The Southwest division was once the most fearsome in all of basketball. Back when the Texas Triangle was at its peak and Memphis was still grit and grinding its way deep into the playoffs, there were years in which the division produced four 50-win teams. They might not get to one this year as all five teams are in something of a retooling period.
That won’t be the case for long. Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson and Jalen Green are going to be duking it out for the Southwest crown for years to come. But for now? This is one of the harder NBA divisions to peg. There are justifiable cases for all five teams falling under their projected win total. I settled on two overs out of the five based largely on individual star power, but for now? Pessimism is warranted in this corner of the Western Conference. 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 via Caesars Sportsbook.
2020-21 record: 42-30
2020-21 EWL: 42-30
2020-21 82-game pace: 48-34
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 48-34
There are two main layers of risk in betting the Dallas over. The first is injury. Luka Doncic is the only ball-handler on this team, and Dallas made a calculated decision to prioritize adding role players that he could maximize over a more traditional point guard that could ease his burden. We’ve seen both the benefits and downsides of that strategy. Doncic nearly knocked out the Clippers without another ball-handler because the players around him made all of the shots he created for them. Improve the defense and Doncic is enough to carry a team to 50 wins. But if he misses 15 or 20 games? Prepare for Dallas to lose most of them.
That might not have been the case under Rick Carlisle. His prickly personality aside, Carlisle is a strategic genius whose best trait might be his ability to cultivate bench lineups with untraditional ball-handlers. He’s the sort of coach that turns Jalen Brunson into a Sixth Man of the Year Candidate. Jason Kidd has never shown that same promise. It’s not a coincidence that Milwaukee improved by 16 wins the year after he left. Maybe he’s grown as a Lakers assistant and maybe he hasn’t, but his hyper-aggressive Milwaukee defense was antiquated before he even implemented it, and his Bucks teams had among the worst shot-selection in basketball.
Maybe those things matter more with Giannis Antetokounmpo, a unicorn that needs hyper-specific circumstances to thrive, than Doncic, a more traditional ball-handler. Maybe they won’t. But Dallas, for all of its faults as an organization, tends to be fairly analytically inclined. The Mavericks wouldn’t have hired Kidd if they didn’t think they could steer him away from some of his worst impulses. If this was purely a relationship-driven hire, Jamahl Mosley would probably be the coach right now.
These are all reasons to bet the under. So why am I taking the over? Doncic. Only Doncic. He’s that good. Reggie Bullock helps the defense just enough. Kristaps Porzingis almost certainly won’t be worse than he was last year. After a 9-13 start, Dallas closed the season with a 31-17 record. That’s a 53-win pace. Having an MVP candidate ball-handler gives you an impossibly high floor, and if Doncic is as good as the past two years have suggested he can be, it’s just hard to see him winning below 47 games on a team with this much shooting and even an average defense.
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2020-21 record: 17-55
2020-21 EWL: 17-55
2020-21 82-game pace: 19-63
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 19-63
Houston is probably making the right call in trying to move John Wall. It might be costly, but the $91 million he is owed isn’t doing them any roster-building favors, and if Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. are going to grow into the backcourt of the future, they’re going to need as many developmental shots and minutes as possible. Wall got in the way of that, but that doesn’t mean he was hurting the team in the short term. It really helps to have an adult in the room.
Young guards are really, really hard to build around in the short term. The Rockets are probably starting a backcourt with only 76 combined games of NBA experience, and these are the ball-handlers who are responsible for setting up the entire offense and preventing dribble penetration defensively. Go look at how Cleveland has fared in a similar situation with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. The long-term upside is tantalizing, but in the short term, there are going to be plenty of bumps here.
We also need to discuss Houston’s long-term outlook here. The Rockets don’t control their first-round picks between 2024-26. That incentivizes them to lose as much as possible over the next two seasons so that they can ensure themselves as much young talent as possible while tanking is still a viable option. If Porter and Green look ready to take a step next season, the Rockets might punt on the tanking plan, but for now, it seems likely that the organization will try for another top draft pick this season.
