Looking Back on NBA Wins Over/Unders -- Part I
Looking Back on NBA Wins Over/Unders -- Part I

Back in August, I sat down with RotoWire's own James Anderson for our annual tradition of picking each team's win total against the Vegas over/under. It's one of my favorite exercises of the entire NBA year and makes for a fun retrospective with the 2018-19 regular season now in the books.

To say these picks aged poorly would be an understatement. Despite my near certainty that this would be the year I finally go 30 for 30, I ended up with only 13 correct picks. I won't get into too much detail here, but what I will say is none of the incorrect picks were my fault and I will not take responsibility for them. I simply won't. Frankly, I was robbed and I wouldn't be surprised to find out this was a coordinated, league-wide attack against my credibility.

Now, with that said, let's run through each over/under and attempt to discern what went right and what went wrong.

Atlanta Hawks

Over/Under: 24.5

The Pick: Under

Final Record: 29-53

In my notes for the podcast, I wrote I think the Hawks will start something like 3-20. That didn't ultimately happen, but Atlanta was 3-16 though its first 19 games, so for the first month of the season, I felt really good about this under. At that point, John Collins had just returned from injury, and Trae Young was shooting 38 percent from the field and 22 percent from three.

Admittedly, I was about as low as it gets on Young coming out of Oklahoma, so in my mind his slow start wasn't surprising. What was surprising was how Young turned his season around, ultimately making the Rookie of the Year race somewhat of a debate and leading Atlanta to a respectable 10-14 record after the All-Star break.

I completely underestimated Young's offensive impact, as well as how big of a leap Collins would take in Year 2. I may have also misjudged the gap between the bottom tiers of the two conferences. On the podcast, I declared that any team the Hawks play in the West is almost a guaranteed loss. As it turns out, Atlanta ended up 13-17 versus the West – the same record as Brooklyn and only one game worse than Boston – and while nine of those wins came against non-playoff teams, the Hawks also beat Denver, Oklahoma City, Utah and the Clippers. There's no debate that the East is still the JV league, but Atlanta fared better than I expected against teams in the 9-to-15 range out West like Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans and Dallas, while firmly establishing itself as superior to Phoenix – the team I saw as the Hawks' closest cross-conference comparison.

The critical error, though, was underestimating just how much the Hawks would want to win NBA basketball games. For a franchise firmly in rebuilding mode, I expected Atlanta to be right in the thick of the race to the bottom alongside Cleveland, Phoenix and New York. I realize the lottery odds aren't what they used to be, and I know the Cavs are well beyond overdue to win a lottery, but the indifference was nonetheless surprising. We'll find out on May 14th if the anti-tanking karma pays off.

Boston Celtics

Over/Under: 58.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 49-33

I'll start by saying that I'm absolutely one of the suckers who truly believed the Celtics would rip through the East and win somewhere between 59 and 63 games. About a week-and-a-half into the season it was clear that wasn't happening, but I stand by my argument from August – at least partially.

A season ago, the Celtics won 55 games and came within a vintage LeBron-fourth-quarter-on-the-road of a Finals berth. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were coming back healthy, and Boston returned virtually every key piece from last season's roster. Irving, Hayward, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Marcus Morris each missed at least 10 games in 2017-18, and Boston still got to 55 wins. Four more didn't seem like too much to ask, right? (Yes, Nick, you're right. And also smart as well as handsome).

I was convinced that if/when the injury bug bit again, the Celtics' depth would bail them out. So even with Irving and Horford playing 67 and 68 games, respectively, I can't in good faith point to that as the reason they fell short. In the end, it turns out that very depth may have been the problem. Brown and Rozier never quite looked comfortable sinking back into reduced roles after some big playoff performances, and Tatum was unable to replicate his postseason star-turn while splitting touches and iso opportunities with Irving.

Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest variable I failed to account for was Hayward's sluggish recovery from a devastating ankle injury. While the ankle, itself, held up fine and Hayward played 72 games, it was clear he never fully turned the corner, from a mental perspective. If that happens, maybe things go differently, but given everything that's gone on with this team, both on and off the court, it's tough to assert that a fully engaged Hayward would've resulted in a 10-game swing.

