NBA Teams Defying Expectations
by Trevor Whenham - 11/29/2006
It seems like things never change in the NBA. The good teams stay good, the bad teams stay bad, and the same handful of teams go deep in the playoffs every year. With that, it is easy to get lazy about handicapping the NBA. If you aren't a close follower of the league, it can be easy to look at a game and think you know who will win based on what has been true about the teams for several years. When things change, though, you can find yourself in a load of trouble. If that describes your approach to handicapping the NBA, then this should help. Here are three teams that are performing much differently than we have come to expect them to play:
Golden State Warriors - If I were to ask you which team was the best against the spread so far this year, how many guesses would you need before you guessed Golden State? It would have taken me quite a few. The Warriors, perhaps the most anonymous team in the league, have been very kind to bettors, though. They are 11-4 against the spread, and two of the ATS losses came earlier this week in a home-and-home series with Denver. The Warriors are one of those teams who are better ATS than they are straight up. Their 9-6 record is good for second, one game behind the Lakers in their division. It turns out that new coach Don Nelson really is worth all the hype.
The Warriors are one of those teams that has had a young and promising roster forever, but they have never been able to meet their potential. Finally they are accomplishing something. The most pleasant surprise has been Monta Ellis. As a rookie out of high school last year, the guard averaged 6.8 points and 1.6 assists in just over 18 minutes per game. He's seeing much more court time this year -- about 34 minutes -- and he has responded with 17.7 points and 4.4 assists. Joining him in the backcourt is Baron Davis, unquestionably among the best point guards in the game, who is putting up 20.7 points and 7.9 assists. The thing that Golden State can claim, which they have never had before, is depth. Jason Richardson, Mickael Pietrus, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, and Andris Biedrins are all averaging more than 11 points per game.
Atlanta Hawks - For so long now, the Hawks have been really, really awful. Guys have probably retired just from betting the moneyline on Atlanta's opponents the last several years. Those bets wouldn't pay much, but they won with ridiculous frequency. The Hawks still aren't great, but they are a heck of a lot better than they have been. They have a 5-7 record, and they are an almost unbelievable 7-5 ATS. They are in second in their division, a spot they haven't seen since Iraq was a tourist destination. If the playoffs were to start now, they'd be in them (that might say as much about how bad the Eastern Conference is).
The driving force behind the relative and improbable success of the Hawks is Joe Johnson. The stud guard is averaging 26.5 points, a jump of more than six over his career high. He plays a ton of minutes, he shoots well and he controls the action when he is on the court. A team that hasn't had a player that casual fans could name for almost a decade now has a bona fide star. He's helping his teammates shine as well. When you are as bad as the Hawks have been you get a lot of good draft picks. Some of those picks are finally playing well. Both Josh Childress and Josh Smith are putting up points and rebounds and playing well (though Childress has a sprained ankle now). Marvin Williams will be back in a month or so and could help the team sustain their pace as well.
Miami Heat - It was just last year that this team dominated their way to an NBA championship. Dwyane Wade was crowned as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan and people were talking of a dynasty. Wow, did they ever get bad over the offseason. They are 6-8, and just 5-9 ATS. They started the season off on a strong note, with a rousing 42-point loss to the Bulls (a team which, at 5-9, isn't lighting the league on fire, either). Since then, they have won two in a row just twice, and they have two three-game losing streaks. They have covered the spread in their last two, but they had covered just once in seven before that.
Wade is playing as well as can be asked, with 28.1 points and 8.9 assists. Unfortunately, he's the only player on the team who is worth anything. I could say that Shaq is playing like a shadow of his former self, but it would be more accurate to say he's playing like a shadow of Bryant Reeves. He was averaging just 14 points and 7.5 boards before going out for six weeks for knee surgery. Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton are playing like the old men they are, and no one besides Udonis Haslem is having anywhere close to a career year. The Heat may be defending champs, but they look more like the current Steelers than the Jordan-era Bulls.