With the possible exception of lockout seasons, it has never been harder to predict win totals leading into an NBA season. Let's quickly address some of the unique roadblocks for 2020-21:
- COVID-19 has led to a crunch toward the mean. No team is projected to reach even a 56-win pace across a typical 82-game schedule this year, according to Vegas. The last time the NBA failed to produce a 56-win team in a non-lockout year was 1979, the third season after the merger with the ABA. Conversely, every team is projected to play at least at the pace of a 25-win team across a typical 82-game schedule. The last time every team in the NBA won at least 25 games was 1984. The theory here is that good teams are going to lose more games due to the virus in a condensed 72-game schedule than they otherwise should be expected to, and bad teams will benefit from playing more opponents navigating that minefield.
- In a normal season, teams would play around 63 percent of their games against teams in their own conference. This season, that falls to around 58 percent. That should help teams in the West as they now play a greater proportion of their games against the cellar dwellers in the East. Conversely, the best teams in the East now have fewer chances to feast on the weak teams at the bottom of their own conference.
- There's a weapon of mass destruction sitting on the trade market and nobody has any idea where it's going. Anyone confidently betting Houston's over/under is a degenerate. The possibility of a James Harden acquisition should be baked into projections for Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Miami at the very least, but we know there are suitors in both conferences, and mystery teams always emerge here. The team that ultimately acquires Harden, in all likelihood, is going to overperform its projection. The trouble is that the possibility of acquiring Harden applies to so many teams that basing any decisions on it would be ridiculous.
Every team is going to be affected differently by the factors. This market has never been more volatile. But if we soldier on assuming a somewhat even spread of poor 2020 fortune, there is value to be had here. Information and upside are inversely proportional on the betting markets. The more Vegas knows, the less you stand to gain, so if you feel confident in a team's ability to outperform its projection, you're probably going to like the odds that this one-of-a-kind season has generated.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
Atlanta Hawks: Over 34.5 wins
This is a close one, but the over relies on a simple premise. No matter how you feel about the players Atlanta added, the players Atlanta no longer has to play were so awful that replacing them with literally anyone is going to lead to improvement. Atlanta devoted almost 59 percent of its minutes to players under the age of 23 last season. Evan Turner spent a meaningful chunk of the season as their backup point guard. Of the 21 players that took the floor for the Hawks last season, 14 were sub-replacement level, according to VORP. The jump from those players up to basic competence is going to give Atlanta far more wins than people seem to realize.
Boston Celtics: Under 44 wins
Boston has four top 43 players, according to our ranking of the league's top 100. The issue is everyone else. Who is the fifth-best Celtic with Gordon Hayward gone? Daniel Theis? Tristan Thompson? This is a team that can't afford any extended absences in the regular season whatsoever, and Kemba Walker is already going to miss December recovering from a knee injury. A fully realized Celtics team that has its core four, has properly aligned its bench and has even perhaps used the trade exception it got after losing Hayward will be dangerous in the playoffs. In the regular season? The downside is just too high.
Brooklyn Nets: Under 45 wins
Brooklyn is very similar to Boston: a team built for the postseason that is going to struggle through the early portion of the regular season. No matter how excited you are to watch Kevin Durant, you must acknowledge the odds of him playing all 72 games off a torn Achilles are fairly slim. Kyrie Irving, on average, misses over 21 games per season. The two of them aren't known for being easygoing in the locker room. Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen are both playing for contracts, yet they're both expected to come off the bench. James Harden trade rumors will surround the team until he is dealt elsewhere. Steve Nash is a first-year coach trying to juggle all of this in the league's biggest media market. Oh, and it isn't clear who on this team intends to play defense. Again, the Nets will be lethal in the playoffs, when their shot creation overwhelms more balanced opponents. But in the regular season? They just have so many factors working against them that it would be irresponsible to assume they hit this over.
Charlotte Hornets: Under 25.5 wins
Charlotte signed Gordon Hayward expecting to win more than 25 games, but the reality of its roster is far bleaker. There isn't a starting-caliber big man anywhere to be found. The Hornets are devoting an inordinate amount of possessions to a rookie point guard (LaMelo Ball) and a third-year shooting guard (Devonte' Graham) who hit below 40 percent of his 2-pointers last season. Miles Bridges is the only defender with any upside on this entire roster, and it's not as though Hayward is renowned for his durability. There is a reasonable chance the Hornets finish in the bottom five on both ends of the court. This is going to be a very bad team.