Brooklyn Nets

Over/Under: 32.5

The Pick: Under

Final Record: 42-40

James and I were in agreement that the Nets didn't actually improve as much as others seemed to think. Coming off of a 28-win season and missing the playoffs by 15 games, Brooklyn had parted ways with Jeremy Lin and brought back the same core that carried a 19-40 record into the All-Star break. The Nets' marquee offseason additions were Jared Dudley and Ed Davis. Wait, wait... and Kenneth Faried.

In hindsight, 33 wins isn't too much to ask, but prior to this season, few players on this roster had proven anything at the NBA level. I wasn't out on D'Angelo Russell by any means, but James and I both agreed – this is me trying to show that James was complicit in this – that he was far too inefficient to trust as a No. 1 option. And while I liked Spencer Dinwiddie, he was coming off of a 39/33/81 shooting season and wasn't all that far removed from being cut by the Bulls.

So, so wrong.

Of course, those are now two foundational players for a six seed on the rise, and I completely overlooked how effective the Nets would be in fostering their development. After falling under Celtic rule for half-a-decade, Russell and Dinwiddie are the two biggest reasons Brooklyn finally took a meaningful step forward as a franchise. The emergence of Joe Harris as a legitimate, top-tier three-point shooter also deserves a nod, as does Kenny Atkinson's management of a rotation that featured 13 different starters. If you told me before the season that someone called "Rodions Kurucs" would start 46 games, I would've cashed out my 401K on the under without second thought.

Charlotte Hornets

Over/Under: 35.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 39-43

I don't have much to say about this one. I took the over mostly because we knew Charlotte would try to win every game, which could not be said about a third of the Eastern Conference.

Though it didn't result in a playoff berth, winning 39 games with this roster, even in the East, is an accomplishment. It felt like basically everyone underachieved – except Walker and, for a couple months, Jeremy Lamb – which is saying a lot. Think about what it means for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Willy Hernangomez to underachieve at this point.

Walker deserves better than what Charlotte has put around him, but the Hornets are in arguably the least-appealing position of any franchise going forward. Regardless of what happens with Walker's future, it won't absolve the $70 million they're are handing out to Kidd-Gilchrist, Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, and Marvin Williams next season.

Chicago Bulls

Over/Under: 28.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 22-60

I wish I could tell you a masked man in a Cristiano Felicio jersey burst into the studio and held a gun to my head until I reluctantly agreed to take the Bulls' over. But I'm a man of integrity, so in the interest of full disclosure, that's not at all what happened.

While there's clearly a case to be made that this is my worst overall pick, I think we'll want to hold off on that until a little bit later. Trust me. That's not a title I like to just throw around all willy-nilly.

Anyway, here's what I think I was thinking at the time: The Bulls won 27 games two years ago while actively trying to lose. And at least on paper, they have an intriguing young core. Also, great uniforms. I did not anticipate Lauri Markkanen missing almost half of the season, and I also did not anticipate Ryan Arcidiacono, Cameron Payne, Shaquille Harrison, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Walter Lemon Jr., and Antonio Blakeney combining for 67 starts. That's on me.

Nonetheless, this is – and I cannot stress this enough – an egregious pick, and I'll wear the scar from it for the remainder of my professional and personal life. In 50 years, when my grandkids inevitably ask, "Grandpa, what was your pick for the 2018-19 Chicago Bulls over/under?", I'll have to look them square in the eye and tell them I believed in Kris Dunn.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Over/Under: 31.5

The Pick: Under

Final Record: 19-63

Of all the over/unders, this is the one I was most confident about. I honestly couldn't believe the number and would've been tempted to take the under at 21.5 – let alone 31.5. I felt like Bobby Axelrod exploiting a tragedy for personal gain.

We'll start with this: Yes, Kevin Love missing 60 games certainly played a part. (extreme Stephen A. Smith voice) BUT, anyone who watched more than four minutes of Cavaliers basketball this season knows Love wasn't going to make this a 32-win team. At this point in his career, Love is probably underrated, but he's a highly inefficient No. 1 who no longer has the back-to-the-basket game that made him a 26 and 13 guy at his peak. After four years of fitting in, and slimming down, it was never realistic to expect that player to suddenly return.

Despite the best efforts of Larry Drew, the Cavs were one of the worst defensive teams of all-time – an incredible accomplishment considering J.R. Smith missed 71 games. The Cavs finished dead-last in defensive rating at 117.6 – 2.5 points per 100 possession more than the next-worst team (Phoenix, obviously). To put that into perspective, the gap between the Cavs and Suns was as large as the gap between the 11th-ranked defense (Pistons) and the 21st (Clippers).

