Best Bets - West
October 16, 2018
By Bruce Marshall
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SOUTHWEST DIVISION BEST BETS
Is the addition of Carmelo Anthony such a negative that the Houston Rockets (55½) are going to drop ten wins from a season ago? While we wonder about ‘Melo’s dwindling impact, the thought persists that shrewd HC Mike D’Antoni, not to mention Chris Paul and James Harden, will figure out some way to maximize Carmelo’s impact. We suspect the expected drop in the Houston win total stems more from the departures of defensive stalwarts Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, roles not to be filled by Carmelo. But versatile big Clint Capela has re-signed, and the Harden-Paul pairing proved to be dynamite a season ago when Houston won 65. Our main concern is the health of Paul, who has been oft-injured, and whose absence proved costly at the end of the West Finals vs. the Warriors. Otherwise, it’s full speed ahead in Houston. “Over” at Toyota Center...
Are the Memphis Grizzlies (33½)really ready to increase their win total by an effective 50%? Sure, it will help to have PG Mike Conley healthy again, but much of the upside seems tied to Michigan State rookie C Jaren Jackson, who was not dominant enough on the college level to lead the Spartans out of the NCAA sub-regionals. While he looks an effective heir apparent to Marc Gasol, he still enters the NBA as a one-and-done with much seasoning required. Squeezing another big season out of Gasol will probably more impact the W-L record, but keeping the big Catalan healthy is always an issue. And we didn’t think J.R. Bickerstaff did a whole lot in his interim HC stint to warrant the job on a full-time basis, either. Look “under” at FedEx Forum.
The New Orleans Pelicans (45½) caught lightning in a bottle down the stretch last season, winning 20 of their last 27 games to storm the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, then routing the Blazers in an eye-opening 4-game sweep before bowing out honorably vs. the champion Warriors in five games. The recipe for HC Alvin Gentry was MVP-caliber play from Anthony Davis, aggressive scoring from G Jrue Holiday, floor savvy and leadership from Rajon Rondo, and floor stretching from F Nikola Mirotic. This all happened after DeMarcus Cousins went down with his Achilles tendon tear, causing some to nod knowingly that not having to worry about a ticking time bomb like Boogie was a contributing factor to the updraft as well. That proved Cousins (now with the Warriors) won’t be missed; adding ex-Laker Julius Randle in free agency provides extra insurance just in case at PF. More concerning might be the departure of Rondo, but if ex-Magic and Sun Elfrid Payton can replicate Rondo’s contributions, the Pels might not skip a beat. What could scuttle everything is an injury to Davis, who has been hurt-prone at times in his career. But we’ll take the glass is half-full approach and assume the best for Davis’ health, and if he can play at least 70 games (which he’s done the past two years), New Orleans returns to the playoffs. “Over” at Smoothie King...
Mark Cuban gets in the spotlight more often these days for Shark Tank and appearances on the news channels than he does with his Dallas Mavericks (34½), who have become irrelevant the past few years after more than a decade of serious contention (and an NBA title in 2011). Dirk Nowitzki and HC Rick Carlisle are about all that is left besides Cuban from the glory years, and Cuban is not expected to sit on his hands too much longer. But the Mavs are not likely to make a serious move until they take another stab at the FA market next summer; this season’s additions of ex-Clip C DeAndre Jordan and promising Euro rookie wing Luka Doncic do not figure to increase the win total by 50% from a year ago. Especially if Harrison Barnes’ hamstring injury lingers into November and beyond. The plus side for Cuban is the Dallas first-round pick is top-five protected, so if Doncic and high-usage G Dennis Smith can’t figure out a way to co-exist and Barnes never can get to 100%, the Mavs can always dust off their old tanking strategy to prevent the Hawks from getting the first-rounder due from the trade to get Doncic. That’s hardly encouraging for the “over” bettors; look “under” in Big D...
How much do we trust Coach Pop? We’ll see. His San Antonio Spurs (44½) are flying under the radar for the first time in a generation, and all of Pop’s nous will be needed to get back to the playoffs. Much has been made of the departure of Kawhi Leonard, but he only played nine games last season, with his mysterious injury proving a constant distraction in the process. And at this stage in the career of Tony Parker (only 7.7 ppg LY), his departure is a non-event, as is the retirement of Manu Ginobili. The season-ending knee injury to promising wing Dejounte Murray is a bit of a bummer, however, and Miami-Fla. rookie G Lonnie Walker IV (knee) also likely opens the season on the injured list. Yet the Spurs will have ex-Raptor DeMar DeRozan in the mix, and the possibility of an All-Star 1-2 combo with LaMarcus Aldridge gives Pop something to work with this winter. Though mid 40s looks a max on the wins, we respect Pop enough to not undershoot with the Spurs, so we’ll pass instead.
