I like betting on the NBA Season. My return on this investment has been impressively close to 0%, but I like to tell myself that this is only because I've never landed a long shot (I try not to think about the Jazz/Trailblazers game in 2018 that would have turned a 5% ROI into a 100% ROI). This year, like many of the years since the inception of this blog, I travelled to Las Vegas to place some bets. Ok, well, I travelled to Las Vegas to golf, play poker, and consume fine food and drink, and placed a bunch of bets while I was there.
Here are the bets:
|PHO||OVER 29.5||-110||$200 (8.0%)|
|ATL||UNDR 36.0||-110||$200 (8.0%)|
|MIL||UNDR 58.0||-110||$200 (8.0%)|
|CHA||OVER 23.0||-110||$100 (4%)|
|DAL||OVER 42.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|LAC||UNDR 54.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|LAL||UNDR 50.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|MEM||OVER 27.0||-110||$100 (4%)|
|MIN||OVER 35.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|BRK||UNDR 44.0||-110||$100 (4%)|
|CHI||OVER 33.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|NYK||UNDR 27.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|SAS||UNDR 47.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|UTH||UNDR 54.5||-110||$100 (4%)|
|CHI||MAKE PLAYOFFS||+275||$100 (4%)|
|DAL||MAKE PLAYOFFS||+210||$100 (4%)|
|MIN||MAKE PLAYOFFS||5:1||$100 (4%)|
|NOR||MAKE PLAYOFFS||+225||$100 (4%)|
|PHO||MAKE PLAYOFFS||14:1||$100 (4%)|
|OKC||MAKE PLAYOFFS||7.5:1||$50 (2%)|
|SAS||MISS PLAYOFFS||225||$100 (4%)|
In lieu of a season preview this year, I thought I would take us through each of these bets one by one, and later next week, I'll follow up with an article on all the teams that I didn't bet on (i.e. the "Vegas looks like they know what they're doing here" lines).
Phoenix to win more than 29 games
Phoenix was pretty awful last year, having scraped their way to 19 wins, so it seems like a 10-win increase is already unlikely, so why am I betting the over? Mostly, it boils down to the fact that they parted ways with some very bad players, and added some very good players, and that usually leads to bigger swings than conventional wisdom expects.
There are some truly awful players who no longer play in Phoenix, most notably Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, and Jamal Crawford. When one replaces most of those minutes with quality players like Aaron Baynes and Ricky Rubio (that's "two-time world cup winner" Ricky Rubio to you and me), that can make a big difference. Dario Saric has had an up-and-down nba journey so far but he appears to have turned a corner into a rotation-worthy player.
Rubio still cannot really shoot, but hopefully his presence will take some pressure off of Booker, who clearly had to handle the ball way too much given the Suns' awful point guard rotation, and he remains a good passer, rebounder, and defender. Phoenix fans will probably love him; I know Minnesota misses him.
But will they make the playoffs?
Well...no, probably not. But this is one of those "thin value" bets. I suspect the Suns have about a ten percent chance of making the playoffs, which would mean that I should take any bet that offers me more than 9:1. Since the casino is giving me 14:1 odds, it is a good bet. This is something that comes up in poker constantly; there are situations where you are facing a bet and you know with absolute certainty you are an underdog, but you should still call because the odds dictate that if you could repeat the bet over a large enough sample size, you would eventually come out ahead.
Atlanta Hawks to win less than 36 games
So here we have the opposite situation. Atlanta won 29 games last year, they weren't a very good team, and vegas appears to believe that they will improve quite a bit this season. I do not.
Now...there are definitely ways this could go wrong for me. I'm actually pretty confident that Trae Young is going to be a big star at some point, and if that point comes sooner than I think, it's big trouble for this bet. But looking at the teams' additions, there just aren't any that I think can really move the wins and losses needle, so it's hard for me to find 7 more wins on this roster from any source other than Young's improvement or Hunter winning the rookie of the year award.
When you combine this with the factor that there are usually a lot more ways for a team to unexpectedly break for the under then the over (injuries, or the team shutting down its good players to tank), it seemed like a no-brainer bet.
Milwaukee Bucks to win less than 58 games
Ok, this boils down to three simple factors: 1) It is really hard to win 58 games, even for contenders, 2) Malcom Brogdon is a very good basketball player, and the Bucks let him go, and 3) did I mention that it is *really* hard to win 58 games? It's not that I think 58 games is a wholly unrealistic win total for one of the best teams in the NBA, but there are so very many contributing factors that can derail a team from very high win totals.
