The NBA preseason has entered its second week, which means that the sports books have started to hone their 2016-17 over/under win totals for all 30 teams. Here’s the updated rundown released last week, via Westgate SuperBook:
Atlanta Hawks: 44 | Boston Celtics: 52.5 | Brooklyn Nets: 21.5
Charlotte Hornets: 40.5 | Chicago Bulls: 38.5 | Cleveland Cavaliers: 56.5
Dallas Mavericks: 39 | Denver Nuggets: 36.5 | Detroit Pistons: 46
Golden State Warriors: 66.5 | Houston Rockets: 43.5 | Indiana Pacers: 45
Los Angeles Clippers: 54 | Los Angeles Lakers: 25 | Memphis Grizzlies: 43.5
Miami Heat: 35 | Milwaukee Bucks: 36 | Minnesota Timberwolves: 41.5
New Orleans Pelicans: 36.5 | New York Knicks: 40 | Oklahoma City Thunder: 45.5
Orlando Magic: 36.5 | Philadelphia 76ers: OFF | Phoenix Suns: 28.5
Portland Trail Blazers: 45.5 | Sacramento Kings: 32.5 | San Antonio Spurs: 57.5
Toronto Raptors: 50.5 | Utah Jazz: 47.5 | Washington Wizards: 42.5
In case you’re interested, you can look back at SI.com’s picks for 2015–16 (here), 2014–15 (here) and 2013–14 (here). Last season’s picks were mostly on the money: The Kings, Hornets, Celtics, Lakers and Sixers all played out as expected, while the Knicks managed to be less awful than anticipated. The real unpredictability came at the top: Needless to say, SI’s preseason crystal ball didn’t foresee the 73-win Warriors crushing their preseason line by 12.5 games.
Without further ado, let’s dig in and examine the best and worst bets this season (for entertainment purposes only, of course).
1. Which team will beat its over/under line by the most wins?
Suns over 28.5 wins. Five teams beat their preseason over/under lines by nine or more games last year: Portland (+17.5), Charlotte (+15.5), Golden State (+12.5), Detroit (+10.5) and Toronto (+10.5). The overachievers fit into two categories that tend to pop up year after year: 1) Strong teams that smashed reasonably high expectations as they raced to the top of the standings (Warriors, Raptors) and, 2) solid playoff teams that were predicted to be lottery also-rans (Blazers, Hornets, Pistons).
Finding the “Next Golden State” is unlikely, if not impossible; they did set an all-time wins record, after all. But is there a “Next Toronto” among this year’s projected top tier? To review, the Raptors won a franchise-record 56 games thanks to career years from their stars, excellent continuity from the previous season, and reliable balance on both sides of the ball. They overachieved in part because preseason expectations were muted by a first-round exit in the 2015 playoffs and hot seat talk around coach Dwane Casey.
There isn’t an ideal comparison for Toronto’s formula among the teams projected to win between 45 and 50 games this year. Indiana and Oklahoma City underwent radical transformations this summer, Portland would need to take a second consecutive large leap after shocking the world last season, and Detroit is stuck grappling with a serious and late-breaking injury to Reggie Jackson, its indispensable point guard.
The Jazz (pegged to win 47.5 games) might best fit the “Next Raptors” bill: their top players are all on the right side of the age curve, they didn’t suffer any damaging losses to their core, a strong off–season should help improve their offense/defense balance by adding shooting, versatility and experience, and their general expectations were depressed somewhat by a long list of injuries that caused them to miss out on the 2016 playoffs. The problem, however, is that Las Vegas has already sniffed out the Jazz. This year’s preseason line already bakes in some serious improvement: Utah’s 47.5 over/under is seven games higher this year than last year.
So if there’s no perfect “Good to great” leaper, what about the “Bad to good” variety, a la last year’s Blazers, Hornets and Pistons, who were all projected to win below 34 games? First, it should be noted: this year’s lines foresee a much more muddled field with fewer terrible teams. Last year, 11 teams were projected to win fewer than 34 games; this year, that number is just five, including Philadelphia, which is off the board due to a preseason injury to No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons.
