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MLB: Early Observations

16 hours, 12 minutes ago
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We are now over three weeks into the MLB season.  With that kind of sample size, we can begin to draw some conclusions.  They might be limited ones given the long haul of the 162-game grind, but some things are definitely coming into focus already and it's not even May.  Here is a list of things I feel comfortable saying about this baseball season.  

1. Arizona is a complete disaster and Kirk Gibson may not make it through the summer.  GM Kevin Towers could go first.  Already the Diamondbacks have 16 losses (entering Monday) and their  run differential of -51 is so poor that on the current pace they are destined to end up in the same breath of the '62 Mets.  The pitching staff is the worst in the majors, their home record is 1-11 and I'm ready to declare their playoff chances dead.  They are easily the biggest money losers so far at over minus 11 units (see below).  

2.  Other teams whose 2014 prospects don't look so good are: the Cubs, Philadelphia and Houston.   Before the year, I said my top future bet was the Phillies Under 78 wins.  The other two teams were picked by everyone to finish in last place in their respective divisions, so no surprises there.   Houston has lost 100-plus games each of the last three seasons, so there's really nothing any manager could do there.  But I haven't been impressive with either skipper for the Phillies or Cubs, those being Ryne Sandberg and Rick Renteria.  Phils GM Ruben Amaro will have some tough decisions to make, namely whether or not to deal Cliff Lee, provided his team continues to lose.  Over in the Windy City, Theo Epstein only has so much goodwill left.

3. The expected National League contenders are all living up to advanced billing.  This list would include: Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Those are the five teams I felt would represent the NL in the playoffs and I'll continue to stand by that quintet until further notice.  The fact the Braves are doing so well in spite of all the injuries to the starting rotation is a minor miracle.  Again, I'm a bit worried that Washington may not live up to the hype, though they should do no worse than a Wild Card.

4.  Over in the American League, there's no team I'm really impressed with other than Oakland, whose +32 run differential is the best in baseball.  Detroit will make things more interesting than they should be in the Central, but are clearly the team to beat there.  But the American League East, which feels it's supposed to send two teams to the postseason by birthright, may not require 90 wins to take the division. No division has been hit harder by injury. I guarantee that the West will send at least one Wild Card and maybe two.  Playing Houston more times than the rest of the league will help the A's, Rangers, Angels and Mariners without question.

5.  I'm not buying Milwaukee's hot start.   Yes they are 14-5 entering Monday.  But that guarantees nothing.  They ultimately might very well be better than expected, but not playoff good.  

6.  A's GM Billy Beane has done it again, this time with Jesse Chavez, who is 4 for 4 in quality starts and opponents are hitting just .209 against him.

Top Over teams (entering Monday):  Minnesota (14-4), LA Angels (13-5), Arizona (13-7-1)

Top Under teams:  San Diego (4-14-1), Boston (6-13), Milwaukee (7-12)

Top Teams (Net Units):  Milwaukee (+10.05), Oakland (+7.35), Atlanta (+6.70)

Bottom Teams (Net Units):  Arizona (-11.65), Houston (-6.40), Cubs (-6.20) 

Four NBA Teams to Keep Your Eye On

Apr 21, 2014
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Game 1 of this year’s opening round of playoffs in the NBA is in the books, and the underdogs were out in full force with a straight up record of 5-3 and a profitable 6-2 mark against the spread in the first eight games.

It remains to be seen whether or not this trend will continue when the action resumes this tonight. The following is a look at four teams to keep in mind when betting on the games in the eight best-of-seven conference quarterfinals matchups.

The team at the top of my list is the Charlotte Bobcats even though they failed to cover as 10-point road underdogs in Sunday’s 99-88 loss to Miami in Game 1 of that series. They had the best overall record ATS on any of the 16 NBA teams in the postseason at 47-32-3, and they closed out the regular season on a 6-3 run ATS in their final nine games. Miami was ranked 24th in the league ATS at 37-43-2.

