Welcome to another edition of the NBA notebook!
This week I’m taking stock of the outrageous individual scoring performances by the league's brightest stars, the betting ramifications of Julius Randle’s injury, and a key development in the MVP race.
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Let's dive in!
In the last two weeks, we’ve had Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic both score 70+ while Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker both topped 60. What, if anything, can we take away from this recent individual scoring explosion?
Looking at the nine instances in the past two seasons where a player scored 60 or more points, we find a few commonalities. One is that this only happens against compromised defenses. Seven of the nine high scoring games came against teams ranked 24th or worst in defensive rating, with exceptions featuring a game-changing defender fouling out or a game going into overtime.
The second is that this is all being done by the most ball-dominant guys in the NBA. The players in question ranked on average in the 97th percentile in usage rate, per Cleaning the Glass. If you’re banking on a big-time scoring performance, at least two key pieces are bottom-five defenses and players like Doncic who consistently lead the NBA in usage rate for their position.
Let’s move onto the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have gone 14-4 since Evan Mobley and Darius Garland went down with injury. They’ve had one of the NBA’s best net ratings and are regularly blowing teams out of the water.
They’re playing eerily similar to Donovan Mitchell’s prior team: the Utah Jazz. Jarrett Allen is playing the role of Rudy Gobert, Isaac Okoro is Royce O’Neal, and Georges Niang is well, Georges Niang. Spreading the floor and playing high pick and roll while funneling opposing offenses into Allen in the middle is working.
But with Mobley returning last night and Garland set to return Wednesday, it’s not fair to assume it will be a smooth adjustment. The Cavs were treading around .500 when the whole group was playing together, and while I think they’ll be better than that, the redundant nature of Mobley and Allen’s skillsets as well as the defensive limitations of Mitchell and Garland could make them worse in the short term.
Lastly, the Miami Heat have gone cold. They’re losers of seven in a row, and the addition of Terry Rozier has done nothing to fix Miami’s broken offense. The Heat are underperforming the spread by a staggering 17.6 points per game during the losing streak, far and away the worst mark in basketball.
Not only is their offense among the NBA’s worst, but their vaunted defense has been nearly as bad. Right now, there isn’t a better team in the NBA to short against the spread.
With Julius Randle sidelined for the foreseeable future after dislocating his shoulder last week, the Knicks are going to have to make some changes to their rotation. One of those will be elevating Josh Hart into the starting unit, which is the premise of my first spot bet.
The Knicks play the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, who are one of the league’s worst defensive rebounding teams. Hart rebounds like a center, and with Pascal Siakam being warded off by O.G. Anunoby, I think Hart is in for another dominant performance on the glass. Hart had 12 boards as a starter last night, and that’s going to be closer to the rule than the exception.
For my second spot bet, I’m looking at a potential Mikal Bridges revenge game against the visiting Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.
The Brooklyn Nets have quietly been playing well lately, and they just blew out the Jazz in Ben Simmons’ return game. Simmons allows Mikal to move to more of an off-ball role where he thrived in Phoenix but at a higher usage rate on better shot quality.
Bridges will want to show out against the team that traded him, and he’s been on fire lately. He’s is averaging 27 points over his last five games and 44% from deep. I’ll be eyeing potential Overs on his points or 3-pointer props.
Lastly, I’m locked in on the Milwaukee Bucks against the Jazz on Sunday.
One of the more shocking results in the Bucks’ turbulent season was when they dropped a game to the visiting Jazz 132-116 on January 8. While Doc Rivers has been brought in to shore up the Bucks’ defensive woes that allowed such a performance, I’m skeptical the turnaround will be immediate.
The Jazz are playing host to the Bucks the day after they have to try and slow down Doncic and the Mavericks. I like the chances of Lauri Markkanen or Jordan Clarkson to make the Bucks pay from the perimeter and in transition, and I’ll be seeing if there’s value to be had with either of their points props.
Joel Embiid’s odds to win MVP took a serious blow this week. After not being on the injury report at all, Embiid was a late scratch from yet another showdown in Denver against Nikola Jokic.
Embiid subsequently missed Philadelphia’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. Joel can only miss five more games with 37 remaining, and given that he’s already missed 12, I am not sanguine about his chances.
After jumping to a commanding odds lead at +100 last week, Embiid is down to +450, trailing both Jokic at +100 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at +350.
Lastly, should the Los Angeles Clippers be championship favorites?
After demolishing the Boston Celtics this week, the Clippers are making a compelling argument as to why they should be considered title favorites. They are stacked with All-NBA talent, Kawhi Leonard looks like his Finals MVP self, and even James Harden is defending his butt off.
Listed at +700, they’ve only seen a slight jump from where they were listed at +800 one week ago. Compared to a team like the Bucks at +425, who just fired their coach and have a much worse point differential, the Clippers seem like much better value.
The aforementioned injury to Randle is the biggest news this week, but it could have been worse. After getting undercut by Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., Randle dislocated his shoulder while bracing his fall under the basket.
An MRI revealed limited structural damage and the hope is that Randle can return to action in a matter of weeks without surgery. Expect increased scoring output from Jalen Brunson and Anunoby, as well as further action on rebounds by Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein.
Tyrese Haliburton could also return as soon as tonight’s game against the Celtics. Haliburton has missed nine of his last 10 games with a hamstring issue and his return should see diminished roles for Bennedict Mathurin and easier shots for Pascal Siakam.
“Listen I've never done this. I wouldn't wish this on anyone. I can tell you that just from the day and a half but, it's going to be a challenge.” - Doc Rivers on assuming head coaching duties of the championship or bust Milwaukee Bucks.
Odds mentioned in this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.