With the NBA season tipping off, a couple of quick notes about expectations for the season.
The first point should be that everyone, every single one of you plus a friend or two, should check out the TSN.ca NBA Preview. A lot of people put in a lot of work and the team pages are outstanding -- they look great and are chock full of information.
Now, about expectations.
Going into most NBA seasons, there are usually no more than a handful of teams that might be considered as potential champions