Now, to Vegas' credit, the Cavs had just ripped off four straight Finals runs, and Dan Gilbert did publicly vow to remain competitive in the wake of LeBron's second exit. But still. With this roster, this coach – and, frankly, Gilbert's entire history around basketball – that was never a realistic outcome. If anything, Gilbert declaring the Cavs a playoff contender made me feel more confident they wouldn't be. We'd already seen how this scenario plays out. Eight years ago, it was Ramon Sessions and Alonzo Gee leading the Cavs to a 19-63 record. This time around, it just happened to be Jordan Clarkson and David Nwaba.

With all of that said, the Cavs never should've wanted to win this season anyway, and there's a strong case to be made that the Love injury providing a natural cop-out was best for the franchise long-term. In no world was this ever going to be a playoff team, and if the NBA has taught us anything, it's that if you're going to lose, you need to really lose.

Dallas Mavericks

Over/Under: 34.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 33-49

This was a weird season for the Mavs. At one point, they were 15-11. At another point, they were 27-41. I still felt good about the over as recently as mid-February – just before Dallas went 1-12 over a 13-game span. But even earlier this month, 35 wins looked like a realistic possibility. Entering the final stretch of the season, the Mavs sat on 31 wins with the Timberwolves, Grizzlies (twice), Suns and Spurs left on the schedule. They went on to lose three of five, splitting with Memphis and falling to Minnesota and San Antonio by double-digits.

I was high on Luka Doncic coming out of the draft, but I didn't think he'd immediately be this impactful. And while he was clearly the engine driving the Mavs' hot start, he was a part of the reason they struggled later on, as was the house-cleaning that came with acquiring Kristaps Porzingis, a development no one saw coming back in August – or December, for that matter.

My primary rationale behind taking the over was two-fold:

1. Dallas finally had a legitimate, albeit declining, center in DeAndre Jordan. Clippers-era Jordan is gone and never coming back, but even as a 30-year-old, he was a significant upgrade over Nerlens Noel, Salah Mejri, and the overmatched fours, including Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Carlisle shoehorned into fives each of the previous two seasons.

2. With their top-five-protected pick heading to Atlanta, I expected the Mavs to do everything they could to devalue it. Things were initially headed in that direction, but the Mavs eventually shifted course with an eye on potentially pushing that pick into the top-five and retaining it before making the leap into playoff contention next season with a healthy Porzingis. Dallas ended up in a three-way tie for the seventh-worst record before a lost tiebreaker dropped the Mavs to the ninth position heading into the lottery. So while the odds say the Mavs will probably send Atlanta the ninth or tenth pick, there's still a reasonable chance they could vault into the top-four.

Denver Nuggets

Over/Under: 47.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 54-28

The Nuggets deserve a ton of credit for the talent they've cultivated in a such a short period of time. Jamal Murray (7th overall) and Trey Lyles (12th, by Utah) are the only lottery picks on the healthy roster, and four of Denver's top-six minute-getters were second-round picks. The Nuggets hit on so many guys that no one even cares they traded the Donovan Mitchell pick for a guy who fell out of the rotation two-and-a-half months ago.

Anyway, I can't count myself among those who thought Denver would be a wire-to-wire top-two team in the West, but an improvement of just two wins over last year's 46 felt more than reasonable. I was all in on the emergence of Nikola Jokic as a transcendent offensive center, and I loved their depth – though it turned out the guys I liked (Willy Hernangomez, Trey Lyles) weren't the ones who broke out (Monte Morris, Malik Beasley).

On top of the depth, I thought getting a full year out of Paul Millsap, who missed more than half of last season, would prove to be exceedingly valuable. And while Millsap's per-game numbers took a hit across the board as he played his fewest minutes since 2007-08, the veteran had his most efficient season since his peak years in Atlanta, anchoring a top-10 defense that finished 25th in defensive rating a year ago.

Also of note: Nick Young played four games for the Nuggets. Like, pretty recently. That happened this season – there's even photo evidence. I have no memory of this. 

Detroit Pistons

Over/Under: 38.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 41-41

Like the Hornets, the Pistons entered the year in get-swept-by-the-one-seed-or-bust mode, with no clear backup plan other than a season-altering injury to Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond. If those two stayed relatively healthy, I thought they'd be in the 40-win neighborhood by virtue of a weak conference and, more importantly, a desire to live in the middle of the pack.

