Moore: Why I’m Buying the San Antonio Spurs’ Bench, More Early NBA Betting Trends

Moore: Why I’m Buying the San Antonio Spurs’ Bench, More Early NBA Betting Trends article feature image
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Brett Carlsen/Getty Images. Pictured: Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs.

Here’s a look around the NBA after Week 1 on trends, observations, surprising and disappointing teams:

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are 3-1 against the spread after their loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, and are showing signs of real life. Keldon Johnson’s numbers aren’t great, but the eye test shows he gives them a spark.

I took the over on their win total because the market was overreacting to their slide. The Spurs are mostly the same team from last season that nearly made the playoffs, with the same problems and advantages.

The starting unit continues to struggle — they have been outscored with LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor in each of the three first quarters he’s played and with him on the floor in each of the third quarters he’s played. The bench, meanwhile, absolutely rocks teams.

Playing the Spurs’ second-quarter moneyline vs. bad bench units and fading them in the first quarter is a sustainable strategy. San Antonio has been outscored in the opening period in three of its four games this season, though one was the first quarter vs. the Lakers without Aldridge.

Dejounte Murray is really showing some things in the pick-and-roll. His finishing ability looks improved, and he’s killing drop coverage, which most of the league plays in the regular season:



Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta is in a perfect position to fade, but you have to time it right.

The Hawks have the third best Effective Field Goal Percentage, the league’s best Offensive Rating at 122 (which would be the best in league history if sustained). They’re an offensive monster, led by Trae Young who is drawing free throws on an insane, league-leading 28% of his possessions.

None of this is out of the ordinary, and they’ll produce offense at a high rate all season. The Hawks’ opponent team total is 4-0 to the under.

The Hawks are somehow over-performing defensively despite being fourth-worst in Defensive Efficiency. They have given up the sixth-most spot-up attempts per game league-wide, but opponents are shooting the 10th-worst percentage on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts, per Synergy Sports.

Atlanta has held teams in non-garbage time to the sixth-lowest effective field goal percentage via Cleaning The Glass, despite a 15th-ranked expected eFG%.

The Hawks are playing above their ceiling offensively and defensively. As those numbers begin to regress, expect to still find inflated lines for the Hawks, and soft totals for the over. This team is going to be outrageously good offensively, but the defense will slide.

If it doesn’t, two players to keep an eye on are De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. The second-year wings were seemingly buried when the Hawks added a bazillion wings in the offseason, but both have continued to get major minutes, and defensively, they show real aptitude.

Here, Reddish is a pest and Hunter almost gets the steal on the deflection. This isn’t a gamble, it’s a quality deflection that happens to wind up in Brooks’ hands, who misses anyway:

Still, Atlanta’s defense is a house of mirrors.


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Orlando Magic

I think the Magic are a good Eastern Conference team. I really do. However, I do see some signs that they’re outperforming a reasonable ceiling.

For starters, they have the worst location eFG% in the league per Cleaning The Glass. That metric basically says “If you shot league average from where you get your shots from, how effective would your offense be?” And the Magic are outperforming that by more than three percentage points.

This is another team feasting with their second units. The Magic are 3-1 ATS on second-quarter line spreads. Terrence Ross is shooting 44% behind the arc this season, Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams are giving them good minutes.

Ross, in particular, is playing with an incredible amount of confidence. He’s not just spotting up stand-still, he’s hitting off curls and even off picks like this:

The biggest thing to know when watching Orlando was echoed by a scout I spoke with this week.

“You can tell which teams know what the f*** they’re doing, and Steve Clifford teams always know what they’re doing,” the scout told me. “They’re organized on offense and defense. The top-level talent isn’t great, they need another scorer, but just the way the team plays … they’re competent.”

Orlando looks like it might be a good ATS team as the season goes on, undervalued by the market and strong against weak or similar opponents, as long as it’s healthy.

The warning sign is the first unit’s defense. The Magic have given up over 110 Offensive Rating with the starters on-court, but they’ve burned up enough offense to hang, especially in the first quarter.

That’s probably not sustainable with their personnel. That said, Orlando is forcing the second-lowest opponent expected eFG%, and opponents have outshot that. The defense will improve as the offense slides.


Denver Nuggets

Woof.

OK, here is defense you can make for the start of Denver’s season, which is the only thing involving the word “defense” about them.

