It’s the start of the NBA season, and twenty nine teams enter the season with renewed hope; a blank slate and refreshed dreams of hoisting up the Larry O’Brein Trophy… or do they? Can we be honest here for a second? Next to NO ONE realistically thinks they have a chance of hoisting the trophy. Thanks to a half-decade of Eastern Conference erosion and one seismic league-shifting earthquake of a free agency move, the league has been largely shifted into an opposing pair of “haves” and a jealous league full of “have-nots.”
That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have a wildly entertaining and fantastic season. We are. It is just appropriate to realize that for most teams in the league, “title” is not a realistic benchmark. It’s “Conference Finals” or even “playoff berth.” Heck, in a few cases it requires some optimistic vantage points to get to the goal of “not being disgustingly awful!” (It’s Showtime, Lakers’ fans…)
To get you ready for the 2016-2017 season, I’m going to take a slightly different approach than in year’s past. Rather than talk about overall championship odds and predictions (spoiler alert – Warriors over Cavs), I want to explore several interesting aspects of the season; first, the major roster changes that will affect many teams actual quality versus the public’s lingering incorrect opinions (for example, the Thunder, Heat, Hawks, and Bulls all look VERY different than casual fans might recall). Secondly, we are going to look at four teams with over/under win totals that offer some great possibility, and lastly, the entertaining MVP race that should emerge with a few new names in the mix.
Let’s dive in to the 2016-2017 NBA Season Preview!
On the Move…
You might have heard that Kevin Durant is now plying his trade in Golden State. And while that move reconfigures the very makeup of the West, making Golden State mythical and rendering Oklahoma City, well, questionable, Durant is far from the only person to change addresses and quite possibly the fortunes of a new city. Here are some of the other biggest moves from the summer.
Pau Gasol – San Antonio Spurs: Sure, the Spurs are aging, and adding Gasol doesn’t exactly make them younger. But it does more than adequately fill the hole left from the retiring Tim Duncan. It is reasonable to consider him an upgrade over 2015-2016 Duncan. Now if only they had a younger Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli…
Dwyane Wade – Chicago Bulls: Not sure how much D-Wade has left in the tank, but if healthy, he does keep the Bulls as relevant playoff contenders. He and Jimmy Butler make an excellent backcourt. But how much will the also-added Rajon Rondo add or subtract from the equation??
Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw – Utah Jazz: Suddenly Utah isn’t so young anymore. This veteran trio should add some much-needed experience and stability to a team Vegas thinks can win 50 games this season in a HUGE leap (more on that thought below…)
Al Jefferson and Jeff Teague – Indiana Pacers: These two additions finally give Paul George some relief offensively – something he desperately needed last season. They can’t unseat the Cavs, but they could be a first-round playoff favorite.
Derek Rose, Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah – New York Knicks: Color me unimpressed with this dynamite 2012 NBA 2K lineup, but at least the Knicks have some names to throw out along with the ‘Zinger and Melo.
Al Horford – Boston Celtics: This might be the second or third most important move in the NBA offseason. If Horford can add a little low-post scoring and rebounding stability, Boston could make a play for the second best team in the Eastern Conference.
