6 NBA Teams That Can Beat Their Vegas Over/Under This Season
Rampant optimism is one of the best parts of the NBA offseason.
All of the most exciting possibilities—whether pertaining to individual player growth or team upside—feel probable. Every potential leap seems assured until proved otherwise. Every glass is half-full.
That's the mindset with which we'll approach potential surprise teams for 2021-22, focusing on squads that could blow past expectations if enough breaks right. We've got clubs from all across the success spectrum here, ranging from tankers to title favorites, because "surprise" is a relative term. If you're expected to win 20 games and come out of the season having collected 35 victories, that's a surprise. Same goes for a projected 50-game winner that cranks out 65-plus dubs.
We'll use FanDuel's over/under figures to set expectations and then peg the teams with a chance to make them look silly.
No, it doesn't seem like the championship favorites belong among a group of potential surprises. What, are they going to somehow win two titles in 2021-22? Because that seems like the only way the Brooklyn Nets could really shock anyone.
Here's the thing, though: Brooklyn's over/under is 56.5. That seems almost criminally low for a team with a legitimate chance to threaten the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors' single-season wins record of 73. Nobody's saying the Nets are sure to make history, but presuming decent health for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, how does this team not win at least 65 games?
There's a ton of speculation involved here because KD, Harden and Irving played just 202 minutes together last season and only produced a plus-7.2 net rating in their shared court time. That's a vanishingly small sample, but a plus-7.2 point differential translates to a win total just under 60 for an 82-game season. This is a bet that a) those three will play at least 60 games together, b) they'll generate an even higher net rating than they did in 2020-21 and c) the rest of the roster, now deeper than ever, will hold up its end of the bargain.
With so much top-end talent, optimism is easy.
Either Durant or Harden could win MVP and/or the scoring title. Harden might run away with the assists crown, too. Throw Irving in there, and obscene offensive efficiency is a flat-out certainty. If Brooklyn doesn't set the record for points scored per 100 possessions, something will have gone wrong.
It won't be a surprise if the Nets are the East's top seed and close the regular season as championship front-runners. But based on the over/under total, it will surprise oddsmakers if they reach their potential as a historically great team.
The Detroit Pistons went 20-52 last season, but they had the point differential of a 29-win team (over a full 82 contests). That makes their over/under of 23.5 wins for the 2021-22 campaign look awfully low, especially considering how much room for improvement this young group has.
Start with No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. Though rookies typically aren't ready to make a major positive impact, Cunningham comes billed as a can't-miss prospect. Polished, boasting a complete offensive game and poised to take on primary playmaking responsibilities, he could be the rare first-year player who immediately makes a difference. And it's not like Cunningham would have to lead Detroit to the playoffs to be the galvanizing force in a surprisingly good season.
All he'd have to do is guide the Pistons to 30 or 35 wins to blow away most projections.
With Cunningham in charge, Jerami Grant could settle back into more of a high-end supporting role. He proved he was capable of more last season, scoring 22.3 points per game and pumping up his assist rate to a career-high 14.3 percent, but the 27-year-old may have been a bit overextended as a shot-creator. Moved down the offensive hierarchy with Cunningham aboard, Grant could quickly become a luxury second option who'll have more energy to expend on D, where he's been dynamite in years past. He and second-year wing Saddiq Bey give Detroit a pair of above-average role players at important positions.
Kelly Olynyk provides welcome stretch up front, joining the overpowering Isaiah Stewart to form a versatile center tandem.
The Pistons have a path to real offensive success, particularly if Cunningham hits the ground running.
It behooves Detroit to lose games as part of its longer rebuild, so this is more of an argument that it has the capacity to surprise—even if the front-office powers that be don't necessarily have the desire.
Offseason moves that gave off vibes of patience and consolidation don't exactly mark the Memphis Grizzlies as breakout candidates, but who's to say their deliberate approach to roster construction rules out a leap?
The first ingredient, top-end talent, is already in place. Ja Morant is a jumper away from playing All-Star ball, and there's every likelihood this will be the year his shot comes around. Already impossible to stay in front of when given a cushion, Morant would hit a new level if defenders were forced to come get him beyond the arc.
Everyone also seems to forget that Jaren Jackson Jr. turned in one of the greatest high-volume three-point shooting seasons ever recorded by a big man. He drained 39.4 percent of his 6.5 triple tries per game as a 20-year-old in 2019-20, yet he's seemingly better remembered as the guy who struggled through just 11 regular-season games last year, clearly not fully recovered from a torn meniscus. Defensively, Jackson has a long way to go. But this was a guy touted as potentially transformational on that end in the draft. If he merely equals what he did two years ago on offense while upping his defensive performance to break-even levels, the Grizzlies will have a second star on their hands—one who just so happens to perfectly complement their first.
Memphis finished seventh in defensive efficiency last season, and it has since added Kris Dunn and Steven Adams to the mix. Both come with concerns: Dunn isn't of much use on offense, while Adams doesn't space the floor. But the former is a shutdown monster when healthy, and the latter is a granite block of intimidation in the middle. The Grizzlies have top-five potential on D, and breakouts from Jackson and/or Morant could nudge the offense toward a top-10 ranking after finishing 15th last year.
A 40.5 over/under mark might seem about right for Memphis, but its 2020-21 point differential was that of a 42.6-win team. With so many obvious avenues for growth, the Grizzlies could smash expectations.
New Orleans Pelicans
If Zion Williamson is a generational talent, it's fair to expect something spectacular from him in his third season. In this case, carrying the increasingly desperate-to-win New Orleans Pelicans way beyond their over/under of 38.5 victories would count.
