Sunday, May 19, 2024

Western Conference over/under picks: Why the Nuggets still stand out and the older contenders will suffer

Last season, the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference won 45 games. The No. 11 seed won 38. The gap between home-court advantage in the first round and missing the postseason entirely was a measly seven wins. To put that in perspective, only one year earlier, the difference between the No. 1 seeded Phoenix Suns (64-18) and the No. 2 seeded Memphis Grizzlies (56-26) was eight games.

This is the outcome the NBA has spent years pushing for. There are no super teams in the Western Conference. The defending champion Nuggets are the favorites, but more than half of the conference could credibly win it. That makes projecting win totals an extremely difficult task. When team quality is so similar across the board, we have to start looking at everything else to land on the correct picks. Who is going to stay healthy? Who has room for internal improvement? Who is positioned well to make an in-season trade?

That’s what we’re going to figure out. Here are our picks for Western Conference over/unders, starting with the champs and working our way down. One quick note before we get going: we’re going to be referencing Pythagorean records quite a bit below. A team’s Pythagorean record is the record that its point-differential suggests it should have attained, before factoring in the inherent randomness of close games. Historically, this has been far more predictive of future performance than a team’s actual record.

Denver Nuggets

Line: 52.5

2022-23 Wins: 53

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 54

Pick: Over

The unfortunate truth of picking win totals at the top of the standings is that they’re almost always going to come down to health. The best teams in most seasons reach the mid-50s and often race into the 60s, but Vegas almost never projects teams to win that many games because it has to build the risk of injury into its line. 

This is what makes Denver such a tantalizing over bet. Their best player never gets hurt and we’ve already seen what a worst-case injury scenario looks like for the Nuggets. Before last season, Nikola Jokic had never missed more than eight games in a year. He only did so last year because Denver had the No. 1 seed locked up in March. But when Denver was without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in 2022, it still won 48 games. That is functionally this team’s floor. Unless Jokic gets hurt, they’re not going to endure worse health than they did then, and Jokic never gets hurt. Rarely is it “safe” to project a 53-win season, but Denver is as close as it gets.

So what are the arguments against the Nuggets? The biggest is depth. Bruce Brown and Jeff Green were significant parts of last year’s championship roster. They’ve essentially been replaced by Justin Holiday and a bunch of rookies. This is a meaningful downgrade. If you’re betting on the Nuggets, you’re expecting someone like Peyton Watson, Zeke Nnaji or one of their many rookies to pop. That’s fine. Christian Braun did it a year ago. Bones Hyland did it the year before that. Few winning teams are better at finding rookies who can contribute immediately than the Nuggets. Someone is going to be better than we expect.

What about Denver’s late-season swoon? Denver started last season 49-16, which translated to a 58-win pace. They wound up winning only 53 because, frankly, they stopped caring. To some extent, that was based on the competition. The Grizzlies were the No. 2 seed in the West last season and won 51 games. Denver didn’t keep winning because it didn’t need to keep winning. That’s not the case in most seasons. Every other Western Conference No. 2 seed in the past 20 years has either won 54 or more games or hit the shortened-season equivalent. We don’t know who it will be, but someone is going to push Denver for the No. 1 seed this season. That should push the Nuggets to win a few more regular-season games. Considering the health track record we covered earlier, that makes the over the easy play here.

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Phoenix Suns

Line: 52.5

2022-23 Wins: 45

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 47

Pick: Under

Kevin Durant has played in 58% of his team’s games over the past three seasons. Bradley Beal is at around 64%. Even Devin Booker is at less than 80%, and if we dial the counter back a year to account for the eight games Jusuf Nurkic played during the 2019-20 campaign, he’s at a measly 49%. As incredible as this group is going to be offensively when it’s all together, it probably isn’t going to be all together as often as the Suns are hoping.

That’s pretty meaningful when you consider what the rest of this roster looks like. All but six Phoenix roster spots are devoted to players earning minimum salaries. Just ask the 2022 Lakers how that went for them. This trio was more thoughtfully constructed than that one, and Phoenix did an admirable job with the minimum salaries it could offer, but those players are making the minimum for a reason.

Players like Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop are going to be necessary for defense, but their presence is going to make it far easier to load up against whichever Suns stars are healthy. Stopping three of them is impossible. Stopping two with a shooter you can ignore in the corner? That’s plausible. Frank Vogel has an incredible defensive track record. He built it with Anthony Davis and Roy Hibbert at center. Nurkic’s defenses over the past three years have ranked 28th, 29th and 29th. Injuries have sapped him of what little mobility he had.

