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One on One: Making the case for the NBA season outcomes, Pt. 1 — The Western Conference

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Dom and Bobby go back and forth about how each of the expected Western Conference playoff teams should do against the betting lines this season.

In preparation for the beginning of the 2018-2019 NBA season, Las Vegas released preseason lines for the number of wins each team will achieve. While these aren’t projections per se, they are indicators of how the betting population believes each team will perform this season.

In order to keep from rehashing the same arguments that have already been made or agreeing on all of our projections (which is, frankly, boring), Dom and I are going to be presenting arguments for the over and under for each team, whether we agree with our stand or not. This will give you rationalization for whichever stance you want to take this season for any team in the league.

We will be alternating who takes the over or under for each team. We invite you to chime in and comment with your thoughts as to what we missed, why we have completely missed the boat, or anything else you think is worth mentioning.

This first article will be covering playoff teams (per Vegas) in the Western Conference. Per CBS Sports, the projections are:

  1. Golden State Warriors - 62.5
  2. Houston Rockets - 54.5
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder - 50.5
  4. Los Angeles Lakers - 48.5
  5. Utah Jazz - 48.5
  6. Denver Nuggets - 47.5
  7. New Orleans Pelicans - 45.5
  8. Minnesota Timberwolves - 44.5

Note: The following is not gambling advice. Don’t take it as such. Obviously.

Golden State Warriors (62.5)

Over (Dom): The Warriors have traditionally had a few weaknesses. The center position, having shooters (which sounds weird but outside their top few guys they’re relatively thin there), and coasting through the regular season. This offseason they went out and found DeMarcus Cousins somewhere off the trash heap and decided to...uh...shore up that weakness? If the Warriors are focused (which I question) this season and Cousins gets healthy with half the season (a definite concern) to go they likely will catch fire and could end this season winning something like 35 plus of the last 40 games. That means to grab the over they’d need to win 30 of the prior 40 which even without him last year they were about on pace for. A focused Warriors team can get to this number. But I’d fade this call.

Under (Bobby): 63 games is a tall order for any team in any season. Last season, this Warriors team won only 58, so expecting 5 games of improvement is asking for a lot. The 3 best players on this team have notable injury histories that make it reasonably likely they’ll sit for some period of time this season. When you combine it with a lack of dependable depth beyond the first 7 or 8 guys, it’s probable that there will be at least 10-15 games with a depleted roster. Having to roll with an old Andre Iguodala and totally-dependable Nick Young as heavy-minute guys for any stretch could lead to unexpected losses.

Additionally, there are a lot of personalities on this team that could clash. Guys who are being forced to take reduced roles could start to become discontent if winning isn’t coming easily, and with the tempers and lack of control that guys like Cousins and Draymond Green have displayed, don’t be surprised of the sunshine and happiness of the past years fades away. Chemistry matters with star players, and adding Cousins may be the straw that finally cripples this team.

2. Houston Rockets (54.5)

Over (Bobby): As a Houstonian now, I suppose it’s fitting that I have to be a positive voice for them. Houston won 65 games last season, despite missing key guys for a lot of games (namely Chris Paul). Speaking of CP3, the Rockets were 50-8 in games that he played; that projects to a 70-12 season. Even if he misses 20 games, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to win 60 games this season.

Offensively, the scheme does enough to minimize player weaknesses that Melo should slot in better than he did in OKC. In his second year as a role player, he seems to be more willing to accept the obvious (that he isn’t a good player anymore) and could potentially contribute offensively. The offense shouldn’t see anything more than a marginal drop-off.

Defensively, the Rockets will likely take a step back. The loss of the team’s best wing defenders will hurt, but having a Clint Capela as the shot-blocker at the rim will help reduce that affect to some degree. However, the defensive drop-off would have to be significant to account for the 11 win difference between last season and the Vegas predictions, and that just isn’t likely.

Under (Dom): Houston last year had the point margin of about a 62 win team per Cleaning the Glass. They were an insane offense that lead the league but what many didn’t note was that they had the sixth best defense in the NBA. This offsesaon they lost Trevor Ariza, Luc Mba a Moute, and Ryan Anderson (meh) and replaced them with Melo, James Ennis, Brandon Knight, and Marquiss Chriss.