In hindsight, I'm probably lucky this over ended up hitting. Getting 75 games and 2,600 minutes out of Blake Griffin in 2019 is a borderline-miracle, and his re-emergence as a star-level, do-it-all forward with a vastly improved perimeter game is a rather surprising development. Given the Pistons' lack of depth – their wing group might be the worst in the league – the under would've been very much in play had Griffin missed a week here or there. With or without Griffin, the Pistons were never going to mount a serious challenge to Milwaukee, but with him sidelined for Games 1 and 2, they were completely overmatched.

Golden State Warriors

Over/Under: 63.5

The Pick: Under

Final Record: 57-25

I thought this Warriors season would go one of two ways.

Option 1: Knowing this is their last run with Kevin Durant, they go all-out from the start and try to win, like, 75 games, cementing their legacy as the undisputed best team in NBA history.

Option 2: Knowing they're by far the most talented team in the league, they sleepwalk through another regular season while still ensuring homecourt through at least the first two rounds.

Suffice it to say that a team with two top-five players, and as many as six future Hall-of-Famers, winning 57 games counts as Option 2.

As my pick suggests, that's the path I thought was more likely, but I wouldn't have been shocked if Golden State decided to flex its muscle. The problem with that? The Warriors have nothing to prove and know they have nothing to prove. Chris Paul injury aside, Golden State overcame its toughest challenger to date in the West Finals before once again overwhelming Rodney Hood and the Cavs on their way to a third title in four years. They're yet to lose a series with Kevin Durant, with the Rockets registering as the only thing remotely close to a scare along the way.*

But even as Houston had a great opportunity to squash the Warriors last season, it never felt like the two teams were equals, and it was clear the Warriors, themselves, didn't see things that way. The gap was only amplified over the summer, when Houston scrambled to replace Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with Carmelo Anthony, while the Warriors subbed out Zaza Pachulia for a two-time All-NBA center.

So even after a mini wake up call last year, there was little reason for the Warriors to go all-out for 48 minutes every night. On paper, Golden State should be closer to a 75-win team than a 57-win team, but complacency is real in the NBA – especially when 57 wins rewards you the same as 75.

*As an aside: How do last year's Finals turn out if Houston has even a slightly less-disastrous shooting night and closes out Golden State? The Rockets would be the rightful favorite, and I think they probably handle the Cavs in 5 or 6. But would the internal relief of not facing the Warriors have been enough for LeBron to smell blood and attempt a repeat of the 2015 Finals blueprint?

Houston Rockets

Over/Under: 55.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 53-29

I remember saying to James that this was a "disrespectful" line after the Rockets had just ripped through the league for 65 wins. Maybe they'd hit their absolute ceiling a year ago, but a nine-win drop-off felt like too much, especially with Chris Paul and James Harden each missing double-digit games in 2017-18. But as he often is, James was correct in taking the under, while I held strong and rode the over, even writing in my notes that Houston should get to 56 or 57 with ease.

...

Honestly I don't feel too badly about this one. I really don't. No one foresaw an 11-14 start through 25 games, with Chris Paul suddenly looking like he'd aged five years in one summer. Ariza and Mbah a Moute were both significant losses, but if anyone could step in and replace that ultra-versatile defense, it was, uh... Carmelo Anthony.

Fine, whatever.

At least I can take some degree of solace in the Rockets going 42-15 the rest of the way, charting a 60ish-win course had it not been for the rocky start. Regardless, Houston wasn't as dominant as I anticipated, though maybe I should've seen it coming. Since 1990, only seven teams have won 60 games in back-to-back seasons, and only two of those teams maintained or raised their win total from one year to the next: The 2006-07 Mavs (from 60 to 67 wins) and 2015-16 Warriors (67 to 73).

Still, Houston only needed 56 to hit the over, so in the end their overall floor was lower than I anticipated.

Indiana Pacers

Over/Under: 46.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 48-34

I got lucky on this one – no two ways about it. I felt really good about the over before the Victor Oladipo injury, but given the opportunity to change my pick in January, I absolutely would have. Even with a shaky-at-best second half that at one point included 10 road losses in a row, Indiana hit the over with three games to spare before tacking on number 48 with a suspiciously entertaining win over Atlanta on the final night of the regular season.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly how Indiana continued grinding out wins without its only real playmaker. Tyreke Evans was a massive disappointment after a bounce-back year in Memphis. Bojan Bogdanovic took his offensive game up a notch, finishing with career-bests across the board, but at the end of the day he's Bojan Bogdanovic. Domantas Sabonis was a big piece off the bench, sure, and Myles Turner led the league in blocked shots, but he made only marginal strides offensively and was close to a non-factor on that end – save for an all-time poster in Game 4 – in the Pacers' swift playoff exit.

