The 2018-19 NBA season is upon us, which means the time has come to look into our crystal balls and find the 10 best future bets the league has to offer.
While you can certainly swing for the fences and take LeBron’s Lakers to win it all or go rogue and take James Dolan’s Knicks to capture the Atlantic Division, this column offers a series of more reasonable selections.
Make no mistake, though, there are plenty of entertaining — and profitable — futures worth your while, including a few fliers that might surprise you.
(Odds provided by the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook).
Cleveland Cavaliers , over 30.5 wins:
It seems counterintuitive to trust the Cavs in the post- LeBron James era, especially considering Cleveland won just 19 games the season after the original “Decision” in 2010, when James announced he was going to South Beach. This time, however, is different.
For starters, the Eastern Conference is a woeful blend of mediocrity, full of potentially tanking teams and misfit rosters. Some might say the same about the current Cavs roster, but consider that second-year GM Koby Altman wants to remain competitive, hence the re-signing of Kevin Love to a four-year, $120 million extension.
Speaking of millions, the organization also needs to fill seats in the $140 million refurbished Quicken Loans Arena. What better way to do that than by leaning on Love and rookie Collin Sexton, exceeding expectations and remaining in the playoff hunt?
San Antonio Spurs , over 44.5 wins:
Death, taxes and the Spurs making the playoffs. Sound about right? With a lowly 44.5 win total, this is a strong play, even without legends Tony Parker (traded) and Manu Ginobili (retired). Last year, the Spurs — essentially without Kawhi Leonard the entire season — won 47 games, and in 2018-19, they’ll boast Dejounte Murray and his boundless potential running the show. He’ll be flanked in the backcourt by gifted rookie Lonnie Walker IV and second-year man Derrick White.
Also, six-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (23.1 points per game on 52 percent effective field goal percentage), with his seesaw of shot-making, is coming off his best offensive season — not just as a Spur but also as a pro. In fact, Aldridge, 33, earned second-team All-NBA honors for his work. There is also the matter of DeMar DeRozan, still just 29 and a legitimate All-NBA player whose playmaking and slashing ability will translate well in Gregg Popovich’s offense.
New Orleans Pelicans , over 46 wins:
With Anthony Davis emerging as one of the league’s premier players and Jrue Holiday proving he’s an elite two-way guard, the addition of free-agent acquisition Julius Randle — a bargain at the mid-level exception — will help the Pelicans remain entrenched in the upper echelon of the West. A switchable defender, the 23-year-old Randle averaged 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists after the All-Star break with the Lakers, proving to be more than a role player and instead an offensive force — particularly in the pick-and-roll, where he was consistently one of the league’s most efficient scorers.
Expect some production from Brooklyn Nets castoff Jahlil Okafor as well, who is just 22 and in the best shape of his career. Take the over, and watch as the surging Pelicans build off their best season in a decade.
Los Angeles Lakers, over 48 wins:
How many wins is LeBron James worth? Fifteen? Twenty? Twenty-five? The Lakers weren’t all that bad last season, rallying at times under Luke Walton, who starts his third year coaching the franchise and 11th overall with the team.
The loss of Julius Randle is mitigated by the arrival of James, whose presence in Los Angeles changes the tectonic plates of the league. More importantly, it’s James’ otherworldly playmaking and scoring (he averaged 34 points, 9.1 rebounds and nine assists during the playoffs) that will help rising star Brandon Ingram flourish and alleviate pressure on ultra-facilitators Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo.
We know the West is a juggernaut. And we all know the Lakers could not coax Paul George into returning home. Disappointing? Yes. But debilitating? Hardly. Between James, Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, there are enough thoroughbreds on this roster to exceed the 50-win mark.
Toronto Raptors, under 55.5 wins:
The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference traded for Kawhi Leonard, so it would be sensible to assume the Raptors will improve on last season’s 59 wins. There are an assortment of questions around this team, however, most notably whether we can safely assume Leonard will be 100 percent healthy. For all his greatness, Leonard has never played 75 games in a season and is coming off a significant quad tendon injury.
The Raptors will insert first-year NBA coach Nick Nurse, who took over for last year’s Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey. Surely, Nurse will deploy a deep roster — think Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet — but without another legitimate star, this remains a short-handed roster forced to battle other clubs featuring two- or three-headed monsters.
Philadelphia 76ers win Atlantic (odds: 7-2):
The Celtics are loaded. We all know that. Plus, they’re armed with wunderkind coach Brad Stevens, which makes it a lofty proposition to bet against them. But there is real value in Philly getting 7-2 odds, and here is why: Rising superstar Joel Embiid is the best center in basketball, one year removed from a nearly 23-point, 11-rebound campaign. Ben Simmons, the reigning Rookie of the Year, spent the summer attempting to rework a broken jump shot, from both the perimeter and the free throw line. Even if Simmons improves by 10 percent, that becomes a meaningful clip because of his dynamic playmaking.