Charlotte has been a solid road team to wager on during the regular season with a 23-16-2 ATS record in 41 games. The good news with this team is that it has been slightly more profitable at home with a 24-16-1 mark ATS. The Bobcats have been opened as 10.5-point road underdogs for Wednesday night’s contest against the Heat.

The next team on the list also suffered a SU and ATS loss in its series opener, but I remain high on Toronto as a solid team to bet on based on its season-long trends. The Raptors are the No. 3 seed in the East, but they drew a tough matchup against No. 6 Brooklyn in the opening round. Going into Saturday’s Game 1 as three-point home favorites, they came up short against the Nets in a 94-87 loss. They are now just 3-5-1 ATS in their last nine games, but they remain the second-best overall NBA playoff team ATS at 46-33-3. In contrast, Brooklyn went 42-40 ATS while going 44-38 SU.

Toronto posted a 21-18-2 record ATS at home this season, but the team’s real betting strength was on the road with a 25-15-1 mark ATS. The Raptors have been opened as 4.5-point home favorites for Tuesday night’s Game 2, but you might want to hold off until the next two games of this series, which will be played in Brooklyn later this week.

San Antonio earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference after going on a perfect 19-0 SU run from the end of February to early April. During this winning streak they were a highly profitable 15-4 ATS. While they cooled a bit to close out the regular season with a 3-3 ATS record in their final six games, the Spurs’ overall record ATS in the regular season stands at 45-37, including a 25-16 ATS record on the road.

They opened the playoffs with a tight 90-85 victory over the Southwest Division rival Mavericks but failed to cover as 9.5-point home favorites. Game 2 of this series is slated for Wednesday night before it shifts to Dallas for the next two games. Given San Antonio’s ability to win and cover on the road, this could be another team to play later in this series.

My final NBA Playoff team with some profitable results ATS is the Oklahoma City Thunder. They finished the regular season with an ATS record of 43-37-2 overall and a 23-16-2 ATS record at home. The Thunder were just one of two favorites to win their first playoff game this past weekend both SU and ATS with a 100-86 victory over Memphis on Saturday as eight-point favorites at home.

They have been opened as seven-point home favorites for Monday night’s Game 2 against the Grizzlies. Looking back at Oklahoma City’s last seven home games, it has gone 5-1-1 ATS while winning all the games SU.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Surprises & Disappointments

Apr 20, 2014
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The regular season is now over and the playoffs are upon us.  Many of you may be aware that all throughout the year, I handle the weekly NBA Power Rankings column for Covers (two years running).  I thought it might be interesting to look at my final rankings and compare them to my initial rankings in order to identify the most overachieving and underachieving teams this year.  

Here is what I found.  The +/- number next to the team represents the difference between the final and intial rating.  

Biggest Surprises

1.  Suns +15 (Initial Rating: 29 | Final Rating 14)

Though Phoenix came up just short of making the playoffs, they get the honor of being my #1 surprise team this season.  I started the year by mocking owner Robert Sarver.  But what I (and no one else) could have never anticipated is what a good job 1st year HC Jeff Hornacek would do.  This is a young team and just one year removed from finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference, the future now looks bright.   The team had an incredible .676 win percentage when they started Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe-PJ Tucker-Channing Frye-Miles Plumlee.   Retaining Bledsoe is the top offseason priority.

2. Bobcats +11 (Initial Rating: 27 | Final Rating 16)

Like the Suns, Charlotte came into the season with questionable ownership.  The only difference is that Robert Sarver isn't the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan is.  The Bobcats were able to take advantage of a weak Eastern Conference to make the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. They won 43 games this year after winning just 28 combined the previous two seasons.  Similar to Phoenix, a first year head coach made a big difference here.  But the calling card under Steve Clifford was defense as the Bobcats allowed just 97.1 PPG, the fourth fewest in the league. Al Jefferson had a fantastic season.

