The city of Las Vegas exists because they are really good at predicting the future. Vegas already knows the outcome of every game in the casino. Spoiler alert: they win. Every pull on a slot machine lever, every toss of the dice, every spin of the roulette wheel - even the ones that hit - yields marginally more money than it will eventually pay out in the long run.
Vegas knows sports too. They know it better than almost everyone on the planet. Every basketball website posts projections and previews for the upcoming season, but these projections are typically inferior for the following reasons:
1). They won't go broke if they're wrong.
2). They're projections are static.
The first is the most obvious. If Vegas sets a line too low or too high, everyone will bet the right side and Vegas will lose money. The second point is critical. Once Vegas sets a win total, the market has a chance to act on the line and influence it. As one side is bet too heavily, Vegas shifts the line up or down until people start betting the other side and Vegas evens out their risk. The Vegas closing lines are a combination of stat driven analysis (the opening line) AND good ole fashioned free market economics. The resulting line is about as good a bellweather for the upcoming season as there is.
So let's peer into the future, and break down what Vegas sees for the upcoming season.
All lines current as of 10/20.
Philadelphia 76ers - Current: 17 wins (Opened 16.5)
Phoenix Suns - Current: 21.5 wins (Opened: Same)
Orlando Magic - Current: 22.5 wins (Opened: 24.5)
Utah Jazz - Curent: 25 wins (Opened: 27.5)
Charlotte Bobcats - Current: 26.5 wins (Opened: 27.5)
As you can tell by the line movements, there are people degenerate enough to gamble on these teams. The 76ers, Suns, Jazz and Magic have all seemingly made organizational decisions to lose enough games in the hopes of landing a top draft pick. And then you have the Charlotte Bobcats who, after years of tanking, abruptly decided to improve right before the best draft class in a decade. I think Michael Jordan is so bored he breaks NBA teams like Ron Swanson breaks coffee makers. Just to see the office burn!
With all due respect to the Charlotte Bobcats - who are trying to win with 2.5 NBA players on their roster (for those scoring at home, Al Jefferson is the 0.5) - there is one team in this mix that is just not as terrible as the rest, and that would be Jefferson's old team, the Utah Jazz.
Inexplicably, the market has influenced the Jazz projection downwards. I know the Jazz lost their entire frontcourt, and 80% of their starters. But that's exactly why you should like them! Their starters were awful together last year. The Utah Jazz nearly made the playoffs last year, despite their top 4 used lineups ALL POSTING NEGATIVE PLUS/MINUSES. That is incredible. Just over 1,200 minutes - over 14.5 complete NBA games - of getting outscored. You know what all of those lineups had in common? Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and a Point Guard combo of Jamaal Tinsley and Mo WIlliams. All of that detritus has been washed away.
So how did the Jazz nearly make the playoffs last year if their starters performed so poorly? Because - and I'm not making this up - their bench was better than their starters.
Will the Jazz be bad? Of course. Ty Corbin is still their coach (last year he coached about as well as Jimmy McNulty drives drunk), and they appear to have made an organizational decision to be bad mostly because Ty Corbin is still their coach. But in a year when so many teams are trying to be bad, the Jazz fired nearly every player that had a negative plus/minus in 2012-2013. Those minutes will now go to better players like Enes Kanter (my pick for Most Improved Player), Derrick Favors, Brandon Rush and Gordon Hayward. Wait, Ty Corbin is still the coach! Guess Andres Biedrins and Marvin Williams are starting!
THE ALMOST DREGS
Milwaukee Bucks - Current: 27 wins (Opened: 28.5)
Boston Celtics - Current: 28 wins (Opened: 27.5)
Sacramento Kings - Current: 32 wins (Opened: 31.5)
I dont have much to say regarding Boston, whose entire season rides on how many games Rondo is allowed to play, and how many of those games he actually plays hard. Ditto for Sacramento, who will not be relevant until Demarcus Cousins stops shooting mid-range jumpers and starts playing defense.
But Milwaukee is an interesting team. They are, arguably, the best drafting team in the NBA. Without picking in the top 9 since 2008, the Milwaukee Bucks have drafted Brandon Jennings, Larry Sanders, Tobias Harris (acquired for Jimmer Fredette on draft day), John Henson, and the Greek Freak. Hell, their 2nd round picks - among them Doron Lamb, Jon Leuer (I see you WHITEWASH), Jodie Meeks, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ramon Sessions, and Ersan Ilyasova - are better than the Grizzlies first round draft picks!
Did I mention the Greek Freak (he draws a Kevin Durant comp in less than 15 seconds)?
So why are the Milwaukee Bucks so bad? Because they often make shortsighted and risky moves to remain relevant (ie. winning games). They are the flip side of the Houston Rockets "Treadmill of Mediocrity." Out goes Monta Ellis, Mike Dunleavy and JJ Redick. In comes OJ Mayo, Zaza Pachulia (what?), Gary Neal, Brandon Knight and Carlos Delfino - many of whom are on multi-year, larger-than-warranted deals because, you know, they have to play in Milwaukee.
