Do you have a lot of hard-earned money? Would you like to throw it all away? It’s time to examine my best bets for the five most generous NBA over-unders so that you have nothing to bring the children for Christmas.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Vegas: 41.5, My Prediction: 38
There was a parade, and I rained on it. The Timberwolves are one of the league’s recent darlings. The ascendance of Karl-Anthony Towns, addition of Kris Dunn to the underrated Rubio, and the presence of a player with basically the same name as the savior-protagonist from Ender’s Game has given this team an exciting young core that will grow into something special. Throw in the hoarse bellows of “Ice! Ice!” from portly walking basketball encyclopedia Tom Thibodeau, and you can see where this line comes from.
What I don’t see is where the 12 game improvement comes from, even with a newly installed defense and everyone overloading the strong-side. Unfortunately, defensive guru that he is, Thibodeau was never the world’s most creative basketball coach. The Bulls did zoom up the offensive efficiency rankings when Rose still had two working legs, but this is asking a bit much. Even the Durant-era Thunder had more growing pains, and they had three future MVP candidates.
New York Knicks – Vegas: 40, My Prediction: 37
The New York Knicks won 32 games last year with an involved albeit poor-shooting Carmelo, who topped off the team at a good but unmemorable 20.4 PER. Melo figures to improve on his average-ish 224th-ranked true shooting percentage of 0.53. And while Porzingis should make some of the 2nd-year leap, this is a team that added the solid but unspectacular Courtney Lee, lost Robin Lopez, and ported over once-Chicago icons Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. I have watched a great deal of the Bulls over the years, eventually decreasing as I grew more and more depressed last year. For a person with zero personality and supposedly bringing zero drama compared to draft-mate Michael Beasley, Rose has brought a ton of drama.
He has feuded with Chicago management over his injuries (understandably on both sides), clashed with running-mate Jimmy Butler, and the less said of his current court case the better. Aside from the drama, he also brought atrocious defense. He was constantly hung up on screens and out of position. Once he used to make up for it with explosive offense, but last season he sported a 349th-ranked true shooting percentage of an abysmal 0.479 due to poor three point shooting, an inability to finish, and an inability to draw contact. Joakim Noah was somehow worse. As a center.
His .406 is almost an incredible historical accomplishment. Once the heart of the Bulls and a top-5 MVP candidate, Noah is now a shell of himself. I would love nothing better than to see him recover his moxie, but he’s a $17 million back-up this year.
Memphis Grizzlies – Vegas: 43.5, My Prediction: 40
For a long time, the Memphis Grizzlies won 49-55 games, and they made it to the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs so many times you could pretty much pencil them in. Except their core of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley has aged out. Randolph is being moved to the bench by the highly-regarded new coach, David Fizdale. Conley and Gasol are past 30 and both coming off injury-ravaged seasons, and new addition Chandler Parsons is walking porcelain.
They have a great deal of talent, but the odds say one of these four will go down, and their bench is so paper-thin you could use them for the screens of a Japanese door.
They did well to go 42-40 with their MASH unit last year, but with a -2.24 point differential and further added risk, I’m not going to hold my breath.
Portland Trail Blazers – Vegas: 45.5, My Prediction: 41
By all accounts, the Trail Blazers had a miracle season last year. They overperformed on their way to 44 wins and a date with the Warriors in the second round. Built on the backbone of rising stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum with a young crew, they seem a natural pick to run up the ranks and build upon their foundation.
My sense of skepticism kicks in when I see a team that overperformed that much, however. They’re ripe for a regression to the mean. Remember the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks of yesteryears? They stumbled in steep falls after they were the toast of the towns. Coupled with their air time in the playoffs last season, they’re heavily overrated. They barely overcame a crippled, starless Clippers despite being healthy, and then were promptly eviscerated by a Curry-less Warriors.
Golden State Warriors – Vegas: 66.5, My Prediction: 70
So this is a tough one. 67 wins is a lot of wins. Their 73 last year was a confluence of all the stars aligning in the universe (except for the most important one). A decrease of 7 wins is understandable as the outgoing depth of Ezeli, Bogut, and Barnes is tough to overcome. The Warriors have had years to build internally and grow as a core. But Zaza Pachulia is a surprisingly competent player, which he showed with the Mavericks, even if he did tail off.
I’ve been wrong before with these superteams and my crushing pessimism about league competitive equality. I overestimated the Heat (despite four finals and two rings), definitely the Kobe/Nash/Dwight/Bynum Lakers, incredibly definitely the Brooklyn Nets with Pierce, KG, Joe Johnson, Kirilenko, Brook Lopez, and the immortal Deron Williams. But Durant makes too much sense. He slots in too well as a gravity-bending three through five, someone who can defend fours and hound guards. The Warriors will win 70 games and the championship. They might even remain title favorites even with a major injury.
They scare me, and they should scare you too.