A key player may get injured. They might lock up the top seed early and decide to rest some players down the stretch. Conversely, they might be out of contention for the top seed and decide to rest some players down the stretch. They might decide to rest Giannis on some back-to-back nights. Finally, they might just flat-out underperform. This is a very good team, and I love betting the under on very good teams where Vegas sets the line very high.
Charlotte Hornets to win more than 24 games
I have a dirty secret. I think Terry Rozier is a good basketball player. Rozier is one of those players where everyone concentrates on the one thing he cannot do well, and then allow it to define him, while ignoring the things he does well.
Much is made of the fact that Rozier has a true shooting percentage of 50%, well below league average, driven largely by his inefficiency inside the line, combined with the fact that he doesn't draw fouls (and why would he? If he wants to pull up for a jumper in the key, where he shoots 33%, no decent defender will be trying too hard to stop him). By over-indexing on this, everyone is ignoring that he is a very good rebounder, and more importantly, he has a very low turnover rate for a point guard. These characteristics alone almost certainly do not make him worth his rediculous contract, but they will certainly contribute to some wins for the Hornets, meaning that the loss of Walker probably isn't going to hurt nearly as much as the conventional wisdom is predicting.
Dallas Mavericks to win over 42.5 games
I am pretty high on the Mavericks. They added some good players, they parted ways with a very bad player, and we can expect their rookie of the year to continue improving.
Let's look at the departures first, since they are significant. Harrison Barnes was a colossally bad signing four years ago, and was one of the worst players in the NBA last year, costing the Mavericks several wins before they traded him to Sacremento (the greater fool theory in action?). Simply replacing those ~1500 minutes with a capable rotation player (like, perhaps, Delon Wright?) is a big swing in itself.
Kristaps Porzingis is an enigma. It's been too long since he's played, and he hadn't gotten enough minutes to do more than show promise. I think the huge contract is a big mistake in the sense that it doesn't seem like a smart risk, but time will tell. In any case the beauty of this bet is that I think the Mavericks will be pretty good even if Porzingis never sees the floor.
Good enough to make the playoffs?
Maybe! This is one of those bets where the models all agree. When I am looking at potential bets, I don't rely just on my own data, I also take a look at what the other sites are saying. The models of myself, 538, ESPN, and Arturo Galletti all seem to think that the Mavs will be close to a fringe playoff team, meaning they probalby have about a 40% chance at making the playoffs. This would be a "fair" bet at +150, so since the bet is +210, it is an unfair bet, and we should be happy to take unfair bets when we are the benificiaries.
Los Angeles Clippers to win under 54.5 games
Kawhi Leanard sat out 22 games last year. We should expect him to sit out a similar number this year, and that's if he doesn't get injured. And I don't think the Clippers have a team that will go 17-5 in those games the way Toronto did without Leonard last year. Since they play in the West, they'll have fewer easy games to pick from than Toronto did, and even if they can find 22 "gimmes", the simple fact of the matter is that Kawhi's supporting cast isn't as good in LA as it was in Toronto.
Paul George is a good player, for sure, but Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander were significant contributors last year, so the incremental upgrade isn't going to be huge. When Leonard sits, I actually think this team is worse than it was last year, and even when he plays, there are open questions about where the quality center minutes come from.
Don't get me wrong, the Clippers are clearly contenders, it's just that one shouldn't confuse the regular season, when teams regularly go 10+ players deep, have back-to-backs where they rest players, and don't always have a good reason to play hard, with the playoffs. If I thought Doc would roll with a 7-man rotation all year, and that they'd stay healthy and play hard, then I'd take the over, but with reality being what it is, I think 51 would be the "fair" over/under line.
Los Angeles Lakers to win under 51.5 games
This one is pretty close -- I think Vegas is slowly catching on to one of the most the time honored sports betting strategies: "Always take the under on LeBron James' teams' regular season wins." It's been a great strategy for many years now, because LeBron doesn't take the regular season that seriously, particularly on the defensive end.
Coaches don't "load manage" LeBron (he usually plays quite a few minutes), but he definitely load manages himself during games, by taking possessions off, or playing some games with a less aggressive mindset. LeBron's teams have not been good defensively unless you go back to the Miami years, when both he and his all-star teammates were in their prime.
Another problem is that LA gave away a lot of players to acquire Anthony Davis, and their bench is now pretty shallow. I like the starting five, but given the histories of Anthony Davis and the age of LeBron James, there is real injury or missed-time risk, and a good starting five is not good enough, especially since this is a very competitive division. I feel Ok about this bet, although I wish the line was 52 or 53.