2020-21 record: 38-34
2020-21 EWL: 39-33
2020-21 82-game pace: 43-39
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 44-38
The Grizzlies are going to fall under the projected win total because everything they did this offseason suggests that they don’t mind if they fall below their projected win total. You don’t trade arguably your best player and all of your cap flexibility for draft capital as Memphis did if your heart is set on making the playoffs.
Yes, Memphis has a ton of young talent already in the building. Eventually, that talent is going to make the Grizzlies a reliable playoff team. There are just a lot of kinks that need to be worked out before that happens. Losing Jonas Valanciunas essentially deprives Ja Morant of his security blanket. No longer can the Grizzlies salvage broken half-court possessions by dumping the ball inside for a decent post-up. Now, the onus is on the young players to generate shots.
They’re going to get there, eventually. We’re just going to see a lot of bumpy minutes given to younger players in the interim. Ziaire Williams was a project at No. 10 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr. has struggled to stay on the floor for the past two seasons, but Memphis would need him to be healthy all year to make a real playoff push. The list goes on and on. There are too many questions here to bet the over. That’s sort of the point. The Grizzlies knew about those questions. They’re spending this season answering them so that they don’t have to in the future.
2020-21 record: 31-41
2020-21 EWL: 35-37
2020-21 82-game pace: 35-47
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 40-42
The Pelicans might genuinely have the worst defense in the NBA this season. They already ranked 23rd in the league on the end of the floor last season, then they downgraded significantly by turning Steven Adams into Jonas Valanciunas, Lonzo Ball into Devonte’ Graham and Eric Bledsoe into nothing. This is still a very young team, and it’s one on its third coach in three years. They are going to give up a lot of points.
But I’m taking the over because the offensive upside is as high as essentially any team outside of Brooklyn. Consider the following: B-Ball Index gave Zion Williamson a grade of 100 in finishing at the rim last season. Obviously, that’s the best figure in the NBA. His shot quality at the rim? Only a meager 12.2. To put that in perspective, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a grade of 99.9 in terms of finishing… but a grade of 82.6 in terms of shot quality. Giannis had a great ecosystem and teammates… and Zion was still a better finisher last season.
His support system isn’t great by any means, but it’s gotten significantly better. The upgrade from Adams to Valanciunas is night and day offensively. He’s not exactly a gunner, but he’s at least capable of shooting outside of the paint. Graham is one of the NBA’s best high-volume 3-point shooters, and the fact that he’s a non-threat to finish inside of the arc hardly matters on this roster. Brandon Ingram remains a perfectly serviceable sidekick. This is the most shooting Williamson has ever had around him.
If he gets hurt? Pencil the Pelicans in for the lottery, but the risk isn’t quite as high as you’d think. He missed only 11 games last season and only five at Duke. But Williamson, like Doncic, is such a transcendent offensive player that when he is on the floor, New Orleans has one of the highest offensive floors in the NBA. Now, they have a roster that is actually capable of enhancing him a bit.
2020-21 record: 33-39
2020-21 EWL: 31-41
2020-21 82-game pace: 38-44
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 35-47
San Antonio did the right thing letting DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills walk. They were in no man’s land. Now they can rebuild properly. But DeRozan and Mills carried an enormous ball-handling load for San Antonio. No one left on the roster had a usage rate above 24 percent last year. The Spurs are hoping one of their young guys pop. Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, DeJounte Murray and Derrick White have all shown flashes, but are any of them capable of stepping up? How long will it take the Spurs to settle on a pecking order?
The Doug McDermott addition will help. Spacing the floor for young players finding their footing is critical. But a number of shooters have left the Spurs in recent years only to find much more success elsewhere with a greener light. Davis Bertans never took more than 4.4 3-pointers per game with the Spurs. Then he got to Washington, took 8.7 per game and got an enormous contract. Will the reverse be true for McDermott? And if so, how much value does he have if his shooting volume dips?
There are a lot of good players here, and eventually, one might grow into a great one. There’s just no obvious candidate to do so, so until we see it happen, a rebuilding year in which a new organizational hierarchy is established is the likeliest outcome.