Earlier this month, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook released its 2018-19 win total lines on every NBA franchise. For some, this is an opportunity to identify teams that are misvalued and place a wager to exploit that inconsistency. As an onlooker, it’s a first glance at the perceived landscape of the upcoming season.
Westgate’s Over/Under Wins:
- Golden State Warriors: 62.5
- Boston Celtics: 57.5
- Houston Rockets: 54.5
- Toronto Raptors: 54.5
- Philadelphia 76ers: 54.5
- OKC Thunder: 50.5
- Los Angeles Lakers: 48.5
- Utah Jazz: 48.5
- Indiana Pacers: 47.5
- Denver Nuggets: 47.5
- Milwaukee Bucks: 46.5
- New Orleans Pelicans: 45.5
- Minnesota Timberwolves: 44.5
- Washington Wizards: 44.5
- San Antonio Spurs: 43.5
- Portland Trail Blazers: 41.5
- Miami Heat: 41.5
- Detroit Pistons: 37.5
- Charlotte Hornets: 35.5
- Los Angeles Clippers: 35.5
- Memphis Grizzlies: 34.5
- Dallas Mavericks: 34.5
- Brooklyn Nets: 32.5
- Orlando Magic: 31.5
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 30.5
- New York Knicks: 29.5
- Phoenix Suns: 28.5
- Chicago Bulls: 27.5
- Sacramento Kings: 25.5
- Atlanta Hawks: 23.5
In finalizing a line, Sportsbooks like Westgate consider a number of variables.
Not only do they utilize intelligent people and software to rank teams based on merit, they also weigh peripheral factors like the sentiment, popularity and betting tendencies around a certain market, among others. Their goal is to generate an even amount of money on both sides of a gamble.
At first glance, the Timberwolves (44.5) are a team that stands out as underappreciated. Adding 16 wins from their previous campaign, the 2017-18 Wolves finished 47-35 en route to ending their historic playoff drought.
Still, it’s difficult to argue that they outperformed their capabilities.
Jimmy Butler (59 games played) and Jeff Teague (70 games played) missed more time due to injury than they have during any other season of their careers. The group also lost a disproportionate amount of games to tanking competition (Phoenix Suns twice, Grizzlies twice, Nets, Magic, Hawks, Bulls); it remains to be seen whether this characteristic will improve, but it suggests that last year’s team may have left wins on the table.
In addition, the Wolves feature three key contributors — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Tyus Jones — that can be expected to improve moving forward, and the Front Office reshuffled a bench unit that would struggle to be worse than the one it’s replacing.
But according to Westgate, Tom Thibodeau’s roster will produce 2-3 fewer wins in 2018-19 than it did a season ago.
Conversely, ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight (538) — an analytics-based site named after the number of electors in the Electoral College — released win total projections that are generated exclusively by a statistical algorithm (CARMELO). Rather than pondering outside influence, as is common in Las Vegas, 538 uses a formula of historical data to predict the winner of each scheduled contest.
Here, the Wolves are forecasted to finish the season 52-30, a very significant discrepancy from Westgate’s analysis. Accordingly, the Western Conference playoffs would stack up as follows:
- Golden State Warriors (64-18)
2. Houston Rockets (54-28)
3. Utah Jazz (54-28)
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (53-29)
5. Minnesota Timberwolves (52-30)
6. Denver Nuggets (48-34)
7. Los Angeles Lakers (46-36)
8. New Orleans Pelicans (46-36)
It’s a much rosier outcome; one that contradicts Las Vegas’ pessimism and creates a divide between the objective (538) and subjective (Westgate) models. Seemingly, an offseason of angst around Mayo Clinic Square — and the possibility that chemistry issues could bear out on the court — may have played a meaningful role in creating this variance.
There is a duo of teams whose win totals differ by more than seven games at the two different sites: the Mavericks (27 at 538, 34.5 at Westgate) and the Wolves (52 at 538, 44.5 at Westgate). It’s an interesting dichotomy that makes sense within context.
The Mavericks, this summer, executed a blockbuster draft-night trade to select Slovenian sensation Luka Dončić, a player who has generated enormous excitement. Soon after, they signed former Clippers’ center DeAndre Jordan to a lucrative one-year deal.
So, while the Mavericks were among a group of teams openly trying to lose last season, they convey a favorable aura after conducting an off-season that is viewed optimistically.
As a result, Las Vegas sees them in a brighter light than 538.
The Wolves, meanwhile, have been relatively quiet since they were stomped out of the playoffs by the first-seeded Rockets. Headlines that do surround the organization, though, tend toward negativity; namely, Butler’s public contempt toward his younger teammates, his declining to sign a long-term deal and Towns’ strife with the front office at large.
Nothing has occurred to diminish the ability of their roster, but general disarray seems to be influencing a more critical outlook from predictors like Westgate.
On one hand, it’s easy to dismiss those concerns as a baseless reaction to offseason fodder. On the other, NBA basketball is not nearly as unbiased as a statistical representation like 538. The reality, for the Wolves, is likely to fall somewhere in the middle.
But how much should we consider the possibility that a lack of harmony could dampen their output this season?
Historically, unstable team chemistry is something that occurs with relative frequency, but the way that it manifests and its impact on performance are far from homogenous.
There are groups like LeBron James’ Cavaliers that dispel destructive storylines year after year. Still, they’ve made it to consecutive NBA Finals for almost a decade. Where superior talent is apparent, it will usually prevail.
Kobe Bryant’s Lakers never seemed to like one another, either. The relationship between him and Shaq was often depicted by on-court disagreements and intense competition over the label of alpha. They barked at each other during games and made quips about rings after they had separated; but through four championship runs in nearly a decade as teammates, they utilized that fiery nature in the pursuit of success.
There are other instances — like the Lob City Clippers and Wizards of late — where execution has varied amidst unpleasant locker rooms. The Chris Paul-led Clippers tended to enjoy regular season success — they won more than 50 games each year from 2012-13 through 2016-17 — before failing to reach even one Conference Finals.
Behind a backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards have aired their laundry through social media and conveniently public players-only meetings. With Wall sidelined, they defeated the Raptors by three points in February. After the game, Marcin Gortat sent a cryptic tweet about their “great “team” win” — an ill-hidden slight at the group’s injured point guard.
It’s a pattern of drama that has become the brand of a team with two all-stars. And while the Wizards have made it to postseason play in four of the last five seasons, they’ve struggled to reach the upside that their roster would suggest in an inferior Conference.
Elsewhere, sentiment can be sour until changes are made. In 2014-15, Thunder point guards Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson displayed obvious disdain for each other. But once Jackson was traded to the Pistons, Westbrook was given the freedom to win his first NBA scoring title. The next season, when Kevin Durant returned from injury, they battled the Warriors for seven games in the Western Conference Finals.
During Butler’s final year with the Bulls, when Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo signed in Chicago, a divide was apparent between veterans and youth. The Bulls snuck into the playoffs, rather unexpectedly, and challenged the Celtics in an opening round series. But once they were defeated, a trade was made to remedy the environment and embark on a roster rebuild.
For this year’s Wolves, friendly chemistry and cohesive play are just as likely as anything toxic. In fact, for the first time in recent memory, they’re slated to have a starting five play consecutive seasons under the same head coach. Plus, their core has experienced twelve months of learning each other’s basketball tendencies and temperamental traits.
But the possibility that personalities clash, one that was emboldened by an abrupt postseason exit and a flurry of offseason rumors, is likely weighing on league-wide predictions of what’s to come.