Once again we have an ultra-competitive Western Conference, where 48 wins might not be enough to to get into the playoffs, and a handful of teams have a legitimate shot at the top spot. Here’s my forecast, along with my picks against the Vegas Win-Totals Lines. Regular readers know I’ve had pretty good success with these historically, and particularly recently, going 10-1-1 the last two seasons. But I found only two lines to bet this season, because I demand a lot of edge, and I just don’t see it this year. Sometimes the bookies are pretty good.
[edit: I’m now betting THREE Western Conference lines, going over on the TWolves.]
I’ll take a look at the Eastern Conference lines in the next few days, to see if there’s some money laying on the ground. If I make any additional picks, I’ll put them in the comments to this post.
[edit: I’ve made three Eastern Conference picks, plus a bonus bet. Details are in Comment 9.]
1) THUNDER (57.5 wins — No bet): The Thunder won 59 games last season with Westbrook in and out of the lineup, and never 100%. I expect them to be better this season. So why no bet? Simply not enough edge. There’s nothing about this team the bookies don’t know.
Monster in the middle Steven Adams could take a giant leap forward. There’s still a big question mark at the two guard. Jeremy Lamb disappointed last season. Sefolosha is gone, replaced by old friend Anthony Morrow, which will have a big effect on the defense. But if Westbrook can be persuaded to find Morrow when he’s open, he could have the best season of his career.
Chocolate Rain, Chocolate Rain.
As great as the Spurs were last year, they might not have gotten out of the West if Ibaka hadn’t gotten injured. The Thunder are Spurs kryptonite. I make them favorites to get to the Finals.
2) SPURS (57 wins — No bet): Still the best in the West so long as the wheels don’t fall off. They will fall off sometime, right?
That’s why I think you should lay off the 57 win line, even though the Spurs won 62 last year. Strictly a bet on injuries and age, and Pop can’t be relied upon to give a shit about the regular season seeding.
3) CLIPPERS (55.5 wins — No bet): The Clippers picked up some major help on the frontline in the form of stretch-five Spencer Hawes. They also picked up old friend Ekpe Udoh — it will be interesting to see what Doc Rivers makes of him after 2 seasons of injuries and languishing in Milwaukee. And Glen Davis came into camp much fitter than last season.
Jordan Farmar replaces Darren Collison as the backup pg behind Chris Paul. Farmar was a revelation last year, a much improved player before he got derailed by injury. This could be a slight downgrade, but is outweighed by the improvement in the frontline.
Small forward could be a hole. There’s aging, oft-injured Matt Barnes, and… who? Turkoglu? No, he can’t guard anyone. He’s a stretch-four. Chris Douglas-Roberts? It’s likely that their playoff small forward will be a vet they pick up at the trading deadline.
With the frontline help and a year with Doc Rivers under their belt, it’s possible that the Clips could take a step forward this season. I don’t see enough edge to bet this line, though.
4) Grizzlies (49 wins — OVER): The Griz are as far from a Nellieball team as it is possible to get. So why do I have such a weakness for betting them over? Possibly because I’m not as biased towards Nellieball as people think — I’m biased towards teams being played in the system that best fits their roster. But mostly because Vegas consistently underrates them. Or, more accurately, because their tiny market means they have fewer wildly optimistic fans pushing their Vegas line up than other teams do (see, Lakers).
What are the reasons why the Grizzlies could be undervalued? To start with, they managed to get to 50 wins last season after a horrific start. They had the best record of any team in the NBA after the all-star break. Rookie coach Dave Joerger struggled with the system and his veterans to begin the season last year. He’s a season wiser, and those issues have been worked out. Also Marc Gasol and Mike Conley missed significant time last year with injury, and they’re healthy now.
What else? New addition Vince Carter will add his firepower to Courtney Lee’s behind Tony Allen at shooting guard. Quincy Pondexter appears ready to move Tayshaun Prince to the bench. Stretch-fours Jon Leuer and Earl Clark — not to mention Michael Beasley [edit: Gone to China] — should earn significant minutes behind Zach Randolph, with Ed Davis no longer in the picture. They have solid veterans at backup center — Kosta Koufos — and backup point guard — Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih.