I’ll preface this by saying I fully expect Melo to have a better year in Houston than in OKC if only by hitting a few open shots and that he apparently seems suddenly willing to come off the bench. But he’s hurting their defense and teams will go at him when he’s on the court. Ennis I actually like as a minimum contract pick up, but he won’t replace what they lost in Ariza, and Knight and Chriss to me are borderline NBA players at best. Frankly I wouldn’t want Knight to play minutes for my team ever and Chriss might turn out to be an okay backup big but right now he’s had attitude problems and shown an affinity to make dumb plays. I’d fade this bet but I can definitely see a way this team underperforms given the uninspiring additions they have so far made.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (50.5)

Over (Dom): Wait....Dom saying nice things about OKC? I didn’t think this was allowed! Yes, I do think this team can hit this over, but will admit I think it was very well set. The Thunder had a point differential of a 49 win team and OKC was better last year with Russ and PG when they were without Melo and added what should be an improvement in the backup point guard and center spots. If Russ can stay healthy and Roberson returns with some semblance of form (but who knows when that will be?), barring injury this to me could very well be an over. The only reason I fade this is health uncertainty and the simple fact that the western conference is really good and really deep.

Under (Bobby): This may be the first time you ever see Dom be the optimist and me the pessimist, but that’s the beauty of this thing. The Thunder has a number of glaring concerns going into this season, starting with injuries. Russ again had an off-season knee surgery. Roberson’s return date isn’t known, and there is a glaring hole on the wings behind him and Paul George. One other injury to a rotation player, and a stretch of this season could go completely off the rails.

The most discussed concern is the lack of shooting. This, to me, isn’t as glaring an issue. OKC hasn’t had shooting for several seasons, and the offense always finds ways to score, usually because of a high-paced offense that scores well in transition.

The bigger concern is the man in charge. Donovan has shown a propensity to fall in love with illogical lineup combinations, especially when it involves playing two point guards together. If we had to watch Westbrook and Semaj Christon play together, expect to see a lot of Russ-Schroder lineups, and expect them to fail spectacularly.

Additionally, the schemes on both end of the floor are so dependent on individuals. The offense hasn’t worked without Russ on the floor for years, and he’s going to be coming back from a surgery. Last season, this led to a sluggish start. Likewise, the defense absolutely cratered without Dre last season, and we don’t know when he will return. It’s very possible that this team is sitting below .500 after 20-30 games.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (48.5)

Over (Bobby): I think this could be justified simply by saying, “LeBron.”

It will take more than LeBron to boost this team 14 wins, though. This team has a lot of young players who could start to find their niche now that they aren’t being forced to play larger roles than their skillset allows. If the development plays out right, and the absurd conglomeration of personalities doesn’t corrupt the locker room, the synergy created by LeBron could push this team into home-court advantage. Who knows, maybe we’ll be looking at a real-life replaying of the movie Dodgeball.

Under (Dom): I won’t post last season’s numbers for their margin of victory as for this team they seem kind of meaningless. They added LeBron sure, but other than that, some of their best players on a per minute basis last year were Larry Nance, Julius Randle, and Brook Lopez. They replaced those guys with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Javale McGee. I don’t see this team coming too close to this number (I think 45-46 is the high end unless they make a big move) and they lack shooting and didn’t really add any defense.

They’re likely dependent on Ball for perimeter defense and Hart and Kuzma for a lot more offensive responsibility than I’m comfortable with. Rondo isn’t very good and outside the postseason is a negative defender who’s overrated on offense, and Lance frankly has been awful outside of Indiana, and even there not fantastic. JaVale is fine as a backup...but they don’t really have a starter. To add, one of the better bets in recent years has been better the under on LeBron’s team, and even last year he played all 82 games to get to 50 wins in the east with what I would say is a better roster. Bet this under.

5. Utah Jazz (48.5)

Over (Dom): Utah won 48 games last year and had the point differential of a 52 win team. That was with Rudy Gobert missing 26 games and the team going 11-15 in those games. To add to that, even early in the year when they struggled, most or all of their negative lineups included at least one of the two of Joe Johnson or Rodney Hood, neither of who are now with the team, and they may get the services of Dante Exum at backup point guard if he can remain healthy. This team without him is in many ways like a less powerful offensive version of the Thunder, sans-Roberson. I think Utah is the 3rd best team in the West and could even be second. This may be the easiest bet on the board and I can’t back it enough. Take this bet and run.

