Hi! Welcome to my daily picks column. A little about myself: I’m Chicago born & bred free thinker who has spent his time since graduating Yale pursuing a variety of different ideas. I can’t lie and say I have a 20-year track record of 60% handicapping, but I have done well enough to dedicate myself full time to the craft, and believe with discipline and the humility to learn from more experienced players that I can be a 55% winner over the long run.
Pick 1: 1 Unit, Boston Celtics +5.5 @ Milwaukee Bucks
1.) The “Celtics-better-without-Kyrie” narrative is mistaken and has unfairly diminished the value of the Celtics with Kyrie, who have the 3rd best net rating in the NBA and are being priced as if they are lower top 10 team.
2.) The Milwaukee Bucks – like Coach Budenholzer’s 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks – are “Paper Tigers” or “Flat-Track bullies” – or in other words: a team perfect capably of walloping on average and bad teams – but aren’t quite up to the class of the best teams in the league.
Since Kyrie’s absence coincided with a 2-0 Celtics run right before the All-Star Break, we have had 2+ weeks straight of talking heads examining the “fact” that the Celtics have played better and more team-oriented basketball without their talisman point guard. Let’s examine this “fact”. Here are the impressive wins the Celtics have had in games Kyrie has missed: BOS @ PHI (-6.5) / W 112-109
That’s it. That’s the list.
The Celtics w/o Kyrie are 2-2 on the road & 7-0 at home. Except for the Philly game, they were favored in all of the games that they have won without Kyrie. They were huge favorites went Kyrie went down against the Clippers leading by 28 in the 2nd quarter – but still somehow lost the game by a significant margin.
The next most impressive win they have had w/o Kyrie is a 30-point Home drubbing vs. the Charlotte Hornets, who have had numerous terrible stretches since their hot start, and only have 1 offensive threat in Kemba Walker, a driving point guard the Celtics have the size to bottle up with or without Kyrie.
What about last year? They made it to the Conference Finals! Yes, and they beat the Bucks and the 76ers – two young, inexperienced teams that were first time entrants in the playoffs in their current iterations. I don’t think any team in the East last year was a top 5 team in the league.
The lone impressive win without Kyrie – at Philly last week – is also the one that is freshest in everyone’s memory. The 76ers in my mind were due for some growing pains – after winning their first 2 games with Tobias Harris and their new look roster. That game also had everything to be played for in the final few minutes, when a big no call on a Joel Embiid drive went the Celtics way in the final minute.
My biggest takeaway from that Celtics win was the continued progression of Jayson Tatum. In his second year, he continues to improve attacking the basket – which will open up further his world class mid-range game.
Kyrie’s favorite NBA of all time, Kobe Bryant, excelled in the equal opportunity triangle offense, and Kyrie knows perfectly well how to execute a fluid system that involves another star. The difficulty has not been that Kyrie has failed to sublimate his ego and let others play – the difficulty has been young players like Tatum learning to grab the reins when necessary and exploit their talents to the fullest in an equal opportunity system. Hayward, Brown & Tatum have all struggled at times in reduced roles. However, they have all showed signs of improvement and capability – hence the Celtics boasting the 3rd best net rating.
Also, when one of them is out – the others have relished the extra opportunity and the Celtics have not missed a beat. Hayward looks likely to be out against Milwaukee. This news coincided with the line going back to 5.5 from 5, but I actually think it helps the Celtics chances in this one game.
That win in Philadelphia brings the Celtics to 6-3 against the other top 5 teams in the East, 5-3 with Kyrie. Milwaukee has also been good and often very good against the best Eastern teams, but I think this trend has more to do with hot shooting and momentum than it does their true potential.
Almost every power rankings – including my own – has the Bucks either 1st or 2nd in the league right now, right alongside the Golden State Warriors. However, when we look at the Futures pool, the Bucks have worse odds than the Warriors, Raptors & Celtics to win the Title at most sports books. This disconnect implies that although they are the 1st or 2nd most feared team in this current regular season, the Vegas market does not look as kindly at their true top end potential. I agree with this logic. The closer we get to the playoffs, the more playoff-like these top end matches become. If the Futures markets are correct, then the Celtics and Bucks are about even teams, and this line should be Milwaukee +3 or +3.5. We’re getting +5.5 and I’m taking it.
Pick 2: 1 Unit, Phoenix Suns +1 @ Cleveland Cavaliers (Line from Caesars)
1.) Reverse-Line Movement
This play is less about basketball and more about what I’m seeing from the market. The Suns losers of 15 straight opened as a small underdog against the lowly Cavs. Since then a heavy majority of tickets have been on the Cavs, but the line has moved towards the Suns, who are know slight favorites at many books. I love betting on teams with long losing streaks – exactly because the public eschews them, thus presenting value. The Suns will have the best player on the court, Devin Booker, as Kevin Love is being slowly reintegrated and is not yet at a 100%. The Suns are the most desperate team.