Depth and outside shooting used to be problems for the Griz. No longer. This is the deepest and most balanced Grizzlies team I’ve seen.
5) Rockets (49.5 wins — OVER): The Rockets won 54 games last season. Why are they being disrespected this season? It probably has something to do with them losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in the offseason. And also with them getting waxed by the Blazers in the playoffs — fan perceptions help set the line.
I think the Rockets are greatly undervalued, for several reasons. First and foremost, according to reports, Dwight Howard is now completely healthy and looking like his beastly self in the preseason. If true, that could be huge. Howard barely looked 80% to me last season.
Secondly — and I’m alone in the world in this, I know — I think the loss of Chandler Parsons will wind up helping the Rockets. Parsons is a terrific young player with a very high ceiling, but he wasn’t the right fit for the Rockets. The Rockets’ most glaring weakness last season was that they didn’t have a wing stopper. James Harden and Parsons were basically sieves on the wing. The player that the Rockets have replaced Parsons with, Trevor Ariza, is just that stopper. He is one of the toughest wing defenders in the league. And he had a breakthrough season last year shooting the three.
Ariza could have a profound effect on the Rockets’ team identity. I think you need three great defenders on the floor to play great team defense, and when you add Ariza to Howard and Patrick Beverly, that’s exactly what the Rockets now have. I think the pundits will be shocked by the Rockets’ transformation at the defensive end — in one season they will go from being one of the worst defensive teams in the league to one of the best. Ariza is the missing piece and tipping point, just as Andre Iguodala was for the Warriors.
And don’t be surprised if James Harden suddenly becomes a much better defender himself now that he’s surrounded by great defenders, and sees the point. I predicted that would happen with David Lee last season — correctly — and the same thing will happen with Harden.
When you add Terrence Jones, the 22 year old stretch-four who had a breakthrough year starting at power forward last season, I think we’re looking at one of the best two-way starting fives in the NBA.
The biggest concern I see for the Rockets (besides head coach Kevin McHale), is their lack of depth on the bench with the departures of Asik and Lin. The intriguingly talented but erratic Donatas Motiejunas may see some time at stretch-five. If Ish Smith is really their backup point guard, that’s a major problem.
The Rockets will be players at the trade deadline. I’m putting my trust in Darryl Morey, and betting the over.
6) WARRIORS (51.5 wins — No bet): I was wildly optimistic at the start of last season, gleefully betting the Warriors over 49.5 wins, and predicting them to contend for the first seed in the Western Conference. So what’s changed?
First off, the Western Conference changed: The Spurs big three somehow proved healthier last season than the year before, and Russell Westbrook is now fully back for the Thunder. The Clippers, Grizzlies and Rockets look significantly improved, and are difficult obstacles as well. In short, the road to the top of the Western Conference no longer looks as open as it did last season.
Secondly, for the third time in five years, GM Joe blew up his coaching staff, and for the third time in five years, he hired a rookie head coach. New system (as yet undetermined), new evaluations of the roster, new game-coach learning curve, blah, blah, blah. Everything Warriors fans are so familiar with.
Third, and for the fifth year in a row, the Warriors have a brand new bench. Without seeing how the injuries to Ezeli, Rush and Livingston shake out, and seeing the system and rotations Kerr will employ, it is nearly impossible to visualize how the Warriors bench will perform. It could be improved, or it could once again be one of the worst in the league. Which is something of a GM Joe specialty at this point.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the Warriors have new injury concerns. I’m particularly worried about David Lee and Andre Iguodala, but in fact, these concerns permeate the entire roster. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a roster so reliant on so many chronically injured players.
In short, there’s too much uncertainty surrounding the Warriors for me to be confident of a prediction. They are an extremely talented team, in their starters at least, that has the potential to blow away the Vegas line if everything comes together. But as I see it, there’s also a significant possibility of everything falling apart.
