfernee Simons to a thumb issue right off the bat. Scoot Henderson twisted his ankle, and Robert Williams tore a ligament in his knee and was lost for the season.
So they lost. A lot. But with Malcolm Brogdon back in the lineup, the trio of Brogdon, Jerami Grant, and Deandre Ayton has played well. The Blazers now have the 12th best defense this season and have defended at a top-five level over the past two weeks.
Despite some hard-to-watch offense, they’ve had a positive point differential in that span, and have blown the doors off against the spread. Their +9.8 spread differential was the best mark in the NBA over the last two weeks, per Cleaning the Glass. Portland isn’t the walkover win they were to start the season.
The Houston Rockets, by contrast, got off to an awesome start going 6-3 over their first nine games. They quickly became one of the NBA’s best stories.
But they played a huge portion of that opening stretch at home, and it turns out that was an important factor for this young squad. Now they’re sitting at 8-9, and it’s because they have gone a stunning 0-8 on the road this year. Until Houston proves otherwise, it can be a good move to bet against the Rockets outside of the Toyota Center.
The Milwaukee Bucks are 14-6 but somehow are still way underperforming expectations. A lot of that is because their offense and defense are both works in progress, and they’ve gotten into tight games against the likes of Washington, Portland, and Chicago already.
Their saving grace has been Damian Lillard, who has been lights-out in the clutch, helping the Bucks win 2.6 more games than expected relative to their +2.3 net rating. So, if you’re thinking of betting on a Milwaukee game, I’d favor the moneyline instead of a bet on the spread.
The In-Season Tournament knockout rounds already produced some gems on Monday night, but the nature of the tournament means we won’t know the precise matchups for the semifinals until after the dust settles tonight. However, taking a look at the odds for IST MVP, one name leaps off the page: Tyrese Haliburton is currently +500 to win the award.
That number is only slightly shorter than Lillard or LeBron James, who are both +650. The critical difference of course is that the Pacers have already advanced to the semifinal, while the Bucks and Lakers have yet to play.
Given that Indiana already knocked out the Boston Celtics, who were favorites to win it all, and that anything can happen in a one-game scenario, I’d be looking at Haliburton here. He has the makings of an offensive superstar and demonstrated last night that he’s ready to play on the big stage.
One non-tournament game I have my eye on is the matchup between the Hawks and the Nets on Wednesday. Both these teams are top-five offenses already but have turned it up to 11 lately. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nets are scoring almost eight points more per 100 possessions than their season-long mark, and the Hawks are two points better over the past two weeks.
The Nets' offense has seen a big boost because they are taking and making an outrageous number of threes. Trae Young has been the difference for Atlanta, finally shaking off a shooting slump that had dogged him through the end of last season. With both teams well rested, I’m looking at a potential Over for the 238.5 point total.
Lastly, I’m looking at Cade Cunningham. Turnovers typically plague most high-usage young players, but Cade’s 15.6% turnover rate is one of the highest in the NBA. Young players tend to improve turnover rate in time, but for now it’s an albatross weighing on the neck of Detroit’s offense.
Part of the problem is that Cunningham has one of the worst supporting casts in the league. Even when a pass is completed, more often than not the shot thrown up is a brick. It’s no wonder he’s forcing the issue at times.
The Pistons play the Magic on Friday, and Orlando forces more turnovers than almost anyone. I’m seeing if a Cade turnover prop is available for Detroit’s game on Friday and striking if the odds are favorable.
Chet Holmgren was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for October and November, another notch in his favor in the race for Rookie of the Year, which is shaping into one of the better contests in years. It’s difficult to oversell just how good Holmgren has been this season.
Holmgren is averaging 17.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game on 65.1% true shooting, all while helping the Thunder claim the second seed in the Western Conference. Those aren’t rookie numbers; they’re All-Star numbers.
As a result, Holmgren has become the odds-on favorite to claim Rookie of the Year over preseason presumptive winner Victor Wembanyama. Chet saw his odds go from +120 to -140 this week, with Victor Wembanyama's getting longer from -150 to +110.
That’s an incredible feat in itself, but the NBA season is long, and this one is far from over. I expect that Wemby will still be heard from, and that this race is going to be the subject of debate every week until the end of April.
In injury news, Zach LaVine of the Chicago Bulls is missing time due to foot soreness. The Bulls have played well in his absence, particularly Alex Caruso, who hit a game-tying shot against the Bucks in an outing Chicago ultimately won in overtime.
LaVine's injury opens up more opportunity for other Bulls players, and so far, has seen a bump in their overall passing. Keep an eye on DeMar DeRozan’s assist props with LaVine out.
While the Celtics were eliminated from the IST last night, they did get some good news this week. Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis is set to return from a calf injury as soon as this week. The Celtics desperately need Porzingis on both ends, so his health is one of the most important subplots of the entire season.
Jarred Vanderbilt made his season debut as the Lakers beat the Rockets this week. Vanderbilt has been sidelined since preseason, and while a limited offensive player, he is going to be crucial for the Lakers' chances of guarding Kevin Durant in the IST quarterfinal, as well as the other big wings of the NBA.
And while the Pelicans notched an important IST win over the Kings last night, their backup big man Larry Nance Jr. is set to miss another 4-6 weeks after aggravating his hip fracture. With Nance out, Jonas Valanciunas should see significant production in scoring and rebounding.
“Expectation is to win. We’re coming out here, we’re a young hungry group, we want to win every night. So we’re excited to be there but we’re not just complacent being there we want to win. So we’ll celebrate this one tonight, pack, we got to leave tomorrow and get ready to play either New York or Milwaukee.” - Tyrese Haliburton when asked post-game what his expectations were after being the first team to advance to the In-Season Tournament Semifinal.
Odds displayed within this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.