  1. The Kings, who Denver has lost to twice, have been a bugaboo for Michael Malone. Denver is only 10-9 straight up and 7-11-1 ATS vs. Denver in Malone’s tenure vs. his old team. He took the firing by the Kings very personally and tends to tighten up in those games. The running joke in Denver is that the team deliberately screws around vs. Sacramento to troll Malone. This isn’t true, of course, but there’s just no logical explanation for the issues.
  2. However, this Kings team does create specific issues because they run the ball with a great fast point guard in De’Aaron Fox and a great athletic finisher in Richaun Holmes. That combo gives Denver fits.
  3. They played the Clippers on Christmas, that’s a great team, no shame in that loss.
  4. So it’s really just “Jamal Murray made one bucket (a dunk) in the opener, they lost a game they should have won, Kings are a tough matchup, lost to the Clippers.” Things aren’t as bad as they seem.

However, they’re pretty bad.

The Nuggets have the third-worst defensive rating in the league, and watching them, that feels generous. The starters routinely will have good sequences spoiled by the mistakes of second-year player and new starter Michael Porter Jr.

Please watch the reactions of his teammates after Porter gave up an end-of-half good defensive possession on an inexplicable loss of his man:

Then there’s the bench, which has imploded.

Last year in the regular season, Jerami Grant came off the bench before his postseason breakout. Grant was spotty defensively, but still at least was athletic enough to make plays.

Now, Grant is just gone, Mason Plumlee has been replaced by Isaiah Hartenstein who is struggling with Denver’s two-on-ball scheme, PJ Dozier is playing at small forward (though he’s been good).

The big hurt is that vaunted offseason addition Facu Campazzo, who Malone raved about, has been a complete bust so far. In 29 minutes played this season, Campazzo has one made bucket, five assists, five turnovers, four rebounds, two steals, five made free throws, and Denver has been outscored by 31 points in those 29 minutes.

JaMychal Green has been out of the lineup with injury and is expected back Friday, but Green would have to be superman to help with the team’s defensive performance.

Now, Denver’s expected opponent eFG% (52.8%)is third-best in the league, two percentage points below the league average. But their actual is 56.6%. That will regress, especially as Denver gets its turnovers under control.

This start is a shame, because Nikola Jokic is having his best career start to his season, leading the league in assists, averaging 25-12-14 on 63-40-80 splits. He’s been MVP-level.

His team needs to step it up. And until then, the Nuggets may be a fade, especially in the second quarter, here Denver is 0-4 ATS.

Sources close to Denver maintain there will be no panic, and the front office is notorious for its patience. Rumors of Denver being a potential James Harden landing spot were exaggerated, with league sources indicating a less than 25% chance of such a deal being completed. Harden wouldn’t fix Denver’s defensive issues.

However, if things keep going south for a team that made the Western Conference Finals last season, don’t be surprised if they look at the trade market for defensive wing depth, an area laid bare after the departures of not only Grant, but Torrey Craig.

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Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has not gotten off to a great start, ranked 24th in Basketball Reference’s SRS, which measures point differential vs. strength of schedule.

The eye test says that stat’s lying, however. Portland’s already faced Utah, the Lakers, and Clippers. It’s a tough road up front, and the win vs. the Lakers looks really good no matter how you slice it.

Still, the defense remains an issue.

In the offseason, Terry Stotts decided to install a new defensive scheme, utilizing more two-on-ball strategy in pick and roll, with the center coming up and hedging to allow the guard to recover.

It should apply more defensive pressure instead of Portland’s usual drop scheme, which surrenders space to the league’s phalanx of great on-ball scorers.

It hasn’t gone well. The Blazers have a 124 Defensive Rating with Jusuf Nurkic on the court this season, and Enes Kanter, a revolving door, is his backup. If the centers step up, they can’t contain without fouling:

Playing at the level of the screen is exhausting work, and Nurkic’s strengths are more towards roaming a space with his huge body and intimidating shots as they come in. This is going to take a lot of time to figure out, if it works at all.

Then there’s the second unit. The only 2nd quarter the Blazers have covered this season came vs. the Lakers this week, when notably Carmelo Anthony was not with the team. In 57 minutes played, the Melo-Kanter lineups have given up a 119.7 defensive rating, outscored by 21.4 points per 100 possessions.

Now, again, the Blazers have played a tough schedule. But against any second unit worth a damn, the Blazers are going to bleed points. However, they get a reprieve as the new year starts, playing the Warriors twice and Bulls, both bottom-15 in bench net rating.

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