After an NBA off-season filled with big changes, numerous marquee names find themselves in new situations at the start of the 2016–17 season. How will Russell Westbrook fare without Kevin Durant? How will teams find a way to beat the Durant-led Warriors? Will Ben Simmons play in his rookie season after suffering a foot injury?
SI’s Jeremy Woo and Rohan Nadkarni did their best to answer these questions (and more) with a round of over-unders.
Russell Westbrook points, rebounds and assists combined per game: Over/Under 45
Rohan Nadkarni: Over. I fully expect Russ to win the scoring title this season, and begin gunning at a ridiculous rate. Last season, Westbrook averaged 41.7 points, rebounds and assists combined per game, and that was while averaging a not-out-of-this-world 23.5 points. Russ is going to score at least 30 points per game without Kevin Durant to hold him back, and the Thunder are going to need him to carry the offensive load. Even if his assists drop because Andre Roberson is still bricking four threes a game, Russ is going to get his this season. And it’s going to be incredible to watch. In fact, with the Warriors creating a crazily unfair superteam and the East having only one serious contender for the seventh season in a row, Russ’s chase for counting stats may be the only drama the NBA provides this season.
Jeremy Woo: Under. Well, it’s totally too early in this column to push, but can I push? I get the enthusiasm about Russell Westbrook evolving into basketball Jason Statham, but look ... he’s never had to go a full year without Kevin Durant. That can’t hurt his counting stats too much, but seems certain to impact his efficiency to some degree. You can point to 2014–15 (the year KD was mostly out) as a better barometer, when he shot 42% from the floor and averaged 28 points. There was that two-week stretch where he was absolutely unguardable and played with a broken face. And regardless, he totaled a score of 44 points-assists-rebounds that year. It’s nice that Russ got double-digit dimes last year, but let’s just remember for a second that the person those passes were mostly going to is no longer on this team. There are a lot of reasons to think 45 is a tricky number.
I would love to see a 30/8/8 season from Westbrook, but the last person to do that was Michael Jordan in 1989, before him it was Tiny Archibald, and before that, Oscar Robertson did it six different times. Basically, if he manages to do it, we’re talking Hall of Fame territory.
Warriors wins: Over/Under 69.5
RN: Over. The Warriors will win exactly 70 games this season, so bookmark this page for when they win only 56 and rest all their guys down the stretch. In all seriousness, the Dubs don’t need to break records to win (at least) 70 for the second year in a row.
They won’t have to chase 73 to win 70. With Durant in tow and a decently filled out roster, I just don’t see how the Warriors lose many close games. Any time a team is breathing down Golden State’s neck, Steve Kerr merely has to call on the death lineup, which is going to be so ridiculously difficult to guard this season it needs a new name. The key here will be health. If the Warriors avoid any serious injuries, their relative lack of depth won’t be exposed.
JW: Under. This is obviously not an indictment of Golden State’s title hopes, but I’m hedging cautiously on wins because I have a feeling the team will, too. The Warriors are probably under more pressure than any team that lost in the Finals, and if we’ve learned anything from LeBron's past, it’s that the best thing they can do is say screw it and prove everybody wrong in June. They should win the West comfortably enough, so expect a lot of rotating days of rest for KD, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Winning 70 games is very hard to do, and we saw the ill-effects of the record push last postseason. I feel good about the Warriors finishing in 65–66 win territory, and so should they.
Ben Simmons games played: Over/Under 41.5
RN: Over. But just barely. Like, maybe Simmons plays only 42 games. I basically never want to agree with Woo. Truthfully, though, I think Bryan and Jerry Colangelo will be a little more sensitive to making sure Simmons plays after what’s already happened to Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel. We still don’t have all the details on Simmons. Is it a Jones fracture? How severe is the injury? I think Philly should obviously be very cautious here. But if Simmons is ready to play, I don’t think the Sixers will then hold him out of the lineup forever because of the optics of another full-blown tank. Simmons can be given three full months to heal and still return at the beginning of January.
