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The 2021-2022 NBA season is fast approaching, and that means it’s time to settle in for the new season and make some futures bets.
I love to bet on futures because it’s a way to remove some of the shot-to-shot and game-to-game variance and bet on a wider sample size. It’s also a chance to zoom out and look at the league as a whole, the trajectory of certain teams, and where they’ll stack up on offense and defense going forward.
Team totals and over/unders are an easy way to bet on NBA team outlooks heading into the new season. Below are my three favorite overs and my three favorite unders heading into the new year.
My 3 Favorite Overs
There’s a real void near the top of the East after the Nets and Bucks. Everyone is looking for a sleeper like the Hawks, Heat, or Bulls, but I think the Celtics are the sleeping dog too many folks are overlooking.
Last year was a season from hell for the Celtics. They dealt with COVID issues all season, particularly Jayson Tatum, there were injuries up and down an already flawed roster, plus apparently some behind the scenes tension with Brad Stevens. Last season’s team never really looked like the Celtics, but this roster does.
Kemba Walker was not good last year, and he was always a big problem on defense. Now Marcus Smart is the head of the dragon; he’s the heart and soul of this team and sets the tone with his energy and defense. Tatum and Jaylen Brown should continue to get better. And the Celtics added some serious talent and depth.
Al Horford has always been a perfect fit for this roster. He can play either big position and quietly had a very nice season in limited action last year. Replacing Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis with Horford and more Robert Williams will be huge for this defense.
This could also be a great spot for Josh Richardson to rehab some value as a 3-and-D guy. Boston’s defense slipped to league average last season, but ranked top-seven each of the previous three years. This version of the defense should be back in that echelon.
The offense won’t be elite, but Boston has ranked top-10 in Offensive Efficiency for three straight seasons, per Basketball Reference, so the Celtics will be fine.
You’d love to see a little more ball movement, and this is where the loss of Kemba will hurt some, but Dennis Schroder and Enes Kanter are nice offensive weapons off the bench and fit better there, where they’re not as damaging defensively.
This team played at 55, 56, 53, and 55-win paces the past four seasons. I see little reason to believe this version of the Celtics should be any worse, and they might well be better. The defense sets a high floor, and Boston could be in line for 50 to 55 wins yet again.
I love the Celtics to go under the 5.5-seed (+115 at DraftKings), and you can bet them at +725 to make the No. 3 seed at PointsBet or +1400 to make it all the way to the No. 2 seed if you’re a true believer.
Portland Trail Blazers over 44.5 (PointsBet)
The Blazers are my favorite Western Conference sleeper, and this roster shapes up as the best version of this team yet.
We already know that Damian Lillard is spectacular, but you might not realize that CJ McCollum took a real leap last season, taking and making more 3s as a more efficient scorer and taking on more usage and creation. McCollum was finally the star people have talked about him being for years — but he missed 25 games due to injury.
I don’t even think McCollum was the second-best player on this team before last season. That was Jusuf Nurkic, an absolute linchpin for this team with his screen-and-roll offense and essential defense. Nurk played just 880 minutes last season, which ranked 10th on team. The Blazers might get 30% more from McCollum and 50-60% more from Nurkic. It’s a good thing when you get that much more from your second- and third-best players.
And did you know that the Blazers ranked second in Offensive Efficiency last year behind only the Nets, even with all that missed time? Dame is just that good, and that wasn’t an outlier — the Blazers have ranked top-three in Offensive Efficiency for three straight seasons.
This offense might be their best yet with McCollum’s improvement and a full season from Norman Powell, offering a third ball handler and creator for the first time in the Lillard era. The Blazers also improved their bench in a huge way with Larry Nance, Cody Zeller, and Tony Snell. That’s a huge help for this defense, especially considering that those guys are replacing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter.
The defense won’t be good, it just needs to not be bottom-three like it was the past two seasons. But those years came mostly without Nurkic. Portland was around league average before that, and they didn’t have guys like Nance and Zeller then either. With an offense this good, even an average defense is enough. If everything clicks, these Blazers could approach 50 wins. Heck, they paced to 48 last season and had 53- and 49-win campaigns over the past four seasons too.
