Moore: What I Got Right and Wrong On 2018-19 NBA Win Totals

Moore: What I Got Right and Wrong On 2018-19 NBA Win Totals article feature image
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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34).

  • Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) takes a look at his NBA win total bets last year and what lessons he can apply to the 2019-20 season.

There are three things on the NBA calendar I pay the most attention to. Some folks adore the draft; others love the big narratives that emerge. For me, it’s about the fine details.

The MVP race, the playoff picture and the NBA’s win totals are the three things I devote the most time and energy into each season.

Last year, we debuted an ambitious project. I made the case for all 30 teams for their win total on both the over and under and then ranked the top-30 best bets. It was a lot of words and a lot of fun.

We’ll be embarking on that project again as the season gets closer, but as I start to expand on my early impressions I posted last week, I wanted to look back at what went right and wrong for me last year in the analysis, what I’m proud of and what I regret.

Here are my takeaways from reviewing my 2018-19 win total analysis.

Not Too Shabby


I gave out two sets of rankings: one before training camp started and another just before the season began. The two sets were almost identical, save for less than a handful of picks. I flipped from the over to the under on the Wizards (good job, Matt) and from the under to the over on the Pelicans (not so good).

The big picture thing here is that I went 20-9-1 on those picks last season. It’s not a remarkable figure, but it’s solid enough Return on Investment. Notably, I also went 20-9-1 on both sets of figures.

More interesting is what the confidence rankings show and the extrapolations from that.

Among the 10 teams I had the lowest confidence in (No. 30 through 21), my picks went 8-1-1 in the initial rankings and 8-2 in the final rankings. Among the teams I had the most confidence in (No. 1 through No. 10), I went 6-4 in the initial rankings and 5-5 in the final rankings.

I performed better with the bets made with the least confidence, many of which I would have classified as stay-aways if I hadn’t decided to bet all 30, than I did on the teams I was most confident in. (In the middle, I went 6-4 and 7-3, respectively.)

Any time you’re betting this many team outcomes, you’ll get hit with some Crazy Ivans that catch you off guard, but those can just as easily help you as hurt you.

I snuck over the total in my initial rankings for Memphis at 32.5 thanks to a hot and unsustainable start that gave way to a full-on tank job. Conversely, the Mavericks just snuck under their total when they promptly abandoned the season and traded every single veteran.

These things occur, and they muddy the waters from seeing if you really had the teams pegged or if you just got lucky. As always, the answer lies somewhere in between.


Biggest Misses

Boston Celtics (over)

Whoops. I had the Celtics at 61 wins. I might as well be a guy who loves sports from Boston. Some sort of, I don’t know, sports guy. I really bought in.

After they made the Eastern Conference Finals — and a Game 7 at that — in 2018, I went in on all the tropes. Brad Stevens is a super genius. Jayson Tatum can be an MVP candidate. Yeah, that’s a nope to all that.

Turns out that Kyrie Irving is a locker room computer virus. Kobe Bryant gave Jayson Tatum the red pill, and now he has no powers; he’s just a dude. Stevens, it turns out, might be better with a scrappy, try-hard team than a contender.

On one level, there were warning signs. But so many folks were off on Boston I have a hard time giving myself a failing grade.

Cleveland Cavaliers (over)

This one I’ll own. (Holds up hand as if to say “I fouled him.”)

I was banking on Kevin Love (played 22 games). I was banking on George Hill and Rodney Hood (both traded). I was banking on Tristan Thompson, for some reason (played 43 games and was also bad).

I was banking on Cedi Osman (the worst Net Rating of any player to play at least 1,000 minutes).

Mistakes were made.

The truth is that after a player of LeBron’s caliber leaves, there’s probably a greater drop-off in terms of collective performance than I gave credit for.

Love’s injury situation definitely had a big impact, but the team also traded off Hood and Hill, and took J.R. Smith entirely out of the rotation. Maybe the lesson is this: When the franchise starts over, take the under.

Sacramento Kings (under)

I’m torn on whether I should have known better or not. On the one hand, it was the Kings! I took the under, but it was one of my least-confident picks.

The Kings had gone under six years in a row, but in my analysis I definitely missed out on the possibility of a big jump from De’Aaron Fox, and I glossed over Buddy Hield entirely.

