NBA Handicapping: Bet the New Orleans Pelicans, Fade the Philadelphia 76ers
NBA basketball’s long-awaited return is in full swing, with cards of five to seven games everyday from now until August 13. Fouls and free throw attempts are way up, as are both scoring and pace. However, after a Friday slate that saw games go 6-0 to the OVER, the books have managed to adjust. Since that bloodbath, games are 10-8 to the UNDER. Now, as the games begin to fly by and the narrative of the seeding round begins to take shape, let’s take a look at two teams instead, one to play on and one to fade.
Play: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans season looked to be in serious danger as the team put up a pathetic effort in a 126-103 blowout loss against the Los Angeles Clippers. This left New Orleans 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth-seed in the Western Conference, with both a rejuvenated Portland and an improved San Antonio ahead of them in the standings. The dream of a Lebron-Zion first round matchup looked dead and buried. However, this young team responded in its most important game of the season on Monday, handling the reeling Grizzlies 109-99. Most importantly, New Orleans upped Zion Williamson’s minutes to 25, and even let him play in crunch time. The phenom repaid the faith, lighting the Grizzlies up for 23 points and seven rebounds. Impressively, Williamson excelled in a facilitator role down the stretch, with a few beautiful assists keying the run that put the game to bed.
Despite a 29-38 SU record, the Pelicans really are a playoff-worthy team with Zion in the fold. In the last 15 games, including three seeding games in the bubble, New Orleans ranks sixth in the NBA in net rating. The game against Memphis revealed a Pelicans team getting more comfortable playing with Williamson, and there’s a sense that it is time to expand his role on the offensive end.
With an increase in pace, fouls, and free throws league-wide, the style of play emerging in the bubble fits very well with New Orleans’ overall plan. New Orleans ranks third for the entire season in pace rating, so this strange new world is something like a comfort zone for the Pelicans. Combine that familiarity with the obvious motivation of at least getting into a play-in series, and the opportunity is there to take advantage of a very weak closing schedule. New Orleans end with Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, the Kings again, and then Orlando. Sacramento has all but played itself out of contention, the Wizards are essentially running a developmental camp, and the last game against Orlando will almost certainly be against a Magic team that is locked into its playoff position and not having to worry about a possible play-in series. The only stumbling block is a back-to-back looming, but fortunately it comes against the Wizards. We could see Zion rested, so that it’s all systems go for what will be a massive game against San Antonio.
Fade: Philadelphia 76ers
Many of the problems that had plagued Philadelphia through its inconsistent and disappointing regular season seem to have followed it right into the bubble. Questions of bad chemistry between players have continued through the team’s 1-1 SU and 0-2 ATS start to the seeding round. Superstar Joel Embiid got in an embarrassing altercation with new starting point guard Shake Milton on the floor against Indiana. Philadelphia has melted down in the fourth quarter of both of its games so far, giving up 46 and 43 points to the Pacers and Spurs, respectively. A fortunate endgame against San Antonio salvaged a two point win, but the collapse of a 14-point lead in less than ten minutes of fourth-quarter play was there for all to see.
While the decision to move Shake Milton into the starting lineup, moving Ben Simmons to power forward, has helped increase scoring, the Philadelphia defense has been downright laughable. The team has given up 128.5 PPG as both Indiana and San Antonio got wherever they wanted on the floor. The amount of lapses on defense has been a sign of both a lack of commitment to the cause, and trust in each other.
Meanwhile, Ben Simmons has reverted to form, refusing to hoist a single shot from beyond the arc. Head Coach Brett Brown is clearly on the hot seat, and he has torn into his team after both games for the brutal defense, and unacceptable effort level. This is a team that traveled horribly all season, going 10-24 SU on the road. That’s half a game worse than the New York Knicks. One wonders if this team just does not like to be around each other. Combine a lack of chemistry with the lofty expectations, and a coach that likely needs to reach the Conference Finals to keep his job, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Philadelphia has a chance to right the ship on Wednesday against the lowly Wizards. But, after that, games against a motivated Orlando team, a focused Portland group, Phoenix, the defending champion Raptors, and the Houston Rockets, is hardly easy. Further complicating matters is the fact that the team just doesn’t have much to play for in the seeding round. Sure, it could maybe work its way up to the four-seed, but what for? There’s no home-court advantage to be had, and Philadelphia is likely just as happy to play Boston as it would be to face Miami or Indiana. At least, avoiding Boston is probably not reason enough to go all-in on these last six games. That could make it very difficult for Philadelphia to provide consistent play, which could come back to haunt it in the playoffs.
Ultimately, something just doesn’t feel right with this group. One gets the sense that the Sixers could flame out, and we could be treated to stories of the chaos they dealt with in the bubble as things fell apart. For now, save for maybe the game against the Wizards, Philadelphia look like a team to fade.