Dwight Howard –Atlanta Hawks: Could you have imagined asking this question five years ago, “will the Hawks be able to stay in the playoff picture with Dwight Howard trying to replace Al Horford?” Yep. That’s where things have fallen for the once-lovable big man. Though it is still tantalizing to think he could finally get back to playing All Star basketball back in his hometown, years removed from the drama of LA and the recent abyss of playing opposite James Harden…
Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut – Dallas Mavericks: This is the year everyone is finally banking on the long-anticipated Mavericks slide from the payoffs. But with Barnes and Bogut and one more year squeezed out of Dirk and Deron Williams, I wouldn’t count the Mavs out just yet…
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A Changing Landscape – Teams With New Value (Or Lackthereof):
The NBA looks far different than when we last spoke. Major stars have moved teams, stars have retired, rookies have been drafted (though that impact will likely be minimal) and the very landscape of the “challengers” to the throne have been rearranged. Let’s look at the most significant moves of the offseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder (TOTAL: 43.5) – Many fans will remember that this team failed to qualify for the playoffs, missing by a single game despite a furious effort from Russell Westbrook, two years ago when Durant was injured. Well, KD ain’t walking through that door, at least not in a home uniform, ever again. So the big question now is, how many wins does the Durant/Oladipo swap cost the Thunder? Perhaps I am naïve, but I don’t think this team will be terrible. They won’t challenge for a top three seed like they have the last half decade, but I don’t think they miss the playoffs either. Oladipo is an above-average defender and a capable scorer, comfortable as the second or third option in the offense. Steven Adams should blossom as he takes on more responsibility with Ibaka departed to Orlando.
They will have some overall depth issues, particularly in the backcourt, but who in the West outside of Golden State doesn’t? I think this team can win in the high-40’s and surprise quite a few people this season. They’ll need good seasons from Enes Kanter, who can be a top five offensive big man, and Ersan Ilysova, a capable and versatile four – but if they get quality production from these two, the Thunder can challenge to win a playoff series. And don’t forget a late first round pick who could pay HUGE dividends, Domantas Sabonis, who has Steven Adams –like intensity and rebounding instincts, potentially giving the Thunder some of the best front-line depth in the West.
My Pick: Oklahoma City Thunder – OVER 43.5 WINS (* FAVORITE PICK)
New York Knicks (TOTAL: 38.5)
OK, so Vegas apparently disagrees with Derek Rose’s “superteam” assertion. But below .500? They will trot out an opening night lineup of Melo, Rose and Porzingas. Oh, you need five players? Then add in a Brandon Jennings or maybe a Kyle O’Quinn and Justin Holliday. Off the bench, the corpse of Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee and… who are we kidding? These Knicks are still not a playoff team and have potential to be really disgustingly inefficient if Rose and Jennings – two of the least efficient players in the league over the last few years, continue to take a lot of perimeter shots.
My Pick: New York Knicks – UNDER 38.5 WINS
Chicago Bulls (TOTAL: 38.5)
I’m not in love with this team, but they FIT together far better than the aforementioned Knicks who are at the same price. The addition of Rajon Rondo is perplexing to me. He is barely an NBA point guard offensively at this point in his career, and his locker room detriments are largely reported. The move is even odder with Michael-Carter Williams on the roster. That said, if D-Wade can give them 65-70 games and Mirotic and Portis continue to develop, I kind of like this roster. They have a lot of talent and a bench of MCW, Portis, Mirotic, McDermott and Jerian Grant could be the best in the East. This feels like a no-doubt playoff team to me, making 38.5 REALLY low.
My Pick: Chicago Bulls OVER 38.5 WIN (* FAVORITE PICK)
Utah Jazz (TOTAL: 49)
The Jazz have a nice young core and are one of the better teams defensively, or at least have shown that in stretches when healthy over the last two years. But forty nine wins? That’s quite a jump for a team that hasn’t sniffed the postseason with their current core. It is also assuming a large jump ahead of veteran teams like Houston, Memphis and Dallas.
It feels too ambitious for me. Gordon Hayward is sidelined early with a hand injury and that leaves a ton of offensive responsibility to Rudy Gobert and to the newly-added veteran aging trio of Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw. Rudy Gobert is a defensive beast, but hasn’t progressed to the same level offensively.
I think Utah has a good chance to make the playoffs, but 50 wins? That’s a MASSIVE leap forward, and one far too aggressive for my betting tendencies.
