How These 5 NBA Teams Are Beating The Spread

How These 5 NBA Teams Are Beating The Spread article feature image
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Picture by Getty Images. Picture: Stephen Curry.

We’re still early in this NBA season, but now is a good time to take stock of the relevant trends beginning to reveal themselves. Entering Wednesday’s games, there are five teams that have been outstanding against the spread so far this season. (If you haven’t been paying much attention to the NBA early on, two of the teams might surprise you.)

I took a look at the best teams with regard to their spread differential — a team’s average point differential relative to the spread — to see which teams are beating the expectations of sportsbooks.

Here’s a look at why these teams have outperformed spread expectations and what the future holds for their market expectations.

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Record: 7-4
  • ATS: 8-3
  • Spread Diff: +8.2

Through the first 11 games of last season, Cleveland was 5-6. By the end of February, they were 14-21, and their season was over. So it’s normal to be a little cautious with the Cavs. The key with the Cavs’ dropoff last year was an injury to Larry Nance Jr. LNJ was holding up the team’s defensive identity, and without him and Dante Exum, who also suffered a significant injury, the defense fell apart. 

Flash forward to now, and the 7-4 Cavaliers have wins over the Knicks, the Raptors, the Blazers, the Nuggets, the Clippers, and the Hawks. They rank seventh in half-court defensive efficiency and 16th in half-court offensive efficiency — they’re a great defensive team with just enough offense.

Collin Sexton’s torn meniscus delivers a blow to the offense, but it should be noted Sexton had the worst net rating on the Cavs, with Cleveland outscored by 5.8 points with Sexton on-court and putting up just 99.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Most of that is dragged down by a really rough game vs. Phoenix, but Sexton only has three games where the Cavs scored 105 points per 100 possessions or more with him this season.

The revelation for the Cavs has come from three players: Darius Garland, Ricky Rubio, and Evan Mobley.

Rubio is shooting 43% from behind the arc this season and looks re-engaged and reinvigorated. Most notably, Garland and Mobley’s basketball IQ makes things easier for Rubio to make plays he’s comfortable making. When you put a high IQ player with other high IQ players, good things happen.

Rubio’s speed at recognizing things helps, and giving him two players in Mobley and Jarrett Allen that both cut with intention, are highly athletic, and can move to fill space optimizes him. 

Garland, I have to say, has made a leap that isn’t recognized by the numbers. His 7.6 assists per game rank seventh league-wide, and Garland isn’t just going through rote mechanics.

He’s both creative and, not going to lie, more than a little audacious with his passing. The Cavs’ offense is scoring 112.8 points per 100 possessions with Garland on-court. The assists really shine through. 

Garland is patient in pick and roll in a way the team needs, is a willing passer, and is shooting 44% from deep to start the season. If Garland makes a leap, that changes the equation on this team. 

Mobley is a phenom, end-dot. His cutting is terrific, he’s willing to space the floor even as his 3-point shot has struggled out of the gate, and defensively, he makes several really high-IQ plays combined with his athleticism.

I thought Mobley could end up being the best player in the draft before the season began, but I didn’t think he’d have the production to match. He’s averaging 15-8-3 with a 17.1 PER and the team outscores their opponent by 1.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — rare for a rookie. 

The Cavaliers are second in the league in points off cuts per game. Look at how far back Jarrett Allen is cutting from here. The Cavs are sending Mobley and Allen not on cuts from the dunker spot, but spacing to 3-point range and then diving, and it’s creating havoc. 

The Cavs might just be good this time. The market continues to underrate them because they don’t pop in any particular metric.


Golden State Warriors

  • Record: 9-1
  • ATS: 6-3-1
  • Spred Diff: +7.3

No surprise here. The Warriors are not sneaky. They are obliquely killing everyone. The schedule plays a part, for sure. The Warriors have the 29th-rated strength of schedule per Dunks And Threes. There’s of course a relationship between the Warriors destroying everyone and the Warriors’ schedule vs. opponents they’ve destroyed looking weak. They’ve won their last five games by double digits. 

Just as scary is their profile: the Warriors are back to winning with defense. A discussion point from a national talking head last week was that “these aren’t the old Warriors who just outscored you,” and boy is that a bad take. The Warriors in the Kerr era have ranked: first, sixth, second, 11th, and 12th before the 2020 tank season, and last year they wound up sixth. This has always been a team that used chaotic defense to create havoc in the open court for all that splashing. 

In fact, the Warriors this season have only recently started to warm up offensively, ranking just 10th in adjusted offensive rating. That’s going to improve even as the strength of schedule improves. 

The Warriors have been a double-digit favorite just three times this season, twice to the Thunder and once to Houston. Even against the depleted Pelicans, they were only -9.5. Those numbers will rise, making covers more difficult; this isn’t the 2015 or 2016 team that just teared through teams. However, their motivational edge is much higher than in the Durant era, and there are lingering preseason effects on the models keeping this low for the time being. 

I have the Warriors No. 1 in my power rating based on their half-court and transition efficiency on both ends of the floor. Despite their relatively low offensive efficiency adjusted for opponent, they’re No. 1 in halfcourt offense, nearly three points better per 100 possessions than No. 2 Philly per Cleaning The Glass , which excludes garbage time. 

Nemanja Bjelica and Gary Payton II have given Golden State immense contributions off the bench, so much so that many of the starters have worse on-court net ratings than off-court, despite winning their minutes. Every player that has played more than 56 minutes has a positive net rating on-court. They’re winning all the minutes. 

