Barring any setbacks due to the coronavirus, the NBA is scheduled to resume its season July 30 at Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
Late last week the NBA released the eight-game schedules each team will play in what are called “seeding games.” These games will determine the teams that will fill out the traditional 16-team field for the playoffs that are scheduled to begin August 17 and last through early to mid-October.
Previously, I shared my thoughts on how I will approach those games with special emphasis to be placed on playing against teams likely to show little interest if or when such teams are officially eliminated from the possibility of making the playoffs. This strategy should apply to perhaps half a dozen teams over the 2 1/2 weeks these games are expected to last with Washington in the East and Phoenix in the West considered the favorites to be the first teams eliminated from their respective conferences.
Over the weekend, lines began to appear for the first three days of play. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted lines on the 13 games scheduled for Friday, July 30 through Sunday, August 1. The two games scheduled to open play on July 30 have New Orleans favored by 1 over Utah with a Total of 219.5 and the Lakers Pick ‘em vs. the Clippers with a Total of 218.5.
One of the first thoughts that came to mind when the plans to resume the season were announced was how to approach Totals. To me, there are two schools of thought which produce opposite approaches.
The first would be to look Under before looking Over. The 22 teams that will be competing in Orlando will have not seen competitive action for over 4 1/2 months following the suspension of play following the games of March 11. It would not be surprising if it takes a few games for teams to find their passing and shooting rhythms. This would tend to result in more missed shots and lower-scoring games.
At the same time, due to COVID-19, we might see a hesitancy for defenses to play with the usual degree of intensity to avoid the usual amount of contact. This could lead to more open shots and more driving the lane to get easy baskets. This would tend to favor higher-scoring games.
Many handicappers and bettors will be closely observing the first few games to detect any player or team tendencies regarding game shape and potential contact avoidance.
Along these lines it will be important to observe how the games will be officiated. Will the referees be inclined (instructed?) to call tighter games to discourage physical play and the resulting contact? Clearly, the health of the players will be of paramount importance and all possible measures may be taken to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, even if players and all others involved are tested on a very frequent basis.
We’ve learned over the past few months it’s possible to have the virus while not showing symptoms. It’s also possible to test negative if you’ve been infected for a day or two prior to being tested. Those are key ‘intangible’ handicapping factors that must be considered.
There are also the typical factors that must be considered. Those are the factors related to talent, health and depth of the competing teams. Again, due to COVID-19 and the likelihood that a small percentage of players may test positive over their time in Orlando, the composition of team rosters will vary as a result. Positive testing players will have to self-isolate until being medically cleared to return. And the always present issue of injuries may impact rosters.
Last week, 16 of 302 players tested positive and are self-isolating and could be cleared to join their teams as they begin arriving in Orlando July 7 with training camps scheduled to start two days later.
Teams may bring as many as 17 players to Orlando. Rosters will consist of 15 active and two inactive players. Several players have opted out of participating in the resumed season with the most significant players being Avery Bradley of the Lakers, Washington’s Davis Bertans, Dallas’ Willie Cauley-Stein, Portland’s Trevor Ariza and the Nets’ Wilson Chandler.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic tested positive last week while back home in Serbia but is expected to rejoin the Nuggets in time for the start of resumed play. It was reported on Monday that J.R. Smith was about to be signed by the Lakers to rejoin former teammate LeBron James as a replacement for Bradley. Recent surgeries to San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Utah’s Bogan Bogdanovic will sideline those players for the duration.
There is some good news however. After missing Milwaukee’s final two games before play was suspended due to a minor knee sprain, superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has been declared fully healthy. That’s obviously big for the Bucks, who are one of the favorites to win the title.
My approach to handicapping the seeding games begins looking at teams that have played well on the road. Seven teams have won at least 60 percent of their road games, led by the Lakers (26-6), Milwaukee (25-9) and Toronto (13-9). Oklahoma City, Dallas, Boston and Utah are the others.
The Lakers and Bucks are all but certain to secure top conference seeds and are the most likely to cruise through the first five or six games before using their final game or two as playoff tuneups.
Three weeks of training camp following should provide enough time for teams to gel. Whether teams that were playing well prior to the stoppage can regain that momentum is suspect. But of their prior 15 games six teams had won 10 or more with the Lakers leading the way with 12. OKC and Toronto won 11 and the trio of the Clippers, Bucks and Kings were 10-5. Of note is that Sacramento was 10-4-1 ATS over that stretch and the Lakers 10-5.
Also worth noting is that Orlando enters the restart 13-1-1 to the Over and Philadelphia was on an 11-4 Over run and San Antonio was 10-5. Trending the other way, Memphis and Milwaukee were both 10-5 to the Under.
In the weeks leading up to the restart I’ll share more thoughts on which teams I assess as having a realistic chance to spoil the chances of the three heavy favorites making it to the NBA Finals. On Monday, the Lakers were 11-4, the Bucks were 5-2 with the Clippers at 3-1. Of the other 19 teams, only Boston (16-1) was at less than 20-1 odds.