This has been the most unique regular-season week in NBA history. The inaugural In-Season Tournament elimination stage tipped off Monday and the final four teams compete in Las Vegas on Thursday for a chance to win the NBA Cup in Saturday’s final. That sounds more meaningful than it is, but the players have fully bought in, creating electrifying, playoff-like basketball in early December.
This week’s Bet or Bail touches on the tourney’s Western Conference finalists, the Pelicans and Lakers. We also get into the Magic‘s stifling defense and the Warriors‘ dilemma.
Bail on Anthony Davis’ offense, bet on his defense
Anthony Davis needs to emerge as the Lakers’ best player for them to compete for a championship – and no, I’m not talking about the NBA Cup.
LeBron James can still turn back the clock and put forth vintage performances like his 31-point night against the Suns in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals. But he can’t do it consistently anymore. He’s averaging his fewest points per game since his rookie season and the second-fewest minutes of his career.
James has extended the proverbial baton, but Davis refuses to grab it. Davis has never emerged as the true best player on a championship contender. He often performs a greater disappearing act than the Four Horsemen from “Now You See Me.”
Davis is averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds per game. He’s worthy of All-Star and perhaps even All-NBA consideration. However, as his career has progressed, he’s developed into the extinct version of a big man instead of the new-age kind.
Davis was once a 33% 3-point shooter who attempted at least three per game. His presence from long range helped the Lakers win the championship in 2020. Since then, his shooting has been nonexistent.
In August, the Lakers made a fuss about Davis’ development as a shooter and coach Darvin Ham said he wanted him to shoot six threes a game. Let’s check in: Davis is attempting 0.5 per game, almost one less than last season, with a similarly abysmal percentage of 27%.
It’s part of the reason he’ll never be in the same tier as Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid among the league’s best centers. His game is reduced to back-to-the-basket looks or scoring opportunities as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.
40% of his points are from post-ups or pick-and-rolls as the screener, according to Synergy Sports. While he scores frequently in post-ups, he only scores 1.101 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, which is average, per Synergy. He also scores from putbacks at a high rate, but that’s sometimes because he’s rebounding his misses.
Although he ranks fourth in points among centers, his true shooting percentage is 60%, well below guys like Jokic, Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Chet Holmgren, Domantas Sabonis, and Kristaps Porzingis.
Here’s Davis’ shot chart, which shows he’s only an average finisher at the rim:
Offensively, Davis shows flashes of brilliance before he reverts to a non-factor.
Take Tuesday night’s win over the Suns. Davis had 20 first-half points, helping the Lakers to a 12-point lead. In the second half, Davis scored seven points on 2-for-10 shooting and was a minus-13. The Lakers surrendered their lead and narrowly escaped with the win in the wake of a controversial call. This happens too often with Davis and will result in an early playoff exit for the Lakers, even though Los Angeles has the seventh-best odds to win the Finals (+1800) and the fourth-best to win the West (+900).
Here are some routine layups Davis couldn’t convert during a crucial stretch:
Defensively, however, Davis has been dominant. He’s one of the league’s best rim-protectors and can switch onto guards on the perimeter. He has the second-best odds to win Defensive Player of the Year behind Gobert and leads the league in blocks.
The eight-time All-Star’s defensive prowess makes up for his lack of consistent dominance offensively. If the Lakers have legitimate championship aspirations, though, Davis will have to accept the baton from James.
Bet and Bail on the Pelicans
We’re throwing a wrench into the purpose of this column with an indecisiveness that should be reserved for the Pelicans/any Zion Williamson-led team. Any glimmer of hope comes with an obligatory “if they can stay healthy …”
In February 2022, New Orleans traded for CJ McCollum, bringing together a Big Three with unique skill sets that theoretically should have flourished alongside one another. McCollum’s played in 110 games for the Pelicans since he arrived. But McCollum, Williamson, and Brandon Ingram have only played 15 games together.
Since the Pelicans landed the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 despite just a 6% chance of acquiring it, they’ve been one of the NBA’s unluckiest teams from an injury perspective. Maybe the basketball gods cursed them for their good fortune.
Now, it’s only December, but things seem to be running fairly smoothly despite various injuries. The Pelicans’ depth and Ingram’s ability to function as a go-to scorer in crucial moments have made them a legitimate threat.
Over their last 10 games, New Orleans has the NBA’s third-best net rating behind the Thunder and Bucks. The Pelicans are eighth in the Western Conference at 12-10, but that also puts them just one game out of fourth. They advanced to the In-Season Tournament semifinals with a win over the Kings on Monday.
