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NBA Notebook: Barrett thriving in Toronto, Embiid dropping in MVP race, spot bets, and more

Welcome to Week 13 of the NBA Notebook!

This week I’m diving into why RJ Barrett is thriving with the Raptors, what to expect from the Lakers' starting lineup shift, and why Joel Embiid might be falling out of the MVP race. 

Jump ahead here:

Let's dive in!

RJ Barrett has distinguished himself in his brief time with the Toronto Raptors, and it might be time to start considering if the offensive system there is finally taking advantage of Barrett’s talents. The Raptors make more passes as a team than all but the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, and only trail the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers in terms of assists.

Barrett is an outstanding transition player and cutter, who is a legit off ball weapon as long as you get him in motion. He’s scoring 1.31 points per possession in transition this year, which makes up more than a quarter of all his shot attempts. RJ’s transition play makes him a strong points prop bet against teams with weaker transition defenses like the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, or Los Angeles Clippers.

For my second trend, I’m eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting lineup. The Lakers have been in a nosedive, and Darvin Ham has been searching for a combination of players in the starting five to build sustainable success. He announced this week that for the foreseeable future, the starting lineup will be LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jared Vanderbilt, Austin Reaves, and D’Angelo Russell. That’s the group that the Lakers played down the stretch of the regular season and for much of the playoffs last season.

It didn’t play that much, but the regular season results were strong. Per Cleaning the Glass, that lineup had a +22.2-point differential in 167 regular season possessions last season. It struggled to a slightly negative point differential in 413 playoff possessions, which is why Ham probably has been reluctant to return to it since. 

But the Lakers don’t have the luxury of playing lineups with an eye for how they’ll perform in the postseason. Right now, they just need to avoid the play-in. The lineup certainly proved its worth on Monday night as the Lakers took down the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had been one of the hottest teams in the league. I think this shift gives L.A. a strong chance to cover against smaller teams like OKC but makes them a poor bet against giants like the Minnesota Timberwolves or Nuggets.

Lastly, a brief word on New York’s resilience. The Knicks are coming off a disappointing home loss to the Orlando Magic on Monday, but that makes them a strong bet for their game against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. 

That’s because the Knicks have by far the best ATS record after a loss in the NBA at 11-4-1. When the Knicks falter, it’s almost always just a lapse in concentration. Expect them to right the ship this week with Jalen Brunson likely back in action as well.

NBA Spot Bets: Quickley, Caruso, and Sexton

Saturday marks the first game between the Knicks and Raptors since their blockbuster trade. Naturally, this game takes on special importance for all three of O.G. Anunoby, Immanuel Quickley, and RJ Barrett.

My eyes are fixed firmly on the point guard battle. The duel between Brunson and Quickley seems likely to take center stage here. IQ and RJ will both be eager to prove what the other team is missing having shipped them out, but Quickley is the one who will be in a matchup conducive to making that happen. 

The Knicks will be forced to defend IQ and Barrett with Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo. Donte and Jalen are active defenders who force turnovers, but they’re also not going to be able to do much about IQ as a pull-up threat coming off screens. I’m going to be keeping an eye on Quickley’s 3-point prop ahead of this one.

Next, I’m looking at Alex Caruso’s steals prop for the Bulls' game against Phoenix on Monday. While the Suns balked at the idea of needing a true point guard during the offseason, their offense has been less than smooth even with all three stars available. 

They don’t always know when to be where, when to defer, and when to attack. Caruso is one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, and he has outstanding court awareness that allows him to blow up a play that finds itself stalling out. I’ll be keeping an eye on Caruso’s steals prop or the turnover props of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal for potential value.

Then I’m looking at backing Collin Sexton when the Golden State Warriors visit Utah on Wednesday night. Sexton is making the most of his chances with the Utah Jazz. He was originally the prized player return that Utah got in return for Donovan Mitchell, but when Lauri Markkanen emerged as an All-Star, he became an afterthought. 

Sexton was seen as a score-first and score-only guard in Cleveland, and when he failed to crack the starting lineup to open this year it wasn’t clear how long he would last. But he’s steadily carved up a bigger role with Utah that has coincided with enormous team success. He’s found a better balance between scoring and passing, which is not just boosting his assists but his efficiency as well. 

The Warriors' interior defense is a mess, and their best perimeter defenders are now either old, slow, or both. A slashing guard like Sexton stands a good chance for a productive night in both points and assists.

NBA Futures: Embiid faltering in MVP race

For this week’s futures update, I’m turning to the state of the MVP race, which has seen some dramatic shifts in the last couple of weeks. While Nikola Jokic is still the odds leader at +170, it is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at +250 who finds himself narrowly in second place. SGA’s superstar rise has been meteoric, as has the rise of the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference. 

Jokic has proven as recently as last year that the award is of little consequence to him when he and the Nuggets failed to run through the tape for the final six weeks of the season. SGA could make a late push to seize the top spot, and we’ll no doubt get a lot more information when the next ESPN MVP straw poll results are released.

But what about the reigning MVP Joel Embiid? For much of the season he has been a co-favorite with Jokic, and he was the leader in the first straw poll results by a wide margin. The problem for Embiid’s candidacy now is games played. Embiid has suited up in 28 of a possible 38 games thus far due to a variety of injuries. 

Under the new rules, a player must play at least 65 games to be considered eligible for awards including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and All-NBA selections. That means Embiid can only miss seven more games the rest of the season, which doesn’t leave him much wiggle room. While Embiid’s +700 odds might look enticing, I am skeptical of the value of such a bet.

Read more: NBA MVP race

Injury update: Grizzlies' woes, Luka, and LaMelo

The Memphis Grizzlies need an exorcism. A week after losing Ja Morant for the season, they are now also going to be without Desmond Bane, Marcus Smart, and Jake LaRavia for multiple weeks. At 9.2 points per game, Luke Kennard was their highest scoring available player for their game against the Knicks this week.

For the Mavericks, Luka Doncic continues to miss time due to a nagging ankle injury. But with Luka out, Kyrie Irving is in the middle of his best stretch as a Mav. He’s averaging 37.4 points in his last five games on 62% true shooting, leading Dallas to wins over the Knicks and Pelicans. Look at Irving's points and assists props with Doncic out.

LaMelo Ball returned to action for Charlotte for the first time since November this week after an ankle injury of his own. With Ball back to soak up more of the offensive possessions, once fruitful plays on Terry Rozier’s shooting props should be adjusted accordingly.

Lastly, Jaylen Brown missed Monday’s game against Toronto after suffering a hyperextended knee. It’s unclear how serious it is, but Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick White should see increased usage in any games that Brown misses going forward.

He said it

"I didn't hear it, I was in the locker room, but somebody just told me about it, and it's shameful. It's absolutely shameful. I cannot believe, I'm devastated for Thelma and for the Krause family. What can we possibly be thinking?" 

- Steve Kerr reacting to Chicago Bulls fans booing Jerry Krause’s widow during his posthumous Ring of Honor induction.

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

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