NBA Early Season Surprises: Should Bettors Buy In?

Evan Fournier has been a big part of the Magic's resurgence. Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr) CC License

The NBA is barely into its third week, but it feels like we’ve already seen a season’s worth of shocking developments. Who can forget when Bobby Portis got suspended after coldcocking Nikola Mirotic, or Eric Bledsoe getting in trouble after sending distress signals from a “hair salon”? The standings have also undergone an unexpected shake-up as the Pistons, Pacers, and Magic have all gotten off to fast starts, while the Cavs and Warriors have stumbled out of the gate.

We’ve rounded up the most surprising developments of the 2017-18 NBA season and have set fresh new odds on the likelihood each trend will continue as the year unfolds.

Compare our odds to the bets available on your sportsbook of choice. There could be value at this early stage.

Pistons: Beasts of the East?

Don’t look now, but the Pistons might just be the best team in the NBA. Detroit is 5-2 after rousing road victories this past weekend against the heavily-favored Clippers and Warriors. The key, as is usually the case with Stan Van Gundy teams, has been suffocating defense. Andre Drummond has looked like an elite rim protector again, newcomer Avery Bradley has been shutting down opposing wings with extreme prejudice, and the team ranks second in steals and opponent second-chance points. It’s a simple formula, and one that Detroit should be able to replicate all season long as they try to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Pistons 2018 Playoff Odds: 9/11

Pacers: No Paul George, No Problem?

Not even Nostradamus could have predicted that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers would have identical 3-3 records after the first six games of the season. The Pacer train was supposed to come to a screeching halt without Paul George, but the opposite has been true. Indiana is sixth in the league in pace and points per game and has been passing the ball like they’re playing a game of hot potato. The biggest contributor to the team’s early-season success has been Victor Oladipo, who is averaging a career high 25.5 points per game and has been slicing through defenders like a knife through warm butter. No, he’s not the second coming of PG13, but his willingness to push the tempo has proven infectious and has Indiana racing down the court on nearly every possession. Oladipo has made the Pacers worth watching again and has elevated the team from the depths of the lottery to the cusp of playoff contention.

Don’t pencil them into the postseason just yet though, even in the dilapidated East.

Pacers 2018 Playoff Odds: 12/1

Magic: All An Illusion?

The Magic have been living up to their moniker this season with a 4-2 record that’s two parts bitchin’ and three parts bewitchin’. Like the Pacers, the secret to their hot start has also been their blazing pace of play. Orlando ranks third in possessions per game, and second in points, three-point percentage, and assists. Add it all up and you have a team that’s playing so far over above its head that their games should be monitored by lifeguards rather than referees. The Magic’s red-hot shooting will eventually cool off and their porous interior defense will get exposed, but in the meantime, their games have become must-see TV for anyone who digs the nouveau pace and space style of play.

Magic 2018 Playoff Odds: 20/1

LeBron James hasn’t had much to smile about this season in Cleveland. Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr) CC License

Cavaliers: Sorry, We’re Tied With Who?

Cleveland is currently tied with the Brooklyn Nets. It’s hard to say what’s more surprising: the fact that the Nets have actually managed to win three games, or the fact that the Cavs have already lost four. Brooklyn and Cleveland have identical 3-4 records despite the fact that they entered the season with diametrically opposed forecasts. The Nets were supposed to stink worse than a beer and bratwurst fart, while the Cavs were supposed to breeze through the East unimpeded.

We’re still just six games into the 2017-18 season, but the Cav’s ineptitude has been appalling. Cleveland gave up an average of 116 points per game in three losses last week and now ranks in the bottom third in team plus/minus. Brooklyn, meanwhile, ranks third in points per game at 114.7, and has been playing the kind of selfless, share-the-wealth style that few could have anticipated coming into the season.

The teams’ reversal of fortunes was especially evident last Wednesday as the Nets downed the Cavs 112-107 despite playing without Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell. Brooklyn looked considerably fresher and more energetic than Cleveland all game long, and had no problem finishing off the NBA’s oldest roster down the stretch.

The Cavs will eventually improve when Isaiah Thomas returns and Dwyane Wade adjusts to coming off the bench, but for now, they look old, creaky, and highly disinterested.

Cavaliers 2018 Eastern Conference Title Odds: 1/2

Clippers: Is Blake Griffin the 2018 NBA MVP?

We won’t try to convince you that the Clippers are a better team without Chris Paul. They’re not. But they sure are a lot more fun to watch. CP3’s absence has resulted in more touches for Blake Griffin, and he’s responded by averaging a career high 24.8 points per game to go along with 9.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He’s also extended his range and is connecting on 41-percent of his 5.8 threes per game. Those numbers may not be sustainable, but one thing that is likely to stick is the feeling of joy and exuberance around the team. For all of his many strengths, Paul was a world-class curmudgeon whose need to control all facets of the game often resulted in his teammates playing like robots. Griffin is now free to play with reckless abandon without worrying about a CP3 death stare, and he’s a better player because of it.

Blake Griffin 2017-18 MVP Odds: 9/2

Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins is Playing Honest-to-God Defense

It isn’t often a player completely redefines himself in the offseason, but that seems to be the case with DeMarcus Cousins. The three-time All-Star is leading the league with a career high 3.3 blocks per game and is fourth in rebounds. That’s particularly noteworthy since (a) Cousins can’t jump over a phone book, and (b) he didn’t receive a single vote for Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17. For now, the Pelicans are just delighted that Boogie is leading the league in anything other than technicals.

DeMarcus Cousins 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year Odds: 15/1

Lakers: Jordan Clarkson = NBA’s Best Sixth Man?

Chris Paul’s injury has pushed Eric Gordon into Houston’s starting line-up and opened the door for Jordan Clarkson to assume the mantle as the NBA’s top reserve. The 25-year-old combo guard is presently averaging 15.5 points, 2.3 assists, and 1.8 rebounds in just 19.4 minutes per game and is playing with considerably more poise and confidence. His plus/minus is still an underwhelming -2.8, but that should improve as the Lakers’ second unit gets more reps and begins to gel.

Jordan Clarkson 2017-18 Sixth Man of the Year Award Odds: 3/1

Warriors: Actually Beatable?

We’re not about to give up on the Warriors just yet, but they have looked out of sorts all season long. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have been throwing hissy fits, Draymond Green has been throwing haymakers, and Steve Kerr has been throwing away his suits and dressing up like an extra from Shaft.  It’s not a good look for the defending champs, but we’re confident they’ll return to form soon. Golden State has too much talent and too much depth to let their post championship hangover get the best of them.

Over/under Warriors 2017-18 Wins: 65.5