When is it too early to read into advanced stats? On November 1 of 2019, when most teams had played about five games – the same point in the season that we’re at right now – the top six teams by net rating were the Lakers, Sixers, Suns, Raptors, Heat and Bucks.
Out of that group, we got both Finals representatives and the top two seeds in the East. Philly and Phoenix weren’t too shabby either. So no, while the early going doesn’t mean everything, it sure means something.
With that in mind, we turn to a Saturday slate of games that features the teams ranked third, fifth and sixth in net rating heading into this weekend’s action. Let’s take a closer look at each one:
Indiana is the fifth of the big five right now. The Bucks, Lakers, Hawks, Suns, and Pacers all have net ratings between 9.1 and 13.4. To the extent that teams can separate themselves from the pack this early in the season, they have done exactly that.
The Pacers are doing it fairly equally at both ends of the court; they rank fifth in offense and seventh in defense. Unfortunately, just when everything was going so well, they’ll now be without one of their key pieces for the foreseeable future. T.J. Warren, the team’s starting small forward, will miss most of the rest of the regular season after getting surgery to fix a stress fracture in his left foot.
Warren had started slowly, but he was part of a starting five that had been pounding opponents into submission to the tune of plus 26.6 points per 100 possessions. Without Warren on Thursday, Indy went small, starting Victor Oladipo at the three and moving Aaron Holiday into the starting lineup. The extra ball movement worked fine against the Cavs, who became the third of three lesser opponents the Pacers blew out this season (they split two close games against Boston).
Next up they get the feisty 2-3 Knicks, a team that has ended up losing badly to three superior opponents – including Indiana on opening night – but has held leads midway through every game they’ve played. If anything, there is a balancing of the scales in order after their starting lineup set an NBA record for futility by going a combined 0-for-23 from downtown in Thursday’s loss to Toronto.
The Pick: New York +9 @ -110
Like Indiana, Philly is 4-1 and the formula of Ben + Joel + shooting seems to be working well enough, at least for a team that leads the league in defense.
With the exception of the lone game that Embiid sat out, the Sixers have bludgeoned opposing teams, including most recently the previously undefeated Magic, who they held to just 92 points. Now they face off against Charlotte, who has been one of the harder teams to peg in the early going.
On the bright side, the Hornets’ dead even net rating after five games indicates that their 2-3 start is not a complete mirage. Digging deeper though, much of that number is due to their last victory – a 19-point win versus a Mavs team that arrived DOA and was never in the game. Before that, they eked one out against a strong Nets squad by two and lost close ones to the Thunder and Cavs to open the season. Then on Friday night, they lost by 15 at home to an undermanned Grizzles squad that had been struggling.
Another positive note for James Borrego’s team is that they’ve been getting significant contributions from all the right places. With the exception of Devonte’ Graham, the rest of the team’s six-man core - Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington and LaMelo Ball – has played and shot the ball well. They’re also distributing the rock like crazy, ranking first in the league in assist percentage before Friday night.
The Hornets figure to have just enough offense in store to keep this one close.
The Pick: Charlotte +9.5 @ -108
Oh how quickly a 3-0 start can become a distant memory.
Cleveland was riding high heading into Tuesday’s home matchup with the Knicks, first in the league in 3-point percentage and sporting a top-10 offense. Since then, they’ve laid two eggs, first to New York and then to Indiana, and now sit 20th in offense.
The good news is that after going 5-for-27 from downtown against the Knicks, they rebounded nicely on Thursday, hitting 12-of-23 from long range against the Pacers. Their 39.9 percent conversion fate from distance ranks 5th in the league. Cleveland will need every 3-pointer they can find heading into this matchup with the Go-Go-Atlanta Hawks.
Trae Young & Co. rank first in the league in offense by a comfortable margin, putting up an absurd 121.0 points per 100 possessions. They’d be 5-0 were in not for a virtuoso fourth quarter performance from Kyrie Irving on Thursday night to help the Nets pull out an absolute track meet, 145-141 (a loss they avenged by handily defeating Brooklyn on Friday evening).
It doesn’t seem possible for good defenses to stop or even slow down these Hawks, and while Cleveland has a very respectable 103.2 defensive rating heading into this game, they showed their cracks against Indiana, giving up 119 points. Trae Young will look at Collin Sexton as little more than a speed bump.
The Pick: Atlanta -6.5 @ -110
Saturday's Other NBA Games
Sacramento (3-2) at Houston (1-2)
These teams faced off on New Year’s Eve, and while Houston won, Sacramento kept it tight throughout and eventually covered. Here’s betting they do the same, if not win outright.
Oklahoma City (1-3) at Orlando (4-1)
Another rematch, with the Thunder having lost to the Magic by 11 in Oklahoma City earlier in the week. Orlando is looking to bounce back from the blowout vs Philly. Count on them doing just that.
Toronto (1-3) at New Orleans (3-2)
No Pascal Siakam, no problem for Toronto, who upended New York without their star forward on Thursday. Siakam will be back after a one-game suspension for leaving the bench early in the prior game, and should help the Raptors continue to right the ship. Give the points.