It’s NBA prediction time! Well, sort of, anyway.
As we absorb the news of two blockbuster trades and wait to see if a third follows with James Harden, my spreadsheets are still digesting the ramifications and churning out final numbers. I’m not quite ready to pull the cover off and reveal everything just yet — patience, people — but I did want to tackle a couple particularly interesting situations.
Each year, I always include a record with my predictions for each team, rather than chickening out and just giving first through fifth division standings or whatever. That provides a much more specific guidepost for how I think each team’s season is headed if we assume normal-ish health, shooting and close game luck, and player development outcomes.
That part is coming, but I realized another element could be really useful: Zooming in on the situations where I seem to differ from the consensus. In other words, for which teams are my win-loss projections most at odds with prediction markets? While I’m still finalizing totals, at this point, I can tell you pretty solidly that I’ll be way over or way under on a handful of teams.
For this exercise, I’ve used consensus Vegas over/unders, including BetMGM, most recently updated Sept. 27. To be clear, I have no inclination to bet on this and certainly would discourage any else from doing so as well, but this is the most practical proxy I’ve found for a given team’s expectations for the coming season. Helpfully, no over/under I saw varied by more than one win between the assorted providers I checked.
I’ll get to the teams I’m down on later this week, but let’s start with optimism. Here are the five teams I’m most bullish on topping their consensus over/unders:
Of all the preseason expectations I’ve seen, this is the one that absolutely floors me the most. The prognosticators have the Raptors finishing more than five games worse than last season and landing nearly 10 below .500. Apparently, most people think the Raptors are going to suck this year, which I presume is the result of the reductive math equation: “Average team minus Fred VanVleet equals suck.”
To me this is a triumph of The Narrative over common sense. This roster still strikes me as playoff-caliber, especially in the NotGreatBob assemblage that is teams No. 3 through No. 15 in the Eastern Conference.
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Yes, going from VanVleet to Dennis Schröder is a downgrade (FIBA competitions aside), but that’s not the only change. Remember, relative to last season’s Raptors, the biggest positional difference isn’t at point guard, it’s that they get a full season with a real center.
Toronto only played 26 games with Jakob Poeltl after acquiring him at the trade deadline; the Raptors went 15-10 with him as a starter and had a plus-3.2 average scoring margin in those games. Yes, the usual disclaimers about March basketball apply, but that’s a decent proof of concept for the “Raptors with somebody bigger than 6-foot-9” approach.
Meanwhile, check out the rest of the team. The Raptors have a looooong way to go before they become a 35-win team; they had everything go wrong last year and still went 41-41 with a plus-1.5 scoring margin. Pascal Siakam is an All-Star, O.G. Anunoby is an all-world defender who should look even better now that he doesn’t have to masquerade as a part-time center, Scottie Barnes could be poised for a breakout and the most important players are all in their 20s.
Additionally, the disaster bench of last season should be much better (and can’t possibly be any worse) via the offseason additions of Gradey Dick (an actual shooter!) and Jalen McDaniels. You still wish there was another reliable point guard on this roster, one more shooter in the mix and a more efficient leading man than Siakam and/or Barnes. But we’re not calling a title shot here. We’re just saying the Raptors are more than good enough to tread water.
Finally, try this exercise: What would it look like for the Raptors to win any fewer than this number? For any draft lottery scenario, incentives matter, and I don’t see a repeat of the 2020-21 Tampa Tank season. It’s possible the Raptors cash in their Anunoby stock in February before he hits free agency, but by then, the season is two-thirds over.
Additionally, remember that Toronto owes a top-six protected pick to San Antonio this season. The Raptors would have to be pretty awful to guarantee keeping a top-six pick with the new lottery rules, as you don’t feel good about your chances without a bottom-three record and aren’t a lock until you’re bottom two. The Raptors aren’t anywhere near bad enough to get into that hunt, even with trades and/or injuries.
This takes us back to the other big reason to like Toronto’s over: incentives. With the draft pick already committed to another team, if the Raptors do anything substantial, their best move is to push forward, not go backward. Witness their recent pursuit of Damian Lillard as a proof of concept. As a result, they’ll keep pursuing a Play-In spot even if they fall short of my expectations and are trending toward 35-ish wins. But I think they’ll end beating that number rather comfortably.
Memphis got too high on its own supply last postseason and will be without a couple key players to start the campaign. But let’s start at the top: The Grizzlies won 56 and 51 games the past two seasons, placing them second in the West in both. Of particular note is that they won 51 last season — more than any other team in the West except Denver — despite Ja Morant playing 61 games, Steven Adams 42 and Brandon Clarke 56.