That said, we’ve seen this before. The Pelicans were third in the West at 23-14 in January before Williamson’s hamstring injury ended his season, and effectively the Pelicans’, too. That injury came amid a two-month absence from Ingram. It’s hard to trust the health of this group.
The Pelicans are -115 to make the playoffs and -105 to miss them, which is essentially a coin flip. New Orleans is +195 to win the Southwest Divison behind the Mavericks at -140. Close your eyes and hold your breath if you’re placing a wager on the Pelicans’ future. They have the roster for a special run, but can they finally defeat the injury bug?
Bet on the Magic’s defense
The Magic have been a bettor’s best friend this season. They’re 15-6 against the spread – third-best in the NBA. And they’re currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference at 14-7. Jamahl Mosley is the favorite to win Coach of the Year at +350.
Orlando’s shocking start has been propelled by a hard-nosed defense in which all five players are seemingly attached by an invisible string, leading to the NBA’s fifth-best defensive rating.
Traditionally, great defenses limit opponents’ field-goal percentage and rarely send them to the free-throw line. The Magic’s opponent field-goal percentage, however, is worse than the league average, and their opponent’s free-throw rate is the NBA’s fourth-worst. They average the fourth-most fouls per game.
Orlando’s formula is different: The Magic force turnovers at an exceptionally high rate, ranking third in opponent turnover percentage and averaging the fourth-most steals per game. They are also one of the better teams at gang rebounding. Moritz Wagner and Goga Bitadze have split minutes at center since Wendell Carter Jr. got injured in early November. Paolo Banchero leads the team in rebounding with 6.8 per game.
The Magic are fourth in opponent offensive rebounding rate and fifth in rebounding percentage. Orlando averages 19.7 points off turnovers, third-best in the NBA.
Jalen Suggs leads that charge. He’s a ferocious on- and off-ball defender who plays aggressively and isn’t afraid to pressure opposing ball-handlers. He has the NBA’s third-most steals.
Their start isn’t a fluke – the Magic are here to stay. An elite defense and a passable offense led by budding stars is a viable playoff recipe. They’re -260 to make the playoffs – it would be their first appearance since 2020 and third in the last 12 years – and +205 to miss them.
Often recognized as one of the last decade’s least relevant teams, the Magic finally have a core to build around.
Orlando has the eighth-best odds to win the East (+5000), but that’s stretching expectations for a young, inexperienced group. Meanwhile, the Magic (+145) trail the Heat (+120) as favorites to win the Southeast Division even though the Magic have a two-game lead.
Bail on the Warriors’ present and future
How long can past success overshadow present struggles? Klay Thompson – one of the greatest shooters who ever lived – is in a massive funk and likely costing himself millions of dollars in a contract year.
He’s also costing the Warriors wins in what could be this team’s last chance to compete for a title. Thompson’s field-goal and 3-point percentages are career lows.
Andrew Wiggins – another key part of the Warriors’ 2022 championship – is hurting Golden State more than helping right now. He’s averaging career lows in points, assists, free-throw percentage, field-goal percentage, and 3-point percentage.
In a fiery recent postgame press conference, Thompson said, “Sometimes you earn these things like patience and time to find yourself, and I think history is on our side when it comes to that stuff.”
He has a point; Thompson’s been an integral part of the last decade’s winningest franchise.
But that can only buy him so much time. The Warriors don’t have the league’s deepest roster, but they do have valuable young pieces averaging under 20 minutes per game. Moses Moody deserves more playing time, and coach Steve Kerr seems to realize that. Moody’s minutes have increased in the last three games – as has his production.
The Warriors have the third-best odds to win the wide-open West, but they’re currently in 11th place at 10-11. Steph Curry remains one of the most prolific offensive players in the game. However, it’s hard to compete when a team’s second- and third-best scorers aren’t scoring efficiently.
Thompson’s gone over his point total in five of the last 10 games, while Wiggins has gone under the total in seven of the last 10.
It’s not exactly this black and white, but the Warriors’ problem is pretty simple: They don’t score enough and aren’t shooting it well enough.
The Warriors are in the bottom half of the NBA in offensive rating and sit 13th in points per game. Excluding the disastrous 2019-20 season, this is the first year the Warriors have ranked outside the top 10 in 3-point percentage since they drafted Curry in 2009. They still shoot the league’s fourth-most threes, and Curry’s long-range precision is on par with his career average, but he can only carry Golden State so far.
This team will almost assuredly look much different next season – Kerr’s contract is also up at the end of the year. But can the Warriors salvage this season and go on one last run? The answer comes down to Thompson and Wiggins.
Sam Oshtry is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @soshtry for more betting coverage.