Moore: 3 Eastern Conference Defenses Flying Under the Radar (And How Bettors Can Profit)
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Mitchell Robinson #23 of the New York Knicks.
We knew this season would have fewer games than usual (72 instead of the standard 82) and we assumed the compacted schedule would impact scoring in some way. But the early returns from some teams on the defensive end have been somewhat surprising.
With the first two weeks of the season in the books, I decided to take a look at three teams in the Eastern Conference that are bucking defensive expectations and what it means for bettors.
Myles Turner’s Defensive Game Can’t Be Ignored
Turner had three blocks against the Pelicans before fouling out Monday night, giving him a league-leading 25 blocks on the season. That goes along with 11 steals, second-most among active centers.
He’s ranks tied for 21st in deflections per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats — a great way of determining how disruptive a player in on the court. Opponents are shooting 9.3% worse with Turner defending, which is an even better mark than Rudy Gobert.
Turner is able to be used on the perimeter unlike other premier centers. The Pacers have held opponents to a .718 mark with Turner at the level of the screen, according to Second Spectrum data.
Watch him contain all the way from the edge to the rim here for the block.
Here’s the same thing against Boston Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum.
The Pacers, as a whole, are dynamite defensively. They’re connected on a string and are all smart players.
The Pacers give up the most shots at the rim, but the lowest field goal percentage there. They give up the second-highest 3-point percentage in the league, but the fewest attempts.
They contest what they give up better than anyone and don’t allow opponents to score from their only weak-point.
Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo, The Holiday Brothers, Turner, Domantas Sabonis, even Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, and Jakarr Sampson, every member of the Pacers’ nine-man rotation is a plus defender and locked in. They all communicate and the effort is visible on a nightly basis. The Pacers are a force to be reckoned with, and Turner is the tip of their defensive spear.
What it means for bettors: The Pacers’ defense is keeping them in games; they’re 5-2 against the spread on the season and one of the better balanced teams in the league.
A Cavalier Attitude
Of all the possible starts to the season, the Cavaliers turning into such a great defensive team wasn’t one that I had envisioned.
But J.B. Bickerstaff is pulling it off, thanks to a renewed effort from the Cavaliers’ frontcourt.
Larry Nance Jr. leads the league in deflections, and ranks second in steals. The key to the Cavs’ improved defense has been creating turnovers. Opponents are suffering turnovers on 16.9% of all possessions, the most of any team in the league. That’s difficult to sustain over the course of the season, but for now, it’s working.
Nance jumps off the screen when watching the Cavs’ defense, making plays like these:
JaVale McGee and Andre Drummond (?!) have been spectacular, too. The Cavaliers have given up just 35 points on 52 put-back attempts.
The Cavs have the 11th-lowest opponent Offensive Rebound Rate, and allow the second-fewest second-chance points per 100 possessions. Drummond, who looks surprisingly reinvigorated and engaged, is leading the league in boards, averaging 14 per game.
Their formula isn’t overly complicated, but it’s also more nuanced than you’d think. They’re not just playing the Bucks’ drop scheme in pick-and-roll. The Cavs have a higher distribution of other schemes, playing up at the level and switching than most other teams do.
They’re not the Raptors of old, seamless attacking with whatever the best counter is. But when a guard gets hung up, they switch. When they need to blitz a weak ball-handler, they do. When they need to drop to contain, they do.
But everything is done with intention and physicality, and that goes a long way. The Cavaliers lead the league in shots forced in the final four seconds of the clock. They stay with you the entire possession.
Watch a few things here, including the multiple switches, and how Drummond stays attached to his man because he knows Dante Exum can handle this assignment:
There’s a lot to like about this, but there is also a some concern about drop-off. The Cavs are dependent on turnovers, and are giving up the fifth-highest expected effective field goal percentage, vs. the ninth-lowest actual.
That suggests a regression for the Cavs’ defense is coming. Effort is hard to sustain when losses start to pile up, and while the young backcourt of Sexton and Garland (AKA SexLand) is improving and may be legitmately good, the team is still going to lose a lot. Still, there’s a lot to feel good about defensively if they can maintain their intensity and identity.
What it means for bettors: The under is 5-2 in Cavs’ games, in part due to their struggling offense. They are bogged down with injuries, but systemically, they’re still hanging in. Despite getting blown out by Orlando, they only surrendered 103.
The Knicks Are Trying, Jennifer
Here’s my big question after the start of the Knicks in Year 1 under Tom Thibodeau: How bad are the Minnesota Timberwolves that Thibs couldn’t get them to defend?
Don’t get me wrong, Thibodeau was not a good coach in Minnesota, and was even worse as an executive. But the Knicks are playing their butts off, every single night.
All of the concerns about Thib’s team being burned to the wick are in play; RJ Barrett is averaging the most miles traveled per game in the league, Julius Randle is fourth.
They are just flat hustling, and the rewards have come in a pretty simple form: opponents are missing everything vs. the Knicks.
Via Positive Residual, here’s how Knicks’ opponents are shooting:
They’re also just battling hard. They sink here to contain Giannis and you get quality closeouts like this one on every play from the Knicks:
Now, the Knicks have the worst expected allowed eFG% vs. the third best actual allowed. That’s going to regress and could get painful. But there’s real buy-in right now and that’s worth mentioning.
What it means for bettors: Knicks games have gone under 5-2. More importantly, the Knicks have only given up one game where their opponent has gone over their team total. There’s value to be found, there.