NBA

NBA picks: Spurs to maximize odds of drafting Victor Wembanyama, plus other Southwest Division over/unders

You’d better get used to the Southwest Division, because it’s going to host four of the NBA’s best teams in the very near future. Three superstars age 23 and under call this division home in Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Houston has no such guaranteed megastar, but has picked in the top three in consecutive years, may well do so again in a loaded draft and is set to bring max cap space into the next few offseasons in one of the NBA‘s most desirable markets. At this rate, it feels like a near certainty that San Antonio cooks up some of its lottery voodoo to swipe Victor Wembanyama and complete one of history’s most terrifying divisions.

Of course, we’re still a year or two away from unleashing the true division from hell. This year’s group is flawed. There are health concerns. There are lineup concerns. There are youth concerns. Any one of these teams could win a championship in the next five years, but for now? They’re a rung or two down the ladder. That’s what makes predicting their over/unders so interesting. There are three teams bunched at the top and two at the bottom, and picking an over for one almost necessitates an under for another. So let’s dive into the NBA’s youngest division.

All odds via Caesars Sportsbook.

*Pythagorean Wins represent the number of games a team would be expected to win based on their point-differential

2021-22 Wins

56

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

57

2022-23 Win total line

49.5

The pick: Under 49.5

The Grizzlies had a 36-21 record in games Ja Morant played last season. That’s roughly a 52-win pace, so pretty close to the line that the books are using. There’s reason to believe that the Grizzlies could be better in those games this season. Most of their core is quite young, after all. Let’s say Jaren Jackson Jr’s. injury cancels out that growth, and the Morant version of the Grizzlies plays at roughly the level of a 50-win team.

The far more interesting question is what the Grizzlies look like when Morant is off of the floor, because his aggressive playing style lends itself to injuries to some extent. Memphis went 21-4 in the games Morant sat a season ago, but for a variety of reasons, that doesn’t seem especially sustainable.

Most of their success without Morant came on defense. Grizzlies lineups without their star point guard ranked in the 90th percentile leaguewide in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, a mark that’s extremely difficult to hit across a 25-game sample. Quite a bit of that uptick can be explained by shooting luck. Grizzlies opponents shot 3.7 percentage points better from behind the arc without Morant, some of which is simply out of their contract. It should also be noted that the Grizzlies are starting the season without their best defender in Jackson, and two key defenders in Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton now play for other teams.

The Grizzlies are the best drafting team in basketball. Odds are, in the long run, they’re going to be able to replenish that lost depth. But right now, they’re missing several of the players that kept them afloat last season and it’s not clear who’s replacing them. While defense was their specialty, Anderson and Melton will be missed a fair bit on offense as well. Desmond Bane may have increased his scoring and playmaking loads meaningfully without Morant, but the Grizzlies ran a fairly egalitarian offense that relied on having multiple ball-handlers available at all times. Two of them are gone, and that just allows defenses to key in on Bane and Tyus Jones more.

The progress Memphis made last season was real. It may have played slightly above its heads during Morant’s missed games, but on balance, every statistical marker suggests that it was a legitimate mid-50s win team. But this year’s roster is worse and the competition in the Western Conference is better. Their future remains incredibly bright. Their present is just a little bit dimmer.

Is this the best way to bet on this team? No

The Grizzlies are currently +275 to participate in the play-in round at Caesars, and that value is incredible. To put it in perspective, Vegas is projecting Dallas to win just one fewer game with an over/under line of 48.5 … but the Mavericks are sitting at an ugly +140 to participate in the play-in game. Unless you’re very, very confident in Memphis repeating last season’s success, I’d recommend that play-in bet as a pure numbers play. Look at it this way: If the Grizzlies start off slowly without Jackson, you can always hedge this bet a few weeks into the season by grabbing what will likely be more appealing Memphis division odds. 

2021-22 Wins

52

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

51

2022-23 Win total line

48.5

The pick: Under 48.5

The optimal version of the Mavericks would be my favorite team in this division. They just beat a 64-win team in the playoffs, after all, and while Luka Doncic hasn’t quite reached MVP level yet, as we covered with Milwaukee, once a player gets there, his team almost always wins 53 or more games. It just doesn’t seem like Dallas is going to optimize its talent at the beginning of the season.

JaVale McGee was named the starting center as soon as he signed. That was news to Christian Wood, and to the rest of us expecting the Doncic-Wood pick-and-roll to be one of the NBA’s dominant scoring pairings. Jason Kidd also named Spencer Dinwiddie a starter after his strong playoff run, presumably replacing Jalen Brunson. In a vacuum, there are sensible arguments behind both decisions. McGee is a traditional lob catcher. Doncic has had success with Dwight Powell, and McGee is a better defender. With Brunson gone, someone has to pick up Doncic’s ball-handling slack. Kidd himself has cited size as a driver behind this decision.