Chicago Bulls: Under 28.5 wins
This one is a toss-up and essentially relies on how much faith you have in such a young team defensively. If Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Coby White take reasonable steps on that end of the floor? We're talking about a team that competes for a play-in spot. If they don't, this is a firm lottery team. The former seems to be the safer bet. This team's youth and general offensive-leanings (in a league that simply has more firepower than they do) are probably going to sink this team's immediate hopes for winning.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Under 22 wins
The Cavs have had the NBA's worst defense two years in a row, and they kicked off free agency by letting perhaps their best defender, Tristan Thompson, leave for Boston. To remain at all competitive, Cleveland is going to need to play something resembling league-average offense, and hey, the pieces might actually be there. Maybe Kevin Love re-embraces his love for Cleveland. Maybe Collin Sexton learns to pass and Darius Garland builds on the momentum he started to develop late last season. It's just much likelier that this remains a team without a true point guard or engaged veterans, which points to yet another tanking season.
Dallas Mavericks: Over 43 wins
Let's say you assume the Mavericks are roughly as good as last season. They're probably slightly better, but just run with the thought experiment. They played at the pace of a 41.3-win team on a 72-game schedule last season in terms of record, yet they had the NBA's sixth-best net rating in outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions -- nestled neatly between the fifth-place Lakers (plus-5.6) and the seventh-place Heat (plus-2.7). If you base their expectation off their point-differential rather than their record, they played at a 48-win pace across a 72-game schedule. You're basically betting on two things if you take the Dallas over: health and regression to the mean late in games. Dallas went 17-24 in NBA-defined clutch games last season. Historically speaking, those numbers tend to be somewhat random. Unless you doubt Luka Doncic's ability to lead a late-game offense, the Dallas over should essentially be a lock.
Denver Nuggets: Under 44.5 wins
If Michael Porter Jr. looks like he did at his bubble peak, nothing else matters. The Nuggets are a three-star team and push for 50 wins. Under the more realistic up-and-down scenario, Denver's lack of front-court depth puts it at a severe disadvantage if injuries or COVID-19 become a problem, and Jamal Murray is generally getting a bit overvalued in the betting markets. He may have averaged 26.5 points per game in the playoffs, but he's never reached 19 in the regular season. Like Porter, the hot-and-cold expectation is the most probable one, and with so many schedule losses built in for the contenders, Denver can't afford that in a regular-season setting.
Detroit Pistons: Under 22 wins
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the worst team in the NBA. The Pistons hit the trifecta: a rookie starting point guard (Killian Hayes), an injury prone star (Blake Griffin) and an offseason built around role players on a good team seeking out bigger roles they haven't earned (Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee). Throw in the inevitability of a Derrick Rose trade, and you have a team with little interest in immediate winning.
Golden State Warriors: Under 37.5 wins
This one's a heartbreaker. Stephen Curry's resume suggests that, if healthy, his mere presence should make the Warriors a playoff team. The truth isn't as favorable. His three likely co-starters, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Draymond Green, have shot a combined 32.6 percent on 3-point shooters in their careers, and they're going to play most of their minutes alongside a true center. The non-Curry minutes typically went badly even when Durant played for Golden State. How is a Brad Wanamaker offense going to look? Will Wiggins and Oubre buy in defensively? Is Green still a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his 30s? Heck, is Curry still an MVP candidate at 32? There are just too many questions here to take the over no matter how enticing Golden State's upside looks.
Houston Rockets: Under 34.5 wins
If James Harden finishes the season with the Rockets, the over is a lock. No Harden team has ever finished below .500 at any stage in his career. If you expect a trade to come eventually, though, the under feels safe. Rumors will weigh down the Harden version of the team, and then an incoherent post-trade roster won't make enough sense together to compete afterward. That's why these moves tend to come in the offseason, so both teams have time to reorient their lineups around the blockbuster. That isn't possible in-season, so even if the Rockets have the talent to finish above .500 (no guarantee), they probably just won't have the fit.
Indiana Pacers: Under 39 wins
Nate McMillan teams tended to overperform their projections based on defense. His loss alone, regardless of Nate Bjorkgren's impact, is probably going to hurt the defense. So will the continued health struggles of Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo, as well as TJ Warren, who is expected to miss the beginning of the season. The Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner quandary remains unsolved (though, in fairness, Bjorkgren could ease that pressure by turning Turner into a spot-up shooter exclusively). Oh, and a subplot worth watching is the fact that the Pacers are on track to pay the luxury tax for the first time since the league altered the formula in 2011 to make it more punitive. Their owner, Herb Simon, is a mall magnate. That's not a great business in 2020. Don't be surprised to see them sacrifice depth in the name of fiscal responsibility at the deadline.
