The NBA preseason is officially upon us, which means that the Westgate SuperBook has released its 2015—16 over/under win totals for all 30 teams.
Atlanta Hawks: 49.5 | Boston Celtics: 42.5 | Brooklyn Nets: 28.5
Charlotte Hornets: 32.5 | Chicago Bulls: 49.5 | Cleveland Cavaliers: 56.5
Dallas Mavericks: 38.5 | Denver Nuggets: 26.5 | Detroit Pistons: 33.5
Golden State Warriors: 60.5 | Houston Rockets: 54.5 | Indiana Pacers: 42.5
Los Angeles Clippers: 56.5 | L.A. Lakers: 29.5 | Memphis Grizzlies: 50.5
Miami Heat: 45.5 | Milwaukee Bucks: 43.5 | Minnesota Timberwolves: 25.5
New Orleans Pelicans: 47.5 | New York Knicks: 31.5 | OKC Thunder: 57.5
Orlando Magic: 32.5 | Philadelphia 76ers: 21.5 | Phoenix Suns: 36.5
Portland Trail Blazers: 26.5 | Sactown Kings: 30.5 | San Antonio Spurs: 58.5
Toronto Raptors: 45.5 | Utah Jazz: 40.5 | Washington Wizards: 45.5
In case you’re interested, you can look back at SI.com’s picks for 2014—15 (here) and 2013—14 (here). Last season was a thoroughly mixed bag: The Clippers, Magic, and Wizards all behaved as predicted, while the Cavaliers, Sixers and the Pistons were less reliable.
Without further ado, let’s dig in and examine the best and worst bets this season (for entertainment purposes, of course).
1. Which team will beat its over/under line by the most wins?
Sacramento Kings over 30.5. Last year, only five teams beat their lines by at least seven wins and, remarkably, all five did so by at least 13. Those five teams fell into two groups: 1) the Warriors and Hawks, who captured perfect regular-season chemistry and ran away from the field to win their respective conferences, and 2) the Bucks, Jazz and Celtics, three teams who were expected to win 27 or fewer games and wound up in the vicinity of .500.
Are there any teams capable of making the “good to amazing” leap like the Warriors and Hawks this year? That’s not an easy question to answer. The above-average teams with the biggest upside compared to last year—based on their offseason additions, projected health and coaching changes—include the Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Clippers. While all four of those teams have the potential to win 60+ games if things break right, Las Vegas set all of their lines well above the Warriors’ 50.5 last year. Houston is the most enticing of that bunch, at 54.5, given the general stability of its roster, James Harden’s ascendance as an MVP candidate, the something-for-not-much addition of Ty Lawson, and the reasonable assumption that Dwight Howard won’t miss half the season again due to injury. But, all things considered, 54.5 is still a high enough bar to inspire a little second-guessing.
The next tier down—teams with over/under lines in the 40s—is also lacking an obvious candidate as the “Next Hawks.” Atlanta itself is a prime candidate for regression, Chicago’s personnel isn’t an ideal fit with new coach Fred Hoiberg’s preferred style, and New Orleans and Miami could see injuries limit the scope of their anticipated improvement. Meanwhile, Toronto, Washington and Memphis just didn’t have the type of game-changing summers that would really foretell an unexpected run at 60 wins.
However, there are some interesting options when it comes to teams that might crush below-average expectations simply by being average. In the West, Sacramento’s line is set at 30.5 wins following a 29-win season that saw three coaches, 23 games missed by DeMarcus Cousins, and 37 games missed by Darren Collison. That’s just an extra 1.5 wins even after an off-season that saw investments in Kosta Koufos, Marco Belinelli and Rajon Rondo, plus the lottery selection of Willie Cauley-Stein. While the Kings’ ongoing chaos, never-ending management shake-ups and horrific trade with Philadelphia made them summer losers, they did spend enough to expect a bump up the standings. One number to keep an eye on with Sacramento: lineups that included Collison, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay and Cousins posted a tidy +11.9 net rating in 2014-15, although injuries only allowed them to appear together in 32 games. Give that group reasonably good health, throw in Belinelli, add the general competence of George Karl, subtract the general incompetence of Tyrone Corbin (7-21 as interim coach in 2014—15), and garnish with the continued improvement from their 25-year-old franchise center and this group might just make a run at .500. Obviously this selection needs a disclaimer: anything and everything is in play for a team with so many volatile and stubborn personalities. As dicey as “it couldn’t get any worse” sounds for a team with the Kings’ track record, that label does seem to apply this year.
