New Orleans Pelicans
Subtractions: Hollis Thompson, Donatas Motiejunas, Lance Stephenson, Tyreke Evans, Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams, Terrence Jones, Jarrett Jack, Tim Frazier, Axel Toupane, Anthony Brown, Buddy Hield, Archie Goodwin, Wayne Selden Jr., Quinn Cook, Langston Galloway
Vegas Over/Under: 39.5
I'm a Rondo guy. I've always been a Rondo guy. There's some question now about whether he's past his prime, but I believe he still has stuff in the tank. The thing that's always surprised be about Rondo is that his critics love to dwell on his faults as if there are no points on the sliding scale between "fantastic two-way player" and "one-dimensional player" for any productive NBA talent to reside. Rondo has faults, for sure: his jumper is awful, his finishing around the rim isn't great, and he sometimes doesn't want to pass unless it's an assist. But for all that, he's also a gifted passer, a net positive defender (miss me with the selective picking out of youtube clips that he looks terrible on, or the hot takes about how he gambles too much), and a good rebounder. Furthermore, he thrives in offenses that don't need him to take shots, which is what Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins are going to do in New Orleans.
Having said that, if Rondo and Allen share much court time, there are serious floor spacing concerns. But my feeling is that this is more important during the playoffs than the regular season. During the regular season, having the better defenders and rebounders will just win you a lot of games against the lion's share of opponents with complacent coaching staffs who aren't adjusting their defensive schemes on a nightly basis to fit their opponents. That is, teams won't sag off of Rondo and Allen (or for that matter, Cousins) as much as they should because they'll run the same rotation schemes they always do out of pure habit.
I'm not sold that this team is capable of competing for the 8th spot in the west, but I think a .500 record is well within their reach. We all know I'm not a huge Cousins fan, but Anthony Davis is a monster, and I like the players they added more than the ones they let go, so I'm bullish that the team got better in the offseason.
Vegas Over/Under: 37.5
I feel like I've been waiting for the tires to finally pop on this team for as long as I've had this website. There may have been a year where I picked them to do well, but I can't remember it; it feels like Memphis should have collapsed under the crushing blow of Old Man Time's fists a long time ago. And you know what? I think this is *finally* the year.
Now, to be fair, a lot of the aging players have simply left; they've actually gotten a bit younger. The problem with this is that those aging players were still (mysteriously!) producing at a high level, and the team hasn't brought on very good replacements. I don't like this team's options at the wing. I like Parsons, but injury bounce-back years are usually iffy, and it sounds like they're going to play him at the "small-ball four," which is a disaster in the making. When are coaches going to finally catch on that if you don't have a great "small" power forward, you can't just plug in any random small forward and pretend? It doesn't work that way. Golden State can do this because Green is a good rebounder and rim protector. Cleveland can do this because LeBron IS NOT SMALL. If you don't have one of those freaky "small" guys who can do "big" things, why do you think this will work for your team?
All of this is compounded by the spectre of "tanking." At some point, as the playoffs begin to look less realistic, a tipping point will probably set in where Memphis either decides that that lottery balls are more important, or to trade Marc Gasol for younger players, or that playing their (few) younger players more minutes is a priority.
Vegas Over/Under: 35
I think Vegas is actually pretty on the nose with this one. I feel optimistic about this team, but I wonder how much of that is my bias that Dennis Smith, Jr is so much fun to watch -- he's my early pick to win the Rookie of the Year award. He should get plenty of minutes and score plenty of points, and that's the ROY formula. A lot of you will bring up Ball, but I think Smith, Jr. is a little more likely than Ball to average points-per-game in the teens, and this is what will decide voters in a close race. Also, note that this doesn't always overlap with my thoughts on who will deserve to win the award.
Looking at the rest of the roster, it's hard to see any changes that really make this a much different team than last year's 30-win team, with one exception: they now get a full season of Nerlens Noel, and as you all know, I'm a huge fan of Nerlens. His unique combination of defensive skills put him in pretty rare company. The list of seasons with the same number of blocks, rebounds, and steals has names like "Hakeem," "Ben," and "David" in it several times. His offensive skill set is limited, but this is a coaching staff that can probably help him with that, and this is a roster where other players are called on to score.
Vegas Over/Under: 55.5
"There's only one ball." Expect to hear this one a lot on TNT and ESPN, and especially if the Rockets start out slow. And it is certainly relevant. Even though Chris Paul is undoubtedly an unselfish player who is a willing passer, it's also true that up until now in his career, he's needed the ball in his hands quite a bit to be effective. This is because one of the reasons that Paul is such a good passer is that he is himself a very potent scorer, which gives him a lot of gravity. And while he can certainly exert gravity off the ball because of his excellent 3-point shooting, this isn't quite the same as the gravity he exerts by probing defenses with his dribble penetration. He's masterful in the top of the key, where he's always a danger to pull up for a high-percentage shot, and from where many of his signature lob passes to cutting big men come.
My instinct is that there's plenty of ball to go around for both Paul and Harden, similar to the way both Wade and LeBron shared the ball handling duties in Miami, especially given that there are a lot of players on this roster that don't need to hold the ball to be effective. Most of the rest of this roster is full of guys who are there to cut to the hoop or run to the corners/slot when Harden or Paul penetrate. On defense, Tucker will be a welcome addition, Paul has always been a great on-ball defender, and Capela should continue to improve. It also won't hurt that they no longer employ Corey Brewer.
I really like this team and think that, on paper, they're much better than 55 wins. Whether that translates to results will depend on injuries, playing time, and whether or not there really is only one (metaphorical) ball.
San Antonio Spurs
Vegas Over/Under: 55
The Spurs have won 50 games or more every year for 20 years (adjusting for shortened seasons), and are coming off a 61 win season having only lost one significant win producer. The only reason they might miss that mark this year is the health of Kawhi Leonard. There is no timetable for Leonard's return, which is probably really freaking out Spurs fans, because the downgrade from Leonard to Rudy Gay is a huge one, even if we do believe that Pop can squeeze blood from a stone.
Without Leonard, this is still a good team; It's uncertain if Parker will play anytime soon, or if he'll ever be close to the same player he once was, but I think Patty Mills will probably adjust fine to starter's minutes. I'm a little concerned about Gasol's age, and of course, Ginobli is far past his prime, but Popovich has some experience managing the minutes of older players. But make no doubt -- Leonard is the difference between a mediocre playoff team and a contender. San Antonio doesn't have quite the "superstar injury insurance" depth that Golden State does.
This is a team that I traditionally hate betting on. The over is usually a high enough win total that, even when it underestimates the team, is risky to bet on because of Pop's tendency to rest players aggressively. In the NBA's new elongated schedule with fewer B2Bs, and fewer 4-games-in-5-nights scenarios, it would be tempting to take the over with Leonard healthy, but with his health uncertain, it's a fool's errand trying to predict this team's win total.