My Pick: Utah Jazz UNDER 49 wins
Who Will Win the MVP (as opposed to who IS the MVP, because that answer is not a variable, it is a constant, and it is LeBron…)
This award should be real interesting in 2017, because two of the easy favorites slide WAY down on the board by the sheer fact that Steph and KD now share the same address. Add in the fact that the East blows so hard there is NO REASON for LeBron to log even close to enough minutes or games to be a strong favorite, and this thing gets reallllly interesting. The award is a strange blend between stats and a playing on a team reasonably good enough to merit consideration. And how many non-Warriors/Cavs teams will win 55 games this year? Any? 50 wins? A handful? The Spurs, Clippers and… um…
The MVP is really wide open this year, but here’s a few value plays I like…
Russell Westbrook (+200) – So, I think Russell Westbrook will be the MVP this year. But I don’t like this wager. I’ll explain. He will amass stats this year, quite possibly like no one we’ve seen since Oscar Robertson. He has a legit chance to flirt with a triple-double season average, though I see his assists falling more in the eight range. But a 28/11/8 statline is possible.
It is also possible the Thunder stink and barely make the playoffs, which makes it hard to vote Russ the MVP. It’s also possible he will miss some games with injuries. He does most seasons, and just THINK of the workload and usage rate he will face this season… At two-to-one, the payoff is WAY too lean in a season with about a dozen MVP candidates. I’m gonna pass on Russ, though he is the most likely MVP this season.
My Pick – PASS
Kawhi Leonard (+1000) – This is my favorite play. And here’s the scenario: Curry/Durant split the vote in The Bay, LeBron gets enough rest to deflate the stats, and the Spurs, with Pau Gasol and a really deep core, end up winning 62 games and the best two-way player in the NBA is rewarded with the trophy. It’s a very reasonable scenario, and at ten-to-one, the value is excellent.
My Pick – GOOD VALUE PLAY
Lebron James (+500) – The best player in the NBA hasn’t won the award in four years. This year could be the make-up vote. With the lack of any clear-cut candidates on great teams without splitting votes, LeBron could slide back onto his rightful throne. I’m not wild about the +500 value, but he seems like one of only three reasonable candidates.
My Pick – SMALL VALUE PLAY
Paul George (+2500) – This is a longshot for sure, but he’s the only other guy I could see creeping into the conversation. The Pacers have medium/low expectations but with the addition of Jefferson and Teague, they should be a much better offensive team. They could contend, along with Boston, Toronto and a few others for the second seed in the East. That could be enough to creep George into the discussion.
MY PICK – NICE LONG SHOT VALUE
The Heat finish with a worse record than the 76’ers as they enter total rebuild mode as Dragic tends to nagging injuries.
The Kings finally deal DeMarcus Cousins. He immediately becomes an MVP candidate and takes an otherwise average team to a playoff series win.
Boston, Toronto and Indiana all hang around the race for the Eastern Conference #1 seed while Cleveland sputters. The Cavs then go 12-3 in the Eastern Conference playoffs en route to their third straight Finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves both make the playoffs.
The Warriors win 73 games. At least. They won’t even MEAN to, but they will just find losing to be difficult to muster, even when resting one or two of their four superstars.
If you want an interesting value wager, try the Rookie of the Year. No preseason Vegas favorite has ended up winning the award since Kevin Durant in 2007, so there are some fun value plays. Kris Dunn (+350) is now the slight favorite after Ben Simmons injury. Buddy Hield is right on his heels at +375. Both are reasonable picks, though I am not sure Dunn is going to get quite as many minutes as some expect with Ricky Rubio healthy. My favorite plays are Brandon Ingram at +600 and I LOVE the value of Domantas Sabonis at +3500. He is going to wind up starting and being a huge part of the Thunder this season.
A few teams that will be better than expected: Milwaukee, Minnesota, Phoenix and Indiana. I think the Knicks, Grizzlies and Wizards will disappoint.
If you want someone OTHER than the two obvious Finals participants, there is some fun longshot value in the Clippers at 28-1. It’s not likely they beat the Warriors, but they could be the third best team in the NBA, making 28-1 championship odds pretty beefy.
Ultimately, it’s Golden State and Cleveland Part III. You know it. I know it. But it doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the ride and a fantastic NBA season.