The nightcap of the NBA’s Christmas Day basketball buffet features a matchup that no doubt sounded intriguing when the schedule was made this Summer. Now, not so much. The New Orleans Pelicans are one game out of last place in the Western Conference after a miserable month of December in which they’ve gone 2-10 SU/2-9-1 ATS. The Pelicans were a ‘trendy’ team during the offseason prior to the knee injury suffered by first overall draft pick Zion Williamson. To say that the team has flatlined in Williamson’s absence is an understatement.
Denver, on the other hand, is back near the top of the Western Conference table with a 21-8 record. That’s good for second place 1/2 game ahead of the Houston Rockets and LA Clippers and 2.5 games behind the West leading Lakers. The Nuggets have been a team of streaks this season. They looked very strong in November going 10-2 SU/5-5-2 ATS. When the calendar turned over to December their form reversed completely and they opened the month losing 5 of 6 SU from 11/30 to 12/10 going 1-4-1 ATS. They reversed form again mid-month and enter Christmas Day with the longest active winning streak in the NBA at 7 straight going 3-3-1 ATS. Interestingly, the Nuggets overall record is solid but they’ve struggled against the spread. They’ve lost -4.4 units on the season going 11-14-4 against the number which is the #20 betting performance in the 30 team league.
Despite the absence of Zion Williamson the NOLA fanbase is starting to run out of patience with head coach Alvin Gentry. Pelicans’ management exercised a team option to extend Gentry through the 2020-2021 season despite him having only one winning season in his four plus years with the team. They might be starting to regret that decision since the team has been in complete disarray all season. Williamson has the potential of being a franchise defining player but to have a team completely fall apart in the absence of a highly touted rookie isn’t a good look for a coach. The Pelicans have one of the youngest rosters in the league with only two players over the age of 30 and ten players aged 25 or younger. If Gentry isn’t the coach to develop what is a roster full of talent and potential that won’t change when Zion returns.
The most alarming thing about the Pelicans performance YTD is how completely non-competitive they been in most games. If anything, a young team should at least be able to bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the floor. That has been completely absent this year as has any type of toughness or tenacity to the team. One thing that I like to look for when handicapping losing teams is their ability to hang in games as an underdog. A team that can cover frequently as a dog is one that might be on the verge of improvement no matter how many games they lose straight up. New Orleans is the diametric opposite in that they’ve only covered twice in SU losses. That suggests a team that ‘checks out’ mentally if they’re not in a position to compete for the outright win. It’s probably not a coincidence that their two covers/SU losses came against ‘marquee’ teams Houston and the Lakers. The Pelicans 8-23 SU record is nearly identical to their 10-19-2 ATS mark. Most alarming among their situational records: 3-12 SU/4-10 ATS against opponents with winning records and a record of 0-4 SU/ATS off of an upset win as an underdog. On a per unit basis, the Pelicans have lost -10.9 units on the season which is second worst in the league.
From a wagering standpoint, however, Denver isn’t a favorable opponent to exploit the Pelicans’ ATS liabilities. The Nuggets haven’t been a good pointspread team either. There’s a bit of disconnect between public perception and the way Denver wants to play. The Nuggets are a hard working, defensive oriented team that likes to control tempo and grind out wins. That’s a great formula for success both in the regular season and playoffs but not one for covering pointspreads. Denver has the best team defense in the NBA allowing 102.1 PPG but the #22 team offense scoring 107.8 PPG. They might be able to improve upon their offensive numbers here since New Orleans has been atrocious on defense–another negative mark against Coach Gentry. Their interior defense is particularly weak and will likely be evicerated by Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic. New Orleans ranks #28 in scoring defense (117.7 PPG against) and #25 in team rebounding.
The Nuggets have been a particularly poor investment at home where they’re 6-8-2 ATS despite a 13-3 SU record. Much of Denver’s home court advantage is derived from the city’s altitude but that requires a more uptempo approach to properly leverage. That makes the Nuggets a bit overvalued on their home floor. Ultimately, however, the miserable effort of the Pelicans overall when stepping up in class and their soft interior defense puts us on the Nuggets. We’ll also go ‘Under’ the total. The Pelicans have gone ‘Under’ in four straight and Denver is ‘Under’ in 11 of 16 at home and 17 of 28 as a favorite.