The NBA schedule is badly messed up. The league started quickly, is tearing through its season, and no one’s really dealing with the fact that we’re over 35% of the way through it already.
There are a lot of priors still being clung to, and the uncertainty has resulted in the sportsbooks continuing to hold onto those priors. There’s no better proof than when you look at the futures market for the Southwest Division.
The Mavericks remain the favorite even after dropping to 13-15 following their loss to Portland Sunday, putting them 3.5 games back of the Spurs. The Rockets and Pelicans, at the bottom, are closer to the Mavs than the Mavs are to the Spurs.
There’s gold in them thar Southwestern Hills. Here’s a guide to betting the Southwest Division, and where each team stands, right now.
All odds as of Monday and via FanDuel
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Like any good horror film villain, the Spurs always come back.
Even after missing the postseason last year, breaking their two-decade long streak, the Spurs didn’t shake up the roster or make any major moves. They just ran it back. And here they are; 14-10, leading the division, and sitting comfortably in the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference.
Death, Taxes, Spurs in full effect.
The real improvements for the Spurs have come on defense. After finishing last season ranking 24th in Defensive Efficiency, the Spurs rank eighth this season, more than three points better per 100 possessions year over year.
San Antonio allowed the 11th-most 3-point attempts per 100 possessions last season; now they’re allowing the seventh-fewest. They were 29th in transition defense per possession last season; they are first this season.
The Spurs have been playing so well I’m not even going to talk about the drag that LaMarcus Aldridge has been on the team.
Just kidding, I have to.
For the second year in a row, the Spurs are in the red when Aldridge is on the court and in the black when he’s on the bench. San Antonio is -6.9 in net rating when the veteran forward plays and +2.6 when he’s on the bench.
What’s more, the Spurs are -18.5 in net rating in the first quarter with Aldridge on the court. They have only outscored their opponent in the first quarter in Aldridge’s first-quarter minutes three times this season; they start every game in a hole.
It’s not as easy as just removing Aldridge, however. In the games he’s missed this season, the Spurs are 3-4 straight up, losing by an average of over 7.0 points per game. They don’t need to remove Aldridge; they need to replace him. It’s not even really about Aldridge’s play; it’s more about the fit.
However, Second Spectrum data provided to The Action Network does show one key area where Aldridge is a problem. Like most NBA teams, the Spurs play drop coverage in the pick and roll, with the big retreating to contain the ball-handler and the roll-man. The key in these situations is to challenge and disrupt the ball-handler while not allowing lobs or easy layups to the roll player.
The Spurs, with Aldridge defending the screen in drop coverage, allow 1.114 points out of that direct action. With any other Spur defending in drop coverage, the Spurs only allow 0.876.
Think of it this way: if you did nothing but run pick and roll against the Spurs for 50 times (out of a standard 100-possession pace game for both teams combined), the Spurs would give up 11.9 more points in that span.
When you watch, the eye test backs up the stats. In these drop situations, Aldridge is just not really contesting much of anything.
Multiple rotations are a problem as well:
Despite all this, the Spurs lead the division and are 7-4 vs. teams under .500. This is important because the Spurs have always built their gaudy regular-season records by wrecking the bad teams.
Key to the improvement is Keldon Johnson, a 31% shooter who feels like a 39% shooter, the usual bench heroics from Patty Mills, who should honestly be a much stronger candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, and more solid bench play from Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl.
But for as much as the problems with the Spurs were once evident in both Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan’s minutes, DeRozan has evolved into something else altogether — 20 points per game, six rebounds, and most notably, seven assists per game. DeRozan has become a simply incredible playmaker.
DeRozan’s on-court net rating is -2.4, which is an example of why so often these numbers have to be examined in context. With Aldridge and DeRozan on-court, the Spurs are outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions. With DeRozan on-court and Aldridge off, the Spurs are +4.5.
DeRozan has been an All-Star this season, weighed down by an anchor.
Still, I like the Spurs to win the division enough to put two units on them out of our 10, and two to make the playoffs at -122. (Full disclosure, I bet them at +110 two weeks ago. These odds are moving towards them rapidly.)
What a weird-ass season the Mavericks have had.
Look at this chart, for God’s sake, from before their loss Sunday to Portland:
To recap, the Mavericks were good at the start of the season and won at a 60% clip. Then they suffered a bunch of COVID absences and challenging games and lost all over. Then they started just not trying on defense at all, and have come out even in net rating over the last seven games, and have won at their best rate all season.
Sure, that makes sense.
The significant difference for their defense is Kristaps Porzingis. With Porzingis on the floor this season, the Mavericks give up a 119 (!!!) defensive rating. With Porzingis on the floor, the Mavericks give up over 6.0 more points in the paint per 100 possessions than with him on the bench and 2.5 more second-chance points per 100 possessions.
This is a mismatch vs. Andrew Wiggins, who has been excellent this season. But just watch the complete blow-by here:
Porzingis’ entire “unicorn” identity was built on the idea that both offensively and defensively, he could play inside and out. But Porzingis was overrated on the perimeter in his later New York years, and injuries have only made it worse every season.
As a good example, the Mavericks are actually pretty good when they switch this year, even with Porzingis on the floor. According to Second Spectrum data provided to The Action Network, they allow just 1.03 points per direct opportunity in switch coverage. That’s much better than their numbers in other coverage. But with Porzingis on-court, they play drop coverage much more often and give up 8.7 more points per 100 possessions.
But the offense is better with Porzingis on-court as well. The Mavericks were dynamite last season with a poor defense and a historically great offense. They are starting to normalize in that direction. Dallas had a 51.5% effective field goal percentage in their first 20 games, but since Feb. 1, it’s up to 63.6%.