The Suns are going to be absolutely lethal in a playoff setting, once they’ve trimmed down their rotation and presumably taken whatever measures are necessary to ensure the health of their stars in the spring. But as an October-to-April bet, way too many things would have to go right for this team to win 53 games. If you like the Suns, bet them to win the championship or the conference. 

Golden State Warriors

Line: 48.5

2022-23 Wins: 44

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 46

Pick: Over

Golden State is well-positioned for regular-season winning. Steve Kerr has won 66.5% of his regular-season games in Golden State, which would translate to just under a 55-win pace, and that includes the injury-riddled years between championships. The Warriors had arguably the best five-man unit in basketball last season, as its starters outscored opponents by 145 points in 331 minutes. The only lineup with a wider margin was Denver’s starters, and they needed more than twice as many minutes (706) to eek out the Warriors at plus-201. 

Chris Paul is theoretically the perfect Warriors reserve. Golden State’s one flaw when healthy under Kerr has always been scoring when Stephen Curry sits. Their offense declined by 7.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry last season, and that number has more than doubled in the past. Paul can keep any group of reserves afloat for six to eight minutes per half. The chemistry is going to be better without the cloud of Jordan Poole getting punched hanging over the team. Andrew Wiggins is unlikely to miss half of the season due to a personal issue again. Gary Payton II will help the perimeter defense that killed them last season. They don’t have to waste minutes on James Wiseman anymore. Among the four older Pacific Division contenders, the Warriors are the best regular-season team on paper.

But I’d probably leave all four of them alone when betting win totals. These are teams that prioritize the postseason, after all, and Draymond Green’s sprained ankle is a reminder of just how much can go wrong in the six months that precede it. Golden State currently has five players making up the majority of its payroll, and they have combined for 64 years of NBA experience. There are young players here, and they might get better, but this team is decidedly old, and even if the divide between the older and younger players shrinks with Poole gone, there are still plenty of potential chemistry pitfalls. Golden State is eventually going to have to reckon with the fact that Paul, a future Hall of Famer, probably belongs on its bench. Green’s injury granted him a brief reprieve, but he’ll be back eventually. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are extension-eligible in a year. How will they handle another year on the bench?

So this is an over, but it’s an iffy over. If you expect a smooth regular season from the Warriors, look into seed bets that offer more upside than a simple win total. A strategy I considered was simply betting the under on all four of the older Pacific Division teams (Lakers, Clippers, Warriors and Suns) and just assuming that injuries would take me to 3-1. But someone has to win Western Conference regular-season games, and more often than not, the Warriors do just that.

Los Angeles Lakers

Line: 47.5

2022-23 Wins: 43

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 43

Pick: Under

Our “what percentage of games over the past three years have the stars played” experiment works out similarly for the Lakers and Suns. LeBron James is at roughly 67%, but Anthony Davis is just below 56%. Phoenix chose to invest in a third star. The Lakers spread their wealth to a far deeper roster. The sample from last season isn’t nearly big enough to be reliable, especially given the soft March schedule and the injuries Memphis dealt with in the playoffs. We don’t know if James got foot surgery or not in the offseason, so it’s hard to say how likely the injury that limited him last season is to linger into this one.

Lineups featuring D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves decimated opponents last season—with or without James. Couple those two with the addition of Christian Wood and the Lakers should comfortably be able to score when only one of the stars is out. Will the defense hold up as well as last year’s did? It’s hard to say. Jarred Vanderbilt is probably going to lose minutes to Taurean Prince and Rui Hachimura. Dennis Schroder was deceptively valuable on that end of the floor last season. The Lakers are full of players—James, Russell and Reaves in the starting lineup alone—who are smart defenders who communicate well, but have meaningful physical deficiencies.

How much James decline can we reasonably expect in his age-39 season? There were troubling signs last season, with more of his offense than ever coming in transition and less of it coming from self-generated half-court shots in pick-and-roll and isolation. He grew increasingly reliant on a 32% 3-point shot that opponents are going to dare him to take now that he’s shown a shred of vulnerability as an individual creator.