But think back to what made the Mavericks special in the playoffs. It was the combination of Doncic as a playmaker with as many shooters and defenders as possible. Dinwiddie shot above 40 percent from 3 in Dallas last season, but is at around 32 percent for his career. McGee is largely a non-shooter. Neither dooms the Dallas offense by any means, but remember, its 3-and-D players lean somewhat toward the “D” side of the equation. The Mavs could inject a bit more offensive oomph into the lineup with the return of Tim Hardaway Jr., but that robs them of the defense that carried them through much of the regular season a year ago.

The best version of this roster, or at least the one Dallas is likely to lean on in high-leverage moments, is going to have Doncic at point guard, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Reggie Bullock for 3-and-D purposes, and one other player likely dependent on matchup, with Wood, as the ideal offensive fit next to Doncic due to his rare combination of shooting and verticality, being the favorite. The Mavericks are going to get there eventually. But it doesn’t seem as though they’re in any rush to do so. That’s going to mean some potentially cramped starting lineups and some awkwardness as Hardaway is eased back into the fold.

Dallas will likely be a terrifying playoff matchup yet again this spring. For now, though, there are too many questions about how minutes are going to be allocated to rely on it to reach 49 wins in what is, again, a loaded Western Conference.

Is this the best way to bet on this team? Maybe

As we touched on with Memphis, the play-in odds for Dallas aren’t all that appealing. Personally, I think the best way to bet against Dallas is the under because it also covers you in case of an injury to Doncic that knocks the Mavericks out of the postseason race entirely. The value gap isn’t big enough to justify the added risk of a play-in bet. But if you’re pro-Mavericks? You can do better than this over. They’re +170 to win the division. Caesars has an adjusted line of 51.5 wins sitting at +210 right now which looks interesting. Ultimately, if you like the Mavericks, it’s not because you think they’re a 49-win team. It’s because you think Doncic is good enough to make this a possible 59-win team. So swing for the fences if you like Dallas. I’m not the biggest fan of Doncic’s MVP odds, but even those make some sense.

2021-22 Wins

36

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

38

2022-23 Win total line

45.5

The pick: Over 45.5

Forget about Zion Williamson for a moment. Let’s break the 2021-22 season down into segments for the Pelicans.

  • Started 1-12. Brandon Ingram missed seven of those games. The rotation was still in a state of flux, as Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Devonte’ Graham opened the season as starters and Herb Jones played just three opening night minutes. Jose Alvarado played a total of six minutes and 56 seconds in this span.
  • Went 21-21 between that slow start and the trade deadline. Once they found some semblance of an identity, they were a .500 team before CJ McCollum arrived.
  • Finished the season 14-13, but remember, Ingram missed another significant chunk of time in this stretch. The healthy New Orleans starting five of Ingram, McCollum, Herb Jones, Jaxson Hayes and Jonas Valanciunas outscored opponents by more than seven points per 100 possessions after the deadline, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Once the Pelicans found themselves, they were good enough to push for this win total. Once they found McCollum, they were good enough to exceed it. And now they’re adding Zion Williamson. That addition locks the entire roster back into place. You could argue that a five-man Pelicans bench unit of Alvarado, Graham, Trey Murphy, Hayes and Larry Nance Jr. would beat a few of the tankers in a seven-game series. They have as much lineup flexibility as any other roster in the league, a wealth of draft capital to continue building upon that roster, oh, and three All-Star-caliber players.

If this line were five wins higher, I’d understand hesitancy related to Williamson’s health. But at just 45.5 wins, there’s plenty of reasons to believe the Pelicans could push for the over even if he missed the entire season. With him? They’re going to blow by it. As good as Williamson was during his largely healthy 2020-21 campaign, he has never played on a roster this equipped to help him succeed.

Think about the team Williamson last played for. He didn’t have a shot-creating guard like McCollum. He played with Steven Adams as his center, a total non-shooter. Valanciunas is at least a nominal shooting threat. Graham, while strictly a role player at this point, does one thing very well: He makes 3s. This is a roster far better suited to maximize what Williamson can do than his last Pelicans team was. Even if he only plays 50 or 60 games, they’re going to win a lot of them. 

