I try not to be one who gets caught up in preseason rankings, expectations or betting odds for the over-under. Every season there is one team who surprises and one who disappoints. There's always a glut of teams in the Western Conference, and a mediocre race for 8th in the East.
This year is much of the same. In the West, there are legitimately 13 or 14 teams with legit postseason ability. In the East, improvements in Atlanta, Washington, Charlotte, Brooklyn and Chicago will raise the 7th-12th tier a great deal.
Still, it's hard to predict how every team will fare. We'll discuss four teams who give us the most trouble, both in terms of record and seeding possibilities.
Golden State Warriors
Vegas Line: 36.5
Pretty much everyone is struggling with what to do with Golden State. Steph is back but Klay is done for the year. Nobody got to see James Wiseman in the preseason as he missed action thanks to covid protocols. Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. are a dangerous combo of slashers and finishers, but this is a team that really only has Curry as a plus 3-point shooter.
How will that impact playing through Draymond? Can Wiggins be more than an empty calories guy for the first time in his career? Are Kevon Looney and Marquese Chriss good enough to play impactful minutes on a playoff team, and how might Steve Kerr committing to Draymond at the 4 full-time impact spacing?
The depth in the backcourt is a mess; Brad Wanamaker is a veteran with playoff experience, though everyone else is largely unproven. Mychal Mulder had an awesome preseason, Nico Mannion is a good fit in Golden State, and both Damion Lee and Jordan Poole belong on an NBA roster somewhere. Veteran wing Kent Bazemore has struggled shooting of late and might be on the downward trajectory of his career.
Putting the Warriors 8th in the West seems like a cop out. They have so much potential to be higher, with MVP Steph getting the highest offensive share of his career and capable two-way wings. But there's a lot of room for disaster, volatility and I always fear picking teams who are one injury away from being super thin.
Vegas Line: 45.5
The sports books have the Celtics as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. That's a wild, wild claim to make after seeing the Nets and Sixers play this preseason, plus how Miami handled them in the Eastern Conference Finals. The numbers I've seen elsewhere are closer to 42.5, which is a sturdy line equivalent to a 50-win season.
That's a tough pillar for me to cross with these Celtics. On one hand, they have three great guys in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. But Walker is out indefinitely with his knee issues, and those scare me for a guy of his age, build and career trajectory. Brown might be more equipped to be a third star than a second, and Marcus Smart stepping into a large offensive role always has high-risk, high-reward.
There are nine rookies or second-year guys on the fringes with this roster, many of whom are thrust into duty with the injuries to Walker and free agent signing Tristan Thompson. The one common thread of these role guys: none are proven NBA knockdown shooters. Spacing will be at a premium and teams can hone in on Tatum far too easily.
On the other hand, Tatum is a fringe MVP candidate and has really blossomed into the star role. If Walker and Thompson can be mainstays in the lineup, their starting group of Walker, Smart, Brown, Tatum and Theis is as potent as any in the East. Veterans Thompson and Jeff Teague anchor the second unit and steady the ship. It's still a really good roster.
Again, groups that are one rotational injury away from being really bad worry me. I don't love the depth on this team, so there's a wide variance of outcomes for the Celtics. They could win the East, or could drop down to a 7-seed.
Vegas Line: 42.5
This is more about process of elimination than anything else.
I'm a firm believe in the Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets being the top-three teams in the Western Conference. Behind them, Portland and Phoenix seem the safest bets, with the Suns making a big climb thanks to Chris Paul and the Blazers finally fully healthy.
The Utah Jazz have been a consistent 50-win team the last couple of seasons, and this projection holds steady there. They return almost their entire rotation from last year, have a really good alpha in Donovan Mitchell, shooting to surround Rudy Gobert and a hell of a coaching staff. Derrick Favors comes in as a backup big, and Jordan Clarkson fills it up in a bench role. It's a good team.
But I also can't definitively say they're better than Golden State with a healthy Steph. Nor the Rockets team with Harden, Wall, Cousins, Gordon and Tucker on the floor. Dallas could easily leapfrog them if Luka makes another leap; the Mavs finally have some defensive-minded wings who can knock down a shot.
If there's one playoff team who could make a drop, my money would be on Utah. They feel like those Atlanta Hawks teams under Mike Woodson a decade ago, always in the 50-win range and pushing teams in the postseason but never getting over the hump. Continuity and fit has been their friend for years, though at some point it loses its luster. The one deal made to put them over the top with Mike Conley has semi-backfired. Unless he regains peak form, I struggle seeing the Jazz hit the over. It's hard to peg exactly where they are in the Western Conference battleground.
Vegas Line: 34.5
A .500 record projection from Vegas odds takes into account the possibility of trading James Harden and what that would do to the rest of the team. John Wall and Boogie Cousins are unproven. Harden thrived in a switching system built around him where he could guard bigger guys and be surrounded by only 3-point shooting.
If Harden stays, the over is pretty clear here. But that doesn't mean it's as simple as taking the over. Where would this team with Harden stack up in the West? They are reintegrating not one, but two centers into a center-less team. Is Cousins healthy? Can Christian Wood replicate his performances last year on a playoff contender? Will 36-year-old PJ Tucker finally start to decline?
The wing depth is gone, and Eric Gordon is coming off a poor season. John Wall looked great in the preseason, but there are fit questions with him and Harden together. Other than shooters Danuel House and Ben McLemore, the roster is largely unproven.
The over-under is a splitting of the trade scenarios. I get that. But even in tact, this is a tough roster to predict.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).