This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
With the start of the NBA season now just a week away, time is running out to make preseason predictions.
Projecting which team will win The Finals (hint: it's the Warriors), who will win the MVP, or which team will man up and sign Monta Ellis is all part of the fun leading up to the start of the regular season.
This year, NBA.com has added a new wrinkle. The league has launched a contest that challenges users to go team-by-team and make a pick against each projected win total. These numbers, courtesy of MGM, have been available for several months, but they've fluctuated based on public opinion, injuries, trades, and free agent signings.
The game is pretty self-explanatory: Consider the number, and decide whether you think the team will win more or fewer games this season. But while the process is simple, the decisions are not.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at some of the more intriguing win totals and make the case for, and against, each outcome.
Milwaukee Bucks: 46.5 winsHow they go over: With a new coaching staff in place, everything finally clicks and we look back and wonder how this team only won 44 games a year ago. Those 44 wins felt like a disappointment, and if Giannis Antetokounmpo stays healthy and makes even marginal strides as a shooter, that number feels more and more like a baseline. Early returns on the changes Mike Budenholzer's staff has made have been overwhelmingly positive, and letting Jabari Parker walk may have been more addition-by-subtraction than anything else.
There's a case to be made that outside of Boston and (probably) Philadelphia, the Bucks' ceiling is as high as any team in the East's. Milwaukee has the best player in the conference, a worthy No. 2 in Khris Middleton, a center who can space the floor, and a collection of role players who make up a deep supporting cast. Tacking three more wins on to last season's total – a campaign that featured a mid-season coaching change and a combined 12 losses to non-playoff teams – doesn't seem like too much to ask.
How they go under: The strong start to the preseason is just a mirage, and the Bucks revert back to their bad habits on defense. Antetokounmpo still struggles as a shooter, and Milwaukee is unable to settle on a consistent presence at center, resulting in another year as one of the NBA's worst rebounding teams. The Bucks beat the teams they should beat in the East but fail to string together wins against the much deeper Western Conference portion of the schedule.
The pick: Over. While the addition of Lopez won't exactly do wonders for Milwaukee's rebounding, the Bucks shored up the rest of their weaknesses – the most glaring of which was at head coach. With Budenholzer in place and more shooting around Antetokounmpo, tacking three more wins on to last season's total is a very reasonable expectation.
Houston Rockets: 56.5 winsHow they go over: Outside of Golden State, Houston might be the only other team in the West you'd feel pretty good about betting your life savings on to make the playoffs, right? That's worth something. But, still, winning 57 games in the West is no easy task. For it to happen, James Harden and Chris Paul stay mostly healthy, and, more importantly, Houston keeps itself motivated for at least 80 percent of the regular season. Clint Capela takes another step toward All-Star status, and the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are offset by Carmelo Anthony's contributions on offense and James Ennis' versatility on defense.
How they go under: Despite not finishing the job a year ago, there's some complacency risk here. The Rockets fall into the same lull the Warriors did last season and throw it cruise control for most of the regular season. They win enough games to maintain a top-three spot in the West but don't put in the extra effort to push Golden State for the No. 1 seed. Anthony struggles again to fit in with a new team and Paul misses at least a quarter of the season with an injury.
The pick: Over. No, the Rockets aren't quite as strong as they were last season, but they could do much worse than a one-two punch of the reigning MVP and another future-Hall-of-Fame point guard. Houston won't win 65 games again, but a nine-win drop-off feels like an overcorrection.
Atlanta Hawks: 26.5 winsHow they go over: Trae Young is significantly more efficient than he's shown he can be, John Collins makes a big leap, and the Hawks catch a few teams off-guard early on. They clean up against the Kings, Knicks, Magic, Bulls, Nets and Suns and avoid playing for the lottery until the final few weeks of the season.
How they go under: Young's inefficient shooting in summer league and the preseason carries over, and the Hawks are something like 5-28 at Christmas. Atlanta allows Young to play through his mistakes in the name of long-term growth, and while he has a few big games along the way, Young's lack of discipline on both ends lead to defensive breakdowns that are too damaging to overcome. DeWayne Dedmon and Jeremy Lin struggle to stay healthy, and the Hawks have to rely far too much on Alex Len, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Dorsey.
