The NBA regular season ends in just over a month. The hot topics of conversation are the teams fighting to make the playoffs and which one of several deserving players will be the league MVP.
The MVP award is based on regular season performance only and thus may come down to which player leads his team to the best finish over the season’s final five weeks.
The leading contenders are Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Cleveland’s LeBron James, Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. All four teams will make the playoffs with Curry’s Warriors likely to be the top seed in the Western Conference and James’ Cavaliers to be seeded second in the East.
One key indicator of just how good the top teams in the NBA truly are is their performance against the league’s elite teams. “Elite” is a relative term that can be defined in several ways.
One definition I have used for many years is to define an elite team as one that is winning at least 65 percent of its games. Using that criteria five teams currently qualify – Atlanta, Golden State, Houston, Memphis and Portland.
Again, this is somewhat of an arbitrary number but it has been used and applied consistently over the years. It’s a bottom line based number to what is the team’s win/loss record.
Using that definition Atlanta has performed the best against the other four. Atlanta is 6-1 SU against those other four members of the group, all of whom are in the Western Conference. Golden State is next best at 5-2 followed by Memphis at 7-3. The teams’ ATS records are identical to their SU records with the exception of Atlanta, which is 5-2 ATS facing the other elite teams.
What is surprising is the gap between third best Memphis and the rest of the NBA is huge. In fact, no other team aside from those three teams has a winning record against the group of elite teams. New Orleans is fourth best at just 5-6 SU. The other two “elite” teams, Houston and Portland, are just 3-9 and 1-7 respectively.
This tells us Houston and Portland have accumulated their fine records against the weaker teams in the NBA while coming up short against the league’s best. They’ve also fared well against the pretty good but less than elite teams.
This suggests, not surprisingly, that Atlanta, Golden State or Memphis are the most likely teams to produce the NBA Champion as these are the teams that have performed the best against the best this season.
Although Golden State has a solid 5½ game lead over Memphis for the top seed in the West, Memphis is just 1½ ahead of third seeded Houston with fourth seeded Portland just one game further back.
Of course this is a small sample of games and does not reflect what could happen in a best of seven series in which adjustments are made on a game to game basis over a two week period.
The NBA has long been a league in which the best regular season team makes a deep playoffs run with the top team in one or both conferences frequently playing for the NBA Title.
The one team not included in either the list of elite teams or teams that perform best against elite teams is Cleveland. And with good reason.
Cleveland started the season with a new coach and significant turnover in personnel, the most obvious being LeBron James and Kevin Love. It was expected it would take time for things to gel and indeed such has been the case.
On Jan. 13 the Cavs were 19-20 and then won 12 in a row to climb up the Playoff seeding ladder. Since that streak ended on February 6 Cleveland has still gone a respectable 9-5 to start this week at 40-25 and is seeded second in the East, a half game ahead of Central Division rival Chicago and a game ahead of Atlantic Division leading Toronto.
The Cavs still trail Conference leading Atlanta by a whopping 10½ games so their realistic challenge is to maintain their hold on the second seed. The Cavs, by the way, are just 4-7 SU against the group of five elite teams. They would have to be 14-3 over the balance of the regular season to meet the aforementioned definition of elite.
A tough challenge indeed and one that likely will not be met. But even going just 11-6 to end the season would have the Cavs posting a 32-11 record over just more than half a season that, on its own, would qualify as elite.
If current form holds we would see an Eastern Conference Finals between Atlanta and Cleveland and a Western Conference Finals between Golden State and Memphis.
It would make for an attractive wagering proposition if some sports book offered odds on whether the NBA Champion will come from the group of Atlanta, Cleveland, Golden State and Memphis versus the other 12 teams to make the Playoffs. That group would include defending champion San Antonio in addition to the LA Clippers, Houston, Portland and, quite likely, Oklahoma City.
With college basketball attracting its greatest attention of the season over the next two weeks with games being played virtually from early morning until late at night there may be some soft spots in betting the NBA.
The books will be concerned with a steady stream of halftime lines, in game lines, overnight lines and more as they handle multiple games with less than 24 hours in which to analyze matchups that less time than normal may be devoted to making NBA lines. This might have a minimal impact overall but minimal does not equal none and any edges are worth investigating.
Here’s a look at three attractive weekend matchups.
LA Clippers at Dallas (Fri): The teams start the week tied for the fifth and sixth seeds with Dallas having both one more win and one more loss. Dallas has one extra night of rest after last having played on Tuesday and neither team plays Saturday. The Clippers have won and covered both prior meetings this season, winning 20 at home in early January and by 17 here in Dallas a month later.
The Clippers are dealing with more injury issues which have resulted in lower productivity on offense. Dallas starts the week on a streak of 11 straight UNDERS. With both of the earlier meetings going OVER the Total, though not by great margins, there should be some value in looking for less scoring in this meeting. UNDER.
Milwaukee at Memphis (Sat): Both teams are headed for the playoffs. Memphis currently sits second in the West and is all but assured of a top four seed. Milwaukee is seeded sixth in the East with a chance of passing Washington for fifth but unlikely to rise much higher. Both teams are rested and neither plays on Sunday. These teams met very early in the season with Milwaukee winning by 1 point as 4.5 point home underdogs.
The Bucks have slumped lately, losing 6 of 8 following a stretch in which they had won 9 of 10. Memphis has also not been in top form, going just 7-6 SU since their 8 game winning streak ended in early February. Memphis is the much better defensive team and that edge should be the difference in backing the hosts against a Milwaukee team that had greatly over-achieved in the first half of the season. MEMPHIS.
Chicago at Okla City (Sun): The storylines for both teams this season are similar. Both teams have dealt with the loss of key players to injuries for extended stretches. Chicago is currently without Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. OKC has been without last season’s MVP Kevin Durant for the past few weeks and his timetable to return remains uncertain. Chicago is in pretty good shape for a top four seed in the East whereas OKC is just one game ahead of New Orleans for the eighth seed in the West.
OKC’s Russell Westbrook has been explosive of late although the Thunder are just 3-3 over the past two weeks. These teams just met last Thursday with Chicago winning at home 108-105 in a game that closed pick ‘em. It was a bad spot for the Thunder who needed overtime to defeat lowly Philadelphia a night earlier. As a result rested Chicago was able to overcome an early double digit deficit. OKC is the better team even with both sides not at full strength. OKLAHOMA CITY.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]