Luka Doncic ended up sitting due to an illness, but a win is a win and the New Orleans Pelicans are now 5-3 SU/6-2 ATS in their past eight games. A winning streak is nice, but the story here is the emergence of their new point forward, Zion Williamson.
Williamson has been on a tear lately. The sophomore sensation has totaled 77 points over the last two games on a combined 29-of-39 shooting (74.3%), but the most impressive aspect of this run is the 11 assists he’s dished over these two games. His role as a ball-handler and point guard has grown over the last month, and the numbers show how effective he is running an offense. Just watch how effective he is some of these pick-and-rolls from last night.
When Williamson is the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, the Pelicans average 1.08 points per possession, a higher mark than when players like Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving run pick-and-rolls for their respective teams. On top of that, New Orleans scores on 53.1% of the pick-and-rolls Zion runs, the 11th-highest mark of any qualified individual player in the league! A lot of that is Williamson himself, but his ability as a facilitator has been on full display now that Stan Van Gundy has given him the keys.
This season, Williamson has improved his assists per game from 2.1 to 3.5, but that change has really come around over the last two months. Through the first 19 games of the season, he averaged just 2.5 assists per contests, but since Feb. 5 he has averaged 4.4 dimes per game; his assist rate has improved from 11.8% his rookie year to 17.5% this season. That assist rate is equal to Nikola Jokic’s rate from his rookie season, but imagine if Jokic could run pick-and-rolls with the fluidity that Williamson does. What in the world would the NBA do?
It is not an earth-shattering opinion to say Zion is going to be an incredible basketball player. What if I told you I believe Williamson could be the best point guard in the league in three years? Would that be crazy? Looking at the way this kid operates, I don’t think so.
Updated injury reports can be found here.
Updated odds for every game can be found here.
*Indicates team is on the second leg of a back-to-back.
The Main Event
Atlanta Hawks at Denver Nuggets (-4.5, 228.5)
Atlanta bounced back from a two-game slide with a beatdown of the short-handed Warriors on Friday night. Now, they look to maintain their winning ways against a highly-rated Denver team that has been winning, but not covering consistently.
The Nuggets trailed by 11 points in the fourth quarter against the Pelicans on Friday night, but closed the game on a 24-8 run to grab a win and cover. The victory improved their record to 6-3 SU/4-5 ATS in their past nine games, but another subpar defensive showing caused the need for the fourth-quarter heroics. Over the past five games, Denver has allowed 119.0 points every 100 possessions, and the Nuggets are 21st in defensive efficiency (113.4) in the month of March. Their offense continues to operate at a high level, but a struggling defense is not what you want when playing host to a Hawks team that seems to have taken real positive steps forward on offense.
Since Nate McMillan took over as interim head coach, Atlanta owns the fifth-best offensive rating in the league (117.2), and its effectiveness at the rim has been noticeable. In their last two victories against the decimated Sacramento and Golden State, the Hawks shot a combined 38-of-44 (86.4%) within four feet of the basket. One would assume against Denver, the league’s worst rim defense at 68.6% allowed within four feet, Atlanta could continue their success at the cup.
What will really be tested is the Hawks’ suddenly dominant defense. In the 34 games prior to McMillan’s tenure, Atlanta allowed 112.9 points every 100 possessions, the 23rd-best mark in the league. But, over the last 11 games they rank fourth in defensive efficiency, allowing 108.4 points every 100 possessions. However, six of Atlanta’s last 11 opponents rank lower than 20th in offensive efficiency, and the one offense they faced that ranks inside the top 10 (Clippers) dropped 1.289 points per possession. Denver will be a massive test for a defense that has been facing less than stellar competition.
The total has plummeted since open, which is somewhat surprising given the level of both of these offenses and the potential for both defenses to falter. Aaron Gordon is set to make his debut, and he will likely improve the defensive effort of Denver, but is his presence worth six points to a total?
Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors (-1, 215.5)
Norm Powell was electric in his Trail Blazers debut on Friday night, scoring 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting, and now he gets to face his former team just days after being traded. Powell helped Toronto snap a nine-game slide by beating Denver on Wednesday night, but in its first game since the deadline the Raptors were held to 1.02 points per possession in a loss to Phoenix. How bad is this offense going to be now that Powell is no longer in the lineup?
Portland is now at full strength with Jusuf Nurkic making his return, and the market believes this team’s power rating is better than what oddsmakers initially thought. By the time we reach the postseason, the Trail Blazers will be a force on offense, but with two new faces added to the lineup there is sure to be some wrinkles to workout. Is the market too quick here?
Orlando Magic at Los Angeles Lakers (-7.5, 208)
The fire sale for Orlando at the trade deadline caused a massive downgrade in the team’s power rating, but it’s clear the adjustment was somewhat strong as they covered the 9.5 on Friday against Portland. Now, they’re in Los Angeles catching this number against a Lakers team that is 1-4 SU/ATS in its last five games and averaging just 99.8 points every 100 possessions. Los Angeles took care of their business against Cleveland on Friday night, but now they are laying 2.5 more points. The number has been cut to 6.5 at a few spots which I agree with. Orlando is up against it, but Los Angeles is not this much better than Orlando without LeBron James and Anthony Davis.