Andre Iguodala is the X-factor (or spoiler, if you will) of this year's portfolio. If Memphis buys him out, he has the potential to wreak havoc by ruining this bet, and the "under" bet on one of the contenders. But my current thinking is that Memphis doesn't want to buy out Iggy. I believe that they want to have Iggy play, and play well. If he plays at his historical level, they'll want to entertain offers around the all-star break, when there will be teams that are looking for that extra piece to make the leap from playoff contender to championship contender. Iggy has a big salary, but he's also still a good enough player that Memphis should try to flip him for an asset rather than to just save a few bucks on a buyout.
Of course, if he leaves Memphis before he can win them a few games, he may cost me this bet, and if he joins the Lakers, Clippers, or Spurs, that could spell doom for one of those bets. But I thought the "over" on Memphis was too juicy to pass up. Even if Iggy doesn't play, hope is not lost, thanks to the very underrated Tyus Jones, who will bring some quality minutes to lessen the pain of losing Mike Conley (who is the reason that the over/under line is so far below last seasons' win total). And there's hope that Ja Morant is the rare type of rookie who can contribute right away.
Minnesota Timberwolves to win over 35.5 games
This portfolio has a long history of losing money betting on the Timberwolves, so I have mixed feelings about this bet. It basically boils down to a combination of things:
- Wiggins might try to play a little harder for a coach that he likes
- Wiggins might get traded 🙏
- I think Vonleh and Bell are both a bit underrated
- Karl Anthony Towns had a monster year, and particularly in the second half finally started emerging as a defensive force
- They won't be tanking (they want to keep Towns engaged, so they cannot afford to), so they have the potential to beat up on a lot of teams in February or March that have thrown in the towel
Perhaps eventually Minnesota figures out that Chris Paul's contract isn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be, but Wiggins contract is even worse than everyone thinks it is, and they package Wiggins with a pick or two and send him to OKC. Of course, that would be bad for the OKC bets.
And to make the playoffs?
Once again, I don't actually think the Wolves have a great chance at making the playoffs, but it is yet another case where I feel the odds are mispriced. I think that 3.5 or 4 to 1 would be a fair bet, so this is another attempt to squeeze out some thin value.
Brooklyn Nets to win under 44 games
First things first: Kevin Durant is not walking through that door. It takes a good 12 months or so to come back from a torn achilles, and the list of players that came back to be even a shadow of their former selves is basically two players: Rudy Gay and Dominique Wilkins. Of them, only Wilkins was able to come back strong in his first year back. There's a small possibility that Durant comes back as an All-NBA calibre player, but it won't be in the 2019-20 season.
The Nets did add Kyrie Irving, who's coming off of two amazing seasons in Boston, but there are a couple of reasons that I am bearish on this move. The first is that they also lost D'Angelo Russell, which means that they didn't upgrade from nobody to All-Star, they upgraded from All-Star to Better All-Star, which is a lift, but likely not a transformational one. The second is that he played much better under Brad Stevens than under any other coach, and we've seen this type of thing play out before, most prominently with Evan Turner.
Chicago Bulls to win over 33.5 games
The Bulls won 22 games last year, so this is a big improvement I am betting on. But this year they get a full year of Otto Porter, Jr, who is severely underrated, and I expect moderate improvements from Wendell Carter and Lauri Markkanen (because that's what young players tend to do). I think Thad Young's minutes are likely to make up for the loss of Robin Lopez.
This was another one of those bets where all the models agreed. Everyone seems to have them at about 36 games. When all the models agree, bets are usually worth taking.
And to make the playoffs?
Again, all the models seem to agree that the Bull have about a 35% chance to make the playoffs, which would put the fair value of this bet at 2:1. Since we're getting 2.75:1, it's a thin value bet.
New York Knicks to win fewer than 27.5 games
Additions: Amir Hinton, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Kenny Wooten, Lamar Peters, Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, RJ Barrett, Taj Gibson, V.J. King, Wayne Ellington
Subtractions: Wesley Matthews, Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Billy Garrett Jr., Enes Kanter, Paul Watson, Phillip Carr, Isaiah Hicks, DeAndre Jordan, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Joakim Noah, Noah Vonleh, Lance Thomas, Ron Baker, Henry Ellenson, Courtney Lee, John Jenkins, Mario Hezonja, Luke Kornet
"Always take the Knicks under" is also a really sound investment strategy. Year after year, there are too many Knicks hopefuls that are pushing this line up. This team just lacks rotation-calibre NBA talent, and the established talent that it does have overlaps at the same position (Portis/Randle/Gibson). There will be so many nights where they'll essentially be playing 2-on-5. The Knicks are an injury to Payton or Randle away from "Process"-level win totals.
