NBA Betting Dime: Are the Jazz Legit Contenders?

Jordan Clarkson #00 of the Utah Jazz drives down the court in the first half of a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Vivint Smart Home Arena on December 23, 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Image Credit: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Welcome to the NBA Betting Dime. If you missed the debut edition three weeks ago, it’s a weekly basketball column that combines some of the game’s best aspects. You can expect to find some analytical deep dives, social media clips, gambling information, and maybe some dumb pop culture references sprinkled in.

This week, we’re going to take a look at the Jazz’s offensive prowess, Joel Embiid’s recent hot streak, and why the Thunder are one of the most undervalued teams in the league.

However, let’s start by diving into one of the most significant talking points for the current title favorites:

1. The Return of Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets cheers from the bench during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 3, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Image Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The staring contest is officially over. Irving has remained firm in his stance that he will not get vaccinated, but the team has decided they need him in the lineup whenever possible. He’s currently in health and safety protocols, but he should join the team in road contests when he is eventually cleared.

The Nets initially told Irving they didn’t have interest in him being a “part-time player,” but the circumstances surrounding the season have changed. The Nets have still been one of the best teams in the East without him – they rank first in the standings – but the team has been hit hard by COVID-19. James Harden spent time in protocols earlier this season, and Kevin Durant is in protocols currently. Overall, the Nets ruled out seven players for health and safety protocols on Monday, and Joe Harris remains sidelined after undergoing ankle surgery. Having Irving as a replacement player is obviously better than whatever player they’d sign off the street or bring up from the G-League.

Additionally, head coach Steve Nash has pushed his stars when healthy this season. Durant has averaged 37.0 minutes per game, while Harden is just slightly behind at 36.3. Both players rank in the top five in minutes per game, so they’ve put some tread on their tires. Having Irving for road games will allow Nash to get his other stars some much-needed rest over the final few months.

Of course, the big question remains: Can the Nets win a title without Irving full-time? If they don’t have him for every playoff game, I am unconvinced that they have enough firepower. The Nets are still the favorites to win the title across the industry – their best price is +275 at PointsBet – but they rank just seventh in Net Rating. That puts them well behind the Warriors, Jazz, and Suns, and they also trail the Cavaliers, Heat, and Bulls in the East.

Barring a change in Irving’s vaccination status, I will likely be fading the Nets come playoff time.

2. LeBron Gets His Stocking Stuffed

Not to sound like a Scrooge, but the NBA felt a bit disappointing on Christmas day. Don’t get me wrong, there was some quality basketball – namely Suns vs. Warriors – but the absence of guys like Durant, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic was noticeable.

However, a few players still gave us some quality gifts. Obi Toppin started things off with an Eastbay Funk Dunk against the Hawks:

Still, the dunk of the day (and week) belonged to Nic Claxton:

You know you’ve had a good dunk when it crosses into Monday Night Football coverage. Claxton climbed the ladder off a Harden alley-oop and finished hard on LeBron James. You don’t get a better opponent at the rim than LeBron.

3. Offensive Jazz

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell dribbles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers
Image Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I like jazz music. Fun fact about me – I was the president of the Stony Brook University marching band. I’ve played the tenor sax and jazz music basically my whole life, but some forms of “experimental jazz” are downright offensive on the eardrums.

But the Utah Jazz? They’ve been making sweet music all year on the offensive end.

Offensive production is down across the league, but they’ve averaged 116.7 points per 100 possessions through their first 33 games. That’s nearly four points better than the Hornets, who rank second in the league at 112.8. In fact, the gap between the Jazz and the Hornets is larger than the gap between the Hornets and the Knicks, who rank merely 17th in offensive efficiency. That’s dominant.

How are they doing it? The easy answer is that their shot profile looks like it was created in a lab by an analytics nerd. They’ve attempted the fewest long midrange shots in the league per Cleaning the Glass. Just 3.6% of their shots come from that area of the court.

Instead, they hoist at will from downtown. They lead the league in 3-point volume, with 44.6% of their shots coming from behind the arc. That puts them well over the league baseline of 37.3%.

Of course, it helps to have players that are good at making shots. They rank sixth in the league in 3-point accuracy, third in midrange accuracy, and second in field goal percentage at the rim.