From that bottom five, Phoenix might be the smartest pick as an overachiever. For starters, this year’s line is set at 28.5, which is eight games below last year’s mark, even though the vast majority of Phoenix’s core returns. Second, the Suns have taken meaningful steps to address the causes of their nightmare season, trading Markieff Morris, parting ways with Jeff Hornacek, and adding quality veterans in Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. They can also reasonably expect to enjoy improved health, given that Eric Bledsoe missed 51 games, Brandon Knight missed 30 games and Tyson Chandler missed 16 games.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of Phoenix’s ability to make the postseason like Portland, Charlotte and Detroit all did last season. In simplest terms, the Suns are coached by the young and inexperienced Earl Watson and they have numerous young and inexperienced players (Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis) who all deserve some developmental minutes. Still, the Suns’ over/under bar is so low that they can still be quite bad—say, 35 wins—and still go well over.
Finally, Orlando (36.5) exhibits many key “bad to good” qualities. Like the 2016 Hornets, who targeted Nicolas Batum’s offensive versatility, they invested significant off–season resources in crafting a new identity. The new Magic are built around the defensive-minded additions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Like the 2016 Pistons, who started to resemble a Stan Van Gundy team in year two, they are built in the image of their coach. The new Magic will try to grind out wins with just enough ugly offense and a potentially elite defense with talented stoppers both inside and out, much like Frank Vogel’s Pacers squads.
And like the 2016 Blazers, who turned to a host of young and untested rotation players after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, they have a long list of prospects ready to build out their professional résumés. The new Magic should expect far more from Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, and Elfrid Payton, among others, this season. While Orlando still faces serious questions when it comes to offensive firepower, an uninspiring 43- or 44-win season is conceivable and would put them significantly over their line.
When push comes to shove, I’ll go with the Suns to shake off their 23-win nightmare season and make a push towards their 2014-15 performance of 39 wins. It’s hard to believe that their showing last season was anything other than rock bottom.
2. Which team will fall short of its over/under line by the most wins?
Heat under 35 wins. Often, the answer to this question simply boils down to health. Last year’s biggest disappointments, relative to their opening lines, were the Pelicans (17.5 fewer wins than their line), Rockets (13.5), Suns (13.5), Lakers (12.5), Sixers (11.5) and Bucks (10.5). In at least half of those cases, injury issues were the primary driver of the underachieving.
Trying to predict health is tricky business. That said, there is one obvious team that 1) has already sustained a major injury loss, 2) seems to lack the depth to overcome it, and 3) has incentive to blow things up and race to the bottom. That team, of course, is the Heat, who announced last month that Chris Bosh had failed a physical after dealing with blood clots and that the team was “not working towards his return.”
Miami’s over/under line obviously reflects Bosh’s departure. The gap between Miami’s 2015-16 win total of 48 and their current line is 13 wins, by far the biggest in the league. (In fact, no other team’s gap is greater than 10). Betting on the Heat as a big disappointment, then, means betting that they will fall off a cliff even harder than the oddsmakers already expect.
It could definitely happen. The Heat will be trying to get by this season without Bosh (a perennial All-Star), Dwayne Wade (another perennial All-Star), Luol Deng (a former All-Star) and numerous reserves who logged meaningful minutes (including Joe Johnson, Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire). Together, that amounts to thousands and thousands of minutes to fill, with guys like Dion Waiters and Luke Babbitt being asked to help fill them.
In light of all that roster turnover, a max-level mainstay like Hassan Whiteside would usually be asked to step into a larger role. But it’s not clear how equipped Whiteside is to be a lead option, how well he will adjust to a whole new cast of teammates, and how well he will maintain his focus and consistency in year one of a gigantic contract. His numbers are bound to be astronomical, but will they translate to wins?
Heat president Pat Riley was honest about his failure in negotiations with Wade, he seemed ready to part ways with Bosh, and he surely likes his chances in free agency next summer. In other words, this isn’t an executive who is kidding himself, and he’s certainly not one who needs to chase face-saving wins to keep his job. If Whiteside can’t carry the team, or if teams start calling about Goran Dragic, the temptation to chalk this up as a lost season, cash a top lottery pick and play for the summer will be very strong indeed.