It’s just been too long since the Lakers have had a normal regular season to assume that it’s going to happen now based on a single playoff run. Players are going to get hurt. Trade rumors are going to come. James and Davis will pace themselves even when they’re on the floor. This team has already proven it can advance in the playoffs starting from the play-in stage. They’re not going to push for extra regular-season wins at the expense of postseason readiness.

Los Angeles Clippers

Line: 46.5

2022-23 Wins: 44

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 42

Pick: Under

We ostensibly saw a healthy Clippers season last year, or at least as healthy as the Clippers can ever hope to be, and they won only 44 games. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George do worse in our health test than any of the other star combinations we’ve covered largely because Leonard missed an entire season, but more troubling is the fact that he hasn’t even topped 60 games since 2017. He’s going to miss 20 or more games. That’s as close to a guarantee as we can make. George hasn’t played more than 60 games since 2019, so he’s not far off either. Other older teams can at least envision one last healthy ride. The Clippers probably can’t.

Despite a few gaudy playoff stat lines, the Russell Westbrook experiment didn’t work. Lineups featuring him and the two Clipper stars outscored opponents by just 1.8 points per 100 possessions. That figure jumps to 6.1 when you sub Terance Mann in for Westbrook. The Clippers lacked youth as it was. Removing their one proven young player deprives them of quite a bit of upside. Among projected rotation players, only Mann and Ivica Zubac (both 26) are below the age of 30.

Would James Harden help? To some extent, sure. But Harden would do little to inject pace into a very slow offense, and his fit with Westbrook has already proven poor. There was plenty of buzz about Ty Lue and other coaching jobs, and while his contract was guaranteed for the 2024-25 season, he didn’t get a long-term extension. George and Leonard haven’t gotten them either. None of this means that the Clippers are gearing up for a rebuild, but it does suggest that the front office isn’t exactly all-in on the present yet. If it were, Harden would already be a Clipper. Right now, there’s just little to separate the Clippers from the Western Conference pack.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Line: 45.5

2022-23 Wins: 42

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 41

Pick: Over

Just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Timberwolves actively went wrong last season. Karl-Anthony Towns played 29 games. D’Angelo Russell caused chemistry problems. They had bad opponent’s shooting luck on 3-pointers. Whether it was an offseason incident in which Anthony Edwards was filmed making a homophobic comment or a season finale scuffle between Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson, this team frequently found itself making headlines for all of the wrong reasons.

And yet, this team still managed to win 42 games. The bulk of that roster is back this season, and if their worst-case scenario is 42 wins, the best-case number has to be closer to 50. It’s not an entirely fair comparison for a variety of reasons, but it’s worth noting that there is the outline of a precedent here. In 2020, Gobert’s team added Mike Conley. It struggled to integrate him and the Jazz wound up as a No. 6 seed. A year later, the Jazz had the NBA‘s best record. Can you envision Anthony Edwards filling the Donovan Mitchell role? If the answer is yes, then this team is going to be really good.

It’s not an exact comparison, mind you. That group had a bit more shooting. But this one has a far more potent group of point-of-attack defenders. Jaden McDaniels deserved All-Defense recognition last season, and Edwards can get there in shorter bursts. For all of the bellyaching about the Gobert-Towns fit, lineups featuring the two of them rated in the 98th percentile league-wide in terms of defensive efficiency last season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Offensively? They landed in the seventh percentile. It’s going to take sacrifice on Towns’ part to make these groups work. The ball belongs in Edwards’ hands anyway. The Conley-Gobert pick-and-roll is a potent weapon. If Towns is willing to serve as the greatest shooting big man of all time during most of his minutes with the starters while feasting as an individual shot-creator when he plays with the bench, this offense is going to be just fine. Only time will tell if he’s open to doing that.

But the vibes are undisputedly better this time around. Edwards just had a star turn with Team USA. Ownership paid up to keep the bench intact, though a McDaniels extension still needs to be finished. Chris Finch is about as creative as NBA coaches get. He’s going to figure out how to make all of these odd parts work, and the result is going to be a team that wins more than 45 games.

Memphis Grizzlies

Line: 45.5

2022-23 Wins: 51

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 52

Pick: Over

This Memphis line is around five wins lower than it probably should be. Ja Morant‘s absence is behind that, and before you jump in with their 20-5 record without Morant in 2022, they fell to 11-10 without him last season and this year’s group is very different. Tyus Jones isn’t around to stabilize the offense. That’s just fine. The Grizzlies are going to win with defense, and they’re going to win a lot.