Is this the best way to bet on this team? No

Swing for the fences in either direction. If you’re pro-Pelicans? There’s New Orleans at +320 to win their division and +1200 to earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. If you’re anti-Pelicans? You can get them at +155 to miss the playoffs. Take a look at their awards odds as well. Willie Green has become a popular Coach of the Year sleeper at +1500. Williamson to win MVP at +2200 isn’t quite good enough for me considering the likelihood that he at least misses games for maintenance, but it’s not a crazy risk either. The Pelicans probably aren’t going to be a run of the mill play-in team. They’re either going to have a healthy Williamson and will be quite good, or they aren’t, at which point, their margin for error is gone and they become likelier than not to fall out of the playoffs.

2021-22 Wins

20

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

19

2022-23 Win total line

23.5

The pick: Over 23.5

The Rockets have had the NBA’s worst record in back-to-back seasons, and they’ve never been more incentivized to tank than they are right now. Starting in 2024, Oklahoma City controls their first-round pick in three consecutive drafts. This is Houston’s last chance to tank properly. Victor Wembanyama might be the reward for that tank.

And yet, Houston isn’t exactly acting like a team desperate to keep its tanking crown. The Rockets held onto Eric Gordon at the trade deadline last offseason. They re-signed Ja’Sean Tate to a long-term deal. They aren’t actively adding veteran talent, but they aren’t pushing it out the door either. 

Their young talent is also considerably better than many seem to realize. Jalen Green’s development across the 2021-22 season was considerable. He shot 37 percent from the field in his first 35 games and above 47 percent in his last 32. His scoring went up by over six points in that span. Alperen Sengun was a bit steadier in his rookie season, but thrived for Turkey at Eurobasket. Jabari Smith isn’t the sort of pick that competes for Rookie of the Year, but he’s better suited than most of his first-year contemporaries to actually helping a team win games. He’ll shoot and defend at a high level from the moment he steps on an NBA court.

Houston will be bad defensively. Players like Gordon, Tate and Smith provide enough of a foundation to at least keep them from finishing dead last. Their offense has the potential be pretty good. And then there’s tanking context. As we’re about to cover, the Spurs are truly dreadful. The Thunder have already had several significant injuries. Only so many teams can lose all of their games. Someone is going to win in the mid-20s. That team should be Houston.

Is this the best way to bet on this team? Yes

The Rockets aren’t jumping into play-in contention, but they probably aren’t finishing with the NBA’s worst record, either. There’s no clear value elsewhere on the board.

2021-22 Wins

34

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

41

2022-23 Win total line

22.5

The pick: Under 22.5

I know what you’re thinking. “But Sam, Gregg Popovich teams always outperform expectations!” The Spurs have gone under only twice in the past seven years. Once came during a COVID season. The other came when Kawhi Leonard played only nine games … and they still managed to win 47. Popovich teams always defend better than their personnel suggests it should. Popovich teams always win bench minutes. I hear you. Your concerns are noted.

But who is playing point guard for San Antonio? You know … point guard? The guy who takes the ball up the court, sets up the offense, all that stuff? It’s a pretty important job. The Spurs have one of them on their entire roster: Tre Jones, who has played roughly as many minutes in his career (1,417) as an injury-riddled Anthony Davis did last season alone (1,404). That’s it. That’s their depth chart at point guard. Who’s ready to watch Josh Primo explore the studio space? 

Josh Richardson will have to play some point just out of necessity, but there’s no reason for a tanking team to keep him beyond the deadline anyway. Hey, speaking of guys who are probably gone by the deadline, Jakob Poeltl is the NBA’s most underrated rim protector and he’s making less than $10 million. That’s probably someone contenders would like to poach.

The Spurs have had the NBA’s most anachronistic offense in the NBA for years now. They rank near the bottom of the NBA in 3-point attempts (25th in 2021-22) most seasons, and with DeMar DeRozan gone, they sank in free-throw attempts (25th). They’ve typically made up that lost offense with stellar mid-range play. Here’s the problem: Not only have they lost their best mid-range scorers in DeRozan and Dejounte Murray over the past two years, but they’ve also lost the shooting coach in Chip Engelland that helped make so many of their mediocre shooters viable in that area over the past decade. When you don’t have an inherent advantage in inefficient areas, you have to maximize volume in the more efficient parts of the court to survive offensively. The Spurs don’t. They leave points on the board systemically that they are no longer equipped to make up for.

The Spurs are going to be good again at some point in the semi-near future, but when a team tells you it doesn’t want to be good, believe it. The Spurs have spent the past two years tearing their roster down to the studs. They are tanking as explicitly as any team in basketball. Don’t get cute here. They are going to do everything in their power to maximize their odds of landing Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson.

Is this the best way to bet on this team? No

The Spurs are sitting at +330 to have the NBA’s worst record. I wish those odds were slightly higher, but I think they’re by far the best bet on the board for that dubious honor.


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