Their defense is elite. They contest at a high level, giving up the sixth-fewest uncontested catch-and-shoot opportunities in the league while also being the No. 1 team defending the pick and roll this season. The Warriors allow the fourth-fewest shots per game in the restricted area and the eighth-lowest percentage on those opportunities. 

Draymond Green should probably be the leader for Defensive Player of the Year. His ability to make reads like this where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rejects the screen with a spin move and still manages to beat him to spot is just nuts.

 

And they don’t even have Klay Thompson back yet. 

We’re still early, and the schedule has been soft. But the preseason expectations for this team both by the market and analysts were pitifully low.

There’s still a lot of value to be found on them, particularly in regular-season markets. The Warriors are still +165 to +175 in the market to win the Pacific division. I bet them to win the title (among several other teams) in preseason, and I’ll be adding to that position soon.

The Warriors are a serious contender.


Washington Wizards 

  • Record: 7-3
  • ATS: 7-3
  • Spread Diff: +6.1

The Zards! 

Here’s the big thing with the Wizards: they’re just capable. They are playing more veterans because they added so many in the Westbrook trade. Montrezl Harrell has been terrific, even on the defensive end. The offense is limited, but the defense is so solid it makes up for it. 

Washington is 16th in adjusted offensive rating but fourth in adjusted defensive rating. 

The Wizards are allowing the fewest fastbreak points per 100 possessions, despite being 14th in turnover percentage. They’re No. 1 in opponent eFG% — meaning they’re best in the league at contesting opponent’s shots.

The Wizards are holding opponents significantly under their expected eFG%, which is usually a spot for regression, but their expected opponent eFG% is still the 8th-lowest in the league. They’re forcing low-efficiency shots and making them miss. 

Bradley Beal is starting to normalize offensively; his effective field goal percentage has been above 50% the last four games after not being so the first six games. Any boost offensively from Beal puts the Wizards in a good spot. 

The Wizards are riper for some regression just based on the weapons available, some concerning defensive numbers with Daniel Gafford, and the impact of injuries night-to-night. However, they’re also going to continue to be underrated in the market. I have them power-rated above Miami and right in line with Brooklyn.


Miami Heat 

  • Record: 7-3
  • ATS: 7-3
  • Spread Diff: +5.7

The Heat looked like an absolute juggernaut in the first seven games of the season. They drilled the Bucks (who were without half their team) and then knocked off Brooklyn. They’ve won six of their seven games by double digits, including a trouncing of Memphis by 26. 

The weird thing? They also lost by double digits in each of their three losses. 

More concerning, they’ve lost two of their last three, and some cracks in the foundation are showing. Miami’s halfcourt offense is just 17th per Cleaning The Glass. One of the trends we’ve seen is teams with high-IQ offensive players can solve some of their defensive hi-jinx, whether it’s their hybrid zone, switching, or sneaky traps.

Miami’s defensive numbers have slipped after the losses to Boston and Denver, predictably, but given they caught the Nets at their worst and the Bucks even worse than that, there are at least some questions. 

The Heat are intensely physical and seem obsessively driven to win in the regular season. Take Monday’s blowout loss to the Nuggets that ended in the brouhaha, leading to a one-game suspension for Nikola Jokic. The Heat were down as many as 19 in that game, and the Heat were just starting a West Coast road trip. Only Erik Spoelstra changed his rotation, a regular-season rarity for teams, to get his starters back on the floor early. Had the ruckus not gone down, Jimmy Butler was on pace to play 40 minutes in that game — in a November non-conference game. 

Given the physicality Miami plays with, I have some concerns if they’re going to try and put the pedal down this hard. This is a tough, prideful group with championship intentions, but some measure of schedule maintenance is necessary given how many key players are 30 or older. 

One last thing: in the Heat’s three losses, Bam Adebayo has looked like vapor. He was brilliant vs. Rudy Gobert in the win over the Jazz, but Nikola Jokic vivisected him for four quarters. I’m not sure night-to-night if the Heat are getting all-world, DPOY-caliber Adebayo or drifting Adebayo, who looked lost in their sweep to Milwaukee last spring.


Chicago Bulls 

  • Record: 7-3
  • ATS: 7-3
  • Spread Diff: +5.2

The Bulls are back. 

Chicago keeps finding ways to win. They came back from 14 down vs. Boston and put up 128 points. They grinded out a win over Utah, holding the Jazz to 99 points. They broke open from Brooklyn and scored 118 while holding the Nets under 100.

Chicago’s defense wasn’t going to hold as a top-5 unit. That’s just not realistic given their personnel. But the offense has started to improve, moving to 13th, and they’re up to 11th in halfcourt offense after starting the season at the bottom.

Expect the defense to continue to slide as offenses around the league normalize. The Bulls are giving up the highest percentage of shots around the rim at 39%, and while they’re contesting well, there are signs teams will likely shoot worse. But they’re containing the amount of 3s they’re giving up and have the third-lowest turnover percentage in the NBA.

My biggest takeaway on the Bulls is that as long as the offense regresses at the same rate as the defense, they should settle in top 15 in both categories. If they keep up this defensive success? Great! But even if they don’t, as long as Zach LaVine’s 3-point percentage improves as his hand heals (31%), then they should be fine.

The biggest thing they need? Nikola Vucevic to hit some freaking bunnies.

Once these shots start to fall, the Bulls’ offense will look even better. This is a top-five group when everything’s clicking.

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