The pick: Under. This one feels inevitable. Twenty seven wins is a lot for a team that is: 1. pinning its hopes on a player who's a horrific defender and will likely shoot under 40 percent from the field; and, 2. Not all that interested in winning 27 games and hurting its chances at another top-five pick.
Boston Celtics: 58.5 winsHow they go over: As one of the deepest teams in recent memory, the path to the over is relatively simple: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward stay healthy, and the Celtics' put in the requisite effort to win 59 regular season games. Hayward comes back as a seamless fit on the wing, and Brad Stevens finds a way for Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to coexist. Terry Rozier returns as the ideal third guard off the bench, and the combination of Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes offer stability at center behind Al Horford.
How they go under: Realistically, it probably takes a major injury or two, which is in the realm of possibility. Horford has battled serious shoulder and concussion issues throughout his career, while Irving has missed 22, 10 and 19 games, respectively, over the last three regular seasons. There's a chance Boston could fall victim to the same complacency factor facing the Rockets, but after flaming out in Game 7 of the Conference Finals at home, the Celtics seem more likely to come back with something to prove, rather than coasting until the postseason.
The pick: Over. Boston was a pair of late-season losses to Atlanta and Washington away from winning 57 games last season. Irving is back. Hayward is back. Tatum and Brown are only going to improve. With the best coach in the game and even marginally better injury luck, the Celtics could easily be the first Eastern Conference team to eclipse 60 wins since the 2012-13 Miami Heat.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 44.5 winsHow they go over: After a long standoff, the Wolves are able to swindle a desperate team into giving up too much for Jimmy Butler. Minnesota brings in at least one capable veteran in the deal, and Karl-Anthony Towns develops into a legitimate MVP candidate with Butler out of the picture. Andrew Wiggins shows improvement on defense (this is just a hypothetical), and Tom Thibodeau is finally willing to turn to an improved bench for longer stretches.
How they go under: This one is relatively simple. The Wolves eventually cave and take 70 cents on the dollar for Butler, bringing in a decent asset or two but no one who moves the needle in the immediate future. Towns struggles as the unquestioned No. 1 option, and Wiggins looks like the Wiggins we've come to know over the last few seasons.
Thibodeau marginally expands his trust in his bench, but, against all odds, Derrick Rose, Jamal Crawford, Luol Deng and mid-season pickup Joakim Noah fail to provide adequate depth. The Wolves show flashes of what a Towns-led team can look like, but the West ultimately proves too deep, and the loss of Butler – as much of a locker room issue as he may have been – is too great to overcome.
The pick: Under. Depending on what happens with Butler, this number could come down even further. But assuming Minnesota isn't able to secure another All-NBA-caliber player in return for Butler, it's difficult to imagine a team with so many flaws winning just two fewer games than last season.
Also worth noting: Minnesota went 15-0 against Dallas, New Orleans, Sacramento and the Lakers a year ago. At least three of those teams will trot out significantly more competitive rosters this season, and even the Kings are in better shape now than they've been in recent years.
Los Angeles Lakers: 49.5 winsHow they go over: The presence of LeBron James forces the Lakers' young pieces to mature quickly, and James' influence is enough to bring Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball to the next level. The Lakers find ways to go small at center, and both Ball and Rajon Rondo prove capable of piloting the offense when James rests. The Lakers take care of business against bad teams and find ways to steal a few wins from the top-tier teams in the West.
How they go under: As was the case in Miami and Cleveland, James finds it easier said than done to mesh with new teammates, and the Lakers struggle out of the gate. James returns to building in rest periods throughout the season, and the Lakers revert to a lottery-caliber team whenever James sits.
Even if things go smoothly from a chemistry perspective, LeBron alone isn't enough to drag the Lakers to 50 wins in the West, and by mid-season we begin to speculate how many of the current Lakers will be on the roster alongside James and Anthony Davis in 2019-20.