NORTHWEST DIVISION BEST BETS
There was a lot of celebrating going on in the summer for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder (48½) when Paul George decided to re-sign and forego a move back to hometown L.A. And being rid of Carmelo Anthony is hardly a negative. But there are a couple of concerns, not the least of which is the balky knee that bothered do-everything Russell Westbrook in the preseason; any possibility that Westbrook could be out or compromised changes the Ok City metrics completely. And though he provides little offense, don’t think defensive specialist Andre Roberson wasn’t badly missed when he went down with injury last season (he remains out until further notice, likely until after New Year’s, rehabbing his knee). In the East, Ok City might be better able to manage these potential problem spots; in the West, we’re not sure. “Under” at The Peake...
Yes, the playoff sweep at the hands of the Pelicans laid bare some of the concerns on the roster of the Portland Trail Blazers (42), and if they are really built for postseason success. Maybe they aren’t. But this was the West’s No. 3 seed a year ago, and returns much the same team that won 49 games. One concession to change is that HC Terry Stotts is less likely to stagger the minutes of his star G pair of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum; Stotts, under some pressure, is staking his job on putting those two on the floor at the same time much more often this season, which sounds like a swell idea to us. Look “over” at Moda Center.
Some odd doings in the preseason with the Minnesota Timberwolves (45) and the distractions surrounding Jimmy Butler, who seems hellbent to force a trade before he hits free agency next summer. Safe to say part of his displeasure is the structured Tom Thibodeau system that might not best showcase a top-dollar FA-to-be. That the Wolves system might only be a minor irritant suggests the Butler problem runs deeper than we or anyone else can imagine. We think it’s safe to say that this situation is not going to have a happy ending in Minneapolis unless Butler is moved, but until then, his presence figures to hover like a cloud over the franchise. So, this season could easily turn into a hot mess; if Butler is traded, getting commensurate value is not going to be easy, and if he isn’t moved soon enough, the whole situation could implode, including “Tibs” as a scapegoat. Not sure Karl-Anthony Towns and/or Andrew Wiggins are yet mature enough to navigate what might be some very turbulent waters this term. We can’t help but think “under” at Target Center...
It was too bad at the end of last season that the Denver Nuggets (47½) just missed the playoffs; hot down the stretch, the Nugs would have probably made for a better first-round series against the Rockets than did the T-wolves. More than anything, Denver is fun to watch, and while a high-octane offense/shaky defense mix might have a win ceiling somewhere in the low 50s, it creates some opportunities on the season wager at the current price. Nikola Jokic is thus the quintessential Nug; dynamic on the attack end in a variety of roles, but a liability on defense. Mike Malone can live with the latter as long as other components pick up the defensive slack, but the Mile High calling card is offense, with Jokic and ex-Kentucky wing Jamal Murray a potential All-Star pair, Paul Millsap still around to do the dirty work in the paint, and Isaiah Thomas (when healthy) an intriguing backcourt addition looking to jump-start his career. With the Broncos giving the locals nothing to cheer about these days, the Nugs will be filling a Rocky Mountain region void this winter; “over” at Pepsi Center...
Drill a bit with the numbers on the Utah Jazz (49), and some inevitable conclusions can be drawn. First, the team that went 29-6 down the stretch and powered into the second round of the playoffs can again be a handful. But only if Rudy Gobert is part of the equation; in games the “French Rejection” missed last season, Utah was just 11-12. And since Gobert has dealt with injuries for much of his career, it’s a bit risky to assume a healthy Gobert can lead a further charge up the standings. If Gobert can play in 70 or more games, Utah could handily clear that 49 number, especially after Donovan Mitchell proved such a pleasant surprise as a rookie last season, and Ricky Rubio finally displayed some consistency (and an outside shot!) at the point. Rubio, however, is another with an injury history, so too many variables here to get real definitive in October. By us, the best call in Salt Lake City is no call, so we pass on the Jazz.
PACIFIC DIVISION BEST BET
Never mind (for the purpose of season wins, at least) the offseason addition of DeMarcus Cousins by the Golden State Warriors (63½), and any talk of invincibility with big Boogie in the mix. First, Cousins is not being rushed back from last winter’s Achilles tendon tear, in fact he might re-hab all of the way until the All-Star break. Second, Steve Kerr laid his hand on table last term when the Warriors, recalling how their drive for the record 73 wins in 2015-16 might have sapped them unnecessarily for the playoffs, didn’t seem to give a hoot about the best record last term, instead wanting only to be healthy and peaking for the playoffs. Since a third title in four years ensued, expect Kerr to employ the same strategy. As a year ago, the regular season is just a preliminary to the main event (playoffs) in Oakland, so we look “under” at Oracle Arena before the move across the Bay to the Chase Center (by AT&T Park) next season.