In fact, one could argue that landing a top-five pick in this year’s draft would be the single best thing that could happen to the Heat. A top prospect, Justise Winslow, Whiteside and a couple of well-compensated impact free agents doesn’t sound like that bad of a 2017-18 core, does it? Tear it down!
3. Aside from your first two picks, if you had to bet the house on a single over/under, which team would it be?
Knicks under 40 wins. Well, well, well, .500 always seems so attainable in early October, doesn’t it? This year, Las Vegas treated everyone’s favorite big-market teams with the same optimism, setting the preseason lines for both the Knicks and Lakers at eight wins above their respective 2015-16 records.
For the Lakers, the healthy jump makes a certain degree of sense: they managed a miniscule 17 wins last year and solved an enduring identity crisis with Kobe Bryant’s retirement. In addition, they made what appears to be a major coaching upgrade by going from Byron Scott to Luke Walton, they added two capable (if really expensive) veterans in Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, and they can expect significantly better play from 2015 No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell in Year Two. The defense will still be absolutely terrible, the offense is bound to undergo serious swings in effectiveness on a night-to-night basis, and there is always the incentive to tank down the stretch to keep that top-three protected pick one more time. More likely than not, the Lakers will be the worst team in the West again. Nevertheless, 25 wins isn’t all that high of a bar. It’s possible.
It’s harder to see the “glass is half full” view with the Knicks, especially because the bar is significantly higher after they won 32 games last season. Instead of solving or simplifying their identity crisis, they added layers to it: Phil Jackson is still clinging to the Triangle, Jeff Hornacek hasn’t been a Triangle guy, Derrick Rose definitely isn’t a Triangle point guard, and Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis didn’t exactly sound like Triangle converts after last season. Philosophically, it’s still not entirely clear how the Knicks want to play and, by extension, whether their pieces fit that preferred style.
An eight-win projected improvement also suggests an infusion of talent or significant internal development. While New York certainly added names this summer—dealing for Rose and then signing Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings—it’s not clear that their roster took a meaningful step forward. Rose did more harm than good on the court last year and has missed at least 16 games in five straight seasons. Noah, who has already been sidelined with injury during the preseason, is coming off the worst year of his career and a season-ending injury. He also happens to be, all things considered, a clear downgrade from last year’s starting center, Robin Lopez, who played 82 games last season. Lee is a nice complementary player, but he’s only one man and a lateral move away from Arron Afflalo. Jennings, while affordable, also needs to bounce back after a dreadful season following a major injury.
Weighing the incoming talent against the departed talent, New York will only take a step forward if Rose stays healthy and reverses years of fading effectiveness. Good luck and good luck.
4. Which over/under line was the most surprising?
Timberwolves at 41.5 wins. There’s really only one right answer to this question. Consider: The oddsmakers set Minnesota’s line a whopping 12.5 games above their 29 wins in 2015-16, while the next largest projected jump was eight wins for both the Knicks and Lakers.
Surely, intelligent viewers can agree with Las Vegas that Sam Mitchell—how to put this —“wasn’t getting the most out of his talent,” but even a substantial coaching upgrade is unlikely to move the needle that much unless it comes coupled with an infusion of serious talent. Look no further than Stan Van Gundy’s first season in Detroit, when he managed just three more games than the Maurice Cheeks/John Loyer tag team.
The optimism is running thick in Minnesota these days, and rightfully so. Tom Thibodeau brings a clear vision and proven philosophies. Top overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are very good and so young that they should show significant improvement. Kris Dunn has a great shot at winning Rookie of the Year. Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush were good value plays in the off–season.
Can Minnesota surpass .500 for the first time since 2005 (!) and go over on 41.5 this season? Yes, it’s plausible, but that feels an awful lot like a best-case scenario. Towns would need to evolve into an All-Star, Wiggins would need to dramatically improve his efficiency and all-around contributions, Zach LaVine would need to become a passable defender, Dunn would need to play like an average starter, Thibodeau would need to take the team’s defense from terrible to respectable, and there still wouldn’t be much margin for bad luck or injury. Remember, the Timberwolves are not only in the Western Conference but in the Northwest, where three teams expect to be in the playoffs and all five expect to be relevant.