The pick: Under. Keep in mind that this number fluctuates based on the public's interest, so being that it's both the Lakers andLeBron James that we're dealing with, the total is artificially higher than it should be. James has proven more than capable of turning an average team into a title contender in the past, but 50 wins is a lot of wins for a team starting JaVale McGee at center. There won't be such thing as a night off in the West, and even the top-half of the East is stronger than it's been in recent years. The Lakers will be in the thick of the playoff race, but a lot would have to break right for Luke Walton's team to hit 50 wins in a conference that had seven teams finish with between 47 and 49 wins a year ago.
Memphis Grizzlies: 32.5 winsHow they go over: History dictates that when Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay relatively healthy, the Grizzlies are a playoff team. From 2009-10 through 2016-17, Memphis won no fewer than 40 games and strung together three consecutive 50-win seasons. The West is deeper than it's ever been, and Gasol is suddenly almost 34 years old, so Memphis returning to the playoffs is far from a lock, but a total of 32.5 feels borderline-disrespectful.
With Conley missing 70 games, the Grizzlies managed only 22 wins a year ago, but they were actively trying to lose for much of the second half. Dillon Brooks ranked second on the team in total minutes. Jarrell Martin was third. Andrew Harrison started 46 games.
Adding Conley alone isn't worth 11 more wins, but Memphis also beefed up its depth by signing veterans Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple, to go with No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson, Jr. Those three additions, coupled with a healthy Conley, will pull the Grizzlies back into eight-seed contention out West.
How they go under: Conley gets hurt again or struggles to regain his pre-injury form, Gasol shows signs of decline, and Jackson, who just turned 19, isn't yet ready to pick up the slack. Memphis once again gets almost nothing out of Chandler Parsons, and Anderson struggles to find footing in his first year away from the San Antonio system. The Grizzlies' lack of quality depth at two-guard becomes an issue, with the combination of Brooks, Temple, Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden combining to comprise the weak link in an otherwise-solid starting five.
The pick: Over. Even if Gasol and Conley stay healthy, the Grizzlies probably won't be a playoff team, but the veteran duo is too consistent to win fewer than 33 games, even in the ultra-competitive West.
Bonus Quick HitsMiami Heat: 41.5 wins
The pick: Stay away. Just don't bet it. Or, better yet, put twice as much on that Hawks' under. This Heat team feels like it was carefully constructed to win exactly 41.5 games – no more, no less. A Jimmy Butler trade could certainly change things, but that would likely require giving up a few key pieces in return. Butler is a better player than anyone on the current roster, but if he's your best player by a large margin, that may not be a net positive.
Phoenix Suns: 27.5 wins
The pick: Under. The Suns are going to be a lot more fun this season, but it's not going to translate to a seven more wins. Comb through the schedule and try to pick out 10 games – let alone 28 games – that you feel really good about the Suns' chances to win. The additions of Deandre Ayton and Trevor Ariza should help, but Phoenix's overall depth is still a mess – especially at the point guard position, where they currently don't have an NBA-caliber starter. Put it this way: It's almost never a good omen when your GM gets fired a week before the season starts.
Philadelphia 76ers: 54.5 wins
The pick: Before ending the regular season on a 16-game hot streak, the Sixers were on pace for 44 wins. Of course, there's a strong case to be made that a 44-win team doesn't win 16 straight games – Philly finished 52-30 – so the Sixers are probably somewhere in the middle. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will both progress, and getting literally any positive contributions out of Markelle Fultz will be a nice bonus, but the Sixers lost some depth this summer and replaced it with… Wilson Chandler?
Winning 55 games is no easy task, especially for a team that struggled to generate late-game offense for much of last season – particularly in the playoffs. Simmons all but confirmed that he didn't work on three-point shooting this summer, and while Fultz's long-term ceiling is still high, he's unlikely to be a major difference-maker, in terms of wins and losses, in what's essentially his second rookie year.
If Embiid and Simmons stay healthy, the Sixers will be right there with Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee at the top of the East. They're a very good team, but not a great team (yet). Take the under.