The Nuggets’ Sluggish Start Was Deceiving — And Oddsmakers Weren’t Shaken By It

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Fresh off a trip to the Western Conference finals, led by a 25-year-old big man and a 23-year-old perimeter player who both ranked among the most rapidly improving young stars in the NBA, there was every reason to take the Denver Nuggets seriously as a contender entering the 2020-21 season.

Then they started out 1-4, with two losses to the mediocre-at-best Sacramento Kings.

In a 72-game season, every game matters a little more than it does in a standard 82-game season. So was it time to press the panic button?

Not according to Colorado’s legal sportsbooks, which barely budged on the Nuggets’ futures odds.

The team is now 3-4, having enjoyed the elixir that is a home-and-home series with the Minnesota Timberwolves, a franchise whose futility now includes 10 straight losses to Denver. The fact that the Nuggets won those two games they were supposed to win tells us little.

If the Nuggets win their next two games — home against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday and on the road Saturday against the team sporting the best record in the league, the Philadelphia 76ers — that will tell us quite a bit more.

But even if they come up short in one or both of those, there’s every reason to believe Denver’s 1-4 start can be ignored when deciding whether to back this team on your betting apps going forward.

It’s not easy being without Green

There are two primary reasons that 1-4 start to the season could be swept aside.

First off, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA offseason was the shortest in major American team sports history, and the Nuggets played just three preseason games. Every team was working out kinks when the regular season began. We’ve seen major upsets almost every day in the NBA, from Spurs over Clippers on Tuesday, to Knicks over Hawks on Monday, to Wizards over Nets and Bulls over Mavs on Sunday, to Knicks over Pacers on Saturday, and on and on. Few teams are jelling yet, and countless cagers are playing their way into shape, including the leading MVP candidate.

This season, early struggles are less indicative of a team’s true quality than ever before.

The other factor that’s specific to the Nuggets was the absence through the first four games of veteran forward JaMychal Green, acquired in the offseason and expected to play a key role in plugging the hole left by the loss of Jerami Grant. In his first three games with Denver, Green has come off the bench to average 13 points and five rebounds, and what had been one of the worst defenses in the league without him instantly became more respectable.

Since allowing 120.25 points per game without Green, the team has allowed 110.33 points per game with him. Small sample size, to be sure, but 10 points per game is a lot. (It’s probably not a coincidence that defensive liability Michael Porter Jr. has been a COVID-contact-tracing-protocols scratch for Denver these last three games.)

Still, defense is not the strong suit of this Nuggets team. While all-star center Nikola Jokic is a legit MVP candidate and an absolute force in the stat box — he’s averaging 24.1 points, 11.9 assists, and 11.7 rebounds through seven games — he’s still a work in progress on the defensive end.

Denver’s defensive shortcomings, combined with the potent offense led by Jokic and guard Jamal Murray, open up one very clear avenue for bettors to profit on Nuggets games:

Best bets with 65 games to go

While the “over” trend is likely to continue until the books adjust their totals accordingly, one trend we don’t recommend betting on is the Nuggets’ lowly 2-5 record against the spread so far. That’s among the worst in the NBA. But like the team’s recovery from that 1-4 start, it figures to turn around.

It’s too early to find lines on either Thursday’s game vs. Dallas (also a top Western Conference team that has struggled out of the gate at 3-4) or the Saturday showdown against the 6-1 Sixers.

But the futures odds show that the Nuggets’ slow start hasn’t altered their outlook for the season.

Surveying several of Colorado’s regulated mobile sportsbooks, here’s the best bang for your buck we found on various Nuggets futures as of Wednesday:

  • Northwest Division: +160 (PointsBet)
  • Western Conference: +1200 (PointsBet)
  • NBA Championship: +2000 (William Hill, BetRivers, PointsBet)
  • Jokic MVP: +1300 (FanDuel)
  • Porter Most Improved Player of the Year: +2000 (FanDuel)

And if you’re willing to risk a lot to win a little, FanDuel has the Nuggets at -600 to make the playoffs. That shows just how confident the oddsmakers are that the first five games didn’t tell us anything meaningful about where the Nuggets are headed.

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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