76ers, Raptors on opposite tracks

January 5, 2021 10:39 PM

Two weeks have passed in the NBA season, and the campaign is just as odd as we expected. The Hawks and Cavaliers got off to shockingly good starts, the Knicks beat the Bucks by 20 points last week and the Pistons are garbage! Well, that last one was expected, but I couldn’t resist the shot. 

Come see for yourself as we dive into the three biggest observations from the start of the NBA season.

Philadelphia’s Fast Start

The 76ers are off to a 6-1 SU and 5-2 ATS start through seven games. They have won four in a row and have gone from 34-1 to win the NBA Finals to as low as 12-to-1 at the Westgate SuperBook. 

However, a deep dive into the 76ers resume reveals a record that is more than likely the result of a forgiving schedule. For example, they are allowing just 1.005 points per possession, the best defensive rating in the league as of Tuesday, but that’s against a schedule that includes just one team that ranks higher than 25th in offensive efficiency. 

Philadelphia’s offense has not been great, averaging just 1.101 points per possession in non-garbage time minutes, but its schedule has included three of the best defenses in the league up to this point. The only problem is two of the three teams are the Cavaliers and the Knicks. It is more than likely those will not be two of the best defenses in the league when all is said and done. 

Simply put, seven games is too small a sample size to properly evaluate teams, but there are things the 76ers have done that could lead to good things in the long run. They rank second in frequency of possessions beginning with a transition play (17.6%), fifth in fast-break points per game (16.7) and 11th in pace. They are first in rim defense (54.3%) and fifth in opponent corner 3-point shooting (31.6%), two areas of defense that usually correlate with one another. 

Entering the season, the 76ers were expected to run a bit more and be sound defensively. Regardless of the quality of their opponents so far, the 76ers have done just that, which is good news for 76ers backers like myself.

Toronto’s Tumultuous Takeoff

Few teams lost as much talent as the Raptors did this offseason, and it has been glaring through the first two weeks of the season. Toronto is 1-5 SU and ATS as of Tuesday, and there is no sign that the Raptors will be able to cure what ails them. 

Toronto’s center minutes are now being filled by a rotation of Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher. The result has been the worst rebounding rate in the league (45.6%), the 27th-best defensive rebounding rate and 23rd-ranked offensive rebounding rate. Opponents are averaging 13.8 second-chance points per game as a result, and the Raptors’ defensive efficiency has suffered because of it. 

On offense, the problems that plagued Toronto last season have only worsened. The Raptors last season finished 15th in halfcourt efficiency (94.5), 25th in rim shooting (61.2%) and 16th overall offensive efficiency. They took 38.9% of their attempts from deep to make up for a poor halfcourt offense, and that led to them being overly reliant on good shooting to win. In losses last season they shot 31.8% from deep, but 39.5% in wins. That’s a really big gulf. 

This season, all of those numbers have been worse. Toronto is averaging just 87.2 points every 100 plays in halfcourt situations, shooting just 59.7% at the rim and averaging only 1.046 points per possession. Coupled with poor rebounding, you have a team with -5.7 net rating and no real path toward improving the team that is taking the floor in Tampa, its temporary home. 

Keep in mind, Kyle Lowry is on an expiring deal. Should things continue to go south, could there be a fire sale on the horizon for a team just two years removed from a title?

MVP Race Taking Shape

It will be hard for MVP favorites Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo to damage their cases beyond repair early in the season. However, it is a great time to start to find guys with upward or downward momentum and either rule them out or take a piece of a longer price as the odds move. 

Case in point: Kevin Durant. After the first two games of the season, Durant saw his odds get cut from 12-1 to 8-1 at DraftKings, an increase from 7.7% implied probability to 11.1%. However, a forced quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols has Durant sidelined for four games or 5.5% of his season. The Nets also seem intent on resting him in back-to-back situations, thus it seems Durant will miss quite a bit of time this year. Maybe too much to be considered a likely MVP candidate, especially at a short 8-1 price. 

One name I wagered on Monday night was the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum at 25-1, which is available at the Westgate. Tatum is averaging 26.3 points per game on 46.7% shooting. He’s hitting 42.9% of his 3-point attempts while taking a career-high 7.9 per game. He even hit a game-winning shot in prime time. Yes, his teammate Jaylen Brown is averaging slightly more points on better overall shooting, but Tatum has had the deeper impact statistically. 

Boston is + 11.4 when Tatum is on the floor and Brown is sitting. Boston’s defensive efficiency improves by 5.4 points with Tatum compared with just 1.2 with Brown, and Tatum turns the ball over much less frequently. I have confidence that as the season wears on Tatum will separate himself from Brown statistically and that he will find himself in an MVP conversation that, so far, is not deep.

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