Dan Favale | Fri 06/04/2018 - 03:50 EDT

Biggest Red Flag for NBA’s Top Title Favorites

Biggest Red Flag for NBA’s Top Title Favorites
Nobody in the NBA is perfect. Not even the most prolific contenders. They all have their flaws. The trick is recognizing them in time to make smart year-end bets. And that's why we're here: to talk about the biggest red flags among the Association's cream of the crop.

NBA championship odds come courtesy of TopBet and are accurate as of Friday, April 6. You’ll most definitely want to double back and check these lines before placing a wager, even though the numbers for favorites tend to shift less than most other teams’ chances leading into the playoffs.

For the purposes of this exercise, we want to emphasize the concept of “title favorite.” So we’ll only be looking at teams with odds no lower than +1000. That limits our scope to just four squads, but that’s kind of the point. We only want to dive into the best of the best, and that group should be inherently exclusive.

Cleveland Cavaliers (+700): Tyronn Lue’s Weird Rotations

cavs

Look, obviously defense is a huge red flag for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re now 29th in points scored per 100 possessions. Any improvement on the less glamorous end has been both marginal and fleeting. That should concern them when looking ahead to potential Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals matchups.

At some point, however, we have to accept poor defense as part of their identity. They don’t have the personnel to be much better than they are now—not even if LeBron James locks in for the postseason, as many expect him to do. Harping on their porous sets when they’re essentially ingrained into their DNA is pointless.

Picking apart head coach Tyronn Lue’s lineup decisions is a different story altogether. He’s arguably exacerbating the Cavaliers’ defensive issues.

Leading into their most recent victory over the Washington Wizards, Lue told reporters that Jeff Green would be starting at the 4 for the rest of the regular season and for the playoffs. This is a weird proclamation, to say the least.

Green has needed to start some games. The Cavaliers haven’t been healthy, so Lue and company haven’t had much of a choice. And the offense has been straight fire when he plays with LeBron; it pumps in more than 115 points per 100 possessions.

But starting him at the 4 hasn’t done anything for the defense. The Cavaliers still cough up more than 110 points per 100 possessions—a terrible mark—when he plays with LeBron, and that return actually deteroriates when they’re both slotted next to Kevin Love.

To make matters even worse, starting Green means that both Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson will be coming off the bench. Though Nance is more than capable of guarding 4s, these two bigs should not be playing together. Neither one of them spaces the floor or operates off the dribble, so they stand to torpedo the Cavaliers’ spacing.

And if Lue continues to stagger their minutes to account for that cramped operating, that in turn means one or both of them will end up not receiving enough playing time. One of them needs to start to avoid that dilemma. More importantly, one of them needs to start so the Cavaliers have someone in the frontcourt equipped to at least begin covering up for Love’s defensive limitations around the rim.

Golden State Warriors (+120): Regression With Draymond Green At Center

warriors

Rolling with the Golden State Warriors’ health would be too easy here.

Stephen Curry is slated to miss the entire first round with a Grade 2 MCL sprain. Patrick McCaw may be done for the year after landing hard on his back during a recent game against the Sacramento Kings. Andre Iguodala has missed a few games with left knee soreness. Omri Casspi is coping with ankle issues. Draymond Green has missed time in recent weeks for a variety of reasons.

Kevin Durant said it best: The Warriors are not invincible. Not in the Western Conference Finals. Not even in the first round. Getting back to the NBA Finals could prove extremely difficult.

Once again, though, we have case of a red flag that’s kind of beyond the team’s control. The Warriors have no say in who’s healthy and who’s not. Penalizing them for that is unfair.

Besides, their regression during the time Green spends at center is equally, if not more, damning than their murky healthy bill.

Sticking Green at the 5 has long been the Warriors’ answer to everything. It is their trump card. They don’t necessarily go to it often, but only because they don’t need to. No other team can guard a lineup that has a ball-handling, rim-running, switch-everything wing masquerading successfully as a big man. Golden State doesn’t win its 2015 or 2017 titles without the five-man makeup affectionately known as the “Death Lineup.”

Except, those arrangements haven’t been all that effective this year. The Warriors are putting up an absurdly awesome 119 points per 100 possessions when Green is jumping center. But they’re also vomiting up 117 points per 100 possessions at the other end. That would by far and away rank as the worst mark in the league overall.

Maybe Green and the Warriors defense have a switch they can flip in the playoffs, when the games start to matter more. Perhaps these defensive struggles won’t even matter early on. But they will sure as anything matter later, if not in the second round, then most definitely in a potential Western Conference Finals showdown with the league-best Houston Rockets. 

Houston Rockets (+150): Historic Production In Isolation

rockets

Are we really about to chop down the Rockets based on a strength of theirs?

Apparently yes. And it’s totally warranted.

Houston is averaging 1.13 points per isolation possession this season. No other team comes close to sniffing that level of efficiency. The Los Angeles Clippers rank as the second deadliest team in one-on-one situations, and they’re averaging just 1.01 points per possession.

Take the Rockets’ output in isolation, and it actually transcends the NBA’s best offense overall—which just so happens to be owned by them. That’s truly amazing. 

So what’s the problem? The sustainability of this model—or lack thereof.

Iso-heavy offenses are theoretically easier to defend in the playoffs, when you’re going up against better defenses night in and night out and opposing coaches have extra time to game plan around methodical half-court sets. We saw the Rockets fall on this very sword last season during their second-round loss to the San Antonio Spurs. James Harden burned out, and so, too, did their offense.

This year could be different. Harden isn’t going it alone. He has Chris Paul to help him. They rank first and second, respectively, in efficiency among higher-volume isolation players. Operating off one another could inoculate the Rockets against appreciable regression in the playoffs.

Then again, maybe it won’t. We don’t know.

And, frankly, that’s the problem.

Toronto Raptors (+1000): Late-Season Reversion To Old Habits

raps

Almost all of the Toronto Raptors’ championship appeal is rooted in their identity shift. They no longer traffic in too many long twos and painfully slow offensive sets. The shoot more threes. They play a little faster. They’re less predictable.

Or rather, they were less predictable.

The Raptors are reverting to their old ways in recent weeks. Since March 1, they rank 24th in possessions used per 48 minutes. They were close to ranking inside the top 10 before that. They do rank in the top three of three-point frequency during this time, but they’ve seen their defense crater. They’re 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions over their last 18 games after spending most of the year hovering around the top five.

Regaining their earlier mojo will be crucial to making good on their Eastern Conference-best record. They’ve already lost two consecutive tilts to the Cavaliers, suggesting they don’t have what it takes to contend for an NBA Finals appearance. And things are only going to get harder from here.

Head coach Dwane Case will invariably have to pare down his rotation. The Raptors’ second-most used lineup is an all-bench squad at the moment. While this group is statistically dominant on the year, relying on them in volume won’t cut it during the postseason. Other teams will have shortened their rotations, which would then force the Raptors’ backups to see more time against opposing starters. And as we saw in their aforementioned losses to the Cavaliers, that’s not exactly a recipe for success.

Something has to give for the Raptors. But what will it be? Will they start to play faster? Effectively shorten rotation? Do nothing at all?

And does any of this matter? Or are they simply just doomed to cede status and NBA Finals exposure to the Cavaliers?

We’re a few weeks away from finding out.

*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, Cleaning The Glass or NBA.com and are accurate leading into games being played on April 6.

Category : Sports Betting News

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