The exercise of handicapping the NBA Over/Under season wins market is an important part of evaluating my priors that will be used in game-by-game betting as we start the season. This article lays out the 10 teams my numbers disagree the most on relative to the market, with some discussion as to why there may be a misfit and other considerations for betting the win totals market.
Atlanta Hawks Under 35.5
This is the biggest discrepancy between my numbers and the market. I make the fair total for the Hawks 26.5, and I am struggling to understand what the market sees in this team that warrants such a significant upgrade from 2019-20. The Hawks managed only 20 wins in their 67 games, a winning percentage that would extrapolate to about 22 wins in a 72-game season. In terms of Pythagorean win expectation, the Hawks actually were overachievers and should have managed only 16 wins based on their scoring differential. Their big free-agency moves included signing Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo, neither of which addresses the team’s key weakness: defense.
The Hawks’ defensive rating of 114.8 was fourth worst in the NBA last season. The lower-tier Eastern Conference teams are very weak, so it’s possible the Hawks could distinguish themselves from the true bottom. However, expecting them to perform to a near-.500 level is unrealistic, barring a major acquisition to improve at forward and/or center.
Brooklyn Nets Under 45.5
It’s understandable that the Nets have been darlings of the betting market this preseason. We finally get to see Kevin Durant in a Brooklyn uniform after he missed all of last season recovering from a torn Achilles. If Durant returns to form, the Nets clearly will be Eastern Conference title contenders as peak Durant is on the same level as two-time defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Two main factors are separating my numbers from the market on the Nets: I have tempered expectations for how well Durant and Kyrie Irving will play early in the season as they adjust to a new system and define their roles and responsibilities. And to a certain degree, the market is pricing in the potential that a third superstar (namely James Harden) will be added at some point this season. I do not expect Harden to be traded from Houston this season. So, as currently rostered, I am projecting the Nets to win 40 of their 72 games, leading to an Under play on their win total at 45.5.
Charlotte Hornets Under 25.5
The Hornets’ roster continues to evolve, and the franchise may finally turn the corner if rookie LaMelo Ball becomes a star. The problem for this season, however, is that the Hornets’ youth and inexperience will be thrown into the fire after a disrupted 2019-20 season and a shortened offseason. It is unrealistic to expect young players such as Ball to contribute much in the early going, especially considering his role as point guard. Plus, the Hornets need a lot of help, particularly offensively, as they had the second-lowest offensive rating in 2019-20, scoring 106.3 points per 100 possessions. Charlotte was painfully poor in late-game situations last season and still lacks a true crunch-time scorer (sorry, Gordon Hayward fans). This alone likely will cost the Hornets wins this season. Based on their Pythagorean wins expectation, they overperformed more than any other team in the NBA last season, winning 23 games when their expected record was 17-48. This overachievement may be anchoring expectations too high in the market as this young squad will experience growing pains. My fair total is 22, so another Under is in play at 25.5.
Denver Nuggets Under 44.5 Wins
Expectations are high for the Western Conference semifinalists, who have the third-highest win total on the board in the West after the Lakers and Clippers. The team returns largely intact, and it’s reasonable to expect Michael Porter Jr. to continue to improve as his role is expanded this season. The Nuggets had a nice playoff run last season, but they were the beneficiaries of an unsustainable performance level by Jamal Murray that may be influencing the betting market. Even with the advantages of altitude for their home games, the Nuggets were surprising overachievers last season, winning 46 games compared with their Pythagorean expectation of 42. Top to bottom, the Western Conference is substantially more talented than the East, and it will be very difficult for the Nuggets to exceed expectations again, considering the clustering in the schedule that may take away some of their home-court advantage. A fair win total by my numbers is 43, so the edge is narrow, but another Under looks like the play at 44.5.
Houston Rockets Over 33.5 Wins
There’s a new regime in Houston and, with that, drastically lower expectations. After winning at least 50% of their games every season throughout the James Harden era (many times well in excess of 50%), the Rockets are lined to win only 46% of their games, which reflects a significant adjustment by the market. This suggests the market has some certainty that Harden will be dealt and a franchise cornerstone piece won’t be coming back. As noted above, there has been no clear indication from the team that things are as certain as this number implies. The Rockets made waves this offseason, trading Russell Westbrook for John Wall and signing Boogie Cousins. With an engaged Harden, the Rockets clearly are in the mix for the Western Conference playoffs by my numbers. Without Harden, I am still projecting the Rockets as being approximately a .500 team, so the Over is a fair play as my numbers suggest 38.5 wins, incorporating a 50% chance that Harden finishes the season on another team.
