Place your bets sports fans (only where you’re legally allowed to of course). As originally reported by Ben Fawkes of ESPN, the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has posted their 2017-2018 lines on over/unders for seasons wins for each team in the NBA. Naturally, the Golden State Warriors have the highest line of any team, which is set at 67.5 wins. The Chicago Bulls have the most depressing line at just 21.5 wins, and the hometown Denver Nuggets ring in with a line of 45.5 wins.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that Vegas is predicting the Warriors to win either 67 or 68 games, or that the Nuggets will win 45 or 46. It is only a number they believe will get them the closest to equal bets on each side With that said, 45.5 wins is a noticeable improvement for Denver over seasons past which means Vegas anticipates the public betting opinion of the team to be higher than it has been in previous seasons. Last year, Vegas pinned the Nuggets at 34.5 wins, an easy over, and the year before 26.5, again an easy over.
The number this year seems far closer to what could be the truth than in years past where Vegas set lines that indicated the perception was the Nuggets would stand pat, or regress. This season it’s clear that the expectation is the Nuggets will be a better team than they were the previous season. The margin of improvement, 5.5 wins, is fairly significant and hitting the over could prove to be difficult.
That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Both the Houston Rockets and the Utah Jazz increased their win totals by double digits last season. Houston had the benefit of a severely under performing team the season prior, a coaching change and a philosophy change that maximized their best player’s talents. The Nuggets have achieved one of those three things with their Jokic centric offense, but it’s difficult to say they under performed last season and there will be no coaching change to usher in a new era. On the flip side though, coach Michael Malone has improved the team’s record in each of his three seasons, it would be foolish to doubt he can do it again.
The Jazz seem like a better team to look at for precedent given their similarities to Denver in terms of position in the standings when they made the jump and using a team-centric small market type of approach. They improved by 11 wins, going from 40 to 51 last season. The Nuggets would be thrilled to make the same leap from their forty win season but they are missing some elements that helped the Jazz make the leap. Utah’s major weakness the season prior had been that their bench looked more like a d-league team and Raul Neto was their starting point guard. Dennis Lindsey responded by going out and snagging up savvy vets like Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson. He recognized his point guard position was incredibly weak because his future franchise point guard draft pick had under performed and been hurt (remind you of anyone?) and he went out and got George Hill. Granted Hill missed a good chunk of the season, but those forty-nine games he played were better than any point guard play the Nuggets are likely to find this season.
So while there are examples of teams in a similar position to Denver making a multi-win leap, it’s much harder to find that with a team that did it on the backs of internal development. The Warriors did back in 2013, but with hindsight being 20/20 its probably not wise to point to the beginnings of a dynasty as a norm from which to draw conclusions. Therein lies the true difficulty for the Nuggets, outside of internal development, there’s not much to point to in terms of roster improvement.
Denver of course did add Paul Millsap who is an excellent player and an even better fit on their roster. However, they lost Danilo Gallinari who, while not as effective as Millsap, is still also an excellent player and fit on Denver’s roster. He’s also a player who contributed 6.8 win shares to the Nuggets last season on a usage rate of 20%. Millsap by comparison had 6.4 win shares on a 24.4% usage rate. Granted, this is a clumsy way to compare player impact, especially for players on two different teams, but it is indicative of how in terms of total wins adding Millsap was tempered by losing Gallo. For those who are going to take the over, they’ll be banking that Millsap’s defensive production will be more valuable to Denver than Gallo’s offense, which in fairness is as good as anything to bank on.
Still, Millsap alone is not going to cover a six win improvement and the only other addition this offseason that might find his way into in the rotation would be Trey Lyles, but for him to play significant minutes would likely mean Kenneth Faried is playing on another team. This means the rest of Denver’s improvement in overall record is going to have to come from internal development (with all due respect to Torrey Craig and Tyler Lydon). Some of that should come naturally from a full season of Nikola Jokic as the alpha dog, the rest however will likely have to come from Jamal Murray.
Other than more minutes and maybe better defensive effort, it’s hard to ask much more out of Jokic. A similar story exists for Gary Harris who has made cosmic leaps two season in a row and feels fairly close to his ceiling. Murray however is the x-factor to the upcoming Nuggets season. Despite playing through two sports hernias last season he had some moments of brilliance that showed what a special talent he can be. A clean bill of health could catapult him into a player who can be counted on for 15 points a night if not more. However, a clean bill of health may not answer Jamal’s struggles to adapt to playing point guard at the NBA level. It also may not assuage his defensive concerns, which, like everyone on the Nuggets, was an issue last season.
All in all, The Nuggets should proabably expect to see wins bumps from going from Gallo to Millsap, from starting Jokic out of the gate and from a healthier and better Murray. However, is each of those things worth an extra two wins? Possibly, but Denver will also have to overcome the increase in talent the West has experienced this offseason. Two teams in their division are markedly better, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz are going to be worse, but they’re still a tough team in Denver’s division. Denver also will need another year of good health from Jokic and Wilson Chandler. Jokic for obvious reasons and Chandler because he’s the only capable true small forward on the team. Should either of those guys go down for significant time, the team’s dreams of 46+ wins are likely dashed. If everything breaks Denver’s way though they likely will hit the over. Likewsie, if they face some serious struggles they’re almost guaranteed to hit the under. It’s a touch call...looks like Vegas got this one right.