Saturday, December 3

NBA picks: Bet on Nuggets to surpass win total line in 2022-23, plus other Northwest Division over/unders

Fun fact: The Northwest Division has only one Finals appearance in the 21st century. It belongs to the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. Utah, Portland, and if you count it, Seattle, all made it there in the 1990s, but once the calendar flipped, this division became the NBA’s quintessential home for lonely superstars. 

Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett all won MVP awards in this division. Rudy Gobert racked up Defensive Player of the Year trophies, and for a stretch 10-15 years ago, almost every Rookie of the Year played in the Northwest. But none of these teams has won a championship since 1979.

Is this the year that changes? A few of these teams would certainly hope so. Denver and Minnesota are all in on winning now. Portland seems hellbent on contending with Damian Lillard no matter how long the odds. And Utah and Oklahoma City? Well … check back with them in a few years!

After years of relative obscurity in the championship picture, the Northwest Division is finally back in the thick of things. How is that going to play out over the regular season? Let’s take a look at their over/unders and find out.

All odds via Caesars Sportsbook.

*Pythagorean Wins represent the number of games a team would be expected to win based on their point-differential

2021-22 Wins

48

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins

48

2022-23 Win Total Line

51.5

The pick: Over 51.5

This line started lower at most books, but even with the public money pushing it up, it’s still almost insultingly low. Jokic won 48 games last season without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. As we’ve covered, multi-time MVPs in their prime are almost guaranteed to reach 53 wins so long as their roster is mostly healthy. While we can’t predict the future, it would be almost impossible for Denver to have worse injury luck than it did a year ago, when it established a 48-win baseline.

The Nuggets would’ve topped 50 easily were it not for an abhorrent bench. They won Jokic’s minutes by 8.4 points per 100 possessions … but lost the minutes he sat by 7.9 points per 100 possessions. That 16.3-point swing is about as big as you should ever expect to see out of a single player, and there’s reason to believe both ends of that equation will improve this season.

Though the sample is tiny, the four-man combination of Jokic, Murray, Porter and Aaron Gordon blasted opponents by 46 total points in just 117 combined minutes together after the 2021 trade deadline. Prior to Murray’s injury, Denver looked unstoppable. It had arguably the NBA’s best offensive trio and had finally found a jack-of-all trades forward to pair with it as a defender, screener and cutter. 

Typically, getting an All-Star point guard back would stabilize bench units because of lineup staggering. Michael Malone doesn’t stagger as much as most coaches. Murray tends to play most of his minutes next to Jokic. But merely getting 30 minutes per night out of Murray and Porter means that Malone won’t have to devote those minutes to lesser bench players. Facundo Campazzo got nearly 1,200 minutes last season. He’s out of the NBA. So is DeMarcus Cousins. Having a healthy roster slides everyone back into their proper roles. There is no universe in which a 35-year-old Jeff Green should start 63 games. Now he won’t have to.

The offseason addition of Bruce Brown provides a smaller version of Gordon and significantly more lineup flexibility. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the first true 3-and-D guard Denver has had during the Jokic era. Zeke Nnaji has drawn rave reviews out of training camp. If nothing else, Bones Hyland is going to score a whole lot of points.

There are no guarantees in the NBA, but this is my favorite win total bet on the board. Denver would need to suffer almost as much misfortune as it did a year ago to win fewer than 52 games.

Is this the best way to best on this team? No

Take your pick:

  • Denver +700 to earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
  • Malone +1300 to win Coach of the Year.
  • Denver +1200 to finish with the NBA’s best regular-season record.

These are all viable high-risk, high-reward bets. Denver is a team to take such a swing on. The only thing I wouldn’t advise you to do is grab their division odds at -140. They’re probably not going to win this division with 51 or fewer wins, so there’s not much value there compared to the win total unless you really want to short Minnesota.

2021-22 Wins

46

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins

49

2022-23 Win Total Line

49.5

The pick: Over 49.5

When you’re betting win totals, a team’s floor is significantly more important than its ceiling. You don’t win extra money for blowing past the total. It’s a yes or no question, so you’re looking for indicators that your team is going to reach a certain baseline of competence no matter what. Minnesota happens to have two of the best of them in all of basketball.

