Vegas Over/Under: 48.5
I'm a bit too lazy to go back and double-check, but I believe that 2017-18 will be the first time since the launch of this website that I will have precisely $0 invested in how the Timberwolves perform (in either direction). And that's despite the fact that I think this will be the team's best year since its 2003 trip to the Western Conference Finals.1
The Wolves had a pretty eventful off-season, but I thought the moves were a mixed bag. The trade for Butler, in which the Wolves gave up almost nothing of value for a guy who's in a two-man race with James Harden for best shooting guard in the NBA, was indisputably the best in franchise history (trading OJ Mayo for both Kevin Love and Mike Miller in 2007 was pretty lopsided; it says a lot about how bad this trade was for Chicago that that trade is a distant second). On the other hand, the shuffle of Teague for Rubio was a lateral move at best, the signing of Crawford was an awful choice, and the extension of Wiggins was spectacularly unnecessary and ill-advised.
Crawford bothers me because he's way past his prime (which wasn't that good anyway), and he'll eat minutes that should go to Tyus Jones, who was on a great trajectory last season. The Wiggins deal is bothersome because it's all built on potential. First, that potential is lower than people think, and second, he'll be a restricted free agent, so there was virtually no cost to just taking a wait-and-see approach. Sure, there's an argument that not making players wait is good for morale, but when we're talking about $30 million per year, most players can pull up their big boy pants and accept that they're part of a business.
Most observers concentrate on Wiggins' age when evaluating his potential, but I like to think of it in terms of minutes. Wiggins has played about 9,000 minutes so far. This puts him way ahead of most 4th-year players in the history of the NBA (for reference, LeBron James had about 10,000 through his first three years). And in those 9000 minutes, I haven't seen a lot of evidence of improvement. He's still a poor defender. He's still a shaky ball handler. He still doesn't pass the ball very well or very willingly, and is particularly bad at passing once he puts the ball on the floor. To top it all off, he's not nearly as efficient a scorer as such a volume shooter should be. All of this makes him a very bad candidate to give 1/3rd of your salary cap allowance to, especially when Option B is to just sit back and observe for a year.
It's certainly possible that Karl Anthony Towns makes another leap (especially defensively), that Wiggins starts to realize some potential, and that Butler drags this team into the playoffs.
I just didn't bet on it.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Vegas Over/Under: 53.5
Have I mentioned that there is only one ball? It feels like I need to bring that up again, because even if we ignore all the other ways that Russell Westbrook dominates the ball, he led the NBA in shot attempts per 48 minutes (33.2), and although he was way ahead of the rest of the top 10 in this category, it's worth noting that Carmelo Anthony was one of those 10 (26.2). There's some good news in here, though, because for the most part, Westbrook's domination of the ball led to wins, whereas Melo's domination of the ball led to lots of stalled offensive sets. If Anthony isn't allowed to hold the ball as if it were The Precious, it might actually make him a more productive player.
And then there's Paul George. The thing about George is that contrary to popular perception, he's really not been that productive since his major leg injury. He hasn't been outright bad, but when the baseline expectation is "all-NBA", that's not good enough. He's also another player whose productivity suffers when he's forced to play power forward, which happened a lot in Indiana. It's unclear if that will happen in OKC, but Billy Donovan has a history of lineup experimentation.
I think expectations for this team are too high. Melo's never been the superstar that people think he is, and is now past his prime. There's a real danger here that he plays a sort of "Aging Allen Iverson spoiler" role here and takes valuable possessions away from better teammates. The loss of Kanter is going to hurt, and I don't think Patterson's defense is going to counteract it.
Portland Trail Blazers
Vegas Over/Under: 43
Not a heck of a lot of stuff changed for the Blazers. We love to refer to Mason as "the Good Plumlee" and it is certainly worrisome that his departure might mean more minutes for Meyers Leonard. It's tempting to think that Nurkic is about to have a breakout year, but my expectations are tempered because that's how I react to small sample sizes.
The team won 39 games last year. Are they really 4 games better? If they are, what's the parlay that needs to happen for that to come to pass? 1) Nurkic's improvement wasn't a fluke, 2) Leonard either doesn't play or makes a big leap at age 25, and 3) McCollum and/or Lilard continue improving. That's a pretty big parlay.
It feels like Portland should have made a move this offseason. They really need another star to pair with Lillard to move to the next level. But I suspect the amount of money they have tied up in McCollum is going to make that difficult going forward.
Vegas Over/Under: 45.5
Not a lot of additions to this team, and a few key subtractions. The real change here is that after the Nurkic trade, Denver is all-in on Jokic, which is a good thing because he is spectacular. He's a beast on the boards who's also a gifted passer and is improving on both ends of the court. I've been scratching my head trying to find good historical comparisons for Jokic, and the one that springs to mind most often is Sabonis. Imagine if Sabonis had joined the NBA at 22!
It's really concerning to me that the team appears to be shopping Kenneth Faried, but Millsap is probably going to be pretty effective in this lineup, so I'm not too concerned about it, and maybe Millsap's presense will finally put an end to everybody's crazy belief that Wilson Chandler can play power forward?
The team has solid depth at the wing position, but point guard is a huge concern. Nevertheless, I don't like to bet against dominant big men, so I think Denver is a good sleeper pick to make the playoffs.
Vegas Over/Under: 41
Ricky Rubio is getting plenty of motivation this year. First, Minnesota ships him to Utah for chump change because he can't shoot, even though he's a good defender, solid rebounder, and an amazing passer whose team's offense always flowed better with him on the floor than when he was on the bench. Second, Vegas sets the over/under at 10 wins worse than last year and their odds to win the Northwest at 30-to-1 (these odds, are, to channel Arturo Galleti, "insulting").
This team won 51 games last year, and Hayward was a big part of that, but there are several things that should make Utah fans feel pretty upbeat about this team:
- Rudy Gobert is healthy, he deserved to win the defensive player of the year last year, and he's probably going to win it this year.
- Derrick Favors is due for a bounce-back year
- Thabo Sefolosha is one of the most criminally underrated players in the NBA
- Finally...you're going to love Ricky Rubio. Trust me on this.
Rubio has long been a fan-favorite in Minnesota, and it's not just because of his flashy passing. He's a tenacious defender and plays hard on every possession. He's one of the best rebounding point guards in the NBA. He's really dangerous in the open floor, and I'm not sure he's ever had a lob target as good as Rudy Gobert.
One last note: I think the new schedule might benefit Utah's and Denver's home court advantages. Playing at height is a big advantage for the home team, but the advantage tends to disappear if the home team also just arrived in town (and thus hasn't acclimated yet). The lower incidents of back-to-back games will probably mean more games where the home team has already been at home for a day or two, and is better acllimated than the visiting team, which tends to arrive later. This is just a wild theory on my part -- we'll see how it plays out!
1 Nevertheless, my early prediction is that the Wolves will find a way to screw me over, probably by clinching the playoffs, then sitting all of their starters on April 9th against Denver and playing them all on April 11th against Memhpis, when I'll really need it to be the other way around.