Big NBA storylines to watch down the stretch

March 8, 2022 06:51 PM

The final few weeks of the NBA regular season are here, but there are still plenty of opportunities for bettors to cash in on. In this week’s column, let’s dive into a couple of teams flying under the betting market’s radar, plus a player who has made prop bettors a ton of cash.

Pistons an intriguing bet

Remember when tanking was a thing? It still exists to a certain extent — looking at you, Sam Presti — but with the change to the lottery odds and the addition of the play-in tournament, the number of teams fighting to the bitter end has increased. Even teams that have no chance of a berth in the play-in tournament have shown a willingness to end the regular season on a high note. Last season, Minnesota finished April with a 9-6-1 ATS record. The Timberwolves made it clear in those final weeks that they were working toward a better 2021-2022 season. That team this season seems to be the Detroit Pistons.

After a loss to Washington on Feb. 14, the Pistons reportedly aired their grievances in the locker room at Capital One Arena, and two days later they were beating the red-hot Celtics and sparking a run that endures to this day. With a win over the Hawks in overtime on Monday, the Pistons improved to 6-2 SU and 8-0 ATS in the eight games since, but the betting market has yet to catch on. They have caught an average of 8.0 points during this cover run, closing as the underdog in every game. Their -0.3 net rating over this stretch might not catch the eye of many but it’s a massive improvement. Still, the betting market hasn’t budged on its perception of the young Pistons.

With 17 games left, Detroit has the 13th-hardest remaining schedule according to Tankathon. The team has one game left against Miami, Milwaukee, Dallas, Chicago and Boston, plus two against Philadelphia. Many might see those as hopeless situations for a poor team, but I see them as opportunities to grab big numbers with an undervalued underdog. It’s clear at this point that Detroit is going to try down the stretch, so do not be fooled by those who say otherwise. The Pistons are playing for keeps and that makes them a team worth following for the next five weeks.

Pelicans pushing for the postseason

One of the teams I had the biggest issue with at the trade deadline was New Orleans. The Pelicans were 21-32 and 10th in the Western Conference. Why push for the final seed in the play-in with your ceiling likely being a first-round elimination? Well, one month and 10 games later I absolutely love what coach Willie Green and the Pelicans have done.

In the first five games since the CJ McCollum trade, New Orleans went 1-5 SU and ATS and were outscored by 2.4 points every 100 possessions despite posting a 117.0 offensive rating. It looked bad, but in their final game before the All-Star break, Green changed his starting lineup. Instead of starting McCollum at shooting guard next to Devonte’ Graham, he took Graham out of the starting five and replaced him with third-year pro Jaxson Hayes, shifting McCollum into a point-guard role. New Orleans would lose that game to Dallas before the break, but the change has paid off and the returns of this new group have been incredible.

With a lineup of McCollum at point guard, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Hayes and Jonas Valanciunas, the Pelicans have been an absolute force. New Orleans is + 9.1 per 100 possessions with that lineup on the floor, averaging 123.8 points per 100 possessions, grabbing 39.2% of its missed shots and ranking in the 91st percentile of qualified lineups in transition offensive efficiency (137.5). If you’re wondering, those numbers are staggering. Since the return from the break, New Orleans is 4-1 SU and ATS, with the lone loss coming in overtime to Denver in a game the Pelicans led by 10 with less than four minutes left. The defense will be a problem against some of the better teams in the league, but for now this offense has been great — and for the rest of the season the Pelicans are a team bettors should know about.

Tyrese Maxey thriving next to James Harden

When a massive trade is made at the deadline, the conversations can become nauseating. Can the team win a title? Who takes the last shot? Who gets left out of the mix? It was no different when it came to Philadelphia’s acquisition of James Harden last month. Would the trade diminish the chances Joel Embiid had at MVP? Who would take the last shot? Are the 76ers title contenders now? Lost in those conversations are the altered roles of the players around the two superstars. If you’ve been paying attention to Philadelphia since the trade, there’s no question Tyrese Maxey has seen a change in his role, and it has been for the better.

Maxey has thrived as an option off the ball next to Harden. Since The Beard made his debut against Minnesota on Feb. 25, Maxey has averaged 23.5 points on 59.5% shooting and 61.3% on 3-point attempts. He scored over 20 points in the first four games next to Harden and has gone Over his point-total and 3-point prop in every game. Philadelphia thrived last season when Maxey played at the two, posting a + 6.4 net rating in those possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. This season, with Maxey at shooting guard, the team is + 29.0. And with Harden at point next to Maxey, they average 1.321 points per possession. I do not have the answer to whether or not the 76ers are a title contender, but I do know Maxey is their best option at shooting guard and player prop bettors should be looking to support this kid at every turn.

It should also be noted that Maxey has seen his odds to win Most Improved Player get cut in half from 150-1 to 75-1 at DraftKings and other shops. Ja Morant is the -1400 favorite to win the award, but Maxey has seen the higher jump in points per game, field-goal attempts, 3-point percentage and points per shot attempt. If one were to remove the names on top of the resumes, it would be a much smaller gap between the two. How voters decide who wins the award is one of the most intriguing storylines down the stretch.

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