Having the last two Defensive Player of the Year winners is a good foundation for any defense. Getting Steven Adams back might be even more important. The Grizzlies got killed on the glass without him, and as they know from their own half-court woes on offense, a defensive possession isn’t over until the ball is secured with a rebound. They’ll have plenty of chances to pull in opposing misses with Jackson protecting the basket and Smart hounding ball-handlers.

The offense is going to rely on Desmond Bane in the early going. It’s done just fine with him as a primary scorer. He averaged over 22 points in games Morant missed last season, but more importantly, he dished out five assists. He’s perfectly capable of scaling up as a ball-handler. It helps that the Grizzlies have surrounded him with extra shooting. Luke Kennard made an insane 54% of his 3-pointers after arriving in Memphis last year. If Taylor Jenkins had moved him into the starting lineup before he got hurt against the Lakers, Memphis might have won its first-round series a year ago. Lineups featuring Bane, Jackson, Kennard and Smart should space the floor beautifully.

And when Morant returns? We might have the best regular-season team in the Western Conference on our hands. Memphis went 40-21 in games he played last season, good for a 54-win pace. This roster is better, both because of Smart’s presence and because of what he means for the balance sheet. The Grizzlies are essentially asking him to play the roles of both Tyus Jones and Dillon Brooks, and if he does so successfully, Memphis will be able to dip into its untouched reserve of first-round picks to trade for another difference-maker in February.

At no point over the past two seasons have the Grizzlies been treated like the second-best team in the Western Conference. Yet they’ve earned the last two No. 2 seeds. While those ancient Pacific Division powers jog through the winter, the Grizzlies rack up the wins that matter for this bet. There are plenty of reasonable arguments against the Grizzlies as a championship team. None of them will prevent this team from winning regular-season games.

Sacramento Kings

Line: 44.5

2022-23 Wins: 48

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 48

Pick: Over

Right now, there are books offering lines as high as +900 for the Kings to win the Pacific Division… which they won last season. If I were to make a single recommendation within this space, it would be to grab a ticket at that price now. The Kings may not win the division again, but think about why they won it last season. Those four older teams behind them just couldn’t stop getting hurt. Is that going to change this season? If the answer is no, congratulations, you win. If the answer is yes? It’s unlikely to happen to more than one or two of those teams, and suddenly you have a big number to hedge against later. The Kings may not be a No. 3 seed again this season, but there isn’t much of a reason to assume they’re in for a steep decline.

Their health was frequently cited as an unsustainable factor in last season’s success, but the Kings happen to have built their roster around a group of very durable players. Domantas Sabonis has never played fewer than 62 games. De’Aaron Fox missed a few more games for tanking teams, but never suffered the sort of major injury that tends to linger. Harrison Barnes and Kevin Huerter never get hurt. The modern NBA has conditioned us to assume that championship rosters always load-manage. The Kings just don’t really need to. They’re relatively young and have a track record of durability. Freak injuries absolutely occur, but the Kings aren’t guaranteed to suffer them just because they didn’t last season.

There’s some possible regression coming offensively if only because replicating the most efficient offense in NBA history is almost always a stretch, but no individual elements of it scream outlier. As clutch as De’Aaron Fox was, the Kings still went only 25-19 in clutch games. That’s above average but hardly unrepeatable. Their defense, flawed as it was, is built on sustainable principles. They never foul. They allowed the fewest fast-break points in the NBA last season. That’s how you build a high-floor defense when you lack individual defensive playmakers. The Kings were actually somewhat unlucky from an opponent’s shooting perspective last season.

We’re conditioned to assume that things that surprise us will eventually revert to our expected state. There was a sentiment all of last season that the Kings were just some cute fluke meant to keep us busy while the Lakers and Clippers and Warriors figured things out. Then the Kings pushed the Warriors to the brink and that should have shown the world that they were here to stay. It didn’t and you can capitalize on that.

New Orleans Pelicans

Line: 44.5

2022-23 Wins: 42

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 47

Pick: Under

This one is simple. The Pelicans went 17-12 with Zion Williamson last season and 25-28 without him. Do you want to bet on the player who has played 114 games in four seasons to play the 50 or so he’d need to play for this ticket to be viable? If the answer is yes, take the over. If the answer is no, take the under.

