In a nod to what is likely going to become the norm over the next few years, Los Angeles’ teams have jockeyed for the role of NBA title favorite for most of the summer.
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has listed each team as the one to beat at various times over the past few months. The most recent update listed the Clippers as a 7-2 (+350) favorite, slightly ahead of the Lakers (4-1, +400). The Clippers (+220) are listed slightly ahead of their Staples Center roommates (+250) as the team to beat in the Western Conference but are expected to have the better regular season.
The Clippers are the clear Pacific Division favorite (1-2, -200) over the Lakers (3-1) and their projected win total has been set at 52.5, four victories higher. The rationale is that Doc Rivers’ team will likely bring a higher intensity level to work down the stretch since they’re projected to be the best defensive team in basketball given the presence of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell.
First-year Lakers head coach Frank Vogel will be coaching everyone on his roster for the first time and will be deferring to LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ desire to get their bodies ready for the playoffs by sitting out games in March and April.
The 48.5 wins seems low for a team led by James, especially with Davis on board and the number barely budging from where it was placed prior to last season. LeBron remains in fantastic shape and led his most recent Cavs’ team to 50 wins in 2018. His first Lakers’ team was on pace to make the playoffs before his holiday groin pull, so you’re really gambling on his health if you’re coming in on the regular-season ‘Over’.
Davis will be dealing with a thumb sprain as his new endeavor begins but the Lakers were fortunate that an MRI revealed no structural damage. He’s missed 14 or more games in each of the past four seasons, averaging 65 of the 82 within that span.
Vogel will have to get creative with rotations and needs to get major contributions from veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard. Both have the potential to be x-factors but have also struggled to stay healthy.
The Clippers said that George is expected to miss at least the first 10 games of the regular season as they attempt to make sure he heals properly from offseason rotator cuff surgery. It’s no surprise that the projected regular-season win total for the Clips and Lakers has dipped since numbers were released in July.
The Rockets (54.5), Jazz and Nuggets (53.5) all have higher projected win totals per Westgate, while the Eastern Conference favorite Bucks (5-4, +125) have been given the highest bar in the league (57.5), just ahead of the 76ers (55), who are 3-2 (+150) to reach the Finals.
At 6-1, Milwaukee ranks third behind the L.A. teams among championship contenders. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (7-2, +350) is favored to repeat, which makes this a fitting spot to close this column with a series of predictions.
Antetokounmpo will continue to fly his “Greek Freak” flag highest, putting together eye-popping stat lines in leading the Bucks to 60-plus wins, earning himself a second MVP.
Zion Williamson isn’t the only player worth riding in the Rookie of the Year race only because at (4-9, -225), you should cover yourself with a second option in case he suffers an injury. If he’s on the floor, Williamson is every bit the lock James was back when he came into the league in ’03 as the most hyped in a class featuring Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (9-2, +450) appears to be the most likely rookie to challenge Zion considering his own preseason form, but Williamson has already put any thoughts that he won’t be able to explode at the pro level to rest by bullying reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the post.
The Pelicans will be in the mix for a playoff berth despite losing Davis if all the pieces acquired from the Lakers can mesh around Jrue Holiday, Williamson and J.J. Redick. Take the ‘Over’ on 39 wins.
There also seems to be an overreaction to the already foregone conclusion that Kevin Durant wouldn’t play a game in his first season with the Brooklyn Nets after rupturing his Achilles in June’s Finals. With Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie capable of scoring 20 points per night and the tandem of DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen taking turns protecting the rim, the Nets won’t need Durant to surpass their projected win total of 42.5.
If you’re into fading, I’d take the ‘Under’ on Rockets’ wins since Mike D’Antoni is going to have to tinker to find the right balance of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Houston will rattle off an impressive win streak or two once the chemistry clicks, but there will be growing pains. That makes the Spurs (6-1) to win the Southwest the best value play among divisional futures.