There’s something for everyone in the Northwest Division. Utah was the NBA’s best regular-season team last year. Oklahoma City’s record didn’t quite reflect it, but by net rating, they were its worst. Nikola Jokic won the MVP, and Damian Lillard might’ve taken it from him if he’d had enough help. Do you want drama? How does Minnesota firing its president of basketball operations a week before training camp sound?
Will that drama translate to the floor? Well… it doesn’t seem like it, actually. The Northwest division had three of the easiest over/unders for me to pick. Two others are more difficult largely because of injuries. Most of these teams showed us their hand last season, even if it came only for brief stretches. None of them drastically overhauled their roster. That predictability will help you make some money off of this group. As always, the following caveats apply to these over/under picks.
- You’re generally going to get good value on the best teams if they stay healthy. The highest line this season belongs to Brooklyn at 54.5 wins. Three teams beat that figure in the 2018-19 season (the last 82-game season the NBA has played), and that number is a bit low compared to most years. Vegas knows that a certain number of teams are going to beat the highest line. They keep it low anyway hoping to draw in bettors that ignore the possibility of injuries. Think of the Lakers last season. Most bettors likely took the over, so when LeBron James and Anthony Davis got hurt, Vegas probably made a fortune. Still, such outcomes are on the rarer side. If you think you can identify the three or four best teams in the NBA, take their overs. Injuries will probably cost you at least one bet, but if you’re right about the other teams, they’re going to hit their over easily. Unsurprisingly, you’ll see plenty of overs at the top of the standings among these picks.
- Remember, teams played only 72 games last season. We’re back up to 82 this season. For that reason, I’ve not only listed every team’s record, but how that record would have translated to an 82-game schedule.
- Point differential is far more predictive of future performance than record. There are a number of reasons for this ranging from shooting luck to record in close games, and lest you believe that the latter is something star players can control over a big enough sample, the Cavaliers (six wins above expectation), Magic (seven) and Thunder (10) all won significantly more games last season than their net rating suggests that they should have. ESPN uses a modified version of Bill James’ Pythagorean wins formula from baseball to estimate what a team’s record should have been based on their net rating, so that figure (along with an 82-game adjustment) will be listed below as well.
- There is no set formula for regular-season winning, but two traits tend to lead to winning over bets: defense and depth. The regular season is long and never goes as planned. Players get hurt. They get tired. They aren’t always committed to winning that random Tuesday night in Charlotte that might be meaningless to them, but critical to you as a bettor. Fewer things can go wrong for deep teams. Defense tends to be less reliant on individual players (with a few exceptions). Deep, defensive-minded teams can still underperform, but they tend to have higher floors. That’s what you want for these bets. You’re trying to beat the line by a half win here, not blow it away by 10.
- All lines come via Caesars Sportsbook.
2020-21 record: 47-25
2020-21 EWL: 48-24
2020-21 82-game pace: 54-28
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 55-27
The Nuggets have proven that they can still win regular-season games fairly frequently without Jamal Murray. They went 16-8 without him last season, roughly a 55-win pace, and that came with several other guards nursing injuries down the stretch as well. Monte Morris is about as good as backup point guards get and Nikola Jokic functions as a point center anyway. Few teams in basketball are as equipped to handle the prolonged absence of a lead ball-handler as well as Denver is.
But something still feels precarious about their post-Murray success last season. The defense is a good place to start. Denver ranked 10th after Murray got hurt and 11th for the season at large, but defensive coordinator Wes Unseld Jr. is now coaching the Wizards. That’s quietly an enormous loss. Constructing a scheme capable of hiding Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. is no small feat, and even if the basic principles remain, that lost continuity hurts.
The real problem with starting a season down a star player is that it makes any subsequent injuries that much more damaging. Jokic is an iron man. Porter is not. Will Barton has missed 70 games over the past three seasons. Jeff Green tends to be available but that hardly makes him consistent. Denver certainly has the upside to hit the over, but Murray’s absence deprives them of their cushion. Porter and Jokic can’t miss games. The defense can’t regress. The bench has to thrive. There are just so many moving parts here that the under feels safer.