Sacramento’s sister team in the Eastern Conference is Charlotte, who won 33 games last season and has a 32.5 line this year. The Hornets fell a whopping 12 wins short of their 2014-15 preseason line, thanks to an all-time atrocious season from much-ballyhooed newcomer Lance Stephenson and significant injury issues to key starters (Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist combined to miss 63 games). Trading away Stephenson is the purest form of addition by subtraction: the Hornets went 13-11 last season when he played 10 or fewer minutes (including DNPs). Nicolas Batum’s arrival, on the other hand, is addition by addition, as he should bring playmaking and some outside shooting that’s been sorely lacking in recent years.
Other reasons for optimism: Cody Zeller should show continued progress in year three, Jefferson and Batum are both in contract years, and coach Steve Clifford coaxed 43 wins out of similar talent just two seasons ago. Kidd-Gilchrist’s propensity for injuries is concerning, as he sustained a dislocated shoulder in his first preseason game (Update: Kidd-Gilchrist is reportedly out for six months, which pulls down their ceiling considerably), but there’s still plenty of room for Charlotte to overachieve relative to its line. Indeed, 32.5 feels like an over-correction by the bookmakers.
2. Which team will fall short of its over/under line by the most wins?
Knicks under 31.5. Can Phil Jackson go back-to-back? Last year, the Knicks won just 17 games, falling an eye-popping 23.5 games short of their 40.5 preseason line. For comparison’s sake, New York was nearly twice as disappointing as the next biggest disappointment (Oklahoma City fell 12.5 games short of its 57.5 line). That’s not easy! Despite a mediocre off-season, the Knicks’ 2015—16 line is 14.5 games better than their win total from last year, which marks the largest anticipated improvement this season (Oklahoma City is second at 12.5, Minnesota is third at 9.5).
To be clear, New York should definitely be better than last year—just not 14.5 wins better. There are too many “buts” with this group. The return of Carmelo Anthony is certainly promising, but remember that the Knicks went just 10-30 with their All-Star forward in the lineup last year. Center Robin Lopez represents a clear defensive upgrade inside, but he’s not good enough to do it by himself, he’s had numerous injury issues over the years, and he’s only averaged 30+ minutes once in his career. Coach Derek Fisher isn’t a rookie any more, but it’s still not clear that he has any clue what he’s doing. Newcomers Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams are better than the anonymous D-Leaguers that New York rolled out last season, but the Knicks’ talent remains among the weakest in the NBA.
That last point is particularly important. In 2014—15, six teams fell at least 10 wins short of their preseason lines: Minnesota, L.A. Lakers, Denver, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and New York. Significant injuries to key players were a common thread among all six teams. While injuries are inherently unpredictable, New York’s lack of depth at multiple positions, including the one and the five, make it especially susceptible to an ugly season should the injury bug bite.
Another intriguing “way under” picks is Dallas at 38.5. The Mavericks hit the triple crown when it comes to taking a big step back this year: they lost tons of talent this summer (Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis, Al-Farouq Aminu), they have health and/or concerns regarding all of their key players (Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons), and they simply lack the depth to adjust if injuries strike and/or persist. One other wild card is the Mavericks’ 2016 first-round pick, which they must convey to the Celtics if it falls outside the top seven. Although owner Mark Cuban isn’t accustomed to losing, he’s also smart enough to see the value in pursuing a strategic tank down the stretch if the wheels start to fall off early.
3. Aside from your picks for the first two questions, if you had to bet your house on a single over/under, which team would it be?
Celtics over 42.5. Even though the Celtics were one of last year’s biggest surprises, winning 40 games to best their 2014—15 preseason line by 13.5 games, their upward trajectory feels genuine and sustainable. This year’s line projects only modest improvement, at 2.5 games above their 2014—15 win total, and those observers anticipating regression might want to think twice.
