Welcome to an Election Day edition of our NBA Notebook!
With the NBA taking a brief hiatus on Tuesday, we turn our attention to a jam-packed end of the week in the Association.
This week we’ll be looking at some troubling team trends, unfortunate injury updates, a few matchups to keep an eye on, and a new challenger entering the Most Improved Player race.
Let’s dive in!
There were bound to be growing pains with the new-look Milwaukee Bucks. Trading one of the league's best point-of-attack defenders in Jrue Holiday for one of the worst in Damian Lillard was always going to hurt their defense.
Still, it wasn’t supposed to be quite this painful. Milwaukee employs two of the best rim protectors in the game in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, yet their opponents are shooting north of 75% at the rim, by far the worst mark in the NBA. New head coach Adrian Griffin deserves much of the blame here as he’s designed a pressure defensive scheme more suitable for last year’s personnel than this one. That has the Bucks ranked 27th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
Any team with a downhill attack right now is a strong bet against the Bucks. And I would be fading their chances to compete in an Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. This is to mention nothing of the offense, which has been nearly as disappointing in an entirely different way.
In the West, the Memphis Grizzlies finally won a game, bringing their record to an NBA-worst 1-6. Injuries are obviously a massive part of the story, but some of this is self-inflicted.
Having quality backups is important for contending teams, and signing Derrick Rose as a backup was a big risk because of his age, decline in play, and availability issues. Still, Santi Aldama has returned, and Bismack Biyombo has now joined the roster. With Memphis dropping all the way to a 39.5 total wins projection it might be a good time to buy in on the turnaround.
Lastly, I’m looking at New Orleans’ defense. This early in the season it is imperative to discern what's real and what is noise, and this Pelicans defense does not pass the smell test. They were ranked in the top-10 before Monday night’s blowout loss to the Nuggets, but don’t expect them back in the top half of the league any time soon.
Opposing teams are shooting just 29.1% on threes against the Pels on a high volume. Opponents are simply missing shots and when that equalizes, the Pels are going to drop like a stone in the standings.
Because of the reduced schedule this week and the games on Friday, there are few meaningful rest advantage games worth mentioning. But there is one I will spotlight, as the Bucks play the second end of a back-to-back on Thursday against the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers are young, fast, and love to push the ball. The Bucks are old, and they have a disorganized defense. I’m looking at both Tyrese Haliburton's points and assists props after Haliburton exploded for 43 points and 12 assists against the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday.
Next, I’m keeping an eye on Jayson Tatum. Tatum is averaging a career-high 9.6 rebounds per game and is in the 93rd percentile of defensive rebounding among forwards. He will be going against the Raptors on Saturday at home, and Toronto is one of the worst rebounding squads in the Association so far this season.
With the amount of stout defensive big wings the Celtics can show against Toronto, I’m expecting a lot of stalled possessions and bad shots. I’ll be looking to see if Tatum’s rebounding or rebounding + points prop has value.
Lastly, I’m looking at the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday as a potential trap game. After a three-game road trip including games against the Phoenix Suns and the Miami Heat, L.A. plays the lowly Trail Blazers at home.
Scoot Henderson’s injury is unfortunate for Blazers fans, but in the short-term handing the keys to Malcolm Brogdon makes this squad more competitive. The Blazers don’t know they’re bad yet and we just saw how a young team like the Orlando Magic can put it on L.A. if they aren’t fully engaged.
With little movement atop the leaderboard for MVP or for the title race, we return to Most Improved Player where a third-year forward is making waves.
Scottie Barnes is gaining serious steam in the competition for MIP. While Tyrese Maxey is still in pole position, this race is far from over. Barnes has been shot out of a cannon this season, showcasing a complete two-way game that has him seizing the reigns as the definitive future of Toronto’s franchise.
Barnes is up to 22.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 5.9 assists on 60.9 true shooting, all of which are career highs. That he’s doing this despite the negative spacing in Toronto is remarkable and encouraging in equal measure. Barnes has risen to +600 to win MIP, starting the week at +1300.
The other race that’s seen notable movement is Rookie of the Year. There is certainly a statistical argument that Chet Holmgren has been the best rookie in terms of impact this season, but Victor Wembanyama is pulling into a decisive lead anyway.
Wemby surged from -150 to -350 this week behind a dominant stretch that included him going toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant and coming out ahead twice. His 38-point, 10-rebound performance over the Suns has been by far the most impressive game by a rookie this season, and those flashes of brilliance are more important to voters than consistent night-to-night play.
Promising rookies Scoot Henderson and Amen Thompson are both set to miss significant time with ankle injuries. With Henderson out, Brogdon and Shaedon Sharpe will have all they can eat on offense, making them potential good prop targets.
In further Blazers news, Robert Williams III is contemplating season-ending knee surgery after sustaining an injury against the Grizzlies. Williams has been bedeviled by knee problems in recent years and his absence is certain to hurt Portland’s defense, which had been solid to this point.
Devin Booker and Bradley Beal continue to miss time. As a result, the Suns are putting a lot of miles on Durant’s odometer to start the season. Unless their trio gets healthy fast, they are bound for playoff disappointment.
The Nuggets are facing their first bit of adversity this season as Jamal Murray is dealing with a significant hamstring injury and has no timetable to return. Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be the direct beneficiaries of Nikola Jokic’s two-man game and all their scoring and 3-pointer props warrant ongoing consideration.
CJ McCollum is dealing with a partially collapsed lung, an injury that has previously cost him 18 games. The Pelicans are already dealing with numerous injuries, and CJ’s absence could see them plummet in the standings.
“I think the game and I’m a creator on the court. So, if I got a voice to where I can, ‘Hey, Coach, I see this. You know, what you think about this?’ Then it’s like okay. Somebody that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me that I’m just not a you know, that I’m not a system player. I am a system.”
– New Los Angeles Clippers star James Harden.
Odds displayed within this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.