  • Karl-Anthony Towns has played more than 50 games five times in his career. His offense has never ranked below 13th in those seasons.
  • Rudy Gobert has started at least 50 games seven times in his career. His defense has ranked below 13th in those seasons.

Remember, 13th in the baseline. That’s where Towns ranked while playing for lottery teams and it’s where Gobert fell when he shared the floor with many of the miserable defenders you’ve seen in Utah’s past few postseason collapses. History suggests that having a healthy Towns means you’re going to have an above-average offense. History suggests that having Gobert means you’re going to have an above-average defense.

And if you put better players around them than their past teams have? You have the potential to climb much higher than 13th on either end of the floor. We haven’t mentioned Anthony Edwards yet, who might be better than both of them. Minnesota may have paid a king’s ransom for Gobert in terms of picks, but it kept Jaden McDaniels, who it envisions as its perimeter stopper and a key long-term piece. D’Angelo Russell, as maligned as he is, will at least stabilize bench units and ensure that the offense stays afloat when Towns and Edwards need to miss time.

There are very real questions here. Minnesota’s defense thrived last year by blitzing and trapping. That’s not how Gobert teams play. Can Towns and Russell function next to him? How much does playing power forward full time mitigate the value of Towns’ historic shooting? These are reasonable trepidations, but they’re going to play out in the playoffs. All we need is a high regular-season floor to justify this over, and history tells us Minnesota has it on both sides of the floor.

Is this the best way to bet on this team? No

Look into some of the individual player awards here if you want to score a higher payout. Gobert is available at +475 to win Defensive Player of the Year, Edwards is sitting at +900 for Most Improved Player, and Chris Finch can be had at +950 for Coach of the Year. All three are the favorites to win their respective awards. I’ve covered their candidacies individually in the stories linked above. It’s unlikely that all three win, but they’re all favorites for a reason. If the Timberwolves are as good as we expect them to be, they’re going to get rewarded for it with some hardware.

2021-22 Wins

30

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins

25

2022-23 Win Total Line

40.5

The pick: Under 40.5

This was probably the hardest line on the board for me. Portland has been .500 or better in seven of the past nine seasons, and injuries ruined the other two. We covered the importance of high floors when it comes to Minnesota, but Damian Lillard is just as important an example. Prior to last season, Portland had three consecutive top-three finishes offensively and had never finished below 16th during Lillard’s career. That No. 16 finish came during his rookie year. In his prime, Portland was almost always in the top 10. 

But for the first time in his career, it’s fair to wonder if Lillard still guarantees offensive excellence. He’s a 32-year-old small guard coming off of abdominal surgery. He no longer has CJ McCollum as his running mate. That burden now falls on Anfernee Simons, who excelled on a tanker last season, but has the more difficult task of playing off Lillard now. No matter how excited you are for Simons as a long-term cornerstone, he’s unlikely to share the chemistry that Lillard and McCollum built over the course of years playing together. Jerami Grant is probably the best scoring forward Portland has had since LaMarcus Aldridge, but even in two impressive high-volume seasons with the Pistons, he was, at best, a league-average catch-and-shooter. How will he adapt to becoming a role player on a team with ambitions again?

Portland’s offense will still likely be fairly good, but there are enough questions to assume it probably isn’t headed for another top-three finish. It might have to, though, because of the defensive issues Portland has been facing for nearly a decade. Lillard is a poor defender. Simons is a poor defender. Jusuf Nurkic has lost so much mobility that at this point, he’s veering toward “poor defender” status. Building a cohesive scheme around three defensive negatives in the starting lineup is exceedingly difficult, and frankly, Chauncey Billups struggled with better defensive personnel early last season. He misused Robert Covington by asking him to guard elite scorers man-to-man rather than emphasizing his excellent help defense.

Gary Payton II makes a world of difference in theory. In practice, we have no idea how viable he’ll be offensively outside of Golden State’s unique offensive ecosystem. If he makes 40 percent of his corner 3s again? Everything is fine. But last season was, to this point, the outlier. Portland needs Payton to play significant minutes. Josh Hart is a fine defender. He can’t check the opponent’s best scorer every night, especially without elite rim protection.

