Playing The NBA Market: Who To Invest In, Who To Stay Away From

Facebook is about to go public with its IPO, which has everyone in a buy/sell mood and streaming “The Social Network” soundtrack on Spotify. It leads to conversations about how big the company can become. If you’re a hoops fan looking for a steal, it’s time now, at nearly a third of the way through the season, to see what teams you should invest your hopes in and who to sell off quick while you still can.

I don’t know anything about tech stocks but here’s who you believe in and what teams, if bought too aggressively, could ruin your portfolio.

BUY as NBA champs: Oklahoma City. Everyone wanted to buy in early because of the star power of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. No problem there; that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t a bad salesman for his company, either. But here’s the thing: The Thunder have delivered on those great expectations so far through the first third of the season. How much higher can this go — will this stock dive like LinkedIn under greater scrutiny? I say it can go higher — like Larry O’Brien Trophy higher. Buy now, though, because the stock will only rise after the next week of road games.

The Thunder are the most complete team with legs young enough to take on a compressed season and playoff grind. Many will look to their 9-4 road record and see validation for that. Others will see they’ve beaten the likes of Golden State, New Jersey, Memphis and Boston and see the mark as misleading. I take it like this: great teams not only knock off the best opponents, but they leave little room for error against mediocre ones, too. A six-game road trip began Saturday against mid-level Western teams — Golden State, Utah, Sacramento — San Antonio, and banged-up Portland that should validate their status as an efficient road team (despite the loss to the Spurs). The confidence gained now away from home will serve to pay back dividends in the playoffs.

BUY as the team you don’t want to face in the playoffs: Philadelphia. They had the chance to be good right out of the gate by returning their starting five, creating continuity from the long lockout and short preseason. But buy now — much in the same way the Thunder can be trusted because they take care of business — because of the way the Sixers are beating everyone. As Justin Kubatko wrote recently in The New York Times, the 76ers plus-10.3 points per game differential isn’t just staggering in a contemporary sense (Chicago’s second with plus-8.7) but historical. Nineteen of 38 teams to have at least a plus-10.0 differential through 18 games in a season have gone on to win a championship.

The schedule will get tougher for Doug Collins, Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala and Co., but you’ll want to hold on to this team’s stock for a while because it’s looking like a new version of Oklahoma City circa 2010. A hard first-round exit against the Lakers that year is this team’s version of playing the Heat in 2011. Given a taste of the playoffs before, they’re coming back for more, emboldened by the success so far. Buy in on the bandwagon.

SELL as a legit division leader: Los Angeles Clippers. The Clips play under hard-to-reach expectations and I can’t trust them to fill it. Moreso than the team itself’s capabilities, I doubt Vinny Del Negro can coach the team beyond the sum of its talented parts. Not only must the patchwork of stars unseat the Lakers as city champions and win every night out (as is expected when Chris Paul joined) but they have to do it in style, too. Los Angeles for years never had so much as a meal ticket, but now fans expect a five-course feast where the basic – a win – isn’t enough unless Blake Griffin breaks a backboard.

This isn’t a reaction to a bad loss to Denver on Thursday, because it was the fourth game in five days for the Clips. Nope, it’s because it perpetuated the notion that even with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, they can’t rebound well enough — 9th out of the West’s 15 for rebounding margin. The Nugs were plus-13 in that category on Thursday, 41 vs. 28. The West doesn’t have a dominant big man-type this season, which should be a boon for a frontcourt like L.A.’s up-and-coming duo. That’s not the case so far. That they haven’t found a way to get consistency on the boards shows me that they’re a fun team to watch but are hiding atop a weak division.

SELL as one of the West’s best: Portland Trail Blazers. Pains me to write this as someone who watches more Trail Blazer games than any other team, but it’s obvious Portland’s guard play will hold it back. Raymond Felton was supposed to be better than Andre Miller because of his youth, but he’s played more like a first or second-year player than a floor general. He’s got the eighth-highest turnover percentage (19.2 per 100 possessions) in the league when he’d never had a season with more than 16.8 before.

When Brandon Roy and his knees left the team in December, a faster playing style was supposed to emerge; instead, Felton’s uncertain play has applied the brakes to coach Nate McMillan‘s plans. While his assists have stayed dead-on with his career average (6.7 per game), he’s not as much a threat to pass because passing lanes have clogged up as opponents dare him to shoot. His 20 percent three-point shooting and 37 percent field-goal shooting are both career worsts and far under his average. The Blazers, when they’re on like in early January, can beat anyone in the West home or away. It’s not even a question. What is doubted is whether the man poised to initiate their offense, Felton, can even get going himself.

Who are you buying and selling this year?

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