If you really believe in Portland, you can bet them to win the division at +1000 at BetMGM. That means betting on the Blazers finishing ahead of the Jazz and Nuggets. But if you really think that happens — and it might — then you might not be shooting high enough.
The Blazers are +2800 at PointsBet to get the No. 2 seed, and Lillard is +1400 there to win MVP. Could Portland be this season’s Denver?
Los Angeles Lakers over 52.5 (BetMGM)
Take a look at the win totals (82-game pace for shortened seasons*) the last 10 times LeBron James has played at least two thirds of his team’s games: 60*, 50, 51, 57, 53, 54, 66, 57*, 58, 61.
That’s nearly 57 wins a season and over-52.5 in eight of the 10. The only two misses over the past decade were by just 1.5 and 2.5 wins and that was with decrepit Cavaliers rosters that had little to no help.
James has plenty of help on the Lakers. Anthony Davis is a superstar in his own right, and now the team added a third star in Russell Westbrook. The jury is out on what this team will look like in the playoffs, but there’s little question Westbrook makes the Lakers better over 82 games.
He plays with relentless energy, he’s a terrific creator, and he’s deadly in transition. Russ has always been a floor raiser. When James or Davis are out, it’s Westbrook’s time to shine. Those are his triple-double games, his chance to steal a few wins.
But you don’t even have to fully believe in Westbrook. Debate Russ and the veteran spare parts all you want, but the truth is that the two biggest reasons to believe in the Lakers are right there on the roster.
LeBron played 45 games last year. Anthony Davis played just 36, missing half the season and playing below his best through injury.
Give the Lakers 65 good games of James and Davis and this is a very easy over. Those two alone are enough, Westbrook and the vets are just window dressing.
The other thing to love is that the Lakers have the best defense in the league. They led the league in Defensive Rating last season and should be even better with more LeBron and AD plus help from, Dwight Howard, and Kent Bazemore — not to mention the removal of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell.
The formula is simple: the best defense in the league plus two super-duper stars plus a third star for the bench units and off nights equals a whole heap of wins.
You can also bet the Lakers at +175 at DraftKings to be the West’s No. 1 seed. The Jazz are the only team I project within eight wins of the Lakers, so you can nearly double your payout if you like L.A. and don’t love anyone else in the West.
My 3 Favorite Unders
Houston Rockets under 27.5 (DraftKings)
The Rockets might be the worst team in the NBA. Houston is a super young team that’s going to be bad on offense and even worse defensively. The Rockets are in rebuilding mode, with every incentive to play the young guys and tank for a high draft pick. Everything about this team screams under.
Jalen Green certainly looks entertaining, though. There’s no question he has that “it” factor, and he’s going to have some huge scoring lines and big time dunks and highlights. He might even win Rookie of the Year. But he’s almost certainly going to contribute a lot more to losing than winning this season because that’s what rookies do in this league, especially rookie wings.
And then there’s the point guard position, where Houston will play John Wall to watch this season. Wall is still a solid player and one of the few on this roster. Instead, Kevin Porter Jr. will run point. And again, that should make this a fun, watchable team — but not a good one.
I love to bet against teams built around young ball handlers. NBA guards take a long time to mature. Porter Jr. and Green may get there in a few years, but they’ll produce a lot of entertaining, bad offense in the meantime.
And they’re not the only young talent on the roster. Remember, Houston added four first-round picks. Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba, and Josh Christopher will get a lot of playing time too. More fun, but more losing. Christian Wood is a nice player who missed time last season, but he was more than replaced by Kelly Olynyk, another player who’s gone now.
This team will not win many games. They might finish last in the league on defense and not far ahead on offense. And that’s totally fine anyway because this franchise wants to lose games. This season is about developing the young talent and letting them learn while they lose, earning experience and another high lottery pick next summer.
This line is so low I had to triple check to make sure it wasn’t a typo. The Rockets might go under by 10 wins.
New Orleans Pelicans under 39.5 (BetMGM)
It brings me no joy to do this, but I have to fade Zion Williamson who is really the only thing to like about this team. The rest of the roster makes precious little sense. Brandon Ingram is a fine player, but doesn’t fit with Williamson, and the new additions feel more like roster churn than a real step forward.
Jonas Valanciunas is a good player, but he doesn’t solve this team’s spacing issues. Devonte’ Graham helps with spacing, but can’t score inside the arc, and he and JV will represent a big step down defensively from Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, and Steven Adams.