The Blazers have finished in the bottom-three defensively three years in a row. I consider a fourth consecutive year at the bottom slightly likelier than a return to the top three offensively. With that being the case, I’d peg Portland at just below .500. 

Is this the best way to bet on this team? Yes

If you’re especially confident in Portland, the Blazers are sitting at +190 to make the playoffs, but given the depth of the Western Conference, I can’t advise taking that even with the higher-reward number. They’re -140 to participate in the play-in round, and that’s not great value either. I’d honestly just stay away from Portland altogether, but if you insist on betting the Blazers, I’d just pick a side on the over/under.

Oklahoma City Thunder

2021-22 Wins

25

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins

31

2022-23 Win Total Line

24.5

The pick: Under 24.5

There are a number of parallels between Oklahoma City and San Antonio this season, and as I wrote about the Spurs, when a team tells you it wants to lose … believe them. The Thunder had a unique opportunity to add salary before free agency started because of the cap space they held onto all season. They largely let that space lapse, aside from taking on a bit of money in a cap dump with Denver. If making the play-in round mattered to the Thunder, they would have added veteran talent of some kind this offseason. Mike Muscala and Kenrich Williams are the only likely rotation players above the age of 25.

Just as San Antonio is almost entirely devoid of proven point guard talent, the Thunder have no obvious solution at center, at least defensively. At least Derrick Favors had a track record. The 6-foot-8 Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and the rail-thin Aleksej Pokusevski have gotten the bulk of the preseason minutes, and they don’t exactly inspire confidence defensively.

Oklahoma City has caught plenty of flak for its end-of-season tanking over the past few seasons, but it’s not as though it was setting the world on fire even at full strength. The Thunder were just 16-40 in games Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played last season, which would translate to 23.4 wins over an 82-game slate. Even with their best player, they weren’t winning at the rate needed to hit this over. Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are already injured. Chet Holmgren won’t play this season.

It’s rarely this simple, but when the NBA’s preeminent tanker has an easy path to a top choice in one of the most talented draft classes in NBA history, you should probably just expect them to take it.

Is this the best way to bet on this team? No

I’ve backed the Spurs for the NBA’s worst record, but Oklahoma City at +325 is a viable bet as well. If nothing else, it might make sense to bet on both Oklahoma City and San Antonio to cover your bases while still ensuring a meaningful return.

2021-22 Wins

49

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins

58

2022-23 Win Total Line

23.5

The pick: Over 23.5

I’m at a bit of a loss over how Utah’s line is lower than Oklahoma City’s. The theoretical explanation here is that the Thunder have a star in Gilgeous-Alexander and Utah doesn’t, but take a look at Utah’s roster as a whole. There are at least six starting-caliber players here: Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt and Kelly Olynyk. That doesn’t even include the possibility of any of their young players outperforming expectations. There’s a meaningful amount of NBA talent present here.

In a sense, that’s to be expected. Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Bojan Bogdanovic will combine to make roughly $88 million this season. The Jazz had to take back a significant chunk of salary to move off of those guys, and typically, salaries of that size are attached to good players. It’s a less extreme version of the position the Thunder found themselves in three years ago. Yes, they traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George in 2019 intending to kick-start a tank, but they had to take back Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari to make the money work. The Thunder managed to get off of both a year later and lose as intended, but they were pretty good in the interim.

Utah won’t be as good as the 2020 Thunder were, but the same basic principle applies here, and for what it’s worth, Danny Ainge has been through this himself. He planned to launch a full-scale tank in 2013 when he traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Celtics wound up winning 25 games a year later. Bad, but just the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference. It’s extremely difficult to clear a roster of all of its talent in a single offseason. The Jazz still have a decent amount left. Only so many teams can win 15 games. Someone has to win a few here and there. That’s going to be Utah. 

Is this the best way to bet on this team? Yes

Utah isn’t good enough to make the play-in or bad enough to have the NBA’s worst record, so this is your play here unless you want to take a swing on Collin Sexton at +3500 to win Most Improved Player. I wouldn’t oppose such a play, but I’d probably advise sticking with the win total here.





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