NBA: Contender or Pretender? Legitimate Threats or Bad Bets? (Part Two)

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Jake Ernst
Sportswriter and Social Media Manager for The American Betting Experts - Covering a variety of sports including the NBA, MLB, NFL and NASCAR - Former New York Yankees Contributor for Sports Illustrated's "FanSided" site - Rowan University Journalism Class of 2018.

Although it’s only November, there’s been a handful of franchises that have already showcased their ability to perform at a high level – but which of these teams can be considered legit contenders and who is just pretending? For this article, we’ll be taking a look at the NBA’s best teams in terms of win percentage and breaking down why we think their starts have been either justifiable or in some cases, implausible.

Milwaukee Bucks

After posting the best overall record (60-22) in the NBA last season, the Milwaukee Bucks are off to a strong start once again. At a mark of 11-3, they’re currently tied atop the Eastern Conference with the Boston Celtics, who suffered an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers as recent as last night.

What’s interesting about Milwaukee’s start is the fact that they’ve played the most away games out of any team in the NBA and they still rank among the league’s best. The Bucks have played 10 out of their first 14 games on the road so far and have not only survived, but thrived. With an 8-2 record on the road, they’re well on-pace to improve on their away record from last season, when they were the once-again, the best in the league in that category at a 27-14 mark.

The Bucks have played eight of their last 10 games on the road but handled the road trips well, going 9-1 during that span. (ESPN.com)

The 11-3 record is even more impressive when you look at the schedule they’ve had to endure over the first month of the season. Currently, the only teams in the top-10 in terms of win percentage that the Bucks have not already matched up against are the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve had by-far the toughest schedule so far in terms of opponent win percentage, having played games against seven of the top-10 teams in the league. The Bucks have not only been defeating quality opponents, they’ve been doing it on the road.

Posting 30.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, Giannis Antetokounmpo could be well on his way to his second-straight MVP season.
(Photo/Sports Illustrated)

Behind their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are currently in the midst of a five-game winning streak and have won nine of their last ten overall. With the schedule beginning to ease up and having 12 of their next 16 games on their home court, something makes me believe that they very-well might have the best overall record come 2020. They’re not only a contender, they’re my favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Miami Heat

Go ahead, name a more surprising team so far in 2019. You can’t. The Miami Heat, at a 10-3 record, are currently tied with the 2013-2014 team for their best start in franchise history and with a game coming against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night, they might just improve on that record.

After a 10-3 start, the Miami heat find themselves just a half-game out of first-place in the Eastern Conference. (ESPN.com)

With one of the league’s youngest rosters, this new-look Heat squad didn’t have high expectations entering the season and bettors were finding their NBA Finals odds as low as +10,000 on some sports books. After their hot start however, their odds have dropped significantly to +6500.

There are just four teams remaining in the NBA that can say they are perfect at home and with a 6-0 record at American Airlines Arena, the Miami Heat are one of them. The addition of all-star shooting guard Jimmy Butler over the offseason has seemed to revamp their defense, which currently ranks among the top-10 in a variety of categories:

  • First in opponent three-point percentage (30.1)
  • First in steals per game (9.8)
  • Sixth in opponent points allowed (103.7)
  • Fourth in opponent field goals made (37.4)
  • Fifth in opponent field goals attempted (85.8)
  • Eighth in opponent field goal percentage (43.6)
  • Ninth in opponent three-pointers made (11.2)

Their top-of-the-class defense will keep them in contention of most games but what this team will likely struggle with is their experience. Of the seven Heat players who are currently averaging 10+ points a game, three are rookies (Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Hero) and two are 23-or-younger (Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow). Apart from Jimmy Butler and Udonis Haslem (who rarely ever plays), Miami is seriously lacking in postseason experience.

Averaging 17.3 points per game, Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn leads all rookies in scoring and is behind just Jimmy Butler for the team lead. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

They have a roster that will allow them to be a playoff team but at this point, I have to say they’re still a pretender. If you disagree however, and are looking for a high-value bet, this might be the one for you, currently at odds of +6500 to win the 2019-2020 title, you won’t find better value in the NBA.

Denver Nuggets

After finishing last season with a mark of 54-28, which was tied for their second-best record in franchise history (1987, 2008), the Denver Nuggets are once-again knocking on the doorstep of the Western Conference lead, sitting just 1.5 games back from the Los Angeles Lakers for the top spot.

Many thought that the Nuggets’ 54-win season from a year-ago would be tough to replicate, but with a 10-3 start, they are actually on pace to finish with a superior record than that of last year. Apart from their addition of power forward Jerami Grant, they essentially have an identical roster as last year, allowing the team to further build off the chemistry that they established in 2018.

While their offense has been quite mediocre to begin the season (ranking 23rd in the league), their defense has been among the best. Allowing just 102.3 points per game and limiting their opponents to a 42.9 field goal percentage, the Nuggets currently rank third in overall defense.

Through 13 games, the Nuggets are allowing just 102.3 points per game, ranking them third in defensive efficiency. (ESPN.com)

Impressively, Denver’s entire starting unit, consisting of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, are all averaging at least one steal per game and 10+ points on a nightly basis. Luckily for head coach Mike Malone, Denver has potentially the deepest roster in the NBA, meaning they shouldn’t have to rely solely on their starting five to grind out wins later in the season.

Don’t forget, this team was just one win away from competing against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals last year but failed to convert on their home-court advantage game seven. I expect them to make a similar run in this year’s postseason and at this very moment, they have to be viewed as a legitimate threat and a true contender.

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