It’s important to note that Towns and Wiggins, the two central ingredients to a major Minnesota push, both played huge minutes last season. Towns appeared in all 82 games, averaging 32 minutes a night, while Wiggins played in 81 and was among the league leaders by playing 35.1 MPG. Ricky Rubio, LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad all had perfect or near perfect attendance in substantial roles last year too. In other words, Thibodeau will try to coax better quality contributions from a very similar cast, without the benefit of welcoming back an impact player from injury or a marquee free agent addition. Maybe Towns turns into such a monster that those extra 12.5 wins just fall from the sky, but maybe not.
I’d take the under, even if it means deflecting “You’re a scrooge!” accusations. Here’s banking on a win total in the high 30s this year followed by the long-awaited trip to the playoffs in 2018.
5. Would you bet the over or the under on the Warriors (66.5 wins) and the Nets (21.5)?
Warriors under 66.5 and Nets over 21.5. No team has ever won 67 games in three straight seasons. In fact, no team has ever come all that close. The only teams besides the 2015 and 2016 Warriors to win 67+ games in back-to-back seasons were the 1996 and 1997 Bulls, and they won “only” 62 games in 1998 to finish off their second three-peat.
As the Warriors proved last season, though, unprecedented and impossible are two very different things.
Can Golden State become the first team to do this? Absolutely yes. Imagine if those 1998 Bulls had enjoyed the benefit of a Kevin Durant-like fortification. Say, if Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone or David Robinson had parachuted in to help Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. That team is getting 67. For that same reason, these Warriors, armed with two of the top three players and four of the NBA’s top 20, have a shot at 70 or more. That’s especially true if Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all miss 10 or fewer games like they did last season.
Why take the under? Four reasons.
One: Without Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, Golden State’s ability to defend at an elite level requires Green to be healthy. Their margin for error when it comes to his availability is thinner this season.
Two: The newness and the excitement that helped drive the chase for 73 isn’t going to be there this season. On the contrary, boredom and complacency are going to be more of an issue, especially because there doesn’t appear to be a clear second team to push them like the Spurs did last year.
Three: Strategic rest sounds like it will be a higher priority this season and it really should be. Would it be that crazy to try to avoid playing stars on as many back-to-backs as possible, or to simply shut things down for a week or two in March? No, it wouldn’t, and everyone would understand after Golden State’s health issues in the playoffs last year.
Four: There will be some type of transition period involved in incorporating Durant, resetting the rotations and building familiarity with some of the other new faces. It might not be a long one, but remember these guys are trying to keep up with a team that started 24–0 last year.
The scary thing—for gamblers and for the rest of the NBA—is that Green could miss time, the Warriors could suffer several no-show nights, Steve Kerr could limit Curry and Durant to 75 games apiece, and the Warriors could start 10-4 as they try to figure things out—and yet they could still hit 67 wins! That’s why it’s probably best to just stay away.
As for the Nets, woof. After winning 21 games last season, their 21.5 over/under is basically a referendum on whether they got better or worse. Admittedly, that’s not the easiest question to answer in light of the general anonymity of their roster. An optimist might make this argument: Brook Lopez has held up well for two straight seasons, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looks like a clear plus defender who should easily exceed the 615 minutes he played last season, Jeremy Lin can be counted on to make the most of massive minutes and touches, and the summer was spent adding a whole bunch of veterans who, if clearly unspectacular, are also NBA quality. Trevor Booker, Randy Foye, Greivis Vasquez, and Luis Scola aren’t going to sell many tickets or jerseys, but they’re also not the 2013 Sixers… or the 2014 Sixers… or the 2015 Sixers.
A pessimist would counter by noting that a Lopez injury or midseason trade would instantly make 21.5 seem like an impossibly high mountaintop.
It’s worth noting that Brooklyn has every incentive to win rather than tank, as it must swap first-round picks with Boston this year. That fact could well decide this over/under, as extended rests for Lopez and Lin in April could easily have stalled out the season at, say, 17 wins. As it stands, I like the Nets to be an exceedingly unwatchable surprise that goes just over the line.