San Antonio Spurs to win less then 47.5 games
I hate betting against the Spurs because just when you think the talent is running dry, they pull somebody out of Australia or Europe that you've never heard of and turn them into all-star talent. Or they get all-star level play from underachievers like Rudy Gay. They also seem to have the devil's own luck. Emerging star Dejuonte Murray gets hurt? No problem, here's this guy Derrick White that you've never heard of to soak up those minutes!
But age has got to hit the Spurs someday, right? Aldridge, Gay, Mills, Bellenelli, Derozan, even the new guy, DeMarre Carroll -- that's a lot of minutes being played by guys on the wrong side of 30. Speaking of old, Pau Gasol was old, but he played some great minutes last year. Who's filling them this year?
Even if we ignore age, it's not like the West is getting any easier. If we assume the Lakers are now a playoff team (which is clearly our default), who gets bumped from last year's teams? Clearly Portland, OKC, and San Antonio, and Golden State are the logical candidates. It is for this reason that I also bet that...
San Antonio will miss the playoffs
I honestly think this is one of the better bets on the board. Almost all the models agree that the Spurs are less than 50/50 to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference (the lowest number I saw was about 25%), which means we'd probably be happy to take even money on this bet, yet Vegas is giving us 2.25:1. This is a great value.
Utah Jazz to win fewer than 54.5 games
The Jazz are a great team, but this is really just a combination of the fact that Conley isn't as big of an upgrade over Rubio as conventional wisdom suggests, that losing Favors is a pretty big deal (especially defensively), and that the changes that Utah have made leave them in a situation where their bench is razor thin. As I talked about above with the Clippers, a thin bench isn't necessarily a problem in the playoffs, but it's a big deal in the long slog of the regular season.
I really hate betting against Utah; they have such a strong home court advantage and are usually severely underrated, but I think the Conley trade has created a bizarre pendulum effect where they are now a little overrated, at least over the regular season. This is a team that'll probably do real damage in the playoffs, though.
Golden State Warriors to win the Pacific
I thought 48.5 wins was just a little too close to take the over on the Warriors because the season is, for obvious reasons, pretty much entirely dependent on Steph Curry staying healthy. But of course if Curry does stay healthy, this is clearly a 50-win team, and if they're a 50-win team then it's a 3-way race with the Lakers and Clippers for the Pacific.
Hot take: The loss of Iggy hurts more than the loss of Klay Thompson. Don't @ me. Or do, I guess I never log on to twitter anymore. Another hot take: Kevon Looney is going to be amazing stepping in to more minutes. D'Angelo Russell should be able to thrive playing off the ball next to Curry.
The team has issues, of course, but there aren't many teams, even great ones, that don't have some weakness on the roster.
Oklahoma City Thunder to make the playoffs and/or win the Northwest
Earlier I said that Iguodala was a portfolio spoiler, but I could probably say the same for Chris Paul. Fans and Media spend so much time talking about how absurd CP3's contract is that they forget that he's still a very good basketball player. And the most important parts of his game are not likely to drop off too much: he's a very good passer and rebounder who doesn't turn the ball over much, and has a knack for steals.
If OKC doesn't trade Chris Paul, and he plays 60 games (his average over the last three seasons), this team will probably win 45 games. Remember that Gallinari had a near career year last year, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a very solid rookie season that shows a lot of promise. And are you ready for another hot take? Steven Adams is a top 10 big man.
It feels like 7.5:1 is a good price to make the playoffs, and 500:1 to win the Northwest feels just downright disrespectful. Those are the kind of odds usually given to teams that are guaranteed lottery spots. For referebnce, those are the same odds that Cleveland has to win the Central Division. The very same Central Division that contains the Bucks. It's an absurd line that only makes sense if you knew with absolute certainty that Paul, Adams, and Gallinari are all destined to be traded...
Which is absolutely plausible, and why I only put $50 on each of these bets.
New Orleans Pelicans to make the playoffs
Here's another team where I thought the over/under line (38.5) was a little too close for comfort to take the over, but I really like the Pelicans. Lonzo Ball was an above average player in his first two seasons, and that's usually a recipe for eventually emerging into stardom at some point. JJ Redick is a solid player who has never missed the playoffs, and Zion Williamson was the most dominant college basketball player of this century, who doesn't want to fuck that up for him:
Remember when I said Utah would miss Derrick Favors? Well, New Orleans scooped him up. The biggest worry on this roster is that they might let Brandon Ingram have too much free reign. But I like this bet because it basically amounts to taking the over, but with better odds.
And that's it! Sometime before the beginning of the season, I'll do a quick preview article on all those teams where I wasn't willing to put my money where my mouth is.