“No” is the easier answer, and it helps that the Pelicans have plenty of other health issues to contend with. Trey Murphy III suffered a partially torn left meniscus this offseason, Jose Alvarado sprained an ankle in September, Brandon Ingram played 79 games as a rookie and hasn’t topped 62 since and Larry Nance Jr. is in a similar boat. The collection of talent here is considerable. I’m picking the under, but I have a small No. 1 seed bet here just in case the roster actually does stay healthy.

But actually picking it to stay healthy in an over/under setting that lacks the sort of upside you’d need to justify such a bet would be irresponsible. That is especially true when you consider this roster’s flaws. New Orleans ranked 29th in the NBA in 3-point attempts last season and its best shooter is already sidelined. It’s fair to be dubious of this team’s ability to properly space the floor even with Williamson available. The defense allows too many 3-pointers on the other end.

And then there are the Williamson trade rumors that came before the draft. Were they legitimate? It seems, for now, as if the answer was no, but given all of the drama that has surrounded his partnership with the Pelicans, it’s worth wondering how committed either side is here. The last thing you need on a limited upside bet is for trade rumors to capsize your season in December. If you want to bet on the Pelicans, find ways to do so that reward you for your risk, like divisional or seed odds. With so little upside here, the under is the play.

Dallas Mavericks

Line: 44.5

2022-23 Wins: 38

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 41

Pick: Under

I expected to pick the Dallas over for most of the offseason, and perhaps even sprinkle in some higher-upside plays there as well. But, for lack of a better way of putting this… something doesn’t smell right.

Why did Dallas open training camp with two rookies, Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper, in the starting lineup? Jason Kidd has a history of making very strange lineup decisions. Does that have anything to do with his reluctance to commit to Josh Green, whom the stats suggest is ready to start? Trades for Deandre Ayton and Clint Capela both appear to have been attainable this offseason. What stopped the Mavericks from getting them done, especially given the relatively meager price Ayton eventually went for? Kidd has a history of overstaying his welcome. His tenures in Brooklyn and Milwaukee both ended badly.

It’s too early to say for sure that it’s happening in Dallas. The theory of their offseason made plenty of sense. Grant Williams is going to go a long way toward fixing a defense that, frankly, probably doesn’t need to be very good for this team to reach 45 wins. The Seth Curry addition was one of the offseason’s great bargains. This isn’t rocket science here. The offense is going to be incredible. Luka Doncic finally has a viable sidekick. Everyone else can either shoot or catch lobs.

But given the disastrous finish to last season, Kidd’s own questionable track record and the bizarre choice not to fortify the center spot with a veteran, the risk here just outweighs the reward. If you believe in Dallas, Doncic’s MVP odds are probably the play. The Mavericks still have one first-round pick left to deal, and may well be saving it for the deadline. Last year’s train wreck is just too fresh to assume everything will be fixed in a single offseason.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Line: 44.5

2022-23 Wins: 40

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 44

Pick: Over

That Pythagorean number should give you a hint at just how good Oklahoma City was by the end of last season. It wasn’t quite reflected in their record (though a 25-21 stretch to close last season was impressive), but the Thunder were a full-fledged postseason team by the end of the year. Now they get an entire year of the version of Jalen Williams that made a late Rookie of the Year push, a healthy Chet Holmgren, and improvement from just about everyone on the roster. The only players on this team with more than five years of NBA experience are Victor Oladipo and Davis Bertans, who were acquired as salary fillers in trades. Every member of the projected rotation stands to improve this season.

Those aren’t the only markers for growth here. The Thunder went 17-26 in close games last season. That makes sense. Young teams tend to struggle in close games because they have less experience within those trying conditions. The Thunder were fairly conservative when it came to minutes last season as well. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 35.5, but nobody else topped Josh Giddey‘s 31.1. This matters largely because it allowed weaker, young bench players to soak up minutes. Holmgren’s presence means plenty in itself, but it also adds roughly 30 minutes that won’t go to the reserves. If the other young players continue to grow, their minutes should follow.

The one fear here is that Oklahoma City expressly does not push for extra wins at the expense of its broader organizational plans. Head coach Mark Daigneault said last season that he wouldn’t prioritize making the play-in round over the team’s process when it came to managing minutes and injuries, he held to that. The same will probably be true if the Thunder are in a similar position this season. They won’t force this one over the goal line. If you pick the over, you’re picking it to happen organically. That’s a safe enough pick for me to make.