Under (Bobby): Rudy Gobert has missed over 20 games in three of his five seasons. He’s an injury prone player, and with him out, the Jazz goes from Brubeck’s Take Five to Horace Silver’s Filthy McNasty — it just isn’t pretty anymore. Bet on him missing more game this season, and for the Jazz to struggle during that period.

Beyond health, Utah’s season relies on Donovan Mitchell taking a step forward. Last season, he was a dynamic scorer. However, he was an inefficient player, with poor shooting splits and a high number of turnovers. Don’t count on a huge improvement in his sophomore season, when he may be expected to carry a larger portion of the load.

Basically, Utah won 48 games last season. How did they improve? Grayson Allen? I don’t see anything to make me believe they will win more this season.

6. Denver Nuggets (47.5)

Over (Bobby): Denver is an interesting team that has been close, but not quite there the last few seasons. This will be the season they flip the switch and start winning at a high enough rate to put them in the mix for home court. Jokic is a unique player that is hard to gameplan against. He’s surrounded by a roster of above-average, though not great, outside shooters, which could make this offense very dangerous.

The concern for Denver will be defense, but as one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league last season, second chance points will be limited. Millsap should be worth a few games, and that’s all they need to make 48 wins.

Under (Dom): Denver won 46 games last year and had the margin of victory of a 45 win team. They did however miss Paul Millsap a large part of the year. That said, this offseason they lost a player of questionable value in Wilson Chandler who I feel at the least provided some value as bench depth. They kept Will Barton and added Isaiah Thomas as a bench spark plug to boot. On paper these look like fine deals and I’d tend to think Barton got a hair overpaid and Thomas was a good move, but neither defend well and for a team centered around Nikola Jokic, I’m not sure you can really play him with Thomas ever and this was a team with the 21st ranked defense last season. I’d fade this because Jokic is a transcendent talent and a top 15ish player, but the defensive issues here are real and for whatever reason they’ve found bizarre ways to miss the postseason the last two years.

7. New Orleans Pelicans (45.5)

Over (Dom): The Pelicans notably lost their second star this offseason, but I think this line is a bit low. From February 1st on last year (Cousins went down with his ACL injury near the end of January), the Pels went 21-11 with a +3.8 net rating which was good for 6th in the NBA and is on pace for about 54 wins. I don’t think they’re that good and though I criticized Rondo earlier, I do think he’s better than his new replacement in Elfrid Payton. I also think Julius Randle and Mirotic were two great fits next to Anthony Davis, and think this team is ready to be well above expectations. That said they still have a bunch of meh all over the place at the wing. I’d fade this over (barely, as I think they’re closer to a 5-6 seed and in this range) and would think of betting Davis for MVP.

Under (Bobby): Without reading the above or looking it up, could you name 5 players on the Pelicans roster? 4? 3 even? This is not exactly a star-laden roster. The truth is, getting this roster to the playoffs would be MVP worthy for Anthony Davis.

Last season, DeAndre Liggins had the highest 3-point percentage of players who played over 20 games. The same DeAndre Liggins who couldn’t make it with the Thunder many seasons ago. This team will be relying on guys like Mirotic to score consistently, and I don’t see that happening. I could see the Pels keeping a lot of games close, but the net rating won’t line up with the record, as they’ll come out on the losing end of many of those.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (44.5)

Over (Bobby): Yes, Butler is demanding a trade. However, unless he pulls a Kawhi and sits for the season out of spite, either he or the players returned will be playing for the Timberwolves, and they seem set on not selling for under-market-value. Butler, per VORP, was worth about 10 wins over a replacement level player. If Minnesota does trade him, they should be able to get back a couple of average guys, at least. Using those guys to replace some of the negative players could make up the difference. I mean, just eliminating Jamal Crawford is worth a couple of wins by itself.

If some of the young players can make some improvements, this team could find its way to 45 wins. The middle of the pack in the west will likely have 5-6 teams within 3 games of each other. A few good breaks, and Minnesota will hit the over here.

Under (Dom): I’m stealing money here (and in Vegas this has been taken off the board I believe), but this should be easy. They’re trading Butler soon. They were 10-14 without him last year and their offseason was very Tom Thibodeau (yes that’s an adjective now). Luol Deng might have more than he showed in Los Angeles, but he’s still bad. Last year Wiggins and Towns shared the court without Butler for 1533 possessions per CTG and were a -1.3 net rating with a 115.5 defensive rating which ranks in the 8th (!!!!) percentile. I lied earlier — Utah wasn’t the easiest bet. This was.