Los Angeles Clippers: Over 47 wins
Here's where the COVID-related value really starts to kick in. This projection pegs the Clippers as a 53-win team in a normal season. They won 48 games during the 2018-19 season without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It's safe to say this team is a good deal better, and at least in regular-season teams, it's at least going to be better optimized than it was last season as well. Doc Rivers tends not to emphasize 3-point shooting offensively, and as a result, the Clippers finished 16th in attempts last season. Yet when they took at least 38 3-pointers last season, they went 14-1. Lower that threshold to 34 and their record is still 27-5. Ty Lue teams fire at will from behind the arc. That's going to lead to some free wins.
Los Angeles Lakers: Over 47.5 wins
The Lakers won their 48th game last season on March 6, before even reaching the Orlando bubble. They're going to be a better regular-season team, thanks to the offseason additions of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell. They not only fix the bench offense issues that plagued the Lakers whenever LeBron James sat, but provide enough offensive firepower to credibly rest LeBron from time to time without punting away games. The Lakers are going to start slowly as they integrate all of the new pieces, but expect a purple wave to hit in late January or early February as James hits his stride, the new players are fully adjusted and their depth and raw talent overwhelm weakened opponents.
Memphis Grizzlies: Over 32 wins
If the Grizzlies were healthy, this would be a safer bet. The longer we go without hearing a timetable on the return of Jaren Jackson Jr., though, the trickier this gets. He and Justise Winslow, also dealing with perpetually uncertain health, are the backbone of what could have been a decent defense. If they miss meaningful time? The Grizzlies are going to struggle to get stops. But if they play most of the season, it's just hard to see a team with this much talent not at least pushing for .500. Ja Morant is too good to finish eight games below .500 if he has a healthy team around him. Last season's Grizzlies played at the pace of roughly a 34-win team on a 72-game schedule, and the youngsters should be even better this time around.
Miami Heat: Over 44.5 wins
As the bubble proved, no team is better equipped for an unusual season than the Heat. Their conditioning is going to save them from the midseason lull other contenders usually experience. They might also be the deepest team in the NBA, running 11-deep before even factoring out the inevitable breakout of one of their youngsters. Avery Bradley solves their point-of-attack issues on defense. Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo should all be better. Some regression from their bubble form is inevitable. Goran Dragic is not going to look like an All-Star at 34. They'll miss the version of Jae Crowder that they had, though his 3-point shooting was never sustainable. This is a team built for the specific challenges this season presents.
Milwaukee Bucks: Over 49 wins
The Bucks won 73.2 percent of their games during the 2018-19 season, and then reached 81.5 percent before the bubble last season. There's reason to buy into some regular-season decline. Milwaukee's depth has taken a major hit, and contenders generally emphasize the regular season less after several seasons atop the standings. But asking the Bucks to fall back to winning only 68 percent of their games basically depends on injuries. This is one of the safer picks on the board.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Under 28.5 wins
Is there an above-average defensive player on this entire roster? Josh Okogie comes closest, and it's unclear how many minutes he's even going to get. Ricky Rubio has slipped with age. Jarrett Culver has upside that has so far been obscured by his offensive flaws. In a normal season, this would be the worst defense in basketball. It still might be, if Cleveland and Washington improve at all. Bad defenses have played competitive basketball before. It relies on absolute domination on offense. Karl-Anthony Towns is capable of that. Is anyone else? D'Angelo Russell has never played for an above-average offense, a damning statistic for any lead ball-handler regardless of teammate quality. Minnesota took the fourth-most 3s in basketball last season, but made the third-lowest percentage. This roster is better, but it shows how very far the Timberwolves had to go in the first place.
New Orleans Pelicans: Under 35 wins
The Pelicans went 19-29 without Zion Williamson last season and no longer have Jrue Holiday to support them in his absence. Williamson is healthy at the moment, but given his history, odds are he's going to miss a meaningful chunk of time. That puts significantly more pressure on him to thrive when he does play on a roster with limited spacing, a new coach and quite a few young players still learning the ropes. The best version of the Pelicans is probably a .500 team, but you shouldn't bet on getting that version of this team for the entire season.
New York Knicks: Over 22.5 wins
The 2019-20 Knicks played above this pace, and it's hard to imagine such a young team regressing with a better coach and a more sensible roster. The power forward logjam is mostly gone. RJ Barrett has a modicum of space to work with now. Obi Toppin might already be better than Julius Randle. This won't be a good team, but it won't be a train wreck either. Tom Thibodeau teams come with a baseline competence. Regardless of injuries and turnover, he has never led a bottom-five team in terms of record.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Over 22.5 wins
This is a scary pick. The Thunder want to lose, and they'll trade almost anyone to do it. But the worst record in the NBA might be unattainable to a team that employs a budding young star like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and no matter how hard the Thunder try, this is probably going to be a decent defense. It would be hard not to be with Luguentz Dort, Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza. The youngster will limit the upside, and trades will inevitably weaken them, but the Thunder aren't as bad as they'd like to be yet.
