NBA Early Season Betting Review
Save for a few teams beset by COVID-related postponements, all NBA clubs have reached the fifteen-game mark over the last week. As bettors and bookmakers get a better idea of the state of the league, let’s pause to look at a few teams who dealt with a ton of turnover heading into the year.
The Champs are (still) here
The Lakers hardly rested on their laurels heading into their title defense. Los Angeles ranked 24th in NBA Continuity before the season started. Returning only 56% of their minutes from last year, the Lakers brought in Dennis Schroeder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, and Wes Matthews. Also, the team retained the services of mid season acquisition Markieff Morris. Gone were Danny Green, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo. Of course, while player turnover is never easy, a relatively healthy start to the year for LeBron James and Anthony Davis was always going to smooth the transition.
There are some surprises, however. Concerns about whether Los Angeles would continue to rebound the ball well, and how the defense would hold up (particularly early) have proved unfounded. Los Angeles has the best defensive rating in the NBA, at 103.6, a decent uptick from last year’s rating of 106.1. On the glass, the team has also shown improvement. Los Angeles ranks third in rebounding percentage, and first in defensive rebounding rate. At 76.9%, the team is rebounding much better on the defensive glass than last season, when it ranked 11th at 73.7%. LeBron and Davis have steered the ship, and unsurprisingly, the Lakers’ pace remains almost unchanged, at 100.8 (15th in the NBA).
On offense, Los Angeles has performed slightly better, with a rating of 113.4. The team’s improved three-point shooting is the story here. The Lakers are connecting on 38.5% from distance this season, up from 36.1% last year. The spacing is much improved, and returning players James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, and Kantavious Caldwell-Pope have all increased their three-point percentage this year.
Los Angeles is intent on taking advantage of this new style of play to an even greater degree as the season goes on. As of January 22, the Lakers ranked only 21st in three-point attempts per 100 possessions, and that number should go up as this group gets even more time together.
A big narrative coming into the year was how the Lakers would manage James, given the team’s dependence on the superstars and the historically short offseason. This new group has largely answered the call. While the team’s net rating is 7.9 points higher with James on the floor, the Lakers still have a positive rating of 4.6 when he is off the floor. This is a huge development for the Lakers and James, who has become used to his team losing the minutes in which he’s not playing. Los Angeles is fifth in the league at 10-7 ATS, and the best is likely yet to come.
Trying to Buck the Trend
While the Lakers opted for changes in an attempt to keep the team fresh and energized for a repeat, Milwaukee decided to switch things up after back-to-back upset playoff exits in the last two seasons. Milwaukee ranked 27th, with only 50% of its minutes from last season returning. The big addition was of course Jrue Holiday, but rotation players D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes, and Bobby Portis also filled out the roster after the exit of Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Wes Matthews, Ersan Ilyasova, Robin Lopez, and Kyle Korver. Torrey Craig also joined the fray, but hasn’t worked his way into playing time after injury.
Unsurprisingly, the results so far have been uneven. The Bucks are 9-6 SU and 6-9 ATS. Last season, Milwaukee won 32 games before losing its sixth of the year. The defense is the main culprit for the mediocre start. Milwaukee’s defensive rating has dropped from 102.5 to 108.4, while its defensive rebounding rate is down to 74.4% to 77.5%. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer has often been criticized for being too rigid in his game plan, and to his credit, he’s taking a new approach. The Bucks, armed with Holiday on the defensive end, have been switching more than at anytime under Bud, and the team is struggling to adapt out of the gates.
In fairness, the team’s net rating has basically remained steady. Milwaukee’s offense looks more dynamic and dominant than ever, with a rating of 117.0, up from last year’s league-leading figure of 111.9. Holiday’s presence and play has opened up the floor for the likes of Khris Middleton, who has improved his shooting across the board. Milwaukee ends January with games against Atlanta, Toronto, New Orleans, and Charlotte. The Bucks will obviously still get a lot of love from the books, but considering the team is only 9-6 despite a net rating of +8.6, it feels like something of a sleeping giant. A run is surely coming.
Trouble in the Big Easy?
While New Orleans ranked 19th with 62% of its minutes returning, the scale of change in New Orleans shouldn’t be underestimated. In addition to blending phenom Zion Williamson into the fold on a more full-time basis, the Pelicans brought in some significant new pieces in Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. Longtime franchise cornerstone Jrue Holiday departed. On top of that, Stan Van Gundy was handed the reigns in what many considered to be one of the most exciting projects in the NBA. While there’s no doubting that the talent is there, and the draft capital should keep this Pelicans team in a wonderfully flexible situation moving forward, the early returns on the floor have been poor. While it’s important for a new coach and staff to put their imprint on the organization, it’s perhaps been too much too soon to expect too much. New Orleans has, in some ways, completely flipped the script. Much of it starts with pace. New Orleans ranked fourth last season with a pace rating of 103.9. This season, the tempo has plummeted to 99.2, ranking 24th league-wide. There’s also been trouble adjusting to Van Gundy’s desire to have Brandon Ingram initiate more of the offense. After ranking 7th in AST% and 17th in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, the Pelicans rank 26th and 30th in those categories this year, respectively.
Van Gundy has been adamant from day one that the focus would be on the defensive end, all the changes haven’t translated to improved defense as of yet. New Orleans ranks 21st in defensive rating. That said, some of the fundamentals are being built. New Orleans ranks second in defensive rebounding rate, up from 19th last year. One does wonder if Van Gundy’s scheme is a bit outdated, however. Dedicated to protecting the paint New Orleans is allowing a whopping 41.9 three-point attempts per game, the most in the league. The three-point defense has been poor, with opponents shooting 38.1% from distance on huge volume. At some point, it becomes a simple math problem. Van Gundy seems to have the confidence of the front office, and if this is a longer term play, the dividends could be made very evident, but a lot of young pieces are being asked to do things they are just not very good at right now. Some have questioned whether the players believe in what the new coach is trying to get done. The offense should bounce back a bit, as this team has too much shooting to be connecting on only 33.2% of attempts from beyond the arc. New Orleans games are 4-0 to the OVER in the last four games, and that may not be a trend that stops anytime soon.