Donovan Mitchell has taken a step forward this season, which is a big reason for their improvement. He’s always been more of a volume scorer than an efficient one, but his effective field goal percentage is up to a career-best 53.4% this season. That’s still far from an elite number, but it’s good enough given the rest of their roster. Guys like Mike Conley, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles have all been extremely efficient this season, with all four players shooting at least 38.5% from 3-point range.

When they happen to miss, Rudy Gobert is one of the league’s premier offensive rebounders. He and Hassan Whiteside combine for 5.6 offensive rebounds per game, and the Jazz rank fifth in the league in offensive rebound rate.

The Jazz will always have their doubters given their playoff struggles, but this team is legit. I think they can beat the Suns in the postseason, and they can give the Warriors a run for their money. You can grab them at +1200 to win the Finals on FanDuel Sportsbook, and I think there’s some value in that number.

4. Trust The Process

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrates in the second half against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena on December 26, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Image Credit: G Fiume/Getty Images

This season has not gone the way the 76ers hoped it would. It started with the Ben Simmons saga, which has yet to reach a conclusion. They’ve also dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak, and their play has struggled even with the team at full strength. They sit at just 17-16, which ranks merely sixth in the Eastern Conference. They hold just a two-game lead over the Knicks, who are all the way down in 11th. That means a spot in the playoffs is far from a lock for Philly.

Joel Embiid also got off to a slow start. He suffered a knee injury during the first game of the year, and he was one of the many members of the team to enter health and safety protocols. That caused him to miss nine straight games, and he’s played in just 22 of their 33 games this season.

However, Embiid has started to heat up. He returned to the lineup on Nov. 27 vs. the Timberwolves, and he’s been excellent since then. He’s averaged 28.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks over 13 games, and more importantly, he looks like the Embiid of old.

Unfortunately, his return hasn’t necessarily led to more wins. They’re just 7-6 in those contests, so they still have plenty to figure out. Getting back Simmons – or trading for a useful piece – would undoubtedly help, but as long as Embiid is healthy, this team should start to rack up some victories.

5. Jordan Nwora Drops A Body

Nwora has become a personal favorite of mine, and I think that’s true for many hoopheads. He’s still struggling to find consistent minutes when the Bucks are at full strength, and his numbers for the year aren’t all that impressive. Still, there’s just something about him. He clearly has the talent to play at the NBA level.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Armoni Brooks, who was put in a body bag by Nwora last week:

That’s just disrespectful. Nwora didn’t pause for an eternity like Harden did after dropping Wesley Johnson, but there was still plenty of swag on display.

First, the post-shot celebration is legendary. Not only was it an accurate depiction of what he just did to Brooks, but it’s a friendly reminder that the Winter Olympics start soon. Very topical. Overall, 10 out of 10.

What sets this apart though is the bench. As soon as Brooks hits the floor, the Bucks’ bench starts going crazy. The celebration hits another level when he swishes the ball through the hoop.

Nwora’s playing time will likely diminish as the team returns to full strength, but hopefully, he can stay in the rotation. He wasn’t a part of their title-winning squad during his rookie season, but Nwora can help them in his sophomore year.

6. Monday’s DFS Hero: James Harden

James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets controls the ball during the second half against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on December 08, 2021 in Houston, Texas.
Image Credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Harden returned to the lineup on Christmas, and he put together a massive game in a victory over the Lakers. He finished with 36 points, ten rebounds, and ten assists, resulting in 71.0 FanDuel points.

As good as that performance was, he was arguably even better Monday vs. the Clippers. He racked up 39 points, eight rebounds, and 15 assists, and he shot 15-25 from the field. His 74.1 FanDuel points made him the highest-scoring player on the slate by a sizable margin.

Harden’s performances will eventually come back to reality once Durant and Kyrie join the rotation, but he’s the top fantasy option in the league until that happens.

7. Thunderstruck

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center on November 10, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Image Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

We talked briefly about the Thunder last week, who are in the midst of what figures to be a lengthy rebuild. They have a few pieces of note – namely Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey – but their real hopes are pinned to their abundance of future draft picks. Their own first-rounder figures to be pretty good this season, and they’ll also have the Clippers and Suns. Those picks will likely fall outside the lottery, but you never know where you can find talent in the NBA Draft. They ultimately have 12 additional first-round selections between now and 2026, so their war chest is packed to the brim.

