For Better or Worse, We Were Wrong About These NBA Teams
Championship odds come courtesy of TopBet and are accurate leading into games being played on Friday, Jan. 12. Remember: For our purposes, we’re looking at three teams who are overachieving in terms of their championship appeal, along with three others who are completely whiffing.
The underestimation of the Boston Celtics began over the offseason, even though they acquired Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in addition to having drafted Jayson Tatum, the No. 1 prospect in their eyes.
In many ways, said criticism seemed upside down. They looked better on paper. But they weren’t supposed to be this good in practice—especially after losing Hayward on opening night for what should be the rest of this season. They turned over more than two-thirds of their roster, then lost someone who, in some respects, profiled as their best player.
More than halfway through the season, however, this trope appears grossly mistaken, if outright dumb. The Celtics have the league’s best defense and a country-mile hold on the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. And their roster, while different and relatively inexperienced, is as versatile as any other team’s—including the Golden State Warriors.
This doesn’t mean they’re going to come out of the Eastern Conference. A certain four-time MVP in Ohio will have something to say about that. But they are the biggest threat the Cleveland Cavaliers have faced in LeBron James’ second go-round, and we, the bettors, need to start recognizing them as such.
Even with their recent downslope factored in, the Houston Rockets have one of the NBA’s five best records. Think about that for a minute.
Chris Paul and James Harden, their two best players, have both battled injuries. As a result, they’ve played fewer than 400 minutes together. The Rockets have the league’s third-highest point differential per 100 possessions anyway, along with a defense that, at full strength, has been much stingier than initially expected.
What’s more, aside from maybe the Celtics, it’s difficult to imagine another team better suited to contend with the Warriors. Paul remains a stifling defender at point guard, and the Rockets have three wings—Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker—who can switch almost everything between the 2 and 4 spots. And two of those players (Mbah a Moute and Tucker) have the chops to defend certain 5s.
Roll out the aforementioned four players, plus MVP candidate James Harden, and the Rockets have themselves a dangerous cocktail. Indeed, this group has only logged five minutes total together this season, on account of injuries. But they’re a plus-nine points in those five minutes. That’s absurd.
Maybe you thought the Rockets were the biggest threat to the Warriors, bar none, before the year tipped off. That’s fine. But no one thought that really meant anything substantive—until now.
It became easy to write off the Toronto Raptors ahead of this season.
Consider everything that happened to them over the offseason. They re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, while adding C.J. Miles, but they lost Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson, three of their most valuable and versatile defenders.
How would DeMar DeRozan fair without a true safety net when forced to play independent of Lowry? How would Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet respond to a heavier workload in the backcourt? And what of the Raptors’ young bigs, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam? Could they provide enough versatility behind Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas? And, finally, could the Raptors be switchy enough, and efficient enough, to be more than a steppingstone to the Cavaliers?
All of these questions were fair. On some level, they remain fair. The Raptors arguably looked better on paper in each of the two prior years and were still dealt drubbings by Cleveland in the playoffs.
Fast forward to now, and the Raptors have a stronghold on the East’s No. 2 seed. They have hit on a few of their wild cards, both in the backcourt and frontcourt; are sporing a much-improved shot profile on the offensive end; cobbling together enough switching on the defensive side thanks in large part to rookie OG Anunoby; and own the NBA’s second-best point differential per 100 possessions.
Much like the Celtics, it’s time to take the Raptors seriously out East.
Same story, different day: The Charlotte cannot, and will not, find a way to function without Kemba Walker.
To our favorite drawing board!
In the 1,281 minutes Walker has played, the Hornets have outscored opponents by 132 points—about the same raw differential held overall by the San Antonio Spurs. Conversely, in the 681 minutes they’ve played without their point guard, the Hornets are a minus-172—a mark almost as bad as that from the Atlanta Hawks, owners of the NBA’s worst record.
Need we say more? No. But we will, for thoroughness’ sake.
The Hornets are done. They’re almost seven games back of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. They aren’t making up that gap—not unless they acquire a second playmaker at the trade deadline, which they just don’t have the assets do.
And those holding out hope for Nicolas Batum to step up shouldn’t bate their breath. He’s struggled to run the offense without Walker for the past two or three seasons and turns the ball over a bunch in the pick-and-roll. He’s not the savior the Hornets need. No one currently on the roster is.
You’re not suddenly going to view the Cavaliers as a colossal failure. We get it. They remain the Eastern Conference’s standard for NBA Finals debuts. That won’t change so long as LeBron is healthy.
But, in the scheme of the championship picture, the Cavaliers aren’t coming off so hot.
Since Dec. 5, they’re posting a negative point differential per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor. That’s just nuts. On top of that, they’re 29th in defensive efficiency for the season, in front of only the Sacramento Kings. That’s a problem. They won’t just be able to flip a switch when the playoffs begin—not when they allow teams to get out in transition more than anyone in the league outside Houston, and most certainly not when they’re surrendering more wide-open three-pointers than every other squad, period.
Oh, and here’s one final note: The Cavaliers’ record against the spread this year is the worst in the NBA. True story.
The Memphis Grizzlies played us.
First, prior to the season, it looked like their streak of seven consecutive playoff berths would come to an end. Then, when the schedule tipped off, they got off to one of the hottest starts. Shortly after that, they imploded, fired head coach David Fizdale and ended up here, as perhaps the NBA’s most hopeless cause.
Some will be tempted to take a flyer on them for the rest of the month. Mike Conley could return, and maybe that’s enough to spur a postseason berth.
News flash: It won’t be because it can’t be.
Not only are the Grizzlies too far back of eighth place in the West (seven games), but soon-to-be 33-year-old Marc Gasol has devolved into a defensive non-entity. And knowing how important peak Gasol is to the Grizzlies’ most basic playoff hopes, you should not, in good conscience, treat this team as anything more than the NBA’s biggest flop.
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