The Houston Rockets are the #8 seed in the Western Conference as the NBA heads into the All-Star break this weekend. We don’t know if the Rockets can hold off any of Portland, Dallas or the Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff berth. We assume the Rockets can’t beat either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in a first-round playoff series. But we do know this—they’ve buried Las Vegas. With 27 games still to play in the regular season, Houston has already beaten its Over/Under number on the preseason NBA win props.
Las Vegas posted Houston’s number at 28. Now one big caveat comes with this—if you bet on them, this was the number just prior to the acquisition of James Harden on the eve of the regular season. So you had to believe the Rockets were going to beat the expectations of the betting markets with Kevin Martin at the two-guard spot rather than Harden. But was that so unthinkable? Keep in mind, all you would have been doing is wagering that Houston could go 29-53 (a season that probably gets head coach Kevin McHale fired anyway). Harden is an excellent player, certainly an upgrade, but it’s not like Martin is a stiff who can’t play. Houston deserves full kudos for the manner in which they have buried Las Vegas projections and if you bet on them in advance, you can already go cash your ticket.
It’s something to celebrate for Houston, who is already the focal point of the NBA world this weekend, as it hosts the All-Star Game on Sunday night (8 PM ET, TNT) and the other activities of this festive three-day holiday, including the Slam Dunk Contest. Here at TheSportsNotebook, the All-Star break is a good time to check in with the rest of the league and see how they’re faring against their own Over/Under numbers on the NBA win props.
I like the NBA win props because it gives both credit and blame to teams that are off the championship-contender radar. It’s easy to notice a disappointment like the Lakers. But the win props shine a light on teams who maybe had the talent and expectations of a 6-seed and then went completely off the radar. Or on the positive side, made the same journey in reverse. It’s easy for teams like this to get ignored, but if the ultimate goal of sports is playing to the maximum of one’s potential, the win props are the best measuring stick to begin with.
Having said that, I’m not attempting to imply that we can rigidly measure everyone as a success or disappointment based exclusively on their win prop performance. This number doesn’t factor in injuries, and as we’ll see, popular teams have a very difficult time beating their number because their bet up to a substantial degree. And as anyone who has taken a course in Gambling 101 knows, all Las Vegas numbers are ultimately geared to public perception rather than reality.
But while it’s not perfect, it’s a starting point and baseline measurement of who’s doing the most with the least, and who’s doing the least with the most. With that in mind, here’s the rest of the landscape for the preseason NBA win props as we sit here at the All-Star break. The number in parentheses is based on a projected season-ending win total and how it correlates to the preseason number.
THE BIG DISAPPOINTMENTS: LA Lakers (-20) & Philadelphia (-15) Los Angeles is the reverse of Houston. The Lakers were projected at 58-24, and with 29 losses, if you bought an Over ticket, just tear it up. I won’t go into detail, since ESPN’s talk shows have morphed into an all-Laker, all-the-time display. Philadelphia illustrates the weakness of the win prop as an exclusive measuring stick. Their market expectation was to go 47-35, but that was predicated on a healthy Andrew Bynum–admittedly somewhat of a risky assumption, even at the time. The center is supposed to be back after the break, but if he’s going to bail out Over bettors, he needs to carry the Sixers to a 25-6 record down the stretch just to get a push. In reality, the 76ers are joining the Phillies and Eagles as massive disappointments, though at least the NBA team has an excuse.
SOLID WINNERS: Golden State (+10.5), San Antonio (+8.5), LA Clippers (+7.5), New York (+6.5), Portland (+5) Golden State’s status as one of the league’s big surprise teams clearly shines through here. The underrating of San Antonio, a team we looked at more closely yesterday here at TheSportsNotebook really comes out. And the Clippers, even with their recent struggles, are still comfortably on a pace to get the 50-win season it would take to cash an Over. Portland is the team we need to give some credit to—as of today, they would not make the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference, and with some of their defensive issues, I wonder if they can hold on, but the Trail Blazers are playing solidly above market expectations, which said they would go 33-49.
DISCOURAGING LOSERS: Minnesota (-7.5), Phoenix (-7), Boston (-6.5), Cleveland (-6.5), Dallas (-5.5). Dallas is the one team with an excuse since Dirk Nowitzki missed nearly two months. It’s not unthinkable they could have the 19-11 run it would take to push them Over after the All-Star break. You can see how badly Boston underperformed, where even winning eight of the last nine hasn’t been enough to get them in shouting distance. The Celtics need to win 51 games to go Over and at 28-24, if you bought an Over ticket and lost it, I wouldn’t fret too much. The other three tams—the T-Wolves, Suns and Cavs illustrate the reason I like this measuring stick. All three are significant disappointments that would get away with it, if not for some win props reality.
AHEAD OF THE GAME: Milwaukee (+4.5), Atlanta (+4), Memphis (+4), New Orleans (+3), Utah (+2), Brooklyn (+2). There’s still enough time left for any of these teams to realistically go Under, but the team that jumps out at me the most isn’t Milwaukee, though the Bucks have done a nice job exceeding expectations. It’s Brooklyn—the Nets had big expectations, with an improvement to 46-36 being the number to bet on, then had to deal with a coaching change. They’re on pace to go Over and with seemingly the worst behind them, my guess is they beat their number substantially by the end of the year.
BEHIND THE GAME: Washington (-4.5), Miami (-2.5), Sacramento (-2) This is why you don’t take Overs on popular favorites. Miami has won seven in a row, LeBron James is playing out of his mind and the Heat are still off the mark. Why? With a win prop number of 61.5, you need a 62-20 season just to eke out an Over. With a veteran team that has to pace itself for the playoffs, what possible incentive does Miami have to push that hard? Look at it this way—even if you think they can win 62, would you really think it would go much higher? On the flip side, would it shock you if the Heat went, say 56-26? There’s just much more room for error on the Under side of these situations. This is a case where I don’t hold the team accountable as much as the market—sportsbooks know they can raise that Miami win prop number as high as they want, and people will still bet on LeBron.
WITHIN THE MARGIN OF ERROR: In political terms, these are like the races where polls show it within a couple percentage points. In our situation, some of the teams within a half-game can have that explained away by the rounding off I do with their current win pace. Either way, too close to call. Toronto (-1.5), Denver (-1.5), Indiana (-0.5), Oklahoma City (-0.5), Orlando (-0.5), Chicago (Even), Detroit (Even), Charlotte (+0.5). Indiana is the most notable team for whom the win props can’t do justice. They’ve missed Danny Granger for the entire season. Unlike the 76ers, where there was at least a general acknowledgement that Bynum’s health was a factor, the Pacers got hit with the Granger injury out of nowhere. That they’re keeping up with a 50.5 win prop number without their best player speaks huge volumes to the character of this team.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S FULL DISCLOSURE
I made predictions on all these Over/Unders just prior to the regular season, with the exception of the Celtics. They’re my favorite team and I don’t like my rooting interests tainted by handicapping opinions. You can read the preseason comments and picks for both the Eastern & Western conferences.
So far the numbers are looking good. On teams outside the margin of error I’m 14-6 so far, with correct picks on the most notable teams of Houston, LA Lakers, Philadelphia and Golden State. My big disappointments have going Under with the Spurs and Over with the Suns.
Within the margin of error is a little dicier, where I’m projected to go 1-5-2 if the season ended today, the only winner being the Under on the Thunder (Under on the Thunder has kind of a nice ring, doesn’t it?). So cautious analysts are saying that while I’m having a winning year, not to get too carried away just yet.