I can get why the Grizzlies would have doubters in the postseason, where they’ve lost series with home-court advantage each of the last two seasons. As many as seven other teams in the West could reasonably grade out as more threatening playoff opponents than Memphis. I suspect that same thought also causes people to file the Griz into their mental “non-contender” folder and project them landing in the bulging middle of decently good teams in the West.
But for the regular season, that logic is totally wrong. Sure, the Grizzlies won’t have Morant for 25 games, but should have him for most of the 57 that follow. They’ll have Adams back early in the season, and he’ll likely end up playing much more than the 42 contests he participated in a year ago. Clarke? That’s going to be a hard one, as he’ll likely miss much of the season after last March’s Achilles tear. But Memphis survived well without both centers a year ago, going 18-11 with Xavier Tillman as a starter.
Additionally, the Grizzlies have enough good depth, such as Santi Aldama, John Konchar and Luke Kennard, to survive the early part of the year. They’re not big names, but they project as well above-average bench players by BORG (Big Ol’ Rating), my formula that estimates each player’s value on a per-possession basis. That’s sort of amazing given how much quality the mind-blowingly awesome second unit of 2021-22 has bled away: Tyus Jones, De’Antony Melton and Kyle Anderson are gone, and Clarke is injured.
More importantly, the star power here runs deeper than people think. Everyone just kind of forgets about Desmond Bane, but he and Jaren Jackson Jr are the two other $40 million players on this roster (according to my BORD$ formula) besides Morant. There are only 32 in the whole league, and Memphis is the only team with three. Adding Marcus Smart gives the Grizzlies another plus starter of nearly the same wattage. (Memphis getting a 29-year-old defensive stopper from Boston who went to Oklahoma State? Where have I seen this before?) Even without Morant, a Bane-Smart-Jackson roster has enough quality at the top of the marquee to rack up wins.
As a result, even when I modeled the Grizzlies with modest minute totals for Morant and none for Clarke, they blew away the over/under here. And that’s the current roster; Memphis still owns all of its own future picks and can easily push in more chips on a trade for a big wing. (One to keep an eye on: Jerami Grant.)
Lastly, another underrated reason for Memphis to beat this over/under is that a team with basically the entire roster in its 20s has a pretty strong wind at its back in terms of improvement. Odds are most of these guys will be better this year, and some may be considerably better. If a viable rotation option emerged from the Ziaire Williams–Jake LaRavia–David Roddy cupboard of big young forwards, so much the better. But I like the Grizzlies to comfortably clear this over either way.
It fascinates me that Brooklyn’s win expectation is set so low when the Nets have zero tanking incentive.
Do people not get this? The Nets owe an unprotected first-round pick to Houston in 2024 and either unprotected picks or swaps until 2027. Thus, this roster is only going to move in one direction. Any transaction the Nets make will be to increase their present success (by trading future firsts owed them from Phoenix, Dallas and Philly), not to have a fire sale. Their presence on the periphery of the Lillard trade talks is a gentle proof of concept.
Even if they stand pat, the Nets roster is more than good enough to achieve pleasantly inoffensive averageness at the very least, and perhaps more. “A bunch of pretty good players” isn’t a great model for advancing deep in the playoffs, but it can tow you a long way through the regular season slog.
Brooklyn has a potential breakout All-Star in Mikal Brides, high-level role players in Cam Johnson, Nic Claxton, Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith, and enough shot creation with Spencer Dinwiddie that the others aren’t caught out of their depth at the end of the shot clock.
I don’t love the bench, but the Nets have what you might call “positive wild cards” in that while we’re not expecting much, they have the ability to overdeliver (Cam Thomas, Ben Simmons, Dennis Smith Jr.). Roll your eyes if you must at the annual Simmons offseason optimism, but if he delivers much of anything, it will help this second unit greatly. Brooklyn also has a lot of flexibility to make moves in-season because of a $19.8 million trade exception from the Joe Harris trade, in addition to those future firsts from Phoenix.
Again, incentives matter, so I’ll turn the question around as I did on Toronto: What would it look like for the Nets to fall short of this, knowing that they aren’t tanking?. Because of the pick owed to Houston, this team will chase the final Play-In spot down to the last day. I have a hard time seeing the Nets falling short of a mid-30s win total without some major injury catastrophe.
