Forecast in NBA bubble: Motivation crucial

By William Hill  (Point Spread Weekly) 

July 28, 2020 07:41 PM

So where did we leave off? The Kings were ready to host the Pelicans in Sacramento’s lone national TV appearance this season. The NBA had just announced the season had been suspended, but the Kings-Pelicans game would go on as planned. What? Why? The layoff was longer than an ordinary offseason. 


Now, nearly five months later, the NBA is almost back, and the return is just as bizarre as that Wednesday night in March. Thirteen teams from the West, nine from the East. Makes sense, right? The rest of the league has been lopped off and affectionately nicknamed “the Delete Eight.” 


Are the Wizards and Suns, who are a combined 50-79, invited? They sure are! The Wizards are not only 24-40, but their two leading scorers, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, have opted out. Bookmakers are so bullish on the Wizards that they’ve set their win total for their eight seeding games at a robust 1.5. The No. 9 seed, where the Wizards currently sit, can earn a matchup against the No. 8 seed by finishing within four games of eighth place. Then the ninth seed would have to beat the eighth seed twice, while No. 8 would need only one victory. Gettin’ all this? Even if by some miracle the Wizards climbed within that margin and swept the No. 8 seed, either the Nets or the Magic, they would earn a best-of-seven series against the Bucks. 


The format is wonky. The setup is haphazard. But we have hoops. These games will feel like some combination of summer league, preseason and regular season. Diagnosing motivation will be key for handicappers. Some teams might play hard to move up to play or avoid a certain opponent. Some might prefer to move down. Others need to win just to get in. And inevitably, a few will be wondering when this thing will be over and they can be freed from the bubble. 


A major positive amid all this uncertainty is that fans and bettors are now on a level playing field with bookmakers. Lines have been tightened, totals have been lowered —  and nobody knows what to expect. We all get to watch and learn together. There’s a reason sportsbooks will take massive bets on NFL regular-season games but are more skittish about taking large bets in the preseason, when limits are typically much smaller because information is at a premium. Now the questions are: Who’s in shape? Who’s sitting? Who’s playing and for how long? Who might have the virus? So many questions, and those who have the right answers will win.


With all the questions, one theory I think will yield value is that series-sweep bets will be more profitable. Having watched the NBA playoffs, a certain pattern is quite common. The better team wins the first two games at home, but the lower seed has the rallying cry of “we’re going home for Game 3,” where often the crowd assists in a victory that provides a chance to tie the series at home in Game 4. It’s why the phrase “a series doesn’t begin until the home team loses a game” was created. 


But now when the better team gets a 2-0 lead, what will persuade the lower seed it has a shot? Games 3 and 4 are, of course, on neutral courts, and the better team will have no external factors preventing it from wrapping up the series swiftly. And if a 3-0 lead is taken, the trailing team will be looking for the exits, thinking about getting back to home, family and life outside the bubble, not about mounting an unprecedented comeback. Forecasting motivation will be a huge key to successfully handicapping the return to play in Orlando, Fla. With that said, here are a few best bets. 


Pelicans moneyline (-125) over Jazz. This is as much an anti-Jazz play as it is pro-Pelicans. The Jazz have reportedly had significant tension between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell after Gobert’s now-infamous mocking of the coronavirus. Gobert was apparently not forgiven easily in the locker room. Aside from team chemistry, the Jazz’s motivation has to be questioned. Key offseason acquisition Bogdan Bogdanovic gave the Jazz a perimeter threat and added much-needed juice to the offense. In April, Bogdanovic elected to have season-ending surgery. Even at full strength, the Jazz winning the title seemed far-fetched. What kind of message does it send to the rest of the team when a top player punts on the rest of the season? The Pelicans, on the other hand, are singing for their supper. The wacky rule allowing the ninth seed to compete in a playoff if it’s within four games of the eighth seed has been labeled “the Zion rule.” The Pelicans are still alive but need to win as many of these eight games as possible. The Jazz are just playing for seeding. Lonzo Ball’s lone weakness since he entered the league has been shooting. However, the Pelicans guard turned that into a strength in the weeks before the stoppage. He has shot 41% from 3-point range since New Year’s Day, and his full-court alley-oops to Zion Wiliamson have become must-see TV. The Pelicans have a winning record with Williamson in the lineup, and they are hungrier in this matchup.


Lakers’ seeding-game wins Under 5.5. Again, motivation is a big factor behind this play. Coach Frank Vogel has already said LeBron James will play limited minutes in the seeding games. The Lakers’ magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed is 3. A win in the opener could immediately take that down to 1, making earning the top seed a mere formality. Avery Bradley has already opted out, and Rajon Rondo is out six to eight weeks with a fractured thumb. Getting to the playoffs with no further injuries will be the Lakers’ top priority in these eight games. I expect them to treat these games similarly to an NFL team in the preseason. One week the starters play a series, the next maybe a quarter, then a dress rehearsal in which they play a half, followed by a game in which they don’t play at all. The Lakers play the third-toughest bubble schedule, with an opponents’ winning percentage of .625. They face the Clippers, Jazz, Thunder, Nuggets, Raptors, Rockets, Pacers and Kings. No need for Showtime to go 6-2, and they won’t. Their goal is celebrating a title this fall.  


Clippers’ seeding-game wins Under 5.5. Copy and paste. I can’t see the load-management Clippers, who all season picked and chose when they played hard, now deciding to go all out and winning 75% of their bubble games before the postseason. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have missed time with significant injuries in recent years, and L.A. has no need to push either. With seeding games beginning Thursday, the Clippers have had five players away from the bubble: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet. There is no home court to strive for, and the West is so bunched that it will be hard to manipulate whom you will face, even if inclined to do so. I think the Clippers believe they have two of the elite players in the sport and can beat anyone. Their nonchalance in the regular season has suggested they are willing to just get to the playoffs and play the ball where it lies. Much like the Lakers, their season starts when these eight games end.


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