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Deep Range: The NBA’s High-Variance Teams

Each season, a handful of teams way overshoot or come up way short of expectations. These six seem to have the widest range of outcomes heading into 2018-19.

Marc Gasol, LeBron James, and Karl-Anthony Towns AP Images/Ringer illustration

Before every NBA season, oddsmakers set over/unders for all 30 teams’ win totals, with the goal of enticing bettors to wager that the number will be higher or lower. In doing so, they also establish expectations for the entire league heading into the new season. Last season, 14 teams finished within four wins of their number at the Westgate SuperBook. Eight significantly overperformed expectations, headlined by the stunning Victor Oladipo–led Indiana Pacers, whose 48 wins were 16.5 more than Vegas projected. Eight came up well short of the mark, led by the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks, who spun the ravages of injury into an opportunity to sink to the bottom of the standings in search of draft rewards.

Predicting in the last hours before the regular season tips off which teams are most likely to be this year’s Pacers or Grizz is a mug’s game, a fool’s errand. Luckily for you, I’m a real mug of a fool, so I’ll do you one better: Let’s consider which teams might be this year’s Pacers and Grizz—in other words, the potential high-variance teams that could veer away from their 2018-19 Westgate totals one way or another.

We begin, as all things must at this particular NBA moment, in the Twin Cities.

Minnesota Timberwolves (Westgate O/U: 41.5 Wins)

The thing about Jimmy Butler’s “You can’t win without me” declaration is that, last season, it was true. The Wolves’ point differential with Butler on the floor—plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—rivaled the full-season mark posted by the league-best, 65-win Houston Rockets. When Butler wasn’t in the game, the Wolves were outscored by 4.8 points per 100, a margin that would’ve nestled into the dark heart of the NBA universe next to Frank Vogel’s haunted Orlando Magic. Given how Butler badly wants to not be in the game for the Wolves anymore, this would seem to be a glaring problem for Minnesota.

The offense stayed afloat when Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins played without Butler, but the defense cratered. Lineups led by the two former no. 1 picks hemorrhaged 111.1 points per 100 in 757 minutes, according to NBA.com’s stat tool. Barring a significant leap forward on that end led by the two maxed-out youngsters—and a limp, lifeless preseason hasn’t given much reason to believe such a leap’s imminent—a Wolves team that can put up points with anybody but can’t stop anybody doesn’t sound all that fearsome. In fact, it sounds a hell of a lot like the ’16-17 Wolves, who ranked 10th in offensive efficiency but a dismal 27th in defensive efficiency. That team won a whopping 31 games, finished 10 games out of the eighth seed, and traded for Butler on draft night.

Things can be different. Young players can improve, especially ones with the physical gifts of Towns and Wiggins, and get smarter on the defensive end as the game starts to slow down and click into place for them. Maybe some added depth on the wing—EuroLeague import James Nunnally, rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, and Luol Deng fresh off a year in suspended animation—and the defensive addition-by-subtraction of moving on from Jamal Crawford could help stabilize things on that end. Maybe whatever Butler return the Wolves are able to coax out of a team—should they ever conclude a deal without getting called motherfuckers—will further fortify the here-and-now roster, raising the Wolves’ floor above the low 30s and keeping them in the mix for a postseason spot. And, hell, maybe Thibodeau will complete his Hail Mary, Butler will stick around, all internecine wounds will be healed through the magic of hard work, and the Wolves will again threaten for a no. 3 seed.

After Butler’s tour de force performance at Wolves practice Wednesday, any outcome seems to be on the table in Minnesota, and all of it depends on what happens with Butler. This time last year, that meant a world of exciting possibility for the Wolves. Now, it seems very, very different.

Memphis Grizzlies (33.5)

All hope for anything resembling competitive play on Beale Street last season was dashed by the end of November, after Mike Conley Jr. pulled up, Marc Gasol spoke up, and David Fizdale packed up. But hope returns anew after a summertime restocking—hello, rookies Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter; welcome, veteran additions Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple—and, most importantly, after a return to health for Conley, perhaps the best player in the league never to be named an All-Star.

