Placing bets on a team’s projected win total has become a prominent offseason pastime in the exploding sports gambling marketplace. This projected number of wins, determined by oddsmakers, is designed to ensure that the casino wins no matter what by getting a near-50/50 split of money between the over and under bets.
Though hardly a perfect system of determining how good a team will be before the season, gambling sharks (high-rollers and others who gamble professionally) put a painstaking amount of research into basketball teams. If they judge that the bookkeepers have missed the mark too badly, they will jump on it and invest enough money in their bets to move the line. All of this is to say that the NBA’s preseason over/under totals is something close to a general consensus on how good teams should be.
Every year there are a few teams who either overachieve or underachieve against the projected win total in a big way. Here is every team that missed its projected total by 10 or more games and examinations of what the gamblers got wrong
Milwaukee Bucks – Preseason Over/Under – 43.5; Current Projected Win Total – 33
This line was always high for a team one year removed from a 67-loss season, but 33 wins would a disappointingly low finish for a team that made the playoffs in 2015. The Bucks made the decision this offseason to go after Greg Monroe, an offensively talented big man in both posts high and low that struggles on the defensive side. Zaza Pachulia was the roster casualty that made way for him. It’s easy to see why the gamblers thought this was a step in the right direction: Greg Monroe is a more skilled basketball player than Zaza Pachulia. But, this is another example of the way the NBA is evolving – a solid rim protector like Pachulia is now a more valuable commodity than a big who excels in the paint on offense. Milwaukee has some solid wing defenders and Giannis Antetokuonmpo playing the 1 (Antetokuonmpo will be referred to as “Point Giannis” henceforth) is weirdly effective and wildly entertaining, but the Bucks were looking to take a step forward this year and have instead taken a big step back.
Los Angeles Lakers: Preseason Over/Under – 29.5; Current Projected Win Total – 18
Let us be clear, no one but Lakers fans thought the Los Angeles Lakers were winning 30 basketball games this year. This year was the Kobe Bryant retirement tour. He would shake hands, be given mementos from the teams he’s spent his career terrorizing, and take 30 shots a game en route to a 15-point loss. The Lakers roster around the aging Kobe is mostly a dumpster fire and the talent it has is very green. So why was the line set at 29.5? The same reason the preseason lines are way too high every year for the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys – the Popular Team Bias. Hope springs eternal during the preseason, and fans of every team want to believe in their team’s highest possible projection. Lots of Lakers fans = A whoooole lot of Over bets. Remember that the casino is not trying to be right. They’re trying to level the market.
Philadelphia 76ers: Preseason Over/Under – 21.5; Current Projected Win Total – 10
NBA teams win 20 games by accident, almost, and the glimmer of hope provided by the Jahlil Okafor/Nerlens Noel big pairing along with the overdue departure of Point Guard Michael Carter-Williams might have been enough to convince observers that the 76ers could approach 23-25 wins this season. Not so. Philadelphia is in its third straight season of not even pretending to care about winning basketball games and the young players they hope to build around are learning all the wrong lessons. 10 wins. Christ.
Houston Rockets: Preseason Over/Under 54.5 – Current Projected Win Total 40
The Rockets made a Western Conference Finals appearance last season, where they eventually bowed out to Golden State. There’s no shame at all in that finish, and they made a few moves this offseason that made observers think they could be even better this year. Instead, what has happened is that a very talented roster has become an island of misfit toys. Interim Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff is on the record describing his locker room as “broken” and Houston is in danger of missing the postseason in a generally down year for the West.
General Manager Daryl Morey is widely heralded in the basketball community as a Billy Beane-like figure and he is rock-solid with Rockets’ ownership. He will be back next season, but he must take this season to heart as a top-down institutional failure and rejigger his approach to team-building.
Phoenix Suns: Preseason Over/Under 36.5 – Current Projected Win Total 22
Tyson Chandler, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Markieff Morris … there were a lot of pieces here to really like and Jeff Hornacek did a really good job in his first two seasons as Head Coach! So why didn’t this work!? Markieff Morris spent the season pouting after taking a team-friendly contract in order to keep playing with his brother only to see him traded shortly thereafter. His deadline trade to the Wizards made sense. No sense in keeping a middling player who’s just going to be a pouty malcontent. Bledsoe had an All-Star case if he had stayed healthy, but he didn’t, and the Suns are a defensive nightmare when he isn’t on the court.
Ultimately, Eric Bledsoe is the only guy on the team who is more than a “nice piece” and Eric Bledsoe is not carrying Phoenix’s few “nice pieces” to 37 wins. I understand the preseason logic behind betting the Over. In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. However, that is not true of all of these teams. Especially not —
New Orleans Pelicans: Preseason Over/Under 47.5 – Current Projected Win Total 32
Oh, dear. Where to begin? The Pelicans were one of the better surprises of last season and Anthony Davis has entrenched himself as one of the NBA’s very best players. There were few reasons to think they wouldn’t continue getting better. After watching Davis last season, one could have justified betting the Over on New Orleans simply because the days of Anthony Davis not winning 50+ games were over. And now they’re poised to miss their over/under by a whopping 15.5 games.