2. Trail Blazers +11 (Initial Rating 19 | Final Rating 8)

At one point, Portland had the best record in the Western Conference.  When I did my first power ratings of the year, I had totally forgotten that they had lost their final 13 games the previous season.  I automatically assumed they would be better this year, but did not think they would be this much better.   Making the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference is no small achievement.  The biggest difference between this year and last is better depth.  They led the league in rebounding & were fourth in points per game.  Defense remains a question that will haunt them however, and likely lead to a first round exit.

4. Raptors +7 (Initial Rating 20 | Final Rating 13)

Because so many teams in the Eastern Conference came into the season in tank mode, my first thought was that Toronto was likely to step up.  That's what I said in my first power rankings column.  As you'll see in the "biggest disappointments" portion of the column, in addition to the multiple tankers in the East, there were several other teams that underachieved preseason expectations.  So, like the Bobcats, the Raptors took advantage.  They were the only competant team in the Atlantic Division before the Nets resurgence right after the new year.  After dealing Rudy Gay to Sacramento, Toronto went 41-22 straight up (102.2 PPG), which was the best record in the Eastern Conference!

Biggest Disappointments

1. Nuggets -8 (Initial Rating 12 | Final Rating 20)

Denver won 57 games last season, at one point winning 24 straight at home.  But they were upset in the first round by the Golden State Warriors causing a knee-jerk reaction to fire HC George Karl despite him being named Coach of the Year.  GM Masai Ujiri also decided to leave for Toronto.  His work can be appreciated by observing where the Nuggets and Raptors ended up on these lists.   The end result was Denver becoming the first team since the post-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers of 2010-11 to win 57+ games one season and fail to make the playoffs the next.   It was only the sixth time such a dubious feat has been pulled off in league history and to give you an idea of how cataclysmic an occurance it truly is, two of the first four involved the post-Jordan Bulls and the Spurs when they lost David Robinson for the season, the year before drafting Tim Duncan.  Brian Shaw was clearly a downgrade from Karl and the Nuggets were fortunate to finish as high in the ranking as they did.  

2. Knicks -7 (Initial Rating 11 | Final Rating 18)

To be clear, I was not too high on the Knicks coming into the season.  I never did like the way this roster was constructed around Carmelo Anthony and HC Mike Woodson is not the man for the job.  Honestly, I'm pretty sick of hearing about this team as last year was a complete mirage and I wasn't surprised at all to see them underachieve.  

2. Cavaliers -7 (Initial Rating 15 | Final Rating 22)

In some ways, it's unfair for Cleveland to end up on this list.  The team actually IMPROVED its win total by eight from last season.  So maybe it was my fault in overrating them from the start.  Going from 24 wins to the postseason is a big jump.  But the bottom line is that this team came in to the year thinking it could make the playoffs.  My biggest concern was a roster filled with injury prone players staying healthy.  What ended up being the problem was bad chemistry in the starting backcourt and the fact that the incompetent Mike Brown is the head coach. GM Chris Grant was fired after a myriad of bad drafts that included selecting Anthony Bennett #1 overall last June.

4. Pistons -6 (Initial Rating 18 | Final Rating 25)

I look at Detroit similar to the way I look at Cleveland.  They were expected to contend for a playoff berth and did not.  Considering how weak the Eastern Conference was, this has to be termed as a disappointment.  Firing Mo Cheeks meant nothing.  The frontcourt mix was a bad one as Josh Smith (surprise, surprise) never fit in.  To say this team didn't measure up with the legendary "Bad Boy" Pistons teams of a quarter century ago would be quite the understatement. 

NBA’s “Second Season”

Apr 18, 2014
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The Spurs entered the NBA for the 1976-77 season (along with fellow ABA teams the Nets, Nuggets and Pacers) and are not only the only former ABA team to have won a title (the Spurs have won four) but only the Lakers have been in more postseasons than the Spurs these last 38 years. The Lakers have missed the postseason for just the second time over the last 20 seasons in 2014 (also missed in 2004-05 season) but have participated in 35 of the 38 postseasons since the merger. The Spurs are playing in their 17th straight postseason, 24 of the last 25 (missed in 1996-97) and 34 of the 38 since the merger (one shy of LA’s mark).
 