Doncic has started to come on as well. Doncic has struggled, especially from 3-point range this season, but has scored 40 twice in his last four games.
So they’re trending in the right direction, by abandoning their defense completely.
However, they’re likely to be a better defensive team eventually, just based on talent.
The end result of this is that I don’t think the Mavericks should be favored to win the division, given the Spurs’ lead and the other teams in contention. There’s no EV in risking the -280 for them to make the playoffs, and the team is one more losing stretch from having to win the play-in to make the playoffs.
Betting against them to miss the playoffs leaves you vulnerable to a late surge from Doncic or possible trade moves, so they are firmly a stay-away candidate.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
I went into detail on the Pelicans two weeks ago, and they went on a little bit of a tear … before a three-game losing streak including their latest Sunday to the lowly Pistons.
They are more likely to make a trade with long-term value than they are to make a real run. Their defense has been sliding and is down to 28th in the league.
Zion is a monster, and Brandon Ingram is putting up numbers, but this team still lacks chemistry and spark.
There are a lot of signs that the Ball-Ingram-Zion combinations, particularly with Steven Adams, works and is good. But anytime the starters aren’t all together, the team gets absolutely nuked.
If the big takeaway from the Spurs is that their depth and versatility provides cushion, the Pelicans are the other side of the coin. They have the top talent, but not the structure to handle the swings of the season.
This is a little perplexing. The Grizzlies are .500, with the 12th-ranked defense. Their offense is ranked 18th, but this has to be put in perspective. Justise Winslow hasn’t played, but hey, he’s had injury issues for years. Ja Morant missed time, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is due back after All-Star.
They’ve had COVID issues, specifically with starting center Jonas Valanciunas. Key reserves Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton have missed time. Very little has gone their way, and yet the Grizzlies are 6-6 vs. teams over .500 and just 4-5 vs. teams under.
Now, the risk is if they are a team that can lose to anyone or win vs. anyone. They can knock off a good team but can’t take care of business vs. the bad.
But it’s important to remember how fundamentally Jackson changes this team on both ends. It gives Morant a rim finisher and secondary scorer. The emergence of Desmond Bane provides a quality shooter. Kyle Anderson has been terrific when they needed someone.
Dillon Brooks may be hit or miss but he’s been almost entirely missing to start this season and will likely hit a stretch of good shooting at some point.
Memphis has an identity and great chemistry, which the Pelicans are missing. They have defense, which the Mavericks are missing. They have star power, which the Spurs are a little light on.
The only problem … is the play-in.
For these bets at various books, it’s after the play-in determines the top-8. I think there’s a good chance the Spurs sneak into a No. 6 seed or that they can win as a No. 7 seed.
But Memphis in a one-game spot is dicey. Think of the teams they’ll have to get past. It’s possible they’ll have to go to Golden State and beat Steph Curry and the Warriors, or Denver and Nikola Jokic. They might have to beat Luka and the Mavs or the Pelicans with all that firepower, or they might have to beat two of them.
I like other team’s chances in the division to manage those situations. A young team that’s had injury issues that relies on its defense… is a bit much.
I do still believe the division has value at 5-1, with Memphis just 2.5 back of the lead.
This is not click bait. I bet the Rockets to win the division, after the James Harden trade, at +1600, and I still feel great about it.
Here are the most important numbers.
With John Wall and Christian Wood in the lineup, the Rockets are 7-3.
With Wall, Wood, and Victor Oladipo, the Rockets are 3-0.
They just haven’t been healthy. As soon as they got Oladipo, Wall missed time. When Wall came back, Oladipo was banged up. They had them both together? Wood goes down with an ankle injury. All three are crucial to their success.
Now, in part, the Rockets’ injury management has hamstrung them. On back to backs, which seemingly come weekly in this crazy schedule, Wall plays the first leg and sits the second and Oladipo rests the first leg and plays the second. This is brutal for establishing chemistry, as Oladipo has struggled since joining Houston.
But so many of their issues come down to simple injuries. The defensive makeup is there. Houston, despite everything that’s happened this season, is fourth in defensive rating. Fourth! Their offense has lagged behind, but with Wood on-court, the Rockets have a 111 offensive rating, which is stellar.
Houston has the defensive underpinnings: athletic, smart veteran defenders on the perimeter. Shot blocking on the interior. A defensive scheme that limits 3-point attempts. They aren’t weak on the defensive glass. They limit points in the paint. It’s all there.
They just need their offensive weapons on the floor at the same time.
Now, the risk is in further trades. League sources continue to feel that Houston is open to discussions involving Oladipo, that he may not be there for the long haul. But any trade of Oladipo is likely to return at least some veterans, and again, Wood and Wall are 7-3 together, and all three losses came when Harden was still around in the loosest sense.
This is a good team that is as poised for a run as anyone. If the Mavericks had jetted off to a big lead in the division, sure. But for some reason the books continue to view the Mavericks’ success as an eventuality. Look at all the plus value on teams that aren’t Dallas in this division.
Ask yourself if any of them are built to win now as Houston when fully healthy. Maybe they’ll never get healthy. But if they do, they’re going to be a threat, and these numbers won’t stay as long forever.
Best Futures Values
- Spurs Division +220
- Rockets Playoffs Yes +520
- Rockets Division +2100
- Mavericks Division +110
- Spurs Playoffs Yes -122
- Grizzlies Division +500
- Mavericks Playoffs Yes -225
- Pelicans Playoffs Yes +210
- Mavericks Playoffs No +180
- Pelicans Playoffs No -265