The vibes out of New Orleans aren't great these days. You already couldn't really discuss the team or its future without hitting on last season's report of frustration in Williamson's camp. But more detailed recent reporting from Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune suggests the decaying relationship between Williamson and EVP of Basketball Operations David Griffin has been around for longer, and is even more severe, than previously thought.
It's not all bad, though. In addition to New Orleans finally understanding that Zion belongs on the ball full time, there's also the possibility of another step forward from Brandon Ingram. He won Most Improved Player and made his first All-Star Game in 2019-20, but despite putting up nearly identical stats last year, his stock somehow fell. Progress isn't always linear, and Ingram, 24, should still be viewed as a player with more growth ahead.
New point guard Devonte' Graham's three-point shooting will space the floor in ways Eric Bledsoe's never did, and though it'd be nice if New Orleans would find a center who'd get out of the lane entirely, Jonas Valanciunas is a significant offensive upgrade over Steven Adams. The 29-year-old averaged 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game last year, ranking fourth in the NBA in points scored on post-ups. His game on the block could be a useful failsafe for bogged-down possessions, and don't discount his 36.8 percent conversion rate on threes last season. Valanciunas took just under one triple per game, but he'll be a threat from distance, opening lanes for Williamson to churn downhill.
Kira Lewis Jr. or Nickeil Alexander-Walker could pop, giving the Pels more options in the backcourt, and rookie Trey Murphy III can absolutely stripe it from deep. Toss in better health from Josh Hart, veteran wisdom from Garrett Temple and the possibility that the team's young players will respond better to Willie Green than Stan Van Gundy, and New Orleans has several opportunities to vault right over the play-in morass and into contention for one of the West's more secure top-six spots.
That said, everything ultimately comes back to Zion. If he validates himself as one of the rare team-elevating forces he's often appeared to be, New Orleans could shock everyone.
File this under "I Can't Quit the Toronto Raptors," along with the dozens of previous entries. There's just something about this group—its championship pedigree, its coach, its talent—that makes letting go of its title-winning past especially difficult.
It's true the Raps will be without franchise icon Kyle Lowry, which fundamentally changes their identity and removes a level of competitive grit that will be hard to replace. But also gone are several on-and-off-court factors that sunk Toronto last season.
For starters, the Raptors will actually be in Toronto this year. No more vagabond life in Tampa Bay for these guys; Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby actually get to live and play in Scotiabank Arena, where they were 26-10 in 2019-20, a far cry from the 16-20 mark they amassed "at home" last year. That change of venue could be enough on its own for the Raptors to smash their 36.5 over/under. Sure, they won just 27 games last season, but their net rating was that of a team that should have won 38 games over a full year.
Masai Ujiri's uncertain future no longer hangs over the franchise now that he's locked into a new multiyear contract, and the distraction of a potential Lowry trade has also disappeared. The center rotation should be much improved with new addition Precious Achiuwa joining up and Khem Birch, a strong contributor down the stretch, aboard for the full season.
Lower-end outcomes are still in play. Goran Dragic might be little more than trade bait, Gary Trent Jr. may not live up to his new contract, Siakam's shoulder surgery could derail his season, and nobody knows how much Lowry's absence will matter.
But Anunoby, a devastatingly effective defender who just keeps adding to his offensive game, remains among my favorite breakout candidates. He's been over 60.0 percent true shooting in each of the last two years and just keeps upping his usage rate and adding volume to his increasingly layered game without sacrificing efficiency. Assuming he sustains that trend, he'll be a DPOY short-lister who also averages over 20.0 points per game. Those are rare.
Toronto was a fringe contender for the East crown in 2019-20. It could regain that status with a few good breaks this season.
Russell Westbrook played two halves of the 2020-21 season, but he only helped the Washington Wizards in the second one. Prior to March, he was an actively negative force, dragging Washington's net rating down from plus-0.4 points per 100 possessions when he sat to minus-6.9 when he played.
His move to the Los Angeles Lakers has some thinking Washington is losing a key piece, which might explain how a 2020-21 Wizards team that won 34 games in a 72-game season has an over/under of just 34.5 for the upcoming 82-game slate. In truth, Westbrook was just as often harmful to winning efforts as helpful. His exit doesn't mean the Wizards will be any worse.
Spencer Dinwiddie could be more valuable than the point guard he's replacing, and at the very least he'll force defenses to play him honestly off the ball. The effect that has on a team's offense can't be overstated, and Bradley Beal, in particular, should benefit from Dinwiddie's presence.
Washington's wing depth is vastly improved with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma in the rotation. Both are proven two-way threats, and Kuzma quietly got his long-range hit rate back up to 36.1 percent, his best since stunning everyone with a 36.6 clip as a rookie. If Deni Avdija's pre-injury flashes of craft and playmaking become more consistent, Rui Hachimura continues to extend his range and Davis Bertans reprises his lights-out 2019-20 efforts, Washington will have a glut of role-playing options.
Montrezl Harrell is only one season removed from winning Sixth Man of the Year, and he'll combine with Daniel Gafford to give the Wizards a dangerous pick-and-roll threat in the middle. Surrounded by shooting at all four other positions, Washington's dive men are in line to fatten up on tons of lobs at the rim. If Thomas Bryant returns to form following ACL surgery, the Wizards will have a bona fide 40.0 percent bomber to utilize in five-out lineups.
All those factors suggest that, after finishing 17th last year, the Wizards could easily barge into the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Finish somewhere around 20th on D, which they did a year ago, and Washington looks like a .500 team with room to be even better than that.
The only way the Wizards go under 34.5 wins is if the Beal trade everyone's been speculating about for years finally comes to pass. Otherwise, this bunch is going to be tough to stop on offense and much more of a playoff threat than most seem to think.