With most of the key figures of the Grizzlies’ glory days gone, the team’s sustained success depended largely on the steady drumbeat laid down by its inside-out tandem. Before last season, when injuries limited Conley to just 12 games, the Grizz had outscored their opposition when Conley and Gasol shared the floor for eight consecutive seasons. They set the table at which everyone else eats, and they provide the first and last lines of defense to keep opposing drivers, cutters, and would-be shooters at bay.

It’s dangerous to expect too much from a 19-year-old, but Jackson—a versatile big with shooting touch, rim-protecting chops, an aircraft-carrier wingspan, and quick feet—could prove a cozy fit alongside either Gasol or power forward JaMychal Green. There’s some potential offensive pop at off-guard in the troika of Wayne Selden, Dillon Brooks, and erstwhile Next Kobe–turned–Chinese league reclamation project MarShon Brooks. Memphis’s perennial concerns at backup point guard might be mitigated somewhat by the arrival of Anderson and Temple, two low-mistake, high-floor players who can help ensure that the Grizz are able to get into sets in non-Conley minutes without relying solely on Magic legend Shelvin Mack, Andrew Harrison, and Carter, a defense-first rookie. And missing-piece-turned-invisible-man Chandler Parsons … well, he gets why you’re mad, and he’s sorry about all that, and he’s trying, and he’s putting up 56-46-100 shooting splits in 17.5 minutes off the bench in preseason, and I don’t know, man, maybe this is actually the year!

As we enter the season, I’m in about the same place on Memphis as Danny Chau. A healthy Conley-Gasol combo, paired with an encouraging start for Jackson and competence from the rebooted wing collective, could make it a fringe playoff team that could significantly outpace Vegas’s mark. If either of them miss serious time to injury, though, we’re probably looking at another season at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum … which would carry with it the additional pain of the Grizzlies kicking their draft-pick debt to the Boston Celtics (a first-round choice owed from 2015’s ill-fated trade for Jeff Green) down the road another year, when they’d hand Danny Ainge either any pick after no. 6 in 2020 or a completely unprotected first-rounder in 2021. (A brief reminder: You really shouldn’t be trading with Danny Ainge.)

Detroit Pistons (38.5)

Despite the overarching sense of bland sameness that’s plagued most of the past decade of Pistons basketball—save for the Post–Josh Smith Bump, which we must never forget—Detroit strikes me as one of the more interesting below-the-fold teams in the league, largely because we don’t have much hard evidence of what the team will look like.

Thanks to a late arrival via trade and a late return from injury, the Pistons’ three most important players—Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson—played a total of four games together last season, sharing the court for all of 44 minutes. The admittedly awkward Griffin-Drummond pairing cooled after a promising start, outscoring opponents by a respectable-but-not-remarkable 1.7 points per 100 in just under 600 minutes, with Detroit going 11-14 with the two in the lineup. But the bulk of that action came with caretaker Ish Smith on the ball.

In theory, the introduction of Jackson—a more capable scorer, more willing shooter, more incisive pick-and-roll attacker, and all-around more threatening offensive player—should create more openings and opportunities for the bigs. But how long will it take the trio to develop chemistry, especially with Jackson only just starting to get up to speed after an ankle injury that scuttled last season (and picking up a groin injury in his second preseason appearance)? As he enters his eighth pro year, we’ve got only about a season and a half of proof that Jackson can be a good starting point guard, and we haven’t seen much of that play in two years. A lot depends on him getting right, staying that way, and providing the kind of complementary service that can make the most out of the Griffin-Drummond partnership.

If he can, it’ll be up to new coach Dwane Casey to work some player-development magic on a young wing rotation—first-round picks Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard, 2017-18 breakout performer Reggie Bullock, and intriguing athlete and possible 3-and-D prospect Glenn Robinson III—that will need to shoot well enough to open up the middle of the floor for the bigs, guard well enough to keep opponents from gashing Detroit on the perimeter, and offer enough complementary playmaking to keep possessions humming when defenses gum up the initial option. If it all breaks right, and a finally no-longer-rehabbing Griffin’s able to remind us that he was one of the very best players in the world as recently as three years ago, Detroit could make a larger-than-expected leap up the Eastern standings. If he can’t, there’ll be more misery and mediocrity in store in the Motor City.

