The NBA preseason is like a Halloween Haunted House: you know it’s fake, but it doesn’t stop you from getting all up in your feelings before things are all said and done.
For some teams, this is a good thing. Take last year, when the Jazz and Clippers both finished the preseason undefeated, and each went on hit their preseason over (handily, in LA’s case). Among the eight teams who finished the 2018 preseason with only one loss, five bested their Vegas prediction, with only Houston, Philadelphia and Washington falling short.
The Wizards ended up getting sidetracked by an injury to their star point guard, while the Rockets and Sixers both had successful campaigns, albeit ones that fell short of the lofty numbers (56.5 and 53.5, respectively) that were attributed to them. Looking at the seven 0 or 1-loss teams to beat their prediction, six were projected to win between 35 and 50 games, with the Raptors being the only exception.
Translation: if supposedly middling teams show themselves to be slightly more than middling as the fake games are taking place, it might be a good idea to take notice.
Conversely, four teams finished with either one victory or were winless through the exhibition season last year. They ranged from contenders (Golden State) to pretenders (Boston) to also-rans (Minnesota and New Orleans). What did they all have in common? None came within five games of hitting their respective overs.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the NBA teams that have stood out for better or worse so far this preseason, and see if we can’t figure out whether there’s a real opportunity to learn something from each.
(all statistics courtesy of Cleaning the Glass)
Boston Celtics – 48.5 O/U
Preseason record: 4-0; Preseason point differential: +24.1 (1st)
That’s not a misprint. The next highest net rating is Milwaukee’s, at +15.3. Basically, the Celtics just spent two weeks impersonating the 2007 Pats.
Much of that is due to the 86.9 points per 100 possessions Boston is giving up. On a defense that plans to prominently feature Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter, this might not be sustainable.
They also feature several high level defenders. More to the point, maybe it’s a good time to remember that the core of this team was supposed to push 60 wins last season. Yes, Al Horford is gone, but Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are a year more mature, Gordon Hayward another year removed from injury, and young’n Robert Williams now looking like a real contributor. Rookies Carson Edwards and Grant Williams also look like seasoned pros, and organizational pariah Kyrie Irving has been replaced by Kemba Walker, which may make the biggest difference of all.
The only thing that would make you hesitate to bang the over here is the matter of who Boston has played: Charlotte (who has the lowest projected wins in the NBA), the Magic without Nikola Vucevic (although Walker sat out that game as well), and two games against the team who finished the preseason with easily the worst point differential in the league…
Cleveland Cavaliers – 24.5 O/U
Preseason Record: 0-3; Preseason point differential: -22.0 (30th)
The Cavs did actually win a game this preseason, defeating San Lorenzo, which notably is not an NBA team. They also got smoked by Boston twice and lost by four on the road to a Pistons team without Blake Griffin, although Cleveland was up by as many 19 in this one before blowing it late.
Betting the Cavs Under is currently going to cost you the biggest premium on the board at -130, whereas you can make a little extra taking the over at +110.
This one feels like a stay away, not only because of the cost, but because of a quirky statistical trend I wrote about previously. Over the last 14 seasons, 25 teams have had their over/under numbers set at below 25 wins (or the equivalent winning percentage in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season). Of those 25, 18 hit the over.
New Orleans Pelicans – 39.5 O/U
Preseason Record: 5-0; Preseason point differential: +7.7 (5th)
Over five of the last six seasons, the team that leads the NBA in offensive rating during the preseason has gone on to win over 50 games, with the one exception being the 2015-16 Wizards, who finished at .500.
This season, that designation goes to the New Orleans Pelicans. Along with Milwaukee, they were the only team to play and win five preseason games, and their 116.3 offensive rating was first in the league by over five points.
The Bucks, notably, have the highest over/under in the league by three games at 57.5. The Pels are quite a bit lower, and don’t even need to finish at .500 to net you a payday.
New Orleans played a legit preseason slate, besting the Hawks, Jazz, Spurs and Knicks on the road while dispatching the Jazz at home. The obvious concern here is Zion, and how long he’ll be out, but their starting unit with Jahlil Okafor in his place looked just fine, albeit against a New York team still finding its footing.
This one seems legit.
Miami Heat – 43.5 O/U
Preseason Record: 4-0; Preseason point differential: +11.3 (3rd)
The last real standout of the preseason in either direction is the Heat. Along with Boston and Milwaukee, they were the only team to finish the fake slate of games in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating.
Miami’s only loss came in a 144-133 track meat vs Houston, but they looked great in home wins vs San Antonio and Atlanta and in road tilts vs Charlotte and Orlando.
The biggest surprise here might be rookie Tyler Herro, who’s been lighting it up all preseason long. Ample outside shooting was one of the summer concerns for this roster, and Herro’s readiness to contribute might be the difference between them being a middle of the pack offense and a contender for top ten offensive rating. We know the defense will be there.
At a reasonable over/under, this early showing seems like a good bet to translate to the real games. And as we know from a few years ago, even an early rocky start doesn’t mean they can’t come on late.
Take the over.