Business class on a flight to Hawaii. A tub of popcorn at the movies. Black truffles. A fast pass. Charmin 2-Ply.
There are some things in life you’re just better off paying a little extra for.
You can now add the Denver Nuggets to that list. Of the many possible over / under wagers for this season’s NBA win totals, betting the Nuggets 51.5 over will cost you highest vig at a less-than-tidy minus 135. No other over will run you more than minus 125. That’s not insignificant.
It also isn’t an accident. There are many basketball reasons why Denver is primed to exceed last season’s total of 54 wins as opposed to going in the other direction, but without even considering them, there’s a good bit of history on their side. In 11 of the last 13 years, the Nuggets have exceeded their over. No other team has had a better track record over that span.
Are they consistently underrated? It would seem so, yeah. Does it have something to do with the fact that the betting public consistently underrates their 5280-foot home-court advantage? Yes and no.
The benefits of playing at such a high altitude have been well-documented, but its usually associated with the Nuggets being able to run other teams off the court by playing at a high pace in comparison to the rest of the league. Last season however, when Denver tied for the highest home winning percentage in the NBA, they ranked 26th in pace, easily their lowest since joining the NBA.
There have been several studies that take a deep dive into why Mile High provides the advantages that it does, but the results are undeniable; their overall record at home since joining the league is spectacular. Just don’t expect it to apply consistently.
When Denver isn’t very good, their home court advantage doesn’t really exist. For four straight years starting in 2013, the Nuggets were a bottom-ten team, and in every one of those seasons, their home winning percentage rank was worse than or roughly the same as their overall winning percentage rank in comparison to the rest of the league. In short, when they’re bad, it doesn’t really matter where they play – they’re still bad.
When they’re good? That’s when we see results. Denver has had a top-nine record six times in the last 16 years, and all but once, their home winning percentage rank exceeded their overall rank, often by a significant margin.
Given that the Nuggets once again figure to have one of the nine best records in the NBA, it’s a safe bet that they will continue to enjoy a dominant home court advantage. Over unders can often come down to just a game or two, so this is a great fail-safe when wagering the over.
Oh, and they’re also really freaking good.
It might be tempting to predict a drop off, what with a young team potentially resting on their laurels. Last season was all house money, but playing with real expectations is hard. The problem with this theory is that, lately in the NBA at least, we haven’t really seen much of the “too much, too soon” phenomenon rearing its ugly head. In fact, there’s several recent examples of the opposite being true:
1) Utah won 50 last season after shocking the league to win 48 the previous year; their over/under was 49.5
2) The 13-14 Blazers jumped from 33 wins to 54 on the heels of Dame’s breakout, and they followed that up with 51 wins in 14-15, exceeding their O/U by two games.
3) Coming off of 47 wins, the 13-14 Warriors hit their O/U number on the head with 51 wins, and then proceeded to win 67 and 73 games, respectively.
4) The first three Harden-led Rocket teams went from 45 to 54 to 56 wins before succumbing to the Dwightmare. They fell just short of their O/U in year-two by a half game, but then blew it away the following season.
5) When the Thunder broke out and jumped from 23 wins to 50, they exceeded their O/U in three of the next four seasons, only missing by a half game in 12-13 when their 60 wins wasn’t quite enough.
Each of these young rosters met or exceeded expectations in the same brutal Western Conference Denver finds itself in. All had respected organizational infrastructures (like Denver), and with the exception of Utah last year, a legit MVP candidate (like Denver).
Oh yeah…that guy. Nikola Jokic is coming off a FIBA performance where he was unguardable at times, shooting 68 percent from the field. Averaging a triple double is absolutely in play for the year ahead, and Denver has crafted a roster specifically suited to mesh with his unique talents.
Speaking of the roster, Denver returns 10 of their 11 leading scorers from a season ago, with only Trey Lyles having departed. He’s been replaced by the arguably superior – at least for this team’s needs – Jerami Grant, as well as Michael Porter Jr., who appears fully recovered from the back injury that forced him to redshirt what should have been his rookie season. He did tweak his knee early in July, but the injury doesn’t appear to be serious.
As far as the money makers on this team go, Denver’s three-man nucleus of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are all entering their respective primes. Throw in Malik Beasley and Monte Morris and almost the entire core of the team is between 22 and 25 years old.
The massive exception to that is Paul Millsap, the only member of the Nuggets’ likely rotation over the age of 30. Maybe he drops off, or maybe the fact that his low career minute total (just above 30,000– not bad for a 34-year-old) keeps him fresh for another season. It’s notable that Denver only went 5-7 in the dozen games Millsap missed last year, and his propensity for injury (he’s missed an average of 23 games over the last three seasons) is a cause for concern.
Should Millsap miss any significant amount of time, any over bet enters treacherous territory. There’s also the small matter of how lucky Denver got last year, when they exceeded their expected win total by nearly four games according to Cleaning the Glass. This was in part due to opponents hitting a league low 34.4 percent from deep, and there’s some thinking that this will bounce hard in the other direction. Even so, the Nuggets’ average margin of victory at home was a robust 9.8 points per game. If there is a reversion to the mean with opponent shooting, they’re primed to sustain it as well as anyone.
Despite these causes for concern, it’s rare to find a team where so many of its core pieces are slated to get better, not worse, coming off a 50-plus-win campaign. It’s even rarer to be able to bet them at a number that’s several wins lower than the previous season. When it’s a team that also happens to have hit their over 85 percent of the time since 2006, it’s a gift you don’t turn away.
History doesn’t lie. Pay the premium, take the over and enjoy that sweet, sweet Mile High goodness all the way to the bank.