However, this isn’t NBA2K. The Thunder can’t just sim ahead to when they’re more competitive; they have to play 82 games this season just like every other team.

That’s been good news for NBA bettors. The Thunder have actually been one of the best teams in the league this season against the spread, posting a 21-11 record through their first 32 games. Only the Cavaliers and Warriors have been more profitable for bettors to start the year.

The Thunder have also been red-hot recently, covering in six straight games. They’ve won four of those contests outright, and Gilgeous-Alexander was rewarded with the Western Conference Player of the Week.

The Thunder are still playing for the future, but it’s clear this team isn’t a pushover. They’re nowhere near as bad as teams like the Pistons and Magic, who have a combined 12 wins this season.

It will be interesting to see when the Thunder decide to get creative. They shut down Gilgeous-Alexander with an injury pretty early last season, so the tank will likely be on at some point. Until then, bettors should take notice.

8. An Ode To NBA Paint

One of my favorite aspects of basketball is the crossover between the league and Twitter. Other sports have it, but not to nearly the same degree that exists with the NBA. Maybe it’s because the fan base is younger, but it seems like most fans are glued to Twitter while watching on a nightly basis.

One of the absolute best accounts is @nba_paint. The account has only been active since December of last year, but it’s already amassed more than 100k followers. That’s Kardashian-like.

The concept is straightforward. It features NBA players drawn in Microsoft paint, usually turning their name into some form of a joke. For example, Tyler Herro becomes “Tyler Hero:”

Some are clever and some are simple, but 100% bring a smile to my face.

Some of my favorites this season? Chris Fall:

D-Book and Ice Trey:

And the Holiday brothers:

I can seriously get lost in this account for hours. It’s why this article has taken me approximately seven hours to write. Twitter can sometimes be a cesspool, so I stan hard for wholesome content like this.

9. Who He Play For?

If you’re unfamiliar with “Who he play for,” it’s a bit that the Inside the NBA crew on TNT has been running for years. Basically, Ernie Johnson tries to make Chuck look stupid by asking him to name where certain obscure players are currently playing. It’s good times.

Of course, this game is wild in COVID times. Even the most diehard NBA fans can’t keep up with all the roster shuffling that has gone on recently. However, it has given us a chance to see some old friends.

Joe Johnson has been out of the league since 2017-18, but he received a 10-day contract with the Celtics. Not only was that some nice closure for Johnson – he was drafted by the Celtics back in 2001 and played his first 48 games for them – but Iso Joe got to prove he’s still got it. He only saw two minutes for the Celtics, but the old man can still get buckets:

Lance Stephenson is also back, and he’s played legitimate minutes for the Hawks! He’s averaged 15.7 minutes over three games, and he’s responded with 1.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in his limited playing time. Stephenson was a triple-double machine in his prime with the Pacers, and I think he could still get one given enough minutes.

Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Knight, and C.J. Miles were also given a chance to return to NBA rosters recently. Getting a chance to see some of these retired NBA players has been one of the lone positives of COVID.

If this keeps up, who else could we see moving forward? I bet Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could still hit a sky hook if someone needs a center.

10. Tis The Season For Giving

In the first Betting Dime, we highlighted a nasty dunk that Juan Toscano-Anderson threw down on JaVale McGee. After the game, a reporter asked Toscano-Anderson where it ranked among the best dunks of his career, and he said it was at the top of his list.

That led to a hilarious exchange on Twitter. McGee told him he would sign a poster for him, and Toscano-Anderson responded that he would bring one when their two teams met on Christmas.

Sure enough, that’s precisely what happened:

Shout out to McGee for being such a good sport. He’s been ridiculed for some of his boneheaded plays throughout his career, but he seems like a genuinely good dude. I guess it’s a bit easier to roll with the punches when you have three rings, an Olympic gold medal, and more than $70M in career earnings.

In the spirit of McGee, I want to wish you all a happy holiday season and a wonderful New Year. I’ll be back with more NBA coverage next week!