At my Sunday morning basketball game, my buddy John and I talked about how tough the Western Conference will be this season. For example, we talked about how much talent the Portland Trail Blazers have. At center, they have Deandre Ayton (from the Suns) and Rob Williams (from the Celtics), both of whom have played big roles in recent NBA Finals. Then there’s a solid power forward in Jerami Grant, and perimeter players include Matisse Thybulle, Anfernee Simons, Malcom Brogdon, Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson. I still love Victor Wembanyama’s comment about Scoot: ”He’s really a great player. If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot.”
Classic, but here’s the thing about this very talented Blazers squad: they are picked to finish last in the Western Conference, which gave me the idea to do an “over and under” on the Western Conference before this season starts. This won’t be a deep analysis of each team. Instead, I will give the Vegas projection for each team, the number of wins from last season, a comment or two about the team, and whether I would take the over or under if gambling were legal. Oh wait, gambling IS legal. So this will be whether I would take the over or under if I had enough confidence (or stupidity) to actually put some money down. (I don’t.)
Starting at the top:
Nuggets — 52.5 (last season: 53)
The defending champs lost most of their color. Uncle Jeff Green went to the Rockets (his 11th team) and Bruce Brown parlayed his excellent play for the Nuggets into a big contract with the Pacers (where he will miss the mountains). The Nuggets will have to hope Christian Braun (pronounced Brown) can replace the other Brown and that Nikola Jokic (pronounced The Best Player in the World) can repeat last year’s stunning performance. I take the OVER.
Suns — 51.5 (last season: 45)
The Suns went all in on offense, adding Bradley Beal to an already high-scoring team once they got Kevin Durant. But who will play defense? Look for a lot of scores in 130s. I take the UNDER.
Warriors — 48.5 (last season: 44)
Lots of questions. Can Curry stay great for yet another year? Can Klay Thompson become consistently good? Can Chris Paul help or will he be a distraction? Was losing Jordan Poole addition by subtraction? Can a team this small continue to succeed? I take the OVER, but don’t feel very confident about it. (Emotion over logic? I still root for Curry’s post-KD team.)
Lakers — 47.5 (last season: 43)
The Lakers recovered from the disastrous Russell Westbrook trade by getting rid of him mid-season and getting better and deeper with several other moves. Undrafted Austin Reaves may wind up on the list of best undrafted players ever. Will their two other stars — you know their names — stay healthy? I take the OVER.
Mavericks — 45.5 (last season: 38)
The Mavs rolled the dice last year trading for Kyrie Irving. It didn’t work. They went 8-12 after the trade and fell out of the playoff race. I don’t think it will work this year either. UNDER.
Clippers — 45.5 (last season: 44)
Spurs fans were understandably upset when Kawhi Leonard wanted out, leading to his trade to the Raptors (which worked for Toronto) and then the Clippers. But would the Spurs have enjoyed paying maximum money to Kawhi for the past several years for minimal actual floor time? It has not worked for the Clippers. Kawhi is a truly wonderful player when he can stay on the floor, but he hasn’t been able to do so. UNDER.
Grizzlies — 45.5 (last season: 51)
Yet another team with a 45.5 projection. This is well behind last year’s win total of 51, presumably because Ja Morant was hit with a 25-game suspension for “being a complete idiot”, “what was he thinking,” and “that’s not what we meant when we said you were a gunner,” (quoting from the NBA’s official announcement). But the Grizzlies have gotten used to playing well without him for long stretches in the past and should do so again. Plus, he will be well rested when he returns. I take the OVER.
Timberwolves — 44.5 (last season: 42)
The relatively optimistic Vegas projection must assume that the KAT/Gobert pairing will get better as they have more time to figure it out and that Anthony Edwards will continue his ascension into the NBA stratosphere. I agree with the latter, but not the former. I take the UNDER.
Pelicans — 44.5 (last season: 42)
This team has a lot of guys who are talented and play hard. Unfortunately, I am hearing the team’s best player is already coasting and people are not happy. If a team is unhappy at the start of the season, that does not bode well. I take the UNDER.
Kings — 44.5 (last season: 48)
Last year’s feel-good story team was blessed with remarkable luck staying healthy. They gained valuable playoff experience in a seven-game series with the Warriors. The Kings also signed EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov, whom I know nothing else about. Of course, that MVP one thing is pretty impressive. I don’t think the Kings will be worse, so I take the OVER.
Thunder — 44.5 (last season: 40)
Actually, the Thunder was (were?) another feel-good story, behind a transcendent season from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a bunch of other good players. And they add Chet Holmgren, a player remarkably similar to a guy the Spurs just drafted. They also have a bunch of good draft picks they could use to trade for a good player mid-season. Even though Vegas has them improving by a solid 4.5 games, I still go with OVER.
(As an aside, Vegas has seven teams projected to win either 45.5 or 44.5 games (you know, if it was possible to win half a game). If Vegas is right, these seven teams will finish in 5th though 11th place, and thus either make the playoffs, the Play-In game or be the odd man out. The difference between finishing 5th or 11th may be determined by tie-breaker rules.)
Jazz — 37 (last season: 35.5)
Remember when the Jazz used to be like the Spurs by winning 50+ games every year? Of course, unlike the Spurs, they never won it all. I told you at the start that I didn’t do a great deal of analysis, and that goes double for the Jazz. My total guess is UNDER.
Rockets — 31.5 (last season: 22)
In an attempt to accelerate their timeline, the Rockets spent a bunch of money on a guy everyone likes (Fred VanVleet), another player no one likes (Dillon Brooks) and the most loved player in the league — Boban!! The Rockets also hired an excellent coach (Ime Udoka). Still, I think it will take Ime more than one year to root out all the bad habits the Rockets have developed over the past few years. UNDER.
Spurs — 28.5 (last season: 22)
OVER, OVER, OVER.
Blazers — 28.5 (last season: 33)
See my discussion above. The Blazers’ main problem will be having to play against all the other Western Conference teams. But I bet (without actually betting) Scoot will be great, and the Blazers will play hard every night. This should allow them to win some games against better teams who are not playing that hard. OVER.
So I have eight overs and seven unders, which seems about right. If I were to do this again next weekend, I might go the other way on many of the picks. Yet another reason I am not putting actual money on any of these.