Then there is 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who, at 20 years old, has unfairly been labeled a bust. Fultz spent the summer working out with Drew Hanlen, a premier skills trainer.
Boston, for all its talent, still has to incorporate All-Star Gordon Hayward back into a lineup that nearly dethroned LeBron in the East. This raises the question: How will Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum adjust? And will Brown have a reduced role offensively? Better yet, how will playoff hero Terry Rozier react to Kyrie Irving eating up a chunk of his minutes? Make no mistake: These are good “problems” to have. But the team might take time to properly jell, and Brett Brown’s youthful 76ers — who averaged fewer than 19 wins from 2013 to 2017 — are ready to assert themselves.
Minnesota Timberwolves, under 41 wins:
From a pure talent perspective, 41 wins feels low for Minnesota. But talent goes only so far in this league, especially in the rugged West. The Timberwolves, who recently gave Karl-Anthony Towns the super-max, were exposed by Houston in the playoffs. Specifically, KAT’s inability to switch on the perimeter and issues in the postseason’s more physical half-court nature quickly became apparent. This will serve as valuable tape for opposing teams hoping to bully KAT around the paint more while also providing ample opportunity to switch him further away from the basket.
Then we have the now infamous Jimmy Butler saga. One of the game’s blue-chip two-way players has been an unhealthy storyline all offseason, reportedly not happy with Towns, Andrew Wiggins and who else knows what. It isn’t as if the Wolves have some sort of hidden reservoir full of talent, either. Although a trade involving Butler appears likely, Minnesota does not have enough high-end talent to eclipse the .500 mark in the west. The former No. 1 overall pick Wiggins is surely being paid like a superstar, but he has not performed like one. And, with Tom Thibodeau playing seven or eight guys tops, we can expect a severely worn down roster when it’s time to make a playoff push
To put it simply, Minnesota feels like a combustible situation and one worth betting against. Even if the roster is kept intact, the collateral damage alone is enough to bet the under.
Memphis Grizzlies make playoffs (+600):
GM Chris Wallace wants to win right now, and the selection of promising Michigan State freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. reflects that. Jackson, 19, is far from a finished product, but his ability to instantly stretch the floor (39.6 percent from 3 in college) will help declutter the paint for a healthy Marc Gasol. Perhaps most important is the return of point guard Mike Conley. The intrepid Conley is the heartbeat of Grind City — his gutsy and crafty style reflect the nature of both the franchise and city — while his efficiency aids in meshing the offense.
As we know, the West is loaded, but the Grizz are getting +600 odds to make the playoffs, and it’s a bet worth making for a team with both talent and experience.
Indiana Pacers win Eastern Conference (odds: 20-1):
Those are long odds for a young and talented Indiana club that took LeBron James and the Cavs to seven games in the playoffs. With the emergence of Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo as a top-flight two-way guy and pivot man Myles Turner in the best shape of his life, why can’t the Pacers take a few steps forward and win the East? Plus, Indy got better. In free agency, GM Kevin Pritchard nabbed Tyreke Evans — who comes off a stellar year in which he connected on 39.9 percent from 3 — and Doug McDermott, who drilled a scorching 49.4 percent from deep in 26 games with Dallas. Additionally, rookie first-round draft choice Aaron Holiday will add playmaking and infuse more quickness to the backcourt.
Indiana might be another year away from the daunting task of consistently competing with the likes of Boston and Philadelphia, but perhaps not. And at 20-1, the Pacers are worth a flier.
Washington Wizards, under 44.5 wins:
Does anyone outside of the DMV actually trust the Wizards? Actually, does anyone inside the DMV trust the Wizards? Exactly. With questions surrounding John Wall’s conditioning — or lack thereof — and a logjam on the wing, Scott Brooks’ dysfunctional team feels similar to Tom Thibodeau’s Wolves out West. Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are consistent performers, and Beal was especially impressive sans Wall last season, seeing an uptick in scoring, including a 51-point output. This, however, remains a team with middling offensive (14th) and defensive (15th) ratings.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the departure of Marcin Gortat — Washington’s best rebounder — who was dealt to the Clippers for Austin Rivers. Or the fact that perennial locker room cancer Dwight Howard will now be manning the middle. Consider that Howard totaled more post-ups last year (499) than the whole Wizards team combined (462). Why is this a problem, you ask? Because Wall and Beal are creative offensive players, particularly Wall, whose high usage rate is often a conduit to untimely turnovers and errant shot selection. The Wizards are his show.
D12, meanwhile, still thinks it’s 2009 in Orlando. If it feels grim for the Wizards entering October, check back in February or March, when things are unraveling.