After a few years in hibernation, the Los Angeles Lakers (48½) are news again after LeBron James made a business decision to move to California in July. Unlike LeBron’s previous move out of Cleveland to Miami that was all about winning some rings, this move is more about LeBron’s vast outside interests and post-career path that includes the entertainment sphere. (Give LeBron a few years around the Hollywood types and let’s see how long he wants to stick around L.A., but we digress.) On the court, however, he’s still King James, and the Lakers will have to benefit, though Luke Walton is going to have to seriously alter an offense that was big on sharing the ball a year ago; LeBron says he’ll be as accommodating as needed, but he didn’t move to L.A. to become a facilitator. LeBron leading the fast-break and making his usual commando raids into the paint intrigues almost as much as the cast of misfits the Lake Show has collected around him. Rajon Rondo? Lance Stephenson? JaVale McGee? What next, Flavor Flav? This makes for a reality-show like clubhouse, and trip wires are easy to identify. And LeBron also now has to deal with a steady diet of West foes, after some wondered if the Cavs of last season (the No. 4 seed in the East) would have even made the playoffs if they were in the West and not the lesser East. Whatever, it’s going to be must-see TV at Staples Center, but we’re looking “under” with the Lake Show...
While the Lakers take up all of the oxygen in the local sports media, the Los Angeles Clippers (36½) have quietly reassumed their secondary status. While no one is expecting much, perhaps HC Doc Rivers can author a surprise. Losing linchpins Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan over the past year signals a downgrade, but that combination, for whatever reason, always seemed a bit of an awkward fit. We’d like to see what Doc can do with a full season from terrier-like G Patrick Beverley, who went down early with injury a season ago after playing just 11 games. Meanwhile, ex-Wizard Marcin Gortat should prove a serviceable replacement for Jordan on the blocks. There is some excitement in Clipper camp that Kentucky rookie wing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be the steal of the June draft, and prove a nice complement to underrated Tobias Harris. Much depends on keeping some oft-injured parts (Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Avery Bradley, Milos Teodosic) in one piece, but with all hands on deck, Doc should be able to cobble together a representative unit. Not sure about a playoff run, but if healthy enough, getting into the high 30s looks do-able, so it’s an “over” at the Clip Joint...
It’s too bad that maybe the best new arena in the NBA (the Golden 1 Center) doesn’t have a better tenant that the Sacramento Kings (26), who have been spinning their wheels for the better part of the last decade. But there is plenty of exciting young talent on the roster, and have to salute first-round pick Duke F Marvin Bagley, one of the few top-line rookies who embraced the chance to play for the Kings as opposed to the various first-round brats who were on record to say they wanted no part of Sacto, apparently not a cool-enough destination these days. (Just curious, but how many non-Bagley first-rounders could identify Sacto on a map?)Bagley and last year’s first-round pick, ex-Kentucky De’Arron Fox, form a nice young nucleus, and something for HC Dave Joerger to build around, but no indication yet that the likes of other kids like Harry Giles, Skai Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein can make an impact. Can the likes of vets Zack Randolph and Iman Shumpert keep the ship afloat, or will they become trade bait at the deadline? The best we can recommend for Kings fans is a pass at the Golden 1...
The Phoenix Suns (29½) have been the worst team in the West the past two seasons and worst in the entirety of the league a year ago when limping in at 21-61. It was over within the first week, as HC Earl Watson was dismissed and Jay Triano served the remaining 79 games as an interim. Now the Suns gamble with the first Euro-born coach in NBA history, Serbian Igor Kokoskov, who has an extended work history in the league, most recently as Quin Snyder’s aide with the Jazz. Kokoskov’s defensive expertise figures to come in handy for a team that could use all the help it can get on the stop end. But there is palpable excitement in the Valley of the Sun regarding top overall pick DeAndre Ayton, a 7-1 man-child from Arizona who has reminded some of a taller Hakeem Olajuwon and has done nothing to dispel the excitement in preseason. If Ayton hits the ground running, Devin Booker emerges in an envisioned James Harden-type role, and vets Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and just-signed Jamal Crawford fill in other gaps, the Suns might not be that bad this season...or at least as bad as a year ago. Still, the West is tough, and we don’t want to get too carried away, so we’ll just pass instead at the Talking Stick.
12-3 L15, 20-7 Run, 21-4 G-Plays
5-1 L6, 24-9 Streak, +2,163 TY
4 Guaranteed Wins in a Row
6-2 L8 Picks, 17-6 L23 G-Plays
7-2 G-Plays, 11-6 Picks, +3,569 TY
6-3 Picks, 10-4 G-Plays, +1,775 TY
7-2 L9 G-Plays, 6-2 L8 Picks
11-6 L17 Playoff Picks, +2,224 TY
4-2 L6 Picks, +1,820 This Year
20-12 L32 Totals, 58% Overall TY
56%, +1,608 Record This Year
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