New Orleans Pelicans (45.5) and Toronto Raptors (55.5)

We take these two together because they share the same general story line: Just about everything hinges on the health and MVP-caliber excellence of their top players.

Six years after Anthony Davis’s initial anointing, he has become everything that was promised. He’s a dominant offensive focal point who’s averaged 28 points per game in each of the past two seasons, and he’s developed futuristic flourish both inside and out to become a matchup nightmare for opposing big men of any size and stripe. He’s a shot-swatting menace who regularly ranks at or near the top of the league in block percentage. Last season he held opponents to a lower field goal percentage at the rim than Rudy Gobert. He’s got everything you’d need to be the best player in the game, including the belief that he is, in fact, the best player in the game.

Now, he’s also got what might be his best supporting cast yet in playmaking partner–defensive destroyer Jrue Holiday, hand-in-glove frontcourt fit Nikola Mirotic, and new arrivals Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, who aren’t world-beaters on their own but seem tailor-made for a system hell-bent on grabbing the ball off the rim and ramming it down the other team’s throat. If Davis and Holiday stay healthy and the stylistic shift that fueled New Orleans’s post-Boogie stomp to the postseason and through Portland carries over, Alvin Gentry’s pace-pushing squad could leave that 45-win number in the dust on its way to much bigger and better things. But if the injury bugs that have bitten AD and Jrue in the past return to haunt the Pelicans, there’s not enough top-flight quality on either end of the court to make up the difference.

The Raptors had to trade for Kawhi Leonard, because players this good just don’t become available to non-glamour clubs; save for Peak Vince Carter, Toronto’s never had one, and the best version of Kawhi’s even better than he was. Whatever comes next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that a version of Toronto with a fully healthy and operational Leonard teaming with All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to lead a monstrous wing core with quality depth up front would be a legit contender. If Leonard’s famously balky quad begins barking again, though, or if he can’t quite recover the form he flashed in 2016-17, then Toronto will have to bank on Lowry, who’s about to turn 33, to lead the offensive charge, praying some combination of steps forward from rising talents like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright can fill the scoring gap left by DeMar DeRozan’s departure. The Raptors will also have to hope that Nick Nurse is capable of navigating choppy waters in his first turn as a head coach. A Finals appearance to maybe a 6- or 7-seed is an awfully broad band of possibilities, but both seem to be on the table depending on what kind of Kawhi takes the court when the bright lights come on next week.

Los Angeles Lakers (47.5)

Perhaps no team has as wide an array of potential outcomes as the Lakers. Some reasonable people, like Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post, think they’re going to miss the playoffs entirely. Others, like our own Bill Simmons, think they’re capable of winning well over 50 games and finishing in the top half of the Western bracket if L.A.’s complementary shooters feast on the looks LeBron James serves up, and if Luke Walton can find ways to maximize the value of all that secondary playmaking Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka added over the summer and minimize the defensive concerns on a team depending on JaVale McGee’s rim protection and heavy doses of small-ball.

My hunch hews closer to Ben Falk’s analysis: This combination of youth, age, and suspect-shooting ball handlers, along with an organizational commitment to playing fast married to LeBron’s age-old tendency to slow it down, seems more like a recipe for a low-to-mid-40s win total and a lower-tier playoff spot than for a 50-win push toward home-court advantage (barring, of course, the kind of in-season boost that the Lakers could still pursue). The wagering public sure seems to be going the other way, reportedly placing more bets on L.A. to win it all than any other team in the league. That should give us pause; there’s a reason they’ve got the money to build all those casinos in the desert, you know?

The Lakers’ potential comes down to a very big question: How comfortable would you feel betting against LeBron James pushing his team further than expected? He’s going to succeed at some point. But for now, I’d rather put your paycheck on it than mine.