There’s a lot to like. First, Rajon Rondo represents addition by subtraction in a very Lance Stephenson-esque way: Boston was 8-14 with Rondo in the lineup before he was traded to Dallas in December. Second, picking up Isaiah Thomas from Phoenix at the deadline was a clear win: the Celtics were 14-7 overall and they lost just three times to non-playoff teams with Thomas in the lineup. Third, take Boston’s many mid-season moves together and the result is very promising: Boston posted a top-10 net rating and a top-10 defensive rating after the All-Star break, while their offense also improved from 23rd before the break to 16th after. Fourth, Boston added veterans Amir Johnson and David Lee to a young frontcourt this summer, a clear net win when compared to the departures of Gerald Wallace and Brandon Bass.
If there’s a knock on the Celtics, it’s that the roster lacks A-list talent and is too heavy in B-minus players. There’s really no getting around that synopsis: Boston’s most promising young player, Marcus Smart, is an unlikely candidate for a game-changing breakout in year two, and intra-squad scrimmages between the first and second unit are probably more competitive than most coaches would like. At the same time, Celtics coach Brad Stevens is a sharp, forward-thinking, analytical mind; he’s not the type of coach who makes you shudder when the words “lineup management” are mentioned in the same sentence as his name. After making the playoffs last season, the Celtics look poised to chase victories rather than ping pong balls this season. Their path to 43 wins seems eminently achievable when you consider that they get 12 games against Atlantic Division cupcakes (Brooklyn, New York, and Philadelphia).
Another team I like to go over for many of the same reasons: Utah at 40.5. The Jazz’s late-season improvement following the Enes Kanter trade is well-documented (they posted the best record and top net rating of any lottery team after the All-Star break). Ditto for Rudy Gobert’s impact on their defensive efficiency numbers (No. 1 defense after the All-Star break). The Gordon Hayward/Derrick Favors/Gobert core trio deserves more credit than it gets, and the Jazz welcome back shooting guard Alec Burks from injury this year too. Although point guard is the obvious position of weakness, especially after the loss of Dante Exum, GM Dennis Lindsey suggested at media day that he is open to pursuing mid-season upgrades if Trey Burke continues to falter. Given the lay of the land in the West, the door is wide open for the Jazz to chase the eighth seed; I expect Quin Snyder to beat expectations for a second straight season, delivering somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 wins.
4. Which over/under line was the most surprising?
Lakers at 29.5. After winning just 21 games and posting a franchise-worst winning percentage last season, the Lakers’ line comes in 8.5 games higher. Las Vegas only gave three teams bigger bumps: New York, Oklahoma City and Minnesota.
The Thunder’s bump is obvious (Kevin Durant). The Timberwolves’ bump is defensible (growth from Andrew Wiggins, the return of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and eventually Nikola Pekovic, plus the additions of Kevin Garnett, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nemanja Bjelica). The Knicks’ bump seems overly generous (see above).
The Lakers’ bump, however, is outright mystifying and is probably explained by the fanbase’s massive popularity and/or general misguided faith in Kobe Bryant. The basic question is this: Did L.A. really solve any of its fundamental problems this summer?
Did their defense improve? The Lakers added just one impact defender, Roy Hibbert, to a team that ranked second-worst on that end last season. Hibbert faces regular mismatch issues, has seen his production slip in recent years, openly admitted to confidence problems, requires concessions on the offensive end when he’s on the court, and certainly can’t fix this all by himself. Then, go right down the list: D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Lou Williams and Julius Randle all project as minus defenders. And those are just the Lakers players that you’ve actually heard of.
Did their offense improve? It should be more interesting, with Russell providing some highlights and Bryant and Randle back in the fold, but there’s no guarantee that it will be much more potent. In the pace-and-space age, the Lakers are sticking to a pound-and-chuck approach, with Bryant, Young, and Williams all too eager to go one-on-one at the expense of the team’s efficiency numbers. Russell will surely go through rookie struggles, assuming he’s given big minutes like he should be, and Randle hasn’t yet figured out what type of player he is going to be at the professional level.
Would any Western Conference team trade rosters with the Lakers? Highly doubtful. Portland surely prefers Damian Lillard to anything on L.A.’s roster, and Minnesota can expect more from the Andrew Wiggins/Karl Anthony-Towns combination this season than Russell/Randle, to say nothing of their other pieces.
Did their depth of talent improve? Not really. Hibbert, Williams and Brandon Bass arrive, but Ed Davis, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Carlos Boozer and Ronnie Price all left. That doesn’t exactly qualify as a talent influx. Honestly, the best thing that can be said about the Lakers’ summer is that they didn’t make any disastrous investments that they will regret later.
