Actual NBA basketball is officially back and while teams are getting ramped up, the window to bet futures as the regular season approaches is shortening. But don’t worry, we’ve been breaking down every team, division and player on the Buckets podcast (you can listen here).
As far as preseason win totals, I’m starting in the Southwest division (arguably the league’s most exciting), which features the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, Western Conference finalist Dallas Mavericks and the potentially dangerous New Orlean Pelicans.
Here’s a look at how I am betting (or why I’m not betting) each team in the Southwest. Stay tuned as we roll out more division previews over the next two weeks of the preseason.
Zion Williamson is back, the floor is a .500 team and Willie Green is a plus-EV coach. Williamson was one of the most efficient and offensively impactful players in NBA history in 2021, and he’s back to a team that made the playoffs last season.
After their 1-12 start, the Pelicans went .500 the rest of the way and .500 after adding CJ McCollum with injuries in there to McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Ingram. So a pre-Zion floor is still .500. Their young talent is superb with defensive wunderkind Herb Jones, shooter Trey Murphy, and rookie Dyson Daniels.
Key Trend: Teams that finished under .500 and have a win total listed above .500 the following season have gone 14-9 to the over (61%) in the last 10 years.
Bottom Line: The Pelicans finished just below .500 last year without Williamson. You have to establish how many wins you think Williamson is worth to the total and how many you think you’ll play. However, most of the research suggests the floor for this team without Williamson is .500, meaning that you just need an impact of four wins from Williamson even in a low-performance outcome to hit the over. The range of outcomes skews heavily towards the over.
Best Bet: I like their division odds (+400 or better) more, but over 44.5 is a 2-unit play for me. You can also find 43.5 depending on the book.
Memphis Grizzlies 49.5
The Grizzlies got worse, the Western Conference got better, and the line is too high. Jaren Jackson Jr. is out for some duration of time between October and January; conditioning and the like could mean he’s out until later in that frame.
The Grizzlies lost Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton over the summer and their replacement options are young and unproven. The West will see the healthy returns of Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Anthony Davis, and Williamson.
Key Trends: Teams that win 55 games or more have gone 17-12 (58.6%) to the under the following season over the past 10 years. Teams that win 55 games vs. a win total below 50 the prior season have gone 7-4 to the under in the last 10 years.
Bottom Line: Memphis is due for regression after having a special season where everything went right. They profile as the exact type of team that struggles being the hunted instead of the hunter, especially with a slightly worse roster. Even with head coach Taylor Jenkins and Desmond Bane being incredibly valuable to the over, Memphis may very well not win the division this season with a sub-48 win total.
Best Bet: Bet the under (I took this at 51.5, but like it at 49.5 or better)
The Market over-estimates the impact of Jalen Brunson’s departure and Luka Doncic is in top shape for an all-time season. Doncic played in EuroBasket in September, meaning he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in to start an NBA season.
Tim Hardaway Jr. returns, and the additions of Christian Wood and JaVale McGee give Doncic better weapons to provide rim gravity and open up things on the perimeter. The Mavericks’ defense was aggressive at the edge last season but not in a blitzing scheme that’s easily solved.
With better rim protection this season, and the return of all key perimeter defenders, there’s no real reason to think Dallas’ defense regresses in a significant way.
Key Trends: Teams with a win total that dropped by four or more wins from the previous season have gone under in 35 of 60 (58%) the last 10 seasons. Dallas had a +1.5 difference in their actual wins vs. their pythagorean expected wins (based on point differential vs. strength of schedule). Teams with a +1.5 differential or better in actual wins vs. pythagorean expectations have gone over 52% of the time in the last 10 years.
Bottom Line: I’m leaning toward the over. I’m expecting a career (and potentially all-time) season from Doncic based on usage and efficiency combined with him being in shape. That, paired with the existing infrastructure makes me lean over, but the number is high enough to keep me away. I do think there’s slight value on the Mavericks to win the division at a plus number.
The Spurs have some sneaky talent that, with Gregg Popovich potentially coaching in his last season, should be good vs. market expectations. But the looming importance of tanking to secure a top-3 pick remains too much of a concern for the over.
Tre Jones stands out upon review as he was one of the most efficient pick-and-roll scorers in the league last season with an outstanding floater. He’s a name that won’t register at all in most evaluations, but he can legitimately help the Spurs.
If the Spurs are any good, at all, Keldon Johnson should be in line for some Most Improved Player buzz. His shooting efficiency across the board was impressive and he’ll have more usage this season.
San Antonio is widely expected to look to move veterans like Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson to teams looking for help, leaving the Spurs less talented and experienced as they pursue an opportunity to draft Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson next summer.
Key Trends: Teams with a total listed 25 wins or fewer have gone over slightly more often (55%) in the last 10 years. Teams with a win total that has dropped by more than 10 from the previous season (34 wins for San Antonio last season vs. a 23.5 line) have gone 16-9 to the under (64%), indicating the market is able to accurately assess when a team is aggressively headed in the other direction from being competitive.
Bottom Line: Stay away. The number is simply too low to confidently bet the under. How many wins do they need for an equal shot at the No. 1 pick? The bottom three teams all have a 14% chance at the top spot. Does 25 wins get them there? Do they need to be in the teens?
The last time the Spurs tried to tank, back in 1997 to get Tim Duncan, they won 20 games. The margin is just too slim to bet the under, and there’s no justification for betting the over on a team that has actively declared through trade it does not have intentions to win.
Houston is a promising team with bad infrastructure and a really low line.
Houston’s talent is promising with two top-three picks in Jalen Green and Jabari Smith, and good young talent like Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba.
Coaching is a huge question mark as the Houston offense as one of the most undisciplined and least prepared last season.
It’s assumed Houston will try and win, especially given Silas’ precarious position, but ultimately if they are still on pace for sub-30 by midseason they will likely actively pivot to a tank again.
Surprisingly, I have more optimism about their defense than their offense, with Sengun showing good rim protection instincts and flexibility in scheme, but the bar is still very low.
Key Trends: Teams with a win total of 25 or lower have gone over slightly more often (55%) in the last 10 years. Teams with a bottom-5 offensive and defensive rank (via Cleaning The Glass) have gone 10-5 to the over (67%) in the last 10 years.
Bottom Line: Stay away. The opening line of 27.5 was soft to the under, but that was pretty much immediately bet off the board. The new high point of 23.5 isn’t enough to get me invested on an under, though I’d lean that way. I can make a pretty strong argument for both the under and the over.
One thing to consider: if the Rockets do not start off well and Silas is relieved before the end of the season, it’s possible an interim coach might take them over. I just can’t find value here.