Orlando Magic: Under 29 wins
Orlando lost its best defender to injury when Jonathan Isaac tore his ACL. It also lost its floor general to free agency when D.J. Augustin signed with the Bucks. Markelle Fultz was a worthwhile risk, but for the Magic to avoid the basement, he has to be a stable, starting-caliber NBA point guard. There just isn't any evidence that he's capable of that, and if he isn't, this might be the worst offense in basketball. Without Isaac to cover for it defensively, this just isn't going to be a very good team.
Philadelphia 76ers: Over 44.5 wins
The five-man lineup of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric outscored opponents by 268 points across 601 minutes during the 2017-18 season. There's justifiable playoff skepticism surrounding the Simmons-Embiid combo, but the regular-season combination of those two with elite shooting is bulletproof. Every iteration has thrived, and the Seth Curry-Danny Green-Tobias Harris version might be the best of them all. There are depth issues, but newly hired exec Daryl Morey tends to solve those as the season progresses. This is going to be a great regular-season team.
Phoenix Suns: Under 38 wins
A healthy Chris Paul gets Phoenix over this line, but how sure should we be that Phoenix gets that player? Paul's health was spotless with the Thunder, but he missed 24 games in both of his Houston seasons and 21 in his final campaign with the Clippers. When you factor in the eventual age-related decline, Paul's value staying where it was last season seems almost unfathomable. That pushes Phoenix to the back of the pack of likely Western Conference playoff teams.
Portland Trail Blazers: Over 40.5 wins
Prior to last season's injury-filled mess, the Blazers had gone over their projected win total in three of the past four seasons. That's no accident. Damian Lillard teams are excellent offensively by default, healthy versions of the Blazers are always deep enough to survive full seasons, and this season, we add the wrinkle of some genuine defensive upside. Robert Covington is one of the best defensive floor-raisers in basketball. He struggles in the playoffs as a weak man defender, but is so good in help situations that he can take almost any team from bad to average. Derrick Jones Jr. should thrive with a steadier role, and the Blazers can use Rodney Hood's non-guaranteed contract to help make a deadline addition.
Sacramento Kings: Under 28.5 wins
Generally speaking, teams that plan on winning games don't allow for their second-best player to leave for nothing in restricted free agency. The Kings are headed for a mini-rebuild, and they'll trade any veterans that get in the way of that. At a bare minimum, 2019-20 win shares leader Nemanja Bjelica is a near-lock to be dealt at the deadline, and if there's a market for Buddy Hield, a bigger deal could materialize.
San Antonio Spurs: Under 29.5 wins
This is a team in transition. Its four best veterans, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, are all on expiring contracts that make them highly tradable. The youngsters aren't ready to win yet, and even the current iteration of the team can't defend at a playoff-caliber level. If San Antonio's path to decency is an above-average offense built on two 30-somethings and a bunch of non-stars on rookie deals, their median outcome is well below 30 wins.
Toronto Raptors: Over 42.5 wins
Yes, the losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka hurt the interior defense. Yes, Kyle Lowry is another year older. Yes, the Raptors are the only team not playing in their home city this season, and yes, their bench is full of players you've never heard of. But do you really want to be the person to bet against the Raptors? Again? Toronto has hit its over nine years in a row. Vegas has never properly appreciated Lowry. It has no way of properly appreciating Nick Nurse. The Raptors are going to have one of the best defenses in basketball, they're going to score a bunch of transition points, and that alone is going to lead to a lot of regular-season winning.
Utah Jazz: Over 41 wins
Deep-bench depth remains a major concern, but the Jazz have eight starting-caliber players. That provides rare matchup flexibility in the regular season and insulates the Jazz against the absence of any single player. No Donovan Mitchell for a night? Mike Conley can run the offense and Jordan Clarkson can pick up the scoring slack. Derrick Favors can anchor the defense when Rudy Gobert goes to the bench. And generally speaking, teams that have top-10 upside on both sides of the ball tend to win a lot of regular-season games. The Jazz finished ninth in offense last year and were a top-10 mainstay on defense in years prior. Securing both is doable with this core.
Washington Wizards: Under 32.5 wins
The Wizards essentially tied the Cavs for the NBA's worst defense last season, and while there's an argument to be made that Bradley Beal will improve with less on his offensive plate, no version of this team is good on that end of the floor. They'd have to flirt with the top 10 offensively to compensate enough for 33 wins, and considering Houston posted a better offensive rating with Russell Westbrook on the bench last season, the odds of him launching Washington up from No. 16 into that range in a more crowded field are fairly slim.