This defense wasn’t good to start with, so it’s scary to think of the worse version that might be coming. Bledsoe and Adams didn’t fit this team well, but I’m not sure Valanciunas makes much more sense, and the decision to trade a first for Graham instead of just keeping Ball remains baffling. Lonzo was a great defender and glue guy that actually fit next to Zion and Ingram.
New Orleans doesn’t have that guy now unless Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, or one of the other youngsters steps up. Coaching is a question too. Stan Van Gundy wasn’t great with this team, but he has a proven track record and knows defense, and we don’t know what we’ll get from Willie Green.
In the end, Zion is so awesome that it’d be easy to overlook all of that and just bet on him carrying the team to success. The problem is that we got an almost completely healthy season from Zion a year ago, and now there’s news that Williamson broke his foot this summer and needed surgery. Considering his speckled injury history and the mounting list of foot and leg injuries for a player his size, that was not the news the Pelicans wanted coming into a new 82 games.
I don’t love the Pels even with a healthy Zion. They played between a 33-to-35 win pace each of the past three seasons, and the ceiling is limited by the terrible defense. Even with a mostly healthy season from Williamson, I still think the Pelicans go under. But add in the injury to the only guy on the roster who matters and I simple have to bet the under.
Chicago Bulls under 42.5 (BetRivers)
I moved to Chicagoland in 2001 and have lived here the past two decades. The Bulls are my team. I see red. But I do not see what Chicago is doing here.
There’s no question the Bulls added a ton of talent. DeMar DeRozan is a four-time All-Star. Lonzo Ball is a great glue guy. Alex Caruso has a sweet headband. And this team already has two All-Stars with Zach LaVine and last season’s big addition, Nikola Vucevic. That’s three all-stars (maybe 3.5 with Lonzo).
Everyone mostly admits the defense won’t be good. It definitely won’t be. Vucevic is not a great defender. LaVine and DeRozan are actively harmful. It’s basically impossible to field a decent defense with three guys that bad out there playing big minutes. Patrick Williams can’t guard everyone, and Ball and Caruso can only do so much at their size.
You hear a lot of bad faith arguments about Chicago’s defense that go something like this: “The Bulls finished 11th in defense last year, so even if they’re a little worse, they can still be average!”
I’m not buying it.
The Bulls did finish 11th in Defensive Efficiency per Basketball Reference, but the gap from 11th to 20th was just one PPG. Those teams are all equally average.
And the Bulls only finished that high because LaVine missed time late, and more importantly, because Thad Young was awesome defensively. He and Daniel Theis improved Chicago’s defense a lot. Now both are gone, and Young has been replaced by DeRozan. This defense won’t be average, it will be bad.
But there’s an even bigger problem — I’m not convinced the offense will be all that special either. Have you watched DeRozan and Vucevic? The Spurs and Magic routinely finished around 20th in the league featuring these guys.
But now they have both of them and LaVine, three ball-dominant guys whose offensive games don’t necessarily scale down and become more efficient just because they have each other. This roster still lacks shooting and spacing, just like the Bulls, Spurs, and Magic did with their blah offenses the past few years.
These guys are very good at being the big fish in a small pond, carrying poor offenses with production that’s impressive in its own right, but cobbling three big fish together doesn’t magically produce a good offense.
So what happens if the offense is average or below average while the defense is below average or bad? Spoiler alert: It’s not the formula for a good team.
The East got a lot better. The Nets, Bucks, and Sixers are good. The Celtics, Hawks, Heat, and Knicks got better. The Pacers and Raptors should be healthier. Even the Hornets and Wizards might be better. These are all teams Chicago is competing with — and the Bulls stack up closer to those last four than the previous four.
For the Bulls to beat this total, they either need to be a top 10-offense or an above average defense. The top-10 offenses include teams like the Nets, Mavericks, Bucks, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Hawks, Suns, and Nuggets. That’s eight already, and if you think these Bulls belong in that group, we are watching a different league.
As a Bulls fan, I hope the team comes together and looks just as fun and magical as they did in the preseason opener.
As a bettor? I’m taking the under. I think there’s a better shot the Bulls miss the play-in altogether than finish safely among the protected playoff seeds.