It won't be his award to win, but Nate McMillan absolutely deserves to be in the Coach of the Year conversation, and probably near the top of the list. Typically, the award operates as the coaches version of Most Improved Player, but if the point is to recognize who does the most with the least, it's tough to discount McMillan. He piloted Indiana to a top-three defense and an almost-league-average offense, despite Evans leading the team in usage after Oladipo went down.

Los Angeles Clippers

Over/Under: 36.5

The Pick: Under

Final Record: 48-34

I was way off on this one. Obviously. I thought the Clippers were a good team – good enough to easily make the playoffs in the East – but not good enough to emerge from the muck at the bottom-half of the West. Even when management opted to semi-harpoon its own season by trading away Tobias Harris, the Clippers didn't miss a beat, going 18-9 after the deal and winning 12 of 15 games in the month of March on their way to making the playoffs with an eight-game cushion

Certainly, the Clips benefited from other projected playoff contenders collapsing in on themselves. But even if LeBron had stayed healthy, Anthony Davis hadn't asked out and Jimmy Butler hadn't gone full Antonio Brown, the Clippers were clearly getting to 37 wins.

Los Angeles Lakers

Over/Under: 49.0

The Pick: Under

Final Record: 37-45

This one might actually surpass the Cavs as the easiest pick on the board. With that said, keep in mind that at the time this line came out, LeBron was less than two months removed from a 51-point Finals game and the best individual playoff run of his career/possibly ever. There was some initial skepticism, but for the most part everyone agreed that even if the Lakers weren't a title contender, at the very least they'd be right in the thick of the playoff race. History suggests that's just how it goes when you have LeBron James.

Back in those days of talking yourself into a Rajon Rondo-Lonzo Ball backcourt and Magic Johnson working for the Lakers, nearly anything seemed possible. But even 49 wins was a bridge too far for a team with no shooters in a stronger-than-ever Western Conference. Knowing what we know now, 49 seems even sillier, but before LeBron went down, the Lakers had a real chance to hit the over.

A thorough drubbing of Golden State in Oakland on Christmas Day moved Los Angeles to 20-14 – a 48-win pace. That included a horrific start to the season, and some equally horrific losses to Washington, Brooklyn and Memphis just in the week leading up to Christmas. Before we knew the extent of LeBron's groin injury, beating the Warriors felt like it might be a legitimate turning point for a team some saw as Golden State's toughest out come playoff time.

Well, we know what happened from there. What a disaster. Honestly, the Lakers getting to 37 is an accomplishment – way more than I would've guessed. For a while in March, it looked like they managed to hit 30 and that was going to be it. Props to Alex Caruso, I guess.

Memphis Grizzlies

Over/Under: 33.5

The Pick: Over

Final Record: 33-49

This is a bad beat. I don't care what you say. The Grizzlies traded the best player in franchise history midway through the season, shut down their star rookie, played Shelvin Mack 1,200 minutes and still almost hit the over. And that's before even mentioning that Mike Conley missed eight of the last 11 games.

When I took this over, I was under the assumption that Memphis would bounce back into a playoff-caliber team after a forgettable, injury-marred 2017-18 campaign. Maybe they wouldn't end up making the playoffs, but I was essentially blindly trusting Gasol and Conley to figure it out. Honestly, though, the writing had been on the wall for a Conley/Gasol breakup at some point, so I should've glanced at the rest of the roster – and Gasol's contract – and realized this would probably be the year.  

Still, the number was so low that I felt the over was worth the risk. And it nearly was. I could pick out eight or nine games that swing this one, but at the end of the day, a five-game stretch in February will haunt me all summer:

Feb. 13, at Bulls: LOSS

Feb. 22, vs. Clippers: LOSS

Feb. 23, at Cavaliers: LOSS

Feb. 25, vs. Lakers: WIN

Feb. 27, vs. Bulls: LOSS

Losing to the Clippers: forgivable. Losing to the Cavs and twice – twice! – to the Bulls: not so much.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and award winning host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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