Sport is meant to produce drama. People running around between arbitrary lines is meant to give us a sense of personal attachment to some type of narrative. At their best, sports succeed in drawing us in, making us care about the successes and failures of very rich people whom we will never meet. Often, though, sports can lose their most magnetic forces. The most compelling characters or groups aren’t always in competition for the most important prizes. Also, the NBA regular season is long, and teams often have their fates somewhat locked in long before 82 games have elapsed. For those times, when narratives have grown stale, we have gambling.
Full-season over/under bets are fun for a simple reason: They are an easy way to categorize teams. We are able to put reductive tags on our expectations, and watch franchises pursue objective markers, rather than the subjective, contextual measures of team coherence, player health, and ideal seeding that will realistically lead to a championship. Even when the (pre-Durant-injury) Warriors looked to have comfortably settled in atop the Western Conference, Vegas gave interested parties a reason to monitor the team closely. Golden State’s pursuit of (or complete uninterest in getting to) 67 wins added intrigue to the season’s elongated middle.
Looking back at over/unders (released by Las Vegas’ Westgate Superbook before the season) is also a concrete way to look at how the performances of NBA teams have played out with respect to the predictions of viewers at large. With only two nights of regular-season action left, we have a good idea of how the playoff and lottery fields will look. That’s not what we’re concerned with here. This is what we learned from the gambler’s preseason power rankings.
The Rockets Are Much Better Than We Thought They’d Be
No team overachieved more this season than Houston, which entered the year with an over/under win total of 43.5 games. If the Rockets had adhered to their assumed place in the standings, they would have been fighting with Memphis for the West’s seventh seed. The acquisitions of backcourt scorers Eric Gordon in the offseason and Lou Williams in a midseason trade have gone a long way for Houston, as has the improved play of big man Clint Capela. Mike D’Antoni’s supersonic, 3-happy offense (the Rockets are attempting over six more 3s per game than any other team) has paid dividends for a club that had previously been clearly wedged in the West’s second tier. Without adding a superstar to play alongside James Harden, Houston transformed from an 8-seed assumed to hold its place in the league’s power structure into a kinda-sorta contender.
Of course, the story here is that this may be Harden’s most compelling case for being the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Sunday, Harden said that he “thought winning is what [the MVP race was] about — period.” While he might be undercutting himself with the use of “period,” it’s not absurd to suggest that Harden’s point guard transformation led the Rockets to become the season’s biggest Vegas outlier.
The Timberwolves Were Victims of Hype
The biggest underachievers this season were the Timberwolves, who currently sit 10.5 games below their projected total of 41.5 wins. The Wolves won 29 games last season, but entered this season with the assumption that their young talent would take large developmental strides. That assumption wasn’t wrong. Andrew Wiggins has improved in nearly every relevant category, scoring nearly 24 points a game and ramping up his 3-point shooting from 30 percent last year to a respectable 36 percent this season. Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging over 25 points a game, has had a monster sophomore season. Zach LaVine even improved his true shooting percentage for the second consecutive season, showing that he has the potential to grow into a release valve for Towns and Wiggins. But of course, LaVine’s ACL tear derailed Minnesota’s supposed leap season. The back half of the year could have been useful for getting Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine more experience together. Presumably, the team would have improved, at least marginally, as they learned how to play together in Tom Thibodeau’s system. Instead, the Wolves didn’t improve at all as the season went on. They are just 12–18 since LaVine’s injury, and have lost 11 of their past 15 games.
The young core also had little help from any players besides Ricky Rubio, who quietly had a career season. While LaVine was healthy, Thibodeau played his starters more than any other team besides Washington. That reliance on an inexperienced core, along with the team’s inability to fully adhere to Thibodeau’s defensive system, likely explains the team’s tendency to drop close games; 29 of Minnesota’s 49 losses have been by single digits.
The Wolves have a bright future, but if their over/under tells us anything, it’s that we often overestimate the learning curve of young players.
The Pistons and the Magic Had Playoff Dreams, but Their Reality Is Much Darker
Vegas didn’t expect much from the Orlando “Playoffs or Bust” Magic, setting their over/under at 36.5 games. Somehow, they still disappointed. They’ll need to win their last two games to avoid their fourth sub-30-win season in the past five years. The Pistons have also fallen short of expectations, currently sitting nine wins short of their expected total. After one of the most competitive sweeps you’ll ever see last season at the hands of the Cavaliers, Vegas was bullish on Detroit’s improvement, projecting 46 wins, which would have put them right in the middle of the East’s playoff picture. Instead, their core crumbled and the team has dropped into the end of the lottery. I hope that one day my Magic- and Pistons-fan colleagues, Kevin Clark and Craig Gaines, can be happy.
Vegas Did a Pretty Good Job
If the entire season has felt like chalk, it’s because that’s essentially how things have gone. There are no shocking takeaways from looking at the preseason over/unders because, for the most part, this season ran as predicted. A few teams on the margins of the playoff picture improved; Milwaukee’s late-season surge has propelled it into the sixth seed and five games ahead of its projection. But for the most part, the teams in contention are falling where we assumed they would.
The Warriors, projected at 66.5 wins, will have one more opportunity to win their 67th game, on Wednesday against the Lakers. Despite Kyle Lowry’s injury and the doom that was supposed to follow, Toronto can also exceed its 50.5-win projection with a victory over the Cavs on Wednesday. Washington’s midseason streak and the Clippers’ hurt-themselves-in-confusion season have resulted in records that deviated from their projections, but not enough to affect playoff seeding.
If the Wizards had won only 43 games (instead of the 49 they’re currently settled in with), they would still sit fourth in the East, while the Clippers would still be fourth in the West if they had managed to win 54 games, as predicted. It’s tempting to say that this shows that we know too well how the months-long regular season will play out, at least for the teams with an eye on the Finals, but the Cavaliers, who until recently seemed likely to reach their 57-win over and grab the East’s top spot, have butchered that trend nearly as badly as their Sunday collapse against the Hawks. Maybe we really know nothing after all.