Considering the Spurs lost in last year’s NBA Finals to the Heat (in a terrific seven-game series) and the fact that San Antonio just completed the regular season with the league’s best record, it’s fair to say the Spurs are the favorite. However, there should be some concern for San Antonio and its fans (and betting backers). San Antonio’s likely second-round opponent is the 4th-seeded Houston Rockets and the team’s likely opponent in the West Conference final is the OKC Thunder. So what’s the big deal? How about the fact that while San Antonio went an NBA-best 62-20, the Spurs were 0-4 vs both the Rockets and Thunder this year (as opposed to going 62-12, or .838 vs the rest of the league)!
 
The NBA consists of 30 teams and just 12 have won championships since the 1976-77 merger, with only seven winning multiple titles. The Lakers lead the way with 10, followed by the Bulls (six), Celtics (four), Spurs (four), Pistons (three), Heat (three) and Rockets (two). Of the five teams to win single titles since the merger, all but the Mavs win in 2011 came more than 20 years ago. The Blazers won the first NBA title post-merger in 1977, followed by the Bullets (now Wizards) winning in 1978 over the Sonics (now Thunder) and then the Sonics “returning the favor” the following season by beating the Bullets. The fifth team to win a single NBA title since the merger was the 76ers, who won with Moses and Doctor J in that famous Fo’, Fo’ Fo’ season of 1982-83.
 
The Heat are the two-time defending champs but with an 11-14 record over their last 25 games, finished tied for the NBA’s fifth-best record at 54-28 (along with the Rockets and Blazers). The Heat had the best regular season record of any team last year (66-16) and went on to win the title. That ended a four-year drought of NBA champs which didn’t own the best regular season record (the 2007-08 Celtics won the title after topping the NBA that season with a 66-16 record). However, as I point out every year at this time, it’s not as if the NBA playoffs typically serve up “unlikely” champs. Bird and Magic entered the NBA for the start of the 1979-80 season, rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tell us. Of the 34 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 16 have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Nine champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark and four others with its third-best record.
 
That leaves just FIVE champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 34 seasons (or just 14.7 percent). However, while just five champions have come from a group outside of the top-three regular season records these last 34 years, it would be foolish to not realize that FOUR of those five have come in the last 10 years (a pattern?).
 
The 2012 Heat and 2011 Mavericks both finished with the fourth-best record that year. The other two recent teams to do so are the 2003-04 Pistons, who finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) and the 2005-06 Heat, who owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league's fifth-best record that season. The 2004 Pistons deserve an asterisk, because after acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons owned the NBA’s best record after the All Star break and by year’s end, were HARDLY considered the league’s sixth-best team. As for the 2006 Heat, they owe the Mavs as big favor, as Dallas coughed up a 2-0 Finals lead, losing FOUR straight games (Mavs made up for that ‘choke’ in 2011). That leaves the 1994-95 Houston Rockets as the fifth team to win an an NBA title these last 34 years, without finishing the regular season with at least, the league’s third-best regular season record. That squad deserves a “special mention.”
 