It basically comes down to this in my book:
If the Warriors are mostly healthy, push the tempo and emphasize early offense, and have a pick and roll half-court system: OVER.
If the Warriors’ recent injury trend persists, they play at a middle of the pack pace, and go to a triangle half-court system: UNDER.
I hope to cover these issues in more depth before the season starts. (But unfortunately, there’s some uncertainty about my season as well.)
7) BLAZERS (49 wins — No bet): This is a wildly talented team that won 54 games last season. So why not bet the over? I don’t know, I’m just not feeling it at this price.
The Blazers are heavily reliant on LaMarcus Aldridge, and I have injury concerns about him. I’m also not sure the oft-injured Robin Lopez can duplicate his great run of last season, and I’m not a fan of the Chris Kaman pickup. I positively hate the Steve Blake pickup. He’ll be much more willing to feed LA than Damian Lillard is, but Blake will be chiefly running the second unit — at a slow deliberate pace.
And the West can be a tough place to get a win. I was much more comfortable betting the Blazers at over 38.5 wins last season.
8) MAVS (49.5 wins — No bet): The Mavs underwent a radical makeover this offseason. Gone are 3 starters, Sam Dalembert, Shawn Marion and Jose Calderon, and their sixth man, Vince Carter. Joining the team are Tyson Chandler, Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Raymond Felton, Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva.
Wow, looks like an upgrade at every position to me. So why are the Mavs only forecast a half win better than their 49 win performance last season? Questions of fit and chemistry I suppose. Tyson Chandler — if healthy — will be a big help to their defense, but if Chandler Parsons starts at SF, I’m not sure if Bill Russell could help this team. The Nelson/Ellis backcourt will be one of the smallest in the league, and even though I think Monta’s defense is greatly underrated, this backcourt can’t stop anyone. Add Nowitzki and Parsons, and you have to wonder whether the Mavs can hold anyone under 110. Not a stopper to be seen.
The Mavs do have stoppers on the roster though: Aminu and Jae Crowder. If you start one of them and bring Parsons off the bench their team starts to make more sense. But I’m not sure if the Mavs paid Parsons near-max to make him their sixth man.
Hard to overstate the importance of Tyson Chandler to the Mavs’ season. If he stays healthy and has gas in the tank, they could be very good. But if he goes down, watch out. The only other real center on the roster is Bernard James, who barely plays. Brandan Wright appears to be the main backup center. But Charlie Villanueva, who’s a lot like Mo Speights in size, shooting ability, and looniness, might be called upon to play a big role.
Trust in Rick Carlisle? There’s a ton of talent on the Mavs this year. But also a ton of questions, particularly on defense.
9) SUNS (44.5 — No bet): The surprising Suns won 48 games last year, and I’m tempted to bet the over simply because I love what Jeff Hornacek is doing with them, and they’re going to be one of the most entertaining teams in the league to watch. I’ve been in Phoenix the last three weeks, and virtually every day the story in the newspaper has to do with Hornacek being upset that his players aren’t pushing the pace enough. Or Hornacek instructing his team in the fine art of running after made baskets.
The Suns added jitterbug Isaiah Thomas to their team in the offseason, and it’s safe to say their backcourt, with Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and the surprising Gerald Green will give teams fits. Teams like the Warriors, especially, that lack small and quick guards.
The concern is the frontcourt, and the particular concern is the loss of Channing Frye. I’m dubious that Markieff Morris and new addition Anthony Tolliver can completely fill Frye’s shoes, because what made Frye so special was not merely his ability to play stretch-four, where he started, but his ability to play stretch-FIVE in crunch-time. He’s two inches taller than Morris, and a shotblocker.
10) PELICANS (43 wins — no bet): The Pelicans starting five will look pretty good to some on paper. Omer Asik, Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday. AD is a monster, and my previous injury concerns for him are alleviated by the acquisition of Asik at center. This is perhaps the scariest defensive front line in basketball. Ryan Anderson’s stretch capabilities, if he’s healthy, will complement Asik and AD beautifully.
