The last seven NBA Finals have included a team from the Pacific Division. The Clippers haven’t joined the Lakers, Warriors and Suns there, but they were favorites for most of the 2019-20 season. Given the consistent intrigue that this division tends to produce, it’s almost kind of the Kings to sit the postseason out every year. This coastal division is crowded enough.
That applies this year especially. The Lakers and Warriors are both trying to make it back to the top of the mountain. The Suns came two games short last season and would like to rectify that, and looming over the entire season is the mystery of Kawhi Leonard’s knee. When he comes back could determine who escapes the West in the end, but that’s an entirely different question from who dominates it in the months leading up to the postseason. That’s what we’re trying to figure out today as we go through the over/under line for each Pacific team. As always, the following caveats apply:
- 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 via Caesars Sportsbook.
2020-21 record: 39-33
2020-21 EWL: 39-33
2020-21 82-game pace: 44-38
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 44-38
I’d probably advise staying away from Golden State if I’m being honest. We just know so little about Klay Thompson’s health. There’s a school of thought suggesting that his shooting will survive the injury, but that won’t matter if he can’t move around the court as fluidly as he once did. Golden State’s motion offense relies on him flying through screens. Their defense needs him on primary ball-handlers. He’s too big of a mystery to risk much money right now. If you’re an optimist, take something with longer odds like their championship line.
But if you’re looking for another reason for Golden State optimism, here it is: the 2020-21 Warriors devoted almost 30 percent of their minutes, 5,068 out of a possible 17,305, to players who had been in the G League at some point in the past three seasons. Forget about missing stars, the Warriors desperately needed competent, NBA veterans for small bench roles. They’ve added such players this offseason. If Otto Porter Jr. is healthy, he’s the best player in the NBA making the minimum salary. Nemanja Bjelica led an NBA team in Win Shares two years ago. And then there’s the internal development. Jordan Poole grew by leaps and bounds during the season last year. James Wiseman struggled, but he’s almost certainly going to be better at least this time around.
The youth is still concerning. If Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are force-fed minutes, this could get ugly. But there’s almost no chance that the Warriors are as reliant on non-NBA-caliber players this season as they were last. Golden State went 14-5 after Wiseman went down last season. They’ve proven that, when they still want to win regular-season games, they can do so comfortably with Stephen Curry as the offense’s only engine. The priority is going to be on winning over development this season, and with Curry, that should be enough to reach 49 wins.
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2020-21 record: 47-25
2020-21 EWL: 51-21
2020-21 82-game pace: 54-28
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 58-24
The Clippers are starting the season with the same basic problem that the Nuggets are. When you open the season with an injury deficit, each progressive injury becomes that much more challenging. The Clippers already know they’re going to be without Kawhi Leonard for most of the season. What does this team look like if Paul George misses serious time too? He’s missed 42 games over the past two years. He might no longer be an 82-game player.
There’s probably some regression coming offensively as well, with or without Leonard. The Clippers were arguably the greatest jump-shooting team in NBA history last season. That relied on some outlier numbers. Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, Rajon Rondo and Luke Kennard all shot career-highs from behind the arc last season, and Nic Batum came just a hair below his best mark. Rondo is gone, but some of the incumbents are going to regress as shooters. Patrick Beverley to Eric Bledsoe injects some needed ball-handling but robs the Clippers of even more shooting.
Ty Lue is a stellar playoff coach, but his regular-season work has left something to be desired, notably on defense, where is he known to more actively taking the reins when the postseason arrives. The Clippers will be lethal when Leonard returns, and they have more ammo to make an in-season trade than you’d think, but the goal is probably going to be just sneaking into the play-in round. Once the Clippers do that, the real work begins.
2020-21 record: 42-30
2020-21 EWL: 44-28
2020-21 82-game pace: 48-34
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 50-32
There are very valid concerns about what the Lakers are going to look like in the postseason, when teams can game-plan more aggressively against Russell Westbrook off of the ball and the Lakers’ limited backcourt defense will be tested, but this is going to be a great regular-season team so long as the starters remain healthy. The Lakers are 69-29 in games Anthony Davis has played in over the past two seasons. That’s a 58-win pace, and it doesn’t account for the stretch last season in which Davis played through injuries or the regular-season bubble games that ultimately meant nothing in the standings. No matter who Davis and LeBron James have had around them since pairing up in Los Angeles, they’ve been among the very best teams in basketball between October and April.
