2023 NBA Playoffs: Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers series preview

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Opening Price (via DraftKings): Phoenix Suns (-600) Los Angeles Clippers (+400)

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When it comes to on-court matchups there are a lot of mysteries surrounding this series. However, the ultimate result seems to be all but decided by the betting market, as the Phoenix Suns are prohibitive favorites in this first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Phoenix opened as -600 favorites to win the series at DraftKings, a price that carries an implied probability of 85.7%, and while that is the highest price on the market there has not been enough support on the underdog at DraftKings to warrant an adjustment. 

Despite having Kevin Durant on the floor for only eight games the Suns are being priced as the best team in the Western Conference, and a look at some of the returns makes you understand why the market is so high on Phoenix.

With Durant on the floor the Suns outscored their opponents by 11.6 points every 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. Durant with Devin Booker lineups had a +18.4 net rating, and Phoenix averaged 124.7 points per 100 possessions with those two on the floor. Their most used line up of Durant and Booker with Chris Paul, Josh Okogie and Deandre Ayton is +15.5 per 100 possessions and owns a 104.6 defensive rating. Every number tied to Durant’s time with Phoenix is elite, but the problem is the sample size of just 547 possessions. There is also the issue of who the Suns played in those eight games, and 547 possessions with Durant.

Three of their eight opponents did not make the play-in round in either conference. Three others – Chicago, Minnesota and Oklahoma City – are play-in teams, and the other two games were against Denver, in which Nikola Jokic started neither and the Nuggets rested players in the second contest.

When two scorers like Durant and Booker are on the same team that team will be very good, and Phoenix is an extremely good team. However, the degree to which the market has rated this team is based on a short sample size of data against some of the worst teams in the league. Is it not possible that these statistical returns are inflated due to the level of competition the Suns have faced with Durant on the floor?

Even so, Phoenix gets the benefit of facing a defense in Los Angeles that has slipped recently.

Since the beginning of January the Clippers have allowed the ninth most points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time (118.3). That slide down the defensive standings has come with the trade-off of better offense, but it is troubling to see how much trouble Los Angeles has had on the defensive end. Especially with a scoring duo like Durant and Booker looming as a first round opponent. However, the way in which those two score are not what the Clippers have had trouble defending.

Speed bothers Los Angeles. In the 44 games since the beginning of January the Clippers have allowed opponents to take 33.5% of their attempts at the rim and shoot 67.6% on those shots. Quick guards with the ability to attack the rim off the dribble have given Los Angeles problems, but that is not what Phoenix does. The Suns are a jump-shooting team, and with Durant on the floor a whopping 74.7% of their attempts come in the form of a jumpshot. In other words, only 25.3% of their attempts are at the rim. Durant and Booker have the ability to attack off the bounce, but that is not their game so it is unlikely Phoenix exploits one of Los Angeles’ biggest weaknesses on defense.

The Clippers are also a team which switches on defense in almost every matchup. Rarely will Los Angeles drop off on pick-and-rolls, meaning there will always be a defender there to contest a jumpshot. The Clippers are a roster which is constructed for that style of defense as well, which means there is rarely a mismatch to hunt for opposing defenses, and that will be the case in this series.

Los Angeles is obviously hampered by the loss of Paul George to injury though, and that is where this series could be ultimately won. When Kawhi Leonard is on the floor without George this season the Clippers are only +1.8 per 100 possessions, but there is a silver lining.

 This newly constructed starting lineup of Leonard with Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Nicolas Batun and Ivica Zubac has outscored opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions, and it owns a 130.1 offensive rating. Marcus Morris has been removed from the rotation as well, and the lineups with Westbrook and Leonard have thrived since, posting a +8.7 net rating in just under 400 possessions on the floor.

Like Phoenix, the sample sizes are small for Los Angeles, but the numbers paint a picture of a much more competent team than one would realize when looking at the series prices. The Clippers could also be considered the much deeper team when you evaluate the bench rotations.

Terance Mann, their one time starting point guard this season, now comes off the bench. Since the trade deadline, the Clippers have outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when Mann is on the floor without Leonard. Their most used bench lineup of Mann, Bones Hyland, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Mason Plumlee has a +8.8 net rating.

Phoenix rates as the better team without question due to the presence of Durant, the absence of George and homecourt, but the gap between these two teams is not as wide as the market would suggest.

Betting Analysis

If we’re operating under the assumption that this series is mispriced, then just like in the other series we’ve previewed already, there are different ways to attack it. 

I did place a small wager on Los Angeles to win the series at +400 but the real value bet to make is on the series spread. Bettors can find Los Angeles +1.5 games at +160 or +2.5 games at -125 and both are bets to make. Not only are these value plays because I believe the market to be mispriced, but there is also the possibility of George returning during this series. A cheap number like -125 on Los Angeles to stay within two games in this series is much lower on the probability scale than it should be.

Bet Recommendation: Clippers +2.5 Games (-125)