Utah Jazz

Line: 35.5

2022-23 Wins: 37

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 38

Pick: Under

Ignore everything that happened to Utah on a team level last season. They tanked in the final months of the season. Before that, they were a far deeper team with Mike Conley, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt in place. The impressive performances of players like Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler count, but don’t make any assumptions based on last year’s win total. Evaluate this team as it is.

And as it is, there are just too many holes for the over to be a reasonable pick. Who is starting at point guard? The backcourt has belonged to Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker thus far in the preseason. Both are score-first guards. Who’s setting up this offense? Can Hortun-Tucker and John Collins coexist in the starting lineup? That’s going to cramp the spacing quite a bit here. Horton-Tucker is a career 28% 3-point shooter. Collins shot 29% last season due to a persistent finger injury. Is he healthy? He’ll have to be.

How many minutes do the best defenders get? Kessler averaged only 28 even after he became a starter. Kris Dunn‘s point-of-attack defense is going to be critical on this roster, yet it’s unclear if the Jazz can sustain his shooting woes on top of the others. Utah added a major salary in Collins and pursued another in Jrue Holiday. Does that mean the Jazz are committed to winning now? Or does Danny Ainge ship off another two or three rotation players in February like he did a year ago? The Western Conference is too crowded for a team with this many question marks.

Houston Rockets

Line: 31.5

2022-23 Wins: 22

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 20

Pick: Over

The Rockets had arguably the worst starting point guard (Kevin Porter Jr.) and the worst head coach (Stephen Silas) in the NBA last season. The upgrade to Fred VanVleet and Ime Udoka alone is going to be worth a whole lot of wins. For the first time since James Harden left, the Rockets are going to be a normal basketball team again.

The early preseason returns have been positive. The Rockets ran more of their offense through the Jalen Green-Alperen Sengun pick-and-roll in the opener than they had previously, with Porter monopolizing the ball. Dillon Brooks will go a long way toward fixing the defense. So will VanVleet, and essentially the rest of the rotation is comprised of recent first-round picks. Talent was never the question. Time to develop within an organized system was always the key here.

Houston has little incentive to continue tanking. The Thunder control their next three first-round picks. If there is room for an in-season move to improve, the Rockets are going to consider making it. Every move this organization has made since April suggests that the goal is to be competitive this season. The playoffs aren’t realistic, but jumping into the 30s in regular-season wins is more than attainable.

San Antonio Spurs

Line: 29.5

2022-23 Wins: 22

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 16

Pick: Under

The Spurs are going to lose games because everything they’ve done this offseason suggests that they want to lose games. San Antonio didn’t sign a single veteran free agent away from another team this offseason. They picked up a few veterans as salary filler in trades, but they’ve already bought out one of them (Reggie Bullock) and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if they bought out Cedi Osman down the line.

When a team tells you who it wants to be, believe it. The Spurs are gearing up for an exciting future with Victor Wembanyama, but their offseason was built around that future, not his present. That’s probably the correct approach. The Spurs are going to want to ease their prodigy into the NBA. That’s going to mean the occasional missed game and lighter minutes loads. The Western Conference is loaded. Why not pick up another high draft pick and let the older teams age another year before jumping into the ring?

Over the past 20 years, the Western Conference has produced at least two teams that won 29 or fewer games in all but two seasons. So basically, if you think the Spurs are either the No. 14 or 15 seed this season, the under is the bet.

Portland Trail Blazers

Line: 28.5

2022-23 Wins: 33

2022-23 Pythagorean Wins: 30

Pick: Over

Young guards tend to be a scary proposition for regular-season win totals. The Blazers are going to let Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe make as many mistakes as they need to this season. Portland is in developmental mode. The goal is not to win.

But that doesn’t mean the goal is overtly to lose, either. The sheer number of high-quality NBA veterans on this roster should prevent an outright collapse. If nothing else, Portland has arguably the best backup point guard (Malcolm Brogdon) and center (Robert Williams III) in the NBA. It has three $100 million players in its expected starting lineup between Deandre Ayton, Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons. In many ways, this group is reminiscent of the pre-deadline Jazz from last season.

And if you can, a sensible way to approach this Blazers team might be to take the over now and then look for a mid-season win total line that you can grab the under on in January. That way, you’re not only protected in the event of a fire sale, you have a chance to middle both tickets. 

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