The NBA is a funny bird.
Every year, we all enter the season thinking we know exactly how it’s all going to end, and every June, we think we’re so damn smart because the last teams standing are more or less who we predicted.
This is a neat trick. By only focusing on the ends, we tend to ignore the means that got us there, but often the means are quite a bit different than we predicted.
Let’s start here: over the past five seasons, on average, four of the 16 teams that were the odds-on favorites to make the postseason didn’t get there.
It gets better. According to SportsOddsHistory.com, last year alone, 13 teams were at least 10 games off their preseason projected over/under total.
Translation: Surprises happen in the NBA, every year and every night. You just have to know where to find them. The problem is that because we think we’re all such know-it-alls, it usually takes a while for perception to catch up to reality.
Take Monday night. There were 11 games. Eight underdogs covered.
With the season now a week old, let’s see if we can’t start to uncover where those values might lie by highlighting teams on the rise (and on the decline) each and every week.
Phoenix Suns, 2-2 record, 4-0 ATS
The Suns are only 2-2, but there might not be a more deceiving record in the entire league. According to Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time, the Suns have the top point differential in the NBA, outscoring teams by 10.1 points per 100 possessions. Also via CTG, Phoenix has been the third unluckiest team in the NBA on the young season.
They’ve lost one-point games to the Nuggets and Jazz, soundly defeated the Clippers, and walloped the Kings. They’re also guarding well (4th in the NBA n defensive rating via CTG). This should be no surprise with a starting lineup that now surrounds Devin Booker with defensive stalwarts Ricky Rubio and Aaron Baynes and the respectable Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric. Throw in bench sophomores Mikal Bridges and Jevon Carter, and this team is suddenly a pain to play against.
The offense, which figured to be their strong suit, is just outside of the top 10, but that should improve. The Suns are currently 28th in the league in corner three conversion rate. They’re taking a healthy number from these spots – 7.4 per 100 possessions through Monday – but simply haven’t hit them. Once those start going down, this team might become a real problem.
Definitely a squad to keep an eye on.
Oklahoma City Thunder, 1-3 Record, 3-1 ATS
The Thunder have been even more unlucky than the Suns, as they’re currently the only team in the NBA with a net rating over 2.0 that doesn’t have double digit wins.
Oklahoma City sports a top-five defense despite playing the Jazz, Warriors and Rockets (and the Wizards, who have quietly been downright decent.) Best of all, they might not even be scratching the surface.
When OKC unleashes their three-headed-point-guard-monster on the court at one time, along with starters Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they’ve been absolutely pummeling opponents with a 23.4 net rating in an admittedly miniscule sample size of 16 minutes according to NBA.com. One figures we’ll see more of that as the year goes along, as the lineup nearly doubled its season-long minute total against Houston on Monday night (and wouldn’t you know, it was the Thunder’s best stretch of the game).
Oklahoma City plays five of its next six at home. Might be a good time to get on the bandwagon.
Atlanta Hawks, 2-1 Record, 3-0 ATS
(Note: the above is from before the Hawks Tuesday night game in which Trae Young was injured early and Atlanta's offense fell apart. Still, the below logic applies...you just might need to wait a few weeks for Young's return to deploy it)
The Hawks are the darlings of the NBA at the moment, coming within a Vince Carter heave from being the only undefeated team remaining in the Eastern Conference. Trae Young just won EC Player of the Week and looks destined to make the All Star team. After a road tilt with Miami, they play four straight at home, all of which are winnable.
(Actually, after nearly beating Philly on Monday night, is there any team that the Hawks can’t beat?)
The reason I’m hesitant to include them here is that everyone is going to start getting on this train. Unlike the Suns and Thunder, neither of which have yet attained “sexy” status (and in Phoenix’s case, people are always waiting for the other shoe to drop), people are all too happy to Stan for the ATL.
Even if this inflates the upcoming lines more than it should, we still shouldn’t discount them as a value proposition. They’ve played two of the top four defenses in the league (as of Monday night) in Philly and Orlando. The next five games are against teams that rank 10th, 19th, 20th and 27th, respectively.
If the Trae Young Effect is real, so could the Hawks.
Sacramento Kings, 0-4 Record, 0-4 ATS
Entering play on Tuesday, the Kings were the only team in the league that had played four games and yielded an 0-4 record against the spread.
After some ugly efforts to start the season, they had a respectable showing at home against Denver, falling 94-101 as a five-point dog. It was the first time all year they’d given up less than 113 points.
On one hand, you’d figure a new head coach would take a bit to get things rolling with a young squad. On the other hand, this team has already lost Marvin Bagley III for 4-6 weeks with a thumb injury and there were reports of discontent on the part of Bogdan Bogdanovic over his role coming off the bench. One thinks maybe Buddy Hield’s fat new contract had something to do with that. Either way, it isn’t the ideal way to start off a new tenure.
Two of the Kings next three games would seem to be very winnable – at home vs Charlotte and in New York – but this could be a blessing, as they should be giving points on both nights. If this is more than just a bumpy start, we should know for sure in about a week.