You may remember that following a third straight NBA title in 1992-93 with the Bulls and the tragic death of his father, MJ decided to pursue a career in MLB. With MJ in the minors and not on an NBA court, the 1993-94 Rockets (coached by Rudy T and led by Hakeem) won the title in a seven-game series over the Knicks, who were coached by Pat Riley and led by Patrick Ewing. The following season, the Rockets finished with a record of 47-35, tied for the 10th-best mark during the regular season. However, they beat in order, the 60-22 Jazz, the 59-23 Suns and the 62-20 Spurs (owners of the league's best record that year in David Robinson's MVP year) in the Western Conference playoffs, to reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 57-25 Magic, led by Shaq and Penny (remember him?), who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ (who returned late in the that season from his MLB 'sabbatical'). The Rockets swept the Magic in four games, giving Rudy T and Hakeem back-to-back titles and giving Clyde Drexler (who was acquired from Portland during the season in a trade), the lone NBA title of his Hall-of-Fame career. Houston 'victims' that postseason had a combined record of 238-90 (.726) during the regular season. No championship team, before or since, has beaten a more impressive group of challengers on its way to an NBA title.
 
On the eve of the 2014 playoffs, should we expect any surprises? The Pacers and Heat are the top-two seeds in the East and dominated that much weaker conference all season. However, neither looked likely championship contenders down the stretch. I previously noted Miami’s 11-14 record over its final 25 games and here I’ll add that while the Pacers have won back-to-back division championships for the first time since 1998-99 and 1999-2000 (as well as hanging on to claim the East’s No. 1 seed), they went 10-12 over their last 22 games. Even of more concern to sports bettors is the following set of facts.
 
Indiana opened February with four straight wins, the last of which was a 118-113 OT victory over the Blazers on Feb 7, a non-cover which began a money-burning ATS slide in which the Pacers went 7-26-1 ATS over their final 34 regular season games, including 3-15 ATS on the road. No one expects the 38-44 Hawks to be able to win a seven-game series against Indiana but maybe the winner of the Chicago/Washington series could pull an upset? If the Bulls beat the Wizards, note that Chicago has gone 42-20 since acquiring point guard D.J. Augustin (he played in all but ONE of those games, averaging 14.9 PPG and 5.0 APG with Chicago).
 
As for the Heat, getting past the Bobcats (making the franchise’s 2nd postseason appearance in its 10-year history) should not be a problem. However, maybe the Toronto/Brooklyn winner could be? The Raptors dumped Rudy Gay in early December and went 41-22 (.651) the rest of the way. As for Brooklyn, the Nets were just 10-21 when the calendar turned to 2014 but finished 34-17 (.667) over their final 51 games. Of even greater note is the fact that the Nets won all FOUR meetings with the Heat this regular season!
 
I noted at the top that the West’s No. 1 seed (SA), is a combined 0-8 SU this regular season against its expected opponents in each of the second two rounds of this year’s playoffs. That alone should be enough to make the West a “wide open” draw in 2014. OKC is the No. 2 seed and has this year’s likely MVP in Kevin Durant but will Westbrook stay healthy all postseason? If so, is a “two-man” team capable of winning the title? The Clippers are the No. 3 seed and many I know think they just could be the NBA’s best team. However, can one really put that much faith in a franchise making only its SEVENTH postseason appearance since the team came to California (from Buffalo) to begin the 1978-79 season? By the way, the Clippers have lost in the first round in FOUR of their previous six playoff appearances and in their second series in the other two. That sound like an NBA champion to you?
 
As for me, I make it a practice to never formulate strong opinions prior to the start of any series. I take each series as it comes and in fact, take each series game-by-game. My Playoff Journal begins Monday, April 21 and will be available right here every Monday-Friday by 2:00 ET, previewing and recapping the playoffs to-date.
 
Good luck...Larry Ness

NHL Playoff Profits!

Apr 17, 2014
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The 2013/2014 NHL season has been extremely profitable for the Covers Experts, and they are ready to keep the wins rolling as the playoffs get underway!

Have a look at the impressive records of this season's top 3 NHL handicappers:

Ben Burns: 149-75 (67%), $37,292

Art Aronson: 156-108-12 (59%), $22,170

Matt Fargo: 90-83 (52%), +$6,236

In addition to individual guaranteed picks, check out our NHL Playoffs Package, available for just $199.00 - ride the wins with your favorite Covers Expert from now until the Stanley Cup final!

TAKE IT TO THE BOOKS!