This is what building a roster in triage looks like. When you are constantly trying to win now, you make short-sighted decisions, and you pay for them later. With that said, it would be really hard for Milwaukee to be as terrible as they need to be to get a top 3 draft pick. So why not attempt to, you know, win games? As I noted before, this team has a great history drafting. What's the difference in the 9th pick vs the 13th pick for the Milwaukee Bucks? They are likely to pick up a decent player in either spot. There should be some nobility in "trying to win." When everyone is tanking, tanking is not the optimal strategy. In fact, outright tanking is rarely ever the optimal strategy. Even a 25% chance at the 8 seed is better than 100% chance at the 7th pick in the draft.
THE FALLEN GIANT
Los Angeles Lakers - Current: 35 wins (Opened: 33.5)
This may be the worst defensive team ever assembled. Related: I haven't been this happy about something involving the Lakers since this.
SO CLOSE. YET SO FAR AWAY
Toronto Raptors - Current: 36 wins (Opened: 36.5)
Portland Trail Blazers - Current: 38.5 wins (Opened: same)
Washington Wizards - Current: 39 wins (Opened: 42)
The stakes are high in the East. What does an Emeka Okafor injury mean for the Wizards? Three wins. That's what the market is telling us. So what? Three wins isn't that much, right? Well, as far as win totals go, three wins is an ocean. This is the largest move of any team in the NBA. And the implications are potentially long-reaching. Bu there are a ton of teams vying for the 7 & 8 seeds in the East, and the Vegas lines reflect that. The three wins the Wizards "lost" in Vegas is the difference between being the 6 seed... and out of the playoffs.
I am dubious that the acquisition of Marcin Gortat does much for them. The Wizards were really bad on offense, and Gortat helps that. But the Wizards were actually really good on defense, and it will be tough for their offense to improve enough (unless Bradley Beal makes a super leap and John Wall maintains his post All-Star leap) to compensate for what Marcin Gortat does to their defense. If Okafor returns to the court this year - and by all accounts he will - then this is a bad trade for the Wizards. The Suns weren't saying no to Trevor Ariza + the protected pick for Gortat. This is the very definition of a lateral move for the Wizards, and they have an uphill climb to make the playoffs.
PLAYOFFS?!?! YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT PLAYOFFS?!? OH WAIT, WE'RE IN THE EAST. WE'RE GOOD!!!
Detroit Pistons - Current: 40 wins (Opened: 41)
Cleveland Cavaliers - Current: 40 wins (Opened: 40.5)
Atlanta Hawks - Current: 40 wins (Opened: 40)
How much more competitive is the Western Conference than the East? After the wisdom of the crowds did its thing, Vegas was forced to project three playoff teams from the East with losing records.
If Detroit reaches the postseason, it will be because either Luigi Datome, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler provided enough outside scoring to free up the front line to do its thing (and by "its thing" I don't mean "Josh Smith shooting jumpers"), or the Pistons swung a massive trade involving Greg Monroe that brought back major immediate help. My favorite: Detroit trades Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey's expiring contract to Denver for Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried. Miller gives Detroit a guard that passes (necessary with Brandon Jennings now in the fold), and a forward rotation of Wilson Chandler, Josh Smith, Kenneth Faried is seriously interesting.
The other interesting team in this mix is the Atlanta Hawks. After being stuck next to the human sieve that is Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap gets to play next to Al Horford, a player that covers Millsap's flaws. They have shooting at all FIVE positions. They can swap in DeMarre Carroll for Korver any time they need to go defense (Carroll was surprisingly effective for Utah last year... another of the bench players that was better than the starter, Marvin Williams). They have Lou Williams and Elton Brand in positions where, if they get anything from them, it will be a bonus. If any of the Dennis Schroeder, Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, John Jenkins group proves to be good, this could be the 4th best team in the East.
And yet, they could go the other way. While I think they will be too good to blow it up, the Hawks could elect to do just that. Paul Millsap has a ridiculously enticing deal (who would have thought that). The aforementioned young players are sweeteners, and there isn't an albatross contract on the books. I hope the Hawks use this for good, packaging a pick + a young player and a mid-tier contract for another star (Rajon Rondo would look incredible on this team), but that is likely a pipe dream.
There will be a half dozen teams vying for those last three playoff spots. Right now, on paper, the Hawks are at the forefront of that fight. But if they find themselves in the rear, would they part with Millsap (probably) or (gasp!) Horford come January. The Hawks are one of those swing teams around which the entire playoff picture pivots. If they decide to blow it up, Millsap would look awfully good in Memphis (Tayshaun Prince + Ed Davis), or Houston (Donatas Monejunas, Francisco Garcia, HOU's 1). Horford would look great in Oklahoma City (Kendrick Perkins + Reggie Jackson + OKC & DAL's picks) or Chicago (Boozer + Nikola Mirotic + CHA's pick). Nearly every team in the NBA needs frontcourt help, and the Hawks may be looking to deal.
Stay tuned for Part 2, when we look at what the future holds for the top half of the NBA.
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