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Houston Rockets (over 31.5 wins)
The Rockets will be significantly better, both because of several events that happened intentionally and one thing that happened despite themselves.
Kevin Porter Jr.’s situation is horrible, and he won’t be a Houston Rocket this year whether he is traded, released or his contract is voided. With him gone, the Rockets will stop investing so much time and minutes into a ball-dominating style. That alone wouldn’t vault Houston forward in my mind, but several other things in concert will. Moving on from Porter would be part of a sea change that should result in the Rockets playing real basketball this season instead of watching Jalen Green and Porter pound the ball into whatever shot they felt like, then jogging back on defense while they wait to see how the three-on-one turns out.
Bringing in Ime Udoka and giving him enough juice to bring some order will go a long way, as will the additions of tough veterans such as VanVleet and Dillon Brooks. It’s going to be a jarring culture shock for Green this season, but he has the talent to be far more efficient than he was a year ago. Speaking of talent, it will be exciting to see what Jabari Smith Jr. can do this year if he actually gets a chance to touch the ball; he was one of the breakout stars of summer league.
Houston made other changes around the edges, jettisoning several underperforming recent draft picks and filling out the roster with veteran bench help (Jock Landale, Jeff Green, Aaron Holiday). In doing so, the Rockets have signaled that not only are they willing to take a step forward this year, but also they have put the right mix of players in place to actually do it. They still have some very talented youngsters (Green, Smith, Amen Thompson, Alperen Şengün, Cam Whitmore), mind you, but there should be a lot more structure in which those players can develop.
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I like Houston to get to at least 32 wins on three different levels. First, on pure talent, my numbers have the Rockets slightly beating that number. Second, I think there are some very good so-called intangible reasons to expect this team to be better than it was a year ago, as a result of the coaching change and Porter’s likely exit.
Finally, can we talk about incentives again? Houston isn’t tanking, which is going to make a scenario where it falls short of 31 wins hard to pull off. The Rockets owe a top-four protected pick to Oklahoma City from the disastrous Chris Paul–Russell Westbrook trade, meaning that any March or April shenanigans by the Rockets are likely to benefit the Thunder more than they help Houston. The Rockets, as with the Nets and Raptors above, could still make other in-season moves to improve the roster; the contracts of Landale and Green, in particular, are set up to be easily tradable.
I suppose it’s possible Houston could try to improve its lottery luck anyway, if the Rockets are well and truly eliminated from the playoffs. We can’t dismiss that scenario entirely, but the Play-In makes it less likely. A more likely endgame is that the Rockets valiantly fight the good fight for 78 games, much like last year’s Jazz, before ultimately falling a few wins short.
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Charlotte won 27 games last season. Here’s what had to happen for the Hornets to land at that win total:
- LaMelo Ball played in only 36 games
- Cody Martin played in only seven games
- Miles Bridges missed the entire season after a domestic violence incident involving the mother of his children
- They traded Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels for draft equity at the trade deadline
- They gave minutes to four separate recent draft picks who each were tire-fire level bad, significantly worse than replacement level
Fast forward to this season, and Charlotte adds the second pick in the draft (Brandon Miller), returns Bridges and Martin and has a healthy Ball. The only key loss is Kelly Oubre, who only played 40 games last season. The Hornets still have question marks at center with Mark Williams and Nick Richards and still have too many bad draft picks soaking up roster spots. But Charlotte had all those issues two years ago and won 43 games with basically the same cast.
So yeah, I think the Play-In is, um, in play. And sheesh, that win total is a low, low bar. I don’t get how people just blithely assume Charlotte will still suck this year. Ball/Terry Rozier/Miller/PJ Washington/Bridges is a tough matchup to deal with in fourth quarters, especially with LaMelo pushing it down everyone’s throat.
Additionally, people just sort of forget about Martin, but his defense, running and ballhandling make him a key glue guy and an important bridge to a thin bench, especially if Gordon Hayward misses a game (but what are the odds of that, right?).
Finally, the Hornets historically have been much more averse to tanking than most teams. I realize they’re under new ownership now, but all the other institutional players are the same (at least for now) and presumably making the case for their continued employment. Chasing a Play-In spot is likely to be much more tempting for this team than it would be for some others, especially with a prospective weak draft on tap. The East projects to be soft enough that even a mediocre record should keep the Bugs in the chase all season.
(Photo of Pascal Siakam, Mikal Bridges and LaMelo Ball: Brian Westerholt, Bill Streicher, Dan Hamilton / USA Today)