Their best attribute in that period has been their defense. In theory, it should get worse next season. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are big losses. But let’s be realistic here. The Lakers didn’t have either James or Davis between March 21-April 22 last season. They allowed 106.7 points per 100 possessions in that span, the third-best mark in the league in that period. Frank Vogel is arguably the NBA’s best defensive coach. Give him James and Davis and he’s going to build a functioning defense. Their primary weakness under Vogel has been scoring when James goes to the bench. A Westbrook-Davis pairing should fix that right up. Spacing is much more of a playoff problem than a regular-season problem.
Durability is a concern here. Westbrook played through injuries last year and struggled early on because of them. James and Davis missed meaningful time. They might again. If they don’t? The Lakers are going to cruise to 55 wins. They have too much talent not to.
2020-21 record: 51-21
2020-21 EWL: 51-21
2020-21 82-game pace: 58-24
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 58-24
Phoenix’s incumbent youth gives the Suns upside for improvement, but the one factor almost certain to work against them more this season than last is health. Phoenix’s four best players missed only 10 combined games last season, and that happened in a season in which basically every other team dealt with serious absences. Only eight three-man lineups in all of basketball last season played 1,300 minutes. Half of them belonged to the Suns. They were the four possible combinations of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Chris Paul.
That sort of health and continuity is exceedingly rare, but even if the Suns match it this year, they are probably going to be playing opponents that are healthier than they were a year ago and had a longer offseason to rest with. We saw what reaching the Finals did to the Lakers and Heat last season. A shortened offseason for the Suns won’t have quite the same effect. The 2021 offseason was longer than 2020s and the Suns are younger than the Lakers, but if nothing else, they’re at a rest deficit entering the season. That’s before we factor in possible age-related decline for Chris Paul, who will turn 37 during the playoffs. His plant-based diet has been credited with extending his prime, but sooner or later, Father Time’s undefeated record is going to add another tick in the W column.
Phoenix is already dealing with one injury they didn’t have to contend with for most of last season. Dario Saric will presumably miss the season recovering from a torn ACL. That’s not nothing. Saric had the best net rating on the Suns last year at plus-11.5. His small-ball center lineups powered the Suns through much of their early-season adjustment period. JaVale McGee is in place as his replacement, and that extra size and strength might help solve the defensive issues that arose in the Finals, but it will do them no favors in the regular season.
The Suns remain an exceedingly dangerous playoff team. There just aren’t many rosters that combine this much defense and shotmaking. Paul remains a basketball genius. But they probably aren’t going to stack wins quite as easily as they did a year ago.
2020-21 record: 31-41
2020-21 EWL: 27-45
2020-21 82-game pace: 35-47
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 31-51
So… what’s going to happen to Buddy Hield? He thought he was going to be a Laker. Now he isn’t, and the Kings have already drafted his replacements. The Kings may no longer want him in the building, but replacing someone that just made 282 3-pointers in 71 games is no small feat. At best, Sacramento is going to have to deal with a frustrated Hield. At worst, their whole locker room is going to struggle through the sheer awkwardness of how obviously the team wants to trade him. The same holds true for Marvin Bagley. It’s rarely a good thing when multiple players want to leave a team.
Maybe the Kings could offset some of the offensive losses more Hield drama might create by running more in transition, but Luke Walton either can’t or won’t recapture the fast-break magic of Dave Joerger’s final season with the team. Sacramento needs to win on offense because it just had the second-worst defense in NBA history by allowing 116.5 points per 100 possessions. Davion Mitchell will help, but rarely can rookies be true culture-setters. Fixing the defense here is going to be a multi-year endeavor.
The outline of a good team exists here. De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are going to be major parts of that team. But there are too many holdovers that clearly won’t be a part of Sacramento’s future, and that might include the coach.