It’s been a somewhat strange start to the 2016-2017 NBA season. Sure, the top of the standings look, already, basically as expected; Cleveland is tops in the East followed by Toronto and Charlotte, with Detroit, Milwaukee, Boston, Chicago and Indiana all right behind. And in the West, the Clippers, Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, Rockets and Blazers are all in the top six.
But a few LOSSES have been jarring. The Spurs lost their second home game of the season last night, surpassing their total for ALL OF LAST SEASON. And the Warriors, who set the NBA record last year for wins to begin a season (and obviously, the record for most wins EVER in a season) already have two losses, both by double digits, one at home to the Spurs and another blowout to the Lakers.
Now, I remind everyone, this is a SMALL sample size. It is perfectly plausible that the Warriors run off a dozen straight sometime soon and end up hovering around 17-3 and all will be forgiven and forgotten. But it could also be a sign that the Warriors aren’t as cohesive this season, especially defensively, nor are they as deep as they miss Bogut, Barnes, Speights and Ezili. It could also mean that the Spurs are FINALLY too old to maintain a top-two in the West pace, especially as they search desperately for rest in the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Clippers have to be the most encouraging team; a blistering 5-1 start and fresh off a decimation of the Spurs in San Antonio last night. The Clippers were my favorite sleeper in my preseason preview, and it will be fun to see if they can finally be the team we THOUGHT they were for the last three seasons…
We moved back to 75% ATS on the season with yet another easy winner as the Pacers rolled over the Bulls at home, jumping out to a 20-point lead and never really being challenged. Let’s see if we can keep it going with another winner to end the week.
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Today’s Free Pick:
Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers -2.5
The two youngest teams in the NBA link up tonight, both fresh off exhilarating victories, albeit for different reasons. The Suns escaped with a one-point win over the Pels thanks to a last-second back-door inbounds pass leading laying in the final second while the Lakers absolutely handled the Warriors from start to finish in one of the season’s most surprising early results.
Now the bigger challenge for younger teams: not backsliding in the immediately subsequent contest.
So who can hold the rope tonight? Who can turn the page quickly and get back to business with a sustained intensity and effort?
Simple data suggests it is the home team in most instances like this. Young teams tend to really struggle on the road in the NBA, where home court advantage plays a larger role than in most other sports. For example, NBA home teams win 62.7% of the time, as opposed to a nearly-negligible 54% in baseball (where the parks and the rules suggest it SHOULD matter more, especially the edge of batting last). So, with home court already tilting to nearly five in eight odds, add in the youth of the Suns, and the Lakers are a great value at just -2.5.
There is also the factor that the Lakers, to this point, are actually kinda GOOD. Sure, D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young are far too inefficient for long-term significant success, shooting 37.9% and 39.7% respectively. But Julius Randle is emerging as a LEGIT power-four. He is shooting just under 60% from the field and is grabbing 8.3 board a night. Lou Williams has been amazing, scoring over 16 a night and recording a PER of over 25, tops on the team, and 21st in the league among players who average more than 20 minutes a game. That puts him in the company of players like LeBron, John Wall and Dwight Howard, and slightly ahead of Jimmy Butler, Mike Conley, Blake Griffin and Steph Curry. So yeah – Sweet Lou is puttin’ in work.
Meanwhile, Phoenix has been a little more erratic. One night it is Devin Booker lighting it up, other nights Eric Bledsoe is the guy, and more steadily, it has been TJ Warren. But they have struggled with turnovers, especially Booker and Brandon Knight, and it has cost the team. For all the scoring of their talented (and crowded – don’t think that doesn’t have some mental impact, especially on former All Star Knight) backcourt, they are only 23rd in offensive efficiency. They are middle of the pack defensively, but the stat that JUMPS out to me is that they are 28th in assists per game. Considering almost all of their offense is guard-generated, that tells me the ball is WAY too sticky and that this team just isn’t playing well together as a TEAM.
Look for the Lakers to control the game at home. As long as Luke Walton can convince his kids tonight matters just as much as the Warriors game did (and they’ve had a few days to ground themselves) this is a game the Lakers SHOULD win. And just THAT sentence alone is a sign of real progress.