NBA betting: How the Clippers' recent surge is impacting both betting, fantasy

ByAndré Snellings ESPN logo
Thursday, December 14, 2023

James Harden was traded to the Clippers on Oct. 31 and upon his arrival to the lineup on Nov. 6, the Clippers immediately lost five games in a row.

At the time, anytime I was asked if the Clippers could work with Harden, I always said the same thing: on paper, Harden's skillset could work next to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but the attitudes and willingness would have to mesh.

All four are major ISO scorers, and both Westbrook and Harden tend to operate as ball dominant floor generals that create offense for both themselves and teammates. But, to play together, one would have to be willing to play off the ball ... and Westbrook doesn't shoot well enough for that to be his role. But Harden does; he joins Leonard and George as excellent shooters.

So, I thought the four of them could work together if Harden moved off-ball into more of a shooter/secondary engine role, with Westbrook running the show and each of the other three as elite finishers that could also attack imbalanced defenses. That was my thought when the trade occurred.

Then, Harden did his introductory news conference and vetoed the idea that he could fit into a system with other players. He instead stated, "I am the system."


With that as Harden's stated attitude, it was predictable that the Clippers would flounder. And they did, for the first couple weeks. Then, an amazing thing happened.

The same Westbrook that had railed against coming off the bench in his previous stops, who had been a bit of a nightmare fit on the Lakers the last couple seasons with he and LeBron James both vying for the floor general role, reportedly volunteered to come off the bench for the Clippers.

And everything changed.

Since Westbrook moved to the bench, the Clippers have won 10 of their last 13 games, with an average scoring margin of +7.3 points per game that would rank fourth in the NBA and second in the Western Conference if that were their margin on the season. They have won five straight games, the longest active winning streak in the NBA, and have ascended to the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and third place in the Pacific Division.

This seems to at least preliminarily answer the question of whether this Clippers team could come together and win following the Harden trade: yes. Now, the follow-up questions arise: For both fantasy basketball and betting purposes, what does this "new normal" look like on the level of the individual players' production? And how do the Clippers fit into the various futures races in the NBA, moving forward?

What the stats say

We'll start by comparing the individual offensive production for the four main players during the first five games of the season pre-Harden, the first five games of the Harden era when all four started, and the most recent 13 games with Harden starting and Westbrook coming off the bench.

The charts show each player's scoring average (PPG) and number of field goal attempts (FGA), the number of made 3-pointers (3PG) and 3-point percentage (3P%), and the number of assists per game (APG) and turnovers (TO).

A lot here, but let's unpack a few things. First, these are all relatively small sample sizes, so some of the differences may be due to players simply being hot or cold from the floor, as well as opponent quality. George, in particular, started the season on a heater, shooting 56.0% from the field and 51.2% from downtown in those first five games. In fact, George was taking fewer field goal attempts while averaging 28.8 PPG than he did during either of the other two epochs when his scoring average was down to 21.0 PPG or less.

With that said, the trend of George scoring more next to Westbrook was born out last season as well in larger samples. He averaged 23.3 PPG in the 44 games before Westbrook's arrival last season, then increased to 25.8 PPG next to Westbrook. Part of that is likely chemistry, with George and Westbrook having a previously established rapport from their time together with the Thunder.

George was reportedly one of the biggest proponents of the Clippers bringing Westbrook to town, and they clearly play well together. And a part of that chemistry may be pace: Westbrook plays much faster at the point than does Harden. Westbrook tends to grab the rebound and go, leading to more fast break opportunities that fit George's skillset. George has the length, athleticism and quickness to finish the break at the rim, but he also loved to trail and spot up on the arc to hit fast break 3-pointers.

In fact, the Clippers as a team seemed to thrive in that faster paced game. Note that all three of George, Leonard and Westbrook were knocking down the most 3-pointers and at abnormally high percentages during those first five games. It speaks to the team getting consistently easy looks.

With Harden and Westbrook in the starting lineup together, everything was muddled. While Westbrook pushes the pace, Harden tends to thrive more in the half-court, and in those first five games the team seemed to be in a slog. Watching the games, there was no flow to the offense. It felt like the players were just taking turns running ISO, with one guy doing a lot of dribbling while the other four players were standing still off to the side. Both volume and shooting percentages fell through the floor.

With Harden starting as the clear floor general, roles have been reestablished. Leonard, like Harden, operates extremely well in the half-court game. Harden's assists are up, and both Leonard and George are again knocking down a higher percentage of their looks from behind the arc. And the Clippers' offense is humming, now, making them a matchup nightmare for their opponents.

How this impacts betting on the Clippers

This is a nice segue to discussing the Clippers' futures market as a team. According to ESPN BET, the Clippers are +3000 to win the NBA Championship. They are +1100 to win the Western Conference, and one of three teams at +380 to win the Pacific Division.

The Clippers are extremely live in the last two markets at those odds, and make an intriguing longshot play for the NBA title as well. They are the hottest team in the NBA right now, clearly playing as well as any team in the Western Conference, and their long-term projections look just as strong.

According to our Basketball Power Index (BPI), the Clippers are currently tied for the highest score in the Western Conference (T6th in NBA), significantly ahead of all four other Pacific Division teams (the Suns have the second-highest BPI in the Pacific, and they rank 12th in the NBA). The Clippers are only one game out of first place in the Pacific, and they've beaten last season's Pacific Division champions the Kings by a combined 34 points in their past two games.

The one wild card that makes me hesitant on the Clippers is the spectre of health. Leonard and George have averaged a combined 45+ missed games during their previous seasons together, but thus far neither have missed a game this season. If they can maintain their health, it would bode very well for the Clippers' division/conference/league championship aspirations. But, given their history, it is hard to expect this level of health for the entire season.

Bottom line

The Clippers seem to have found their level while playing with Harden. Leonard is playing like top-20 fantasy hoops producer on a per-game basis, while Harden has settled in near the back of the top-30 and George closer to top-40.

Westbrook doesn't have a lot of fantasy value in his role off the bench but has big upside if injuries or circumstances require him to move back to a larger role.

And as a team, if they can stay healthy, I see a lot of value in the Clippers in the futures markets, particularly at +380 to win a division where they are only a game out of first and clearly playing the best ball.