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2020-21 record: 23-49
2020-21 EWL: 22-50
2020-21 82-game pace: 26-56
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 25-57
The line here is 33.5 wins. Let’s look at Minnesota’s pace under some specific circumstances:
- The Timberwolves won at a 31-win pace in games Karl-Anthony Towns played (19-31).
- The Timberwolves won at a 32-game pace in games Chris Finch coached (16-25).
- The timberwolves won at a 34-game pace in games Chris Finch coached and Karl-Anthony Towns played (16-23).
- The Timberwolves won at a 41-win pace in games Chris Finch coached and both Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell played (10-10).
This paints a fairly clear picture of what Minnesota’s season looked like. Early on, when their best player was hurt and they had the wrong coach, they racked up a ton of losses that ultimately limited their win total. Then Towns returned and Finch was hired, and suddenly, this team played broadly at the level it was supposed to. Finally, Russell returned and the Timberwolves looked like a .500 team, far above expectations. This trend fits Anthony Edwards‘ rookie arc as well. He was terrible to start the season, but, as most rookies do, he improved substantially as the season progressed.
The roster upgrades this offseason were more modest but should prove sorely necessary. If you need to set a defensive culture, it’s hard to do much better among role players than Patrick Beverley. The Timberwolves ranked No. 28 on defense last season. If they can just get to around No. 20, their offense should carry them to the over here. Beverley is a nice start. Taurean Prince isn’t exactly a stopper, but Minnesota desperately needed forward-sized humans. He can give them one for short stretches.
Already, there’s enough here to buy into the idea that Minnesota has improved enough to compete for a play-in spot, but there’s one other source of possible upside. Eventually, the 76ers are presumably going to trade Ben Simmons. Minnesota has pursued him aggressively. If they land him without sacrificing Towns or Edwards, they become a near-lock for the over. That isn’t necessary, but it’s the cherry on top.
2020-21 record: 22-50
2020-21 EWL: 12-60
2020-21 82-game pace: 25-57
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 14-68
There are a number of salient basketball reasons to take Oklahoma City’s under, but let’s start with the simplest. Some teams don’t have the stomach to tank. They half-measure their way to 25 or 30 wins by optimizing bad rosters and stockpiling unneeded veterans. That is not the Thunder. The Thunder sent Al Horford home for half of the season. They built their late-season offense around spindly teenager Aleksej Pokusevski. Theo Maledon started at point guard for them for large stretches of the season despite shooting less than 37 percent from the field. Sam Presti has no shame about this whatsoever. The Thunder are the most aggressive tankers in all of basketball. They want you to win this bet and will do what it takes to make sure you do.
Their roster construction supports that theory. Ask yourself this: right now, who is Oklahoma City’s backup center behind Derrick Favors? Is it 6-8 forward Isaiah Roby? Darius Bazley? Pokusevski weighs roughly as much as an adolescent beagle and he might be the answer. I guess Giddey, Maledon and Lu Dort are fighting for the title of secondary ball-handler? Kevin Durant scored more points in 35 games (943) than any player currently on the Thunder roster did all of last season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is awesome and Dort’s individual defense can swing games by erasing the opponent’s primary ball-handler… But Oklahoma’s -6.1 net rating before Gilgeous-Alexander’s injury would still put them below a 22-win pace by EWL. Their apocalyptic -17.6 net rating after the injury led to a 3-26 finish. If Gilgeous-Alexander so much as breaks a nail the Thunder are going to shelve him again and go in the tank. Rarely are teams so willing to cooperate in making you money. The Thunder are going to do so. Take the under here. Gilgeous-Alexander might make you a little nervous early on, but the front office will take the reins down the stretch and make you your money.
2020-21 record: 42-30
2020-21 EWL: 41-31
2020-21 82-game pace: 48-34
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 47-35
Portland’s last two seasons have been derailed, in large part, by three things:
- Injuries. CJ McCollum missed 25 games last year. Jusuf Nurkic has played only 45 games over the past two seasons. Rodney Hood and Zach Collins played even less for them.