Holiday is working his way back from a significant injury, but my chief concerns lie with Gordon and Evans. I’m skeptical that Gordon will ever be the player he once was, and as everyone knows, I despise Tyreke Evans’ game. Selfish, no court vision, bad outside shot, no defensive desire.
Another big concern is the bench: I don’t see anyone there.
The Pelicans are improved, but don’t yet have enough to contend for the playoffs in the West.
11) DENVER NUGGETS (41.5 wins — No bet) The addition of Aaron Afflalo might help this team, if he returns to playing the defense he used to play before he got paid. But I’m skeptical of the Nuggets. I’m skeptical of the return to health of Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and JaVale McGee. Heck, I’m skeptical of a 100% healthy JaVale McGee.
I’m skeptical of the roster construction. How can Faried and Gallinari play at the same time? A reconstructed Gallinari at three? Oh, the humanity.
And I’m skeptical of Brian Shaw. I think he’s a mismatch to this roster.
I’m tempted to bet under, but this was once a 57 win team, give or take an Iguodala for Afflalo swap. I’ll stay away, and regret it later.
AND THE REST:
TWolves (26.5 wins — Hmmmmm): There are a lot of decent vets on this TWolves team, and I could see them crushing this line if Flip Saunders plays to win. Rubio, Pekovic, Thad Young, Kmart, Barea, Budinger, Brewer, Mo Williams.
But the TWolves are loaded with promising youngsters who demand playing time: Andrew Wiggins, obviously, but also Anthony Bennett, Gorgui Dieng and (possibly) young Zach LaVine.
I see Flip as a likely seller at the trade deadline, and that and the fact that I’m not interested in researching this situation keeps me from betting. Others may like this bet though.
[Edit: I AM going to bet the over on the Wolves after all. CosmicBalloon’s comment @7 helped convince me. That and putting myself in Flip’s shoes: I believe he will want to hold this situation together for Ricky Rubio. This team has the talent to win games, and this 26.5 line seems awful low.]
KINGS (29.5 wins — No bet): I will never take the over on any team that has either DeMarcus Cousins or Rudy Gay. A team that has both….? And on the other side, I’m not real interested in fading a mere 29.5 wins.
I’m curious about Stauskas, but the rest of the team is wretched. I’m a seller of McLemore.
JAZZ (24.5 wins — No bet): Quin Snyder? That will be fun. Trey Burke versus Dante Exum? Or will they play together? Either way, that will be fun too.
I like Gordon Hayward, but Gordon Hayward trying to live up to a max contract? That won’t be fun.
With Marvin Williams gone, are they planning on playing Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors together on the frontline again? That won’t be fun, either. They’re both centers.
Looking at the rest of the roster, I have no clue what the Jazz are doing, and don’t care.
LAKERS (32 wins — No bet): What the heck are the Lakers doing? This is one of the worst rosters I have seen in my life. They appear to have cornered the market on mediocre PFs. Is Boozer starting? I think rookie Julius Randle will get eaten up, like Thomas Robinson did.
The Lakers don’t have anyone other than Robert Sacre listed at center. I guess PF Jordan Hill will be playing center. And PF Jeremy Tyler. I forsee spacing difficulties.
The ghost of Steve Nash is playing pg. His backup is Jeremy Lin. Both pick and roll point guards. Do they have a center to play pick and roll with? A spaced floor?
The ghost of Kobe will be ball-hogging his way into the record books, forcing Nash/Lin off the ball. Any chemistry problems forseeable? Also, minor point, Lin sucks off the ball.
And what position will Kobe be playing? He can’t guard twos anymore, even if he were still interested in playing defense, which he’s not.
And when Nick Young returns, will he be playing alongside Kobe and Nash? This could be not only the worst defensive team in the Western Conference, but the worst defensive team in Western Conference history.
I would dearly love to bet against the Lakers this year. Particularly if you assume that the bookies think the real number is 28, and stupid Lakers money (the stupidest money in existence) is pushing the line up, which I do.
But 32 wins doesn’t leave a lot of cushion.
And watching the Lakers lose is its own reward.