Milwaukee Bucks Over 51 Wins
For the second consecutive season, the playoffs were a disappointment for the top-seeded Bucks. While their lack of playoff success has caused consternation, the Bucks clearly have figured out the regular season and stand alone as the strongest team in the East. The team is slightly less deep this season and may have growing pains early as they incorporate new pieces, but their regular-season rating from 2019-20 suggested they were even stronger than their superlative record of 56-17; their Pythagorean win expectation was 59 wins. The Bucks had the top defensive rating of 102.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, a top-10 offensive rating of 112.4 points scored per 100 possession, which gave them a league-leading + 9.5 net rating, which was three points clear of the next-best team and the highest net rating since the 2016-17 Warriors. Even if the Bucks take a small step backward, they have the talent to stay in play for the top overall record again this season. Fair price by my numbers is 54.5 wins, so I will gladly back the Over on the highest total on the board at 51.
Oklahoma City Thunder Over 23.5 Wins
The Thunder lost a lot of top talent after playing well enough to earn a No. 5 seed in the Western Conference last season. Chris Paul is now a Sun, Danilo Gallinari is now a Hawk and Steven Adams is now a Pelican. However, the team’s young core remains intact, and a team led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort with contributions from veterans Al Horford and George Hill will still compete, especially in games out of conference. The low total reflects an aggressive adjustment considering the current roster. My fair number for Oklahoma City is 32 wins. It’s possible the veterans could be dealt during the season as this team positions itself for the future, but I expect general manager Sam Presti to repeat the approach used last season when the Thunder played out the full season with their opening-day roster. It’s unlikely the Thunder will be in the playoff mix, but 24 wins is imminently attainable even if the veterans are moved during the season, so the Over is the look.
San Antonio Spurs Over 29.5 Wins
Much was made of the youth movement for teams such as the Heat and Suns in the bubble, but the Spurs also relied heavily on young talent with key players such as Dejounte Murray and Derrick White taking meaningful steps in their progression. It is clear that the organization is ready to move on from LaMarcus Aldridge as a featured player, and, with the young players continuing to mature, it is clearly the right decision. Coach Gregg Popovich and his outstanding staff will continue to get the most out of their talent, which brings the Over on this low total into focus. The Spurs managed 32 wins in 71 games last season, underachieving their Pythagorean expectation by one game. Expecting this team to repeat that level of success or improve upon it is reasonable, so the Over 29.5 is a nice play with my fair total of 32 wins.
Toronto Raptors Over 42.5 Wins
Great coaching makes for a great Over play on season wins, and the Raptors are no exception as Nick Nurse has consistently gotten the most out of his talent. Based on my assessment, Nurse is the best coach from a game-planning standpoint in the NBA, using defensive scheming to force opposing teams to underperform their expectation, particularly with respect to 3-point shooting. The Raptors have lost some players, but their crunch-time unit will be as strong as last season, which should help them put games away and compete with the best in the NBA. They slightly overachieved last season, winning 53 games compared with their 52-wins expectation, so it’s unclear why the market has downgraded them to the tune of 10 wins. Their win total of 42.5 is two lower than the Heat and 76ers, which is difficult to defend considering their equivalent talent. My fair total is 47, so the Over has a decent edge.
Washington Wizards Under 32.5 Wins
Bad coaching makes for a great Under play on season wins, and the Wizards retained perennial underachiever Scott Brooks, reuniting him with former Thunder star Russell Westbrook. The pairing of John Wall and Bradley Beal was very strong before Wall’s injury, and Beal is a true star. However, matching Westbrook and Beal is not a perfect fit, and this group’s defensive woes will be as significant a problem as it was last season. My numbers suggest the Wizards were a true 25-win team last season in their 72 games, and the adjustment up based on the Westbrook trade seems optimistic to me. The Wizards were last in defensive rating in 2019-20, conceding 115.5 points per 100 possessions and leading them to a bottom-5 net rating. The same defensive scheme and talent suggests a repeat of this level and will find the Wizards losing games they should win. Fair price for me is 28.5 wins, so I see a four-game margin to backing the Under.