The Pels are this season’s example of what every single damn thing that could go wrong going wrong looks like. Omer Asik is a shell of his former self and on an onerous contract. Ryan Anderson helps on offense and is a defensive nightmare. Injuries have decimated their backcourt. For most of this season, Anthony Davis has been playing with a D-League team around him and New Orleans has needed herculean efforts from him to have a chance at winning.
The Pelicans have the ultimate in good contracts right now – a top-5 NBA player at the tail end his rookie deal (Anthony Davis is making $7 Million this season). But, there’s so much bad money tied up in this roster from the top-down that it’s hard to see how New Orleans gets near 48-win territory any time soon.
Enough with the bad teams. Let’s get to the good ones!
San Antonio Spurs: Preseason Over/Under 58.5 – Current Projected Win Total 69
The San Antonio Spurs are on pace to just miss out on being the third 70-win team ever. No matter what happens in a hypothetical Golden State-San Antonio Western Conference Final, this season is going to give us the best basketball team ever to not win the championship. The Spurs won 55 games last year. It made sense in September to think they would improve on that number this season with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and the continued development of Kawhi Leonard. Leonard hasn’t peaked yet and there’s a case to be made that he’s already one of the five best basketball players in the world. The Spurs organization is manufactured, continual greatness, but seeing them destroy their high line en route to a 68-70 win season is still remarkable. One runs out of superlatives when talking about this organization and how good it is. Never bet against Gregg Poppovich.
Toronto Raptors: Preseason Over/Under 45.5 – Current Projected Win Total 56
The Raptors have been drifting in “good, but obviously not good enough” territory for the last few years and the bookkeepers clearly expected more of the same. Becoming a 55+ win team is what happens when your Point Guard is in basketball shape for the first time in his career and your Shooting Guard has a career year. Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozen have been the East’s best backcourt this season.
There are few good teams with a more uncertain future than Toronto. There’s always been a sense that General Manager Masai Ujiri has never really bought this team as a serious threat to contend for anything of consequence. Derozen is up for a new contract this offseason and even though we live in a world where Gordon Hayward is a max-contract player, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Ujiri really intends to keep this team together for the long haul. If Toronto’s ever making the Finals, it may have to be this year.
Charlotte Hornets: Preseason Over/Under 32.5 – Current Projected Win Total 45
Charlotte blowing by 32.5 wins does not surprise this writer, but them doing it despite injuries to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson certainly does. They brought in competent NBA players this offseason in Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, and Marvin Williams. It’s a shame that the Hornets haven’t been able to get everyone healthy, but Kemba Walker has taken a huge step forward this year and Al Jefferson’s injuries has proven to be a massive blessing in disguise. Jefferson’s offensive game in the low post is out of fashion in the current NBA, but he’s so good with the ball in his hands that his reserve role has him regularly pitted against completely overmatched bigs on opposing bench units. Charlotte being able to roll two productive units has been a big part of their success.
Golden State Warriors: Preseason Over/Under 60.5 – Current Projected Win Total 74
Enough has been written about Golden State that we don’t really need further examination of how historically great they are. It’s sufficient to say that I’ve been a passionate sports fan for as long as I can remember and I have never seen any team in any sport that is this good. Three games against San Antonio are the biggest obstacle between them and setting the new mark for wins in an NBA season – 73 or more. Two of those are in the last week of the season, though, so if Golden State has already locked up the one seed by that time, it’s possible that San Antonio will be resting its most important guys for the playoff run. Don’t count on the Warriors resting for anything. They want that wins record badly and it will be fun to watch them go for it the rest of the way. It’s obscene that the Warriors were given the highest over/under line of any team in the NBA and are about to blow it sky high, but they haven’t been the biggest overachiever of the season.
Portland Trail Blazers: Preseason Over/Under 26.5 – Current Projected Win Total 44
That distinction belongs to the Portland Trail Blazers. No team in the Western Conference had a lower preseason over/under line than Portland’s 26.5 and they are set to obliterate it en route to a Western Conference Playoff appearance. The bookies’ logic was that Rip City had lost too many important pieces to maintain their recent level of success. In losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Nic Batum, the Blazers lost three of their four best players. NBA teams don’t come back strong from overhauls like that.
What no one outside of Portland was counting on was the success of the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt pairing and how shrewd the Blazers organization has been finding young talent on the cheap. Philadelphia, an organization that openly has no interest in winning basketball games, is the only team in the NBA with a lower payroll than Portland.
The Trail Blazers have been the most pleasant surprise of this season and they are one of the NBA’s more fascinating teams going forward. They have a good Coach, a smart General Manager, young talent for days, and zero bad contracts on their books. We will see if they can keep this success in future seasons but for now, the Trail Blazers are easily the most surprising team of 2016.