Did their coaching improve? Nope, still Byron Scott.
Add all of that up, and the Lakers will be hard-pressed to get to 25 wins, much less 30 wins. If things go as poorly as expected, L.A. would be wise to usher in a full youth movement down the stretch, even if a total commitment to developing Russell, Clarkson and Randle leads to a late-season hit in the standings. Although L.A.’s line did come down three wins from this time last season, Las Vegas was still too generous given where Sacramento (30.5), Brooklyn (28.5), Denver (26.5), Portland (26.5) and Minnesota (26.5) landed.
5. Would you bet the over or the under on the Warriors at 60.5 wins and the Sixers at 21.5?
Warriors over 60.5 and Sixers under 21.5. Golden State’s line looks particularly treacherous. Since 2000, only two teams have won 61+ games in back-to-back seasons: the Celtics in 2008 and 2009 and the Cavaliers in 2009 and 2010. The Lakers didn’t do it. The Spurs didn’t do it. The Thunder didn’t do it. The Suns didn’t do it. The Mavericks didn’t do it (they came within one game). Indeed, no team in the West has done it.
And yet the Warriors definitely have a great shot at it. Like the Jazz, who were the last West team to accomplish this feat in 1997 and 1998, the Warriors are an extraordinarily stable, veteran-laden team with great coaching, a machine-like offense, and excellent chemistry.
There are no obvious causes for pessimism. Will their injury luck run out? Maybe, but the Warriors take a Spurs-like approach to managing minutes and they boast a strong bench. Were their 67 wins deceiving? Not especially, as the Warriors lapped the field when it came to point differential and posted fantastic efficiency marks on both sides of the ball. Are any of Golden State’s key players about to fall off? Doubtful. Their three most important players—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—are all on the right side of their growth curves, and coach Steve Kerr has quality back-up options at all five positions. There’s also a pretty good chance that the Warriors will win 37+ games at home thanks to the Oracle crowd, making the road to 61 that much easier.
The best argument for the Warriors to come back to the pack might be that they went a combined 16-6 against the Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Thunder and Spurs last season. Those six teams all figure to be in the West playoffs in 2016, and all six enter the season feeling like they improved compared to last year (some dramatically so). Regression was already virtually guaranteed—only the 1996 and 1997 Bulls won 67+ games in consecutive seasons—and the Warriors are pretty clearly looking at a tougher road next season. Does that fact, plus a little post-championship relaxation, plus a night-to-night target on their back, plus the possibility Golden State coasts down the stretch, equal seven fewer victories? It’s close. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I would take the under if I had to (and close my eyes every time Curry lined up another three-pointer).
As for the Sixers, who freaking knows? Last year, 15.5 wins seemed like a lot and they squeaked out 18, despite trading Michael Carter-Williams for a pick at the deadline and getting only a half-season of quality production from delayed rookie Nerlens Noel. This year, 21.5 wins (again) seems like a lot.
Philadelphia has the least proven point guard rotation in a league dominated by that position. Jahlil Okafor will only help the league’s worst offense, but one-and-done big men rarely make a major immediate impact and often struggle to stay on the court for 82 games. There are legitimate concerns about how well Noel and Okafor will fit together in the short term: Noel’s limited range will cramp Okafor’s low-post offense, and Okafor’s underwhelming defensive work may cut into Noel’s effectiveness on that end. Together, they look better than Philadelphia’s frontcourt at any point over the last two seasons, but skepticism and patience are in order for the time being.
Adding to this general uncertainty is GM Sam Hinkie’s total willingness to make trades for the future. Hinkie is the last GM to cling to face-saving progress, and if Philadelphia does start unexpectedly strong that may simply mean there are more tradeable pieces at the deadline.
Although I expect the Sixers to make a strong push towards this year’s line, thanks largely to coach Brett Brown’s guidance, they still have the NBA’s worst roster from 1-to-15. They are also unlikely to seek mid-season trades that significantly impact that status positively. In the final analysis, four teams finished under 21 wins last season, and the Sixers have as good a chance as any team to be the league’s worst outfit this season. For that reason, I’ll go barely under, hesitantly.
• MORE NBA: SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2016
If you’re looking for more over/under discussion, check out picks and analysis from CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore (here), NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman (here), FoxSports.com’s Fred Katz (here) and RealGM.com’s Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux (here).