JW: Under. I'm hopeful Simmons is going to be fine, and if anything, it might help the whole situation that this likely dims his hype down a little bit. That’s a separate issue. There’s just no way to feel bullish about the Sixers taking any type of risks with him, even with the Colangelo family handling 'The Process'. Our line lands in mid-January, and I’m thinking around the All-Star break is a pretty safe bet. In the meantime, let’s just hope Simmons is half as entertaining as Joel Embiid is on the Internet.
LeBron subtweets: Over/Under 6.5
RN: Over. I’m clearly the optimist here. First of all, as long as J.R. Smith is unsigned, LeBron will have plenty to subtweet about. Secondly, I think the lack of pressure on LeBron actually opens him up to subtweet even more. What does he care about anymore? He won’t be scrutinized like he was last season. Cleveland, a big underdog last season, will face even longer odds this year. This gives LeBron license to go off!
What does no pressure mean for LeBron? It means he can have fun on social media without any worries, because he already has the ring in Cleveland. I’m expecting him to take thinly veiled shots left and right, because he’s getting older and has nothing left to prove. I’m looking forward to an even more unshackled LeBron than we saw after his first championship. This is the most unassailable LeBron has been in his entire career, I hope (and expect!) him to have some fun with it.
JW: Under. Wait, how did I end up taking all four unders? Anyway, I feel extremely good about the idea that the Cavaliers are under the least pressure to repeat of any NBA champion in recent memory. They broke the Cleveland curse! They were the first team to ever come back from down 3–1 in the Finals (sorry Warriors). And given what transpired in free agency with Golden State, nobody’s even truly expecting the Cavs to repeat. They just have to get through the East playoffs again, basically, and then whatever happens is mostly chill. All of the expectations and pressure fall squarely on Kevin Durant and his new friends. That has to be a relief.
What does this mean for LeBron? You can bet there will be some mysterious tweets here and there, but rest comfortably knowing he’s played all these mental tricks on his teammates already. We just watched the Cavs grow up. The social media shade can rest easy... or so I hope.
Projected shooting percentage, in order from highest to lowest: Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler
RN: Butler, Wade, Rondo. Butler is by far the best shooter of the three, so he gets my pick here. Wade has long been able to compensate for his lack of marksmanship from the outside, but he’s also never played with a point guard as shooting challenged as Rondo.
How is this team going to space the floor? Wade apparently is being encouraged to shoot threes, which seems like a risky proposition at best, and at worst it could be the reason his efficiency craters in season No. 14. Although Rondo may be able to squirm his way to the lane, he’s never had anywhere near the kind of offensive game necessary to navigate what will be an extremely tight halfcourt for the Bulls. Though Butler may be the best shooter in the starting five, he won’t exactly be relegated to the corner to shoot open threes. Still, I believe the fact that Butler is entering his prime gives him the edge over his new teammates.
JW: Wade, Rondo, Butler. After mulling this for a bit, I feel oddly comfortable with this. The sequence is tough to peg simply because it’s unclear how all three of these guys fit on a court together, what the Bulls will ask of each player and how that impacts their shot selection.
It boils down to this: 1) I trust Wade’s judgment the most, believe he will play the fewest minutes, and think he actually has a chance to thrive statistically since he won’t shoulder the entire offense. He can pick his spots. 2) I think Rondo has by far the most projectable role based upon the last few years of his career—he’s going to shoot a ton of layups, take only the most open of threes and chuck a few ill-advised midrange J’s when feeling impulsive. There’s some percentage floor in that, even if it’s ugly. 3) I’d bet Butler ends up taking on the most offensive responsibility and is forced out of his comfort zone by the personnel changes. I don’t think he’s a bad three-point shooter, but have a hunch his efficiency takes a small dip based on volume and having to figure out where his shots are going to come from. Jimmy will lead the Bulls in scoring again, but I think he’ll have a tougher time doing it, despite having extra playmakers around him.