The Kings weren’t even really exceptional; they ranked 17th on offense and 21st on defense. But they also weren’t bad at anything, and that’s how they managed their way to 39 wins. It wasn’t even a big outlier, as their Pythagorean wins count was at 38.

I find that I was skeptical for good reason and the Kings finally proved that skepticism vulnerable. This is more of a testament to the growth of the Kings’ talent and organization than a real miss.

Orlando Magic (under)

This one I for sure overshot. I had Orlando at 22 wins — 20 short of their 42 wins — and they actually had a Pythagorean total of 43. What I missed was the impact of Steve Clifford’s defensive scheme.

Orlando finished eighth in Defensive Rating. Nikola Vucevic had another great year, DJ Augustin had another really great, under-appreciated season and they got enough from the wings to fill in the gaps.

I don’t feel bad about taking the over. Aaron Gordon never took a leap, Vucevic’s defensive capability is a welcome surprise and neither Jonathan Isaac nor Mo Bamba emerged as real stars. My confidence in a sub-30 number, however, was misplaced.

Memphis Grizzlies (over)

Started off so promising, too. I took the over, believing that they had really put together a team that could win. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple. Those are all good players.

And yet, it all fell apart. Fun fact: The lineup of Mike Conley, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson and Marc Gasol had the 14th-best Net Rating of any lineup with at least 200 minutes played together last season.

They were legitimately good. But they fell apart outside of those minutes. Maybe the lesson is that when the run might be over, you should fade them or stay away.


Best Hits

Detroit Pistons (over)

It was in my top three for a reason. There were all sorts of reasons to buy in there. What’s funny is that the offense was a big reason I bought in, and they finished bottom-10 in that capacity.

The defense, however, made a big leap, and Blake Griffin being flat-out awesome carried them. It’s also proof that you should take the over on the middle-tier East teams because they’ll benefit from the weaker schedule as much as anyone.

New York Knicks (under)

This was not rocket science. New York has now finished with the under in eight of the past 11 seasons, and you can bet I’ll be taking the under again this year.

Kristaps Porzingis never returned to the team and then was traded, and the Knicks went all-in at mid-season in pursuit of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, neither of whom actually signed with them. They are the counterargument to the Kings. Some teams you should trust to fail until they prove you wrong.

Brooklyn Nets (over)

They cleared their over by 10 wins. It just wasn’t hard to see a team that had been building up for years finally cash in on a playoff spot in a weak East.

Brooklyn also clearly was undervalued based on perceptions of relative franchises. By this, I mean, their over/under was 32 and the Knicks’ was 29.

They finished 25 games apart.

San Antonio Spurs (over)

Again, not a tough one. If the Spurs’ number is south of 46, you should take the over (it is currently between 43.5 and 45.5 for next season). I’ve made this point many times in many places, but the Spurs are absolute experts in gaming the NBA regular season.

The Spurs were 26-15 vs. teams under .500 last season. They went 13-7 against the Southeast and Central divisions and 10-6 against division opponents in a down year for the Southwest (only two playoff teams, three teams under .500).

They’ll do the same this year, finding the weak spots in the schedule. This formula is tried, true and consistent.

Death. Taxes. Spurs.

Milwaukee Bucks (over)

I was on this since preseason and I’ve got the receipts.

This one actually taught me a significant amount about the value of preseason. You can get a sense for which teams have the right vibe and are combining things in the right way.

You just have to be really perceptive. The formula here wasn’t hard to track, and the number was probably lower due to market interest.


Lessons

  • The under hit on six of the top-eight highest win total numbers, with only the Raptors surpassing theirs. Conversely, the bottom-eight teams for win totals went 4-4 over/under.
  • There continues to be value trusting in Terry Stotts and Gregg Popovich, two of the best coaches at managing the regular-season schedule.
  • Teams can also fail in a hurry, it turns out. The Mavericks were well on their way to the over and then plummeted. The Pelicans were at least within range of making a run for theirs before the Anthony Davis trade saga. Don’t go in on teams with known situations of instability. The Pelicans weren’t thought to be in such a state to start the year, but the possibility was there with his free agency looming.
  • The best bets may not be the ones you’re most certain of.

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