Early season trends in the NBA can be deceiving.
Through a month of play last year, the Charlotte Hornets had the fifth best net rating in the league, while the Magic and Rockets had the eighth and ninth worst, respectively. A year earlier, the Grizzles and Knicks were both sitting at 7-5, and yet would go on to win 51 games combined. A year before that, the Clippers were darlings of the league after running out to a 13-2 record, and would go just 38-28 the rest of the way.
But just because anomalies can happen doesn’t mean they will. Last year at this time, the Bucks, Raptors, Nuggets and Warriors had four of the five best net ratings going, and would wind up finishing with the top two seeds in each conference. Sometimes, things are as they appear to be at first glance.
Take the four teams I highlighted here last week. The three trending up – Toronto (4-0 record, 3-1 against the spread), Miami (3-2, 3-2 ATS) and Washington (3-2, 3-2 ATS) – have kept things moving, while San Antonio (1-4, 1-4 ATS) continues to struggle.
Now, with Christmas less than month away and teams firmly establishing themselves in the league’s power structure, those early season trends could still fade, but are far more likely to continue solidifying themselves.
On that note, let’s look at whose stock is up and down this week:
Stock Up: Dallas Mavericks – 11-6, 9-8 against the spread
The Mavs are exceeding even the most aggressive preseason expectations thanks to perhaps this season’s front-runner for MVP, Luka Doncic. He’s gone nuclear over the last two weeks, averaging nearly a 30-point triple double (he’s at 9.5 rebounds) on Harden-level efficiency, putting up a 65 true shooting percentage over his last six games.
In the course of this madness, the Mavs had taken five in a row, both straight up and against the spread, before being humbled by the title-favorite Clippers on Tuesday night. Don’t let it throw you off their scent.
Over the last two weeks, the Mavs are outscoring teams by 17.1 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass, which notably filters out garbage time. Everything about this is legit. In the three games before their loss against LA – versus Golden State and Cleveland at home and in Houston - they covered the spread by an average of 28.3 points.
It isn’t due to unsustainable shooting either. Over this stretch, Dallas has hit just over 38 percent of their deep balls, good for 12th in the league, and only 32 percent from the corners. Even Luka has only been a league average shooter from long range over these six games, clocking in at just over 36 percent. He may actually have another level to reach.
Looking at Dallas’ upcoming slate, they have three road games in a row, starting in Phoenix before going up against the Lakers and Pelicans. They then come home for three to face those same Pels as well as the Wolves and Kings. Aside from the game in LA, every one of these figures to offer some value. The Mavs are only a two-point favorite in Phoenix, who has struggled mightily of late (minus 9.0 net rating, good for 27th in the league over the last two weeks).
Get on the Doncic express now. You won’t regret it.
Stock Up: Denver Nuggets – 13-3, 8-7-1 record against the spread
As recently as a few weeks ago, there was some minor…let’s call it “consternation” about the Nuggets.
Sure, they were 7-4, but coming off a road defeat at the hands of the lowly Hawks after being double digit favorites. Four of their wins had come by four points or less, and they’d won only one game by more than double figures.
That one game though was a 20-point drubbing of the Heat, who at that point were running roughshod over all comers. It should have served as a reminder: this Denver team was absolutely a giant lying in plain sight. It was just a matter of time until they woke up.
We didn’t have to wait long. Over their last six games – all wins – the Nuggets have the second best point differential in the NBA, outscoring teams by 16 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. Along with Dallas, they’ve been miles ahead of the field. Their only loss against the spread during that time has been a home win against Boston where they missed covering by a single point.
Best of all, it’s happening with defense. Denver is holding opponents under 100 points per 100 possessions over their hot streak, and no other team in the league can make that claim. It turns out their 10-th ranked D from a year ago might not be a mirage after all.
With Jokic averaging only a modest 16 points and six dimes on the year, they may also have another level to reach. Two games to circle over the first half of December are road and home affairs versus the Knicks, who have struggled mightily containing the league’s best offenses (see their recent efforts against San Antonio and Toronto).
Stock Down: Utah Jazz – 11-7, 7-11 against the spread
This seems to be one of those cases where reputation outpaces reality.
Of all the teams going into Thanksgiving with seven or fewer wins against the spread, The Jazz are the only one with a winning record. Betters keep giving them the benefit of the doubt, because after all, they’re winning, and it’s Utah, and, well…they’ll figure it out eventually.
It hasn’t happened yet. The Jazz have a bottom-half-of-the-league net rating over the last two weeks. Their usually sturdy defense is giving up 110.0 points per 100 possessions and their offense is in a bit of a freefall, ranking 20th during that stretch. They have not won more than two consecutive games against the spread this season.
One figured that Rudy Gobert’s return on Wednesday from a two-game absence would help right the ship, but they proceeded to get smoked by Indiana, 121-102. A week earlier, they squeezed out a four-point win against the lowly Warriors at home. Of their 11 wins, only three have come by double-digits.
Looking at their upcoming schedule, they’re seven-point favorites in Memphis on Friday night, where they lost outright just two weeks ago. They then have road games in Toronto and Philly before coming home to face the world-beater Lakers.
They’ll probably go on one of their usual runs when the second half of the season arrives, but for the next several weeks at least, they might present a nice opportunity.