- Wings. Portland let Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu go in the 2019 offseason without properly replacing them. Robert Covington was a success last season, but Derrick Jones Jr. was such a zero offensively that Terry Stotts couldn’t leave him in the rotation.
- The backup front-court. Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony were two of the worst defenders in all of basketball. When they were on the floor together last season, the Blazers allowed 118.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. When neither played? That same defense allowed only 109.6 points per 100 possessions.
The post-trade deadline starting lineup with Norman Powell was one of the best five-man units in basketball last season. It outscored its regular-season opponents by 103 points in 370 minutes, and then in the first-round loss to Denver, it beat the Nuggets by 47 points. The problem was every other lineup.
Well, every other lineup shouldn’t be as destructive this season. Cody Zeller and Tony Snell aren’t exactly stars, but they’re significant defensive improvements over Anthony and Kanter. Larry Nance Jr. is the perfect role player for Portland, a multi-positional defender that can shoot, pass and dive to the rim for lobs. He’ll likely start the season coming off of the bench, but Portland can close with him at center to create one of the most devastating offensive fivesomes in the NBA. Ben McLemore can make shots! Maybe Nassir Little or Anfernee Simons pops! Portland doesn’t need its bench to dominate. It just needs it to survive. If it stays healthy, it’s going to do so.
There are credible reasons to doubt Portland. Damian Lillard could ask out at any time and it’s not as though they’re certain to stay healthy this season. There’s no telling what kind of coach Chauncey Billups turns out to be. But if things finally break right for Portland, they’re going to win 50 or more games. The Blazers haven’t put such a well-rounded group around Lillard since the LaMarcus Aldridge era.
2020-21 record: 52-20
2020-21 EWL: 57-15
2020-21 82-game pace: 59-23
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 65-17
The Clippers made the basketball world just how good the Jazz really were last season. They didn’t just beat opponents. They decimated them. They were one of only three teams over the past five seasons to post a net rating of plus-9 or better (along with the 2020 Bucks and 2017 Warriors), and they did that despite missing Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell for 40 combined games. Internal redundancies make the Jazz almost injury-proof. Mitchell and Conley can scale up to cover for one another. So can Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic. The Jazz have so much shooting and ball-handling that no single loss would devastate them offensively.
Rudy Gobert missing time, on the other hand, would destroy Utah’s defense. The Clippers series showed just how much trouble the Jazz have denying dribble penetration. What ultimately did them in was that the Clippers were spaced so well that Gobert’s nuclear rim-protection was rendered inert because every player Ty Lue put on the floor could shoot, so when Gobert did what he was supposed to do by staying at home under the basket and protecting once those guards got into the paint, they could just kick it out to the open man for easy 3-pointers. This is a playoff problem against a few opponents with very specific personnel. It is not something that is going to impact the Jazz on a night-to-night basis. Gobert remains by far the NBA’s best regular-season defender. His rim-protection is what allows the Jazz to get away with their weak perimeter defense. The Jazz hardly give up any 3-point attempts because Gobert needs no help at the basket. Losing him would destroy their defense… but he’s missed only six games over the past three seasons.
What got lost in the stunning upset to the Clippers was how that series started. Luka Doncic pushed those same Clippers to the absolute brink in the first round, and then, for two games in Salt Lake City, Donovan Mitchell was just as dominant. Without Conley, Mitchell scored 41 points on a 53/44/80 shooting line. Then he sprained his ankle and all hell broke loose, but that leap cannot be ignored. For two playoff games, Mitchell completely outplayed Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers had no answer for him whatsoever. If any of that carries over into this season, Mitchell becomes an MVP candidate and Utah wins 60 games. Frankly, that might be a low total. Their EWL pace over 82 games last season would have been 65.
This one is extremely straightforward. The Jazz have the highest defensive floor in basketball thanks to Gobert. They have an extremely high offensive floor thanks to all of their shooting. Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall give them sorely needed depth and small-ball five looks that weren’t available to them last season. Their ceiling is as high as Mitchell can push it. The Jazz still have playoff issues to sort out, but they are an incredible regular season that is going to hit the over if they stay healthy.