NBA Betting Dime: Is Ja Morant Overrated?

Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the game against the Houston Rockets at FedExForum on November 15, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Image Credit: Justin Ford/Getty Images

Welcome to the NBA Betting Dime. If you missed the debut edition two 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 significance of NBA Christmas day, the Grizzlies’ recent success without Ja Morant, and one of the most bonkers finishes in recent history.

However, we have to start with the most significant talking point in the NBA this week:

1. COVID-19 Is Back

Milwaukee Bucks forward #34 Giannis Antetonkoumpo brings the ball up the court in a 2020 home game.
Image Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Believe me; I wish we didn’t have to talk about COVID-19 anymore. It’s been the biggest story in the world for almost two years now, and sports have not been immune. COVID shut down the league last season, and it’s back in a big way in 2021.

More than 60 players have entered the league’s health and safety protocols over the past week, including some of the biggest names in basketball. Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and James Harden have all missed time, and seven games have been postponed since December 14.

Some teams have been hit harder than others. Teams like the Nets have had upwards of 10 players in health and safety protocols, so the league has been forced to adapt. Previously, teams like the Nets were in a rough spot when it came to fielding replacement players. Signing someone via the hardship exception would cost a team like the Nets more than $500k since they’re already over the cap.

The NBA revised the rules so that signing replacement players will not result in luxury tax payments, and teams with more than one player in health and safety protocols will be forced to sign a replacement.

That means the league is clearly committed to pushing forward. The names on the back of the jerseys may change, but the teams will be out there for 82 games this season.

2. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first quarter of the game at Target Center on December 17, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Image Credit: David Berding/Getty Images

Christmas day has always been a showcase for the NBA. The best players, the best teams, and the biggest rivalries are highlighted, and it’s one of the most important days on the league calendar.

Unfortunately, things don’t look nearly as cheerful for the NBA this season.

For starters, the NBA will have to share the day with the NFL. The NFL has two games scheduled for Christmas – one at 4:30 p.m. ET and one at 8:15 p.m. ET – and the NFL remains king from a viewership perspective. Even the worst NFL games grab significantly more eyeballs than the best NBA games.

Additionally, the NBA schedule looks a lot less appealing than it did before the year started.

The marquee matchup was supposed to feature LeBron James and the Lakers vs. Kevin Durant and the Nets. Those two players haven’t squared off in the regular season since Christmas Day in 2018, and these teams represented the preseason favorites to meet in the NBA Finals.

However, Durant entering health and safety protocols means we will likely have to wait for another showdown vs. King James. The Lakers will also be without Anthony Davis, so neither of these teams will be at full strength.

The Knicks vs. the Hawks has also lost its luster. Trae Young has become public enemy No. 1 for Knicks’ fans, but he’s also in health and safety protocols. Instead of the Knicks’ fans getting to boo him relentlessly for four quarters, now they’ll just have to watch two disappointing squads currently on the outside of the playoff picture.

There are still a few presents under the tree for NBA fans on Christmas – The Warriors vs. the Suns being the biggest – but there are also a few lumps of coal. Bah humbug.

3. #NoDaysOff

Playing on Christmas is one of the biggest honors bestowed on an NBA player. LeBron will suit up on Christmas for the 16th time in his career this season, and he needs just 13 points to become the league’s leading scorer on Christmas day. That’s not a huge honor in the grand scheme of LeBron’s career, but it’s something.

The current leader in Christmas day scoring? That would be the late, great Kobe Bryant, who racked up 395 points in 16 career games. The rest of the top ten is full of all-time greats, guys like Oscar Robertson, Dwayne Wade, Durant, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Speaking of Shaq, his 2004 game vs. the Lakers will go down as one of the best Christmas day games in history. It was his first meeting vs. Kobe and the Lakers since forcing his way to Miami, and the Heat ended up winning 104-102 in overtime. Kobe had 42 points, while Shaq and Wade both racked up double-doubles.

As for the best Christmas day game in NBA history, I don’t think you have to go back too far. The Warriors squared off with the Cavaliers in 2018, their first meeting since the Warriors 3-1 collapse in the NBA Finals the previous year. They had reinforced their lineup with Durant, but Kyrie Irving once again stole the show. He scored 14 of his final 25 points in the fourth quarter, and he hit the game-winner with 3.4 seconds left on the clock:

Kyrie may be a headache, but there’s no doubt that the dude is clutch AF.

4. Dunk Of The Week: Isaac Okoro

I’ve only been writing this column for three weeks, but I think Okoro has given us the best dunk over that time frame:

Nasty. You very rarely get to break out three body bags on a dunk, but that’s exactly what Okoro did here. Alperen Sengun, Kenyon Martin Jr., and Osman Garuba all got the thunder brought down on them.

Bonus points for some quality stank face from Okoro after the finish. A monster dunk is only as good as the celebration, and Okoro delivered the goods. The combination of the flex and the “I can’t believe you guys dared challenge me at the rim” face was excellent.

5. It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish

Nobody was particularly excited for Wednesday’s game between the Pelicans and Thunder. I mean, these teams have a combined record of 20-40 on the season.

Nothing particularly exciting happened in the first 47.9 minutes, but the game’s ending couldn’t have been wilder. It started with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander making one of the wildest game-tying 3-pointers you’ll ever see:

But that was just the beginning. Somehow, Devonte’ Graham had something even more special in-store for the game-winner:

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Graham’s 61-footer was the longest game-winning buzzer-beater over the past 25 years. This was also the first game in the last 25 seasons to feature two game-tying or go-ahead shots from 30+ feet inside the final five seconds.

Such is the beauty of the NBA. Any random game can feature something you’ve never seen before, and fans can find something exciting on any given night.

6. Teams Of The Week

Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on November 27, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Timberwolves defeated the 76ers 121-120 in double overtime.
Image Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Cavaliers continue to cash tickets for bettors. Their ATS record now sits at a ridiculous 24-5-2 for the year, and they’re covering the spread by an average of 8.9 points per game. That’s absurd.

Even more absurd is the fact that they’ve now covered in 14 straight games. Only two other teams have covered 14 consecutive games since 2004: The 2015 Hawks and the 2008 Pistons. The Hawks managed to extend their streak to 15 games, while the Pistons ended at 14. No one has made it to 16 games over that time frame, so the Cavaliers are approaching uncharted territory. The Cavaliers will have a chance to make it 15 in a row on Wednesday, but they’ll have their hands full on the road vs. the Celtics.

While no one can match the Cavs in terms of ATS dominance, the Timberwolves have also rewarded bettors of late. They’ve gone 4-0 against the spread and straight up over the past four games.

The Timberwolves have relied on the play of Karl-Anthony Towns, who led the team to a 3-0 record last week. He averaged 28.0 points, 7.0 boards, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.3 blocks in those contests, earning him Western Conference Player of the week.

7. Monday’s DFS Hero: Dejounte Murray

Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs in action against the Orlando Magic during the first half at Amway Center on November 05, 2021 in Orlando, Florida.
Image Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The biggest fantasy score of the evening belonged to Joel Embiid, but Murray provided better value. He was significantly cheaper than Embiid on DraftKings, and he put up a monster performance:

He finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals, and four 3-pointers, bringing his fantasy total to 72.0 DraftKings points for the evening. He also set the Spurs’ single-season record for triple-doubles, and he still has more than 50 games to improve on that mark.

Murray has also started to creep up the Most Improved Player leaderboard on the NBA betting market. He’s up to +750 on FanDuel Sportsbook, which puts him behind just Miles Bridges (+200) and Ja Morant (+480). I think Murray is providing excellent value at that number. The Spurs are a poor team – they’re just 12-18 for the year – but his numbers are fantastic. He’s averaging just under a triple-double for the season, and it’s going to be hard for voters to overlook those numbers. The Spurs’ poor record may keep him out of the running, but there’s still a ton of time left for them to improve. Anything can happen with this many games left in the season.

8. Less Morant, More Wins?

Memphis Grizzles guard Ja Morant shoots over Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic in a game
Image Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Morant, he returned to the Grizzlies’ lineup on Monday. You would think that would be a good thing for the team, but they stumbled to a three-point loss vs. the lowly Thunder.

Before that contest, the Grizzlies had played in 12 straight games without Morant. They posted a 10-2 record in those contests, and they posted a Net Rating of +16.9 points per 100 possessions in those contests. That number is inflated by a 73-point demolition over the Thunder on December 2, but they have still been playing some outstanding basketball over that time frame.

Digging into the numbers, you can make an interesting case that Morant’s absence was actually beneficial to the Grizzlies. Morant is considered the team’s best player, but he’s had minimal impact on their offense this season. They’ve averaged -0.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Morant on the court than off the court.

However, the most significant difference comes on defense. Morant is a major liability on that end of the floor. The Grizzlies have allowed +13.5 additional points per 100 possessions on defense with Morant on the court, which is one of the worst marks in the league. It ranks in the first percentile per Cleaning the Glass.

If they’re no better on offense and drastically worse on defense, it’s not surprising that Morant’s on-court impact has been a significant negative for the Grizzlies. With Morant off the court, the Grizzlies have outscored opponents by an average of +8.2 points per 100 possessions. With Morant on the court, they’ve been outscored by -6.0 points per 100 possessions.

So are the Grizzlies better without Morant? That seems like a stretch. They were significantly better with him on the court last year, so it seems premature to call him a net negative at this point.

The bigger takeaway might be the importance of Dillon Brooks. He’s not held in nearly the same regard as Morant, but his impact on the Grizzlies’ play cannot be understated. He leads the team in Net Rating differential this year – the Grizzlies have improved their Net Rating by a whopping +13.6 points per 100 possessions – and he also ranked first in that department last year. Brooks’ return to the lineup coincided with Morant’s departure, so his return is likely the more significant reason for the Grizzlies’ improvement.

9. Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets in action against the Chicago Bulls at Barclays Center on December 04, 2021 in New York City.
Image Credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

We’ve seen some significant development in the NBA Championship odds since the start of the year. The Nets remain the favorites – Their best odds are +275 on PointsBet – but the Warriors are charging up the leaderboard. The Bucks and Suns are also listed at less than 10-1, while the Lakers have dipped to around +1000.

The Lakers’ struggles are good news for the sportsbooks. At BetMGM, the Lakers are responsible for 14.7% of the handle, good for the third-highest mark in the league. The Lakers currently aren’t even locked into a guaranteed playoff spot in the Western Conference, and they’re going to have to survive for the next four weeks without Davis. That’s excellent news for the oddsmakers.

10. The Revenge Of SGA

It didn’t take Gilgeous-Alexander long to get his revenge. Just one game after losing on Graham’s last-second chuck, SGA had another chance to bury a game-winner. He didn’t disappoint:

Gilgeous-Alexander has been one of the lone bright spots for the Thunder this season. He’s evolved into a legitimate isolation scorer, ranking first in the league in isolation frequency and drives. He has also been effective in those situations, ranking second in percentage of unassisted field goals made and isolation points.

Ironically, the one area where SGA has struggled is from behind the three-point arc. Even though he’s hit two game-winning or tying 3-pointers over the past week, he’s just 29.9% from three-point range this season.

His continued development should be the Thunder’s biggest focus for the rest of the year. If they can pair him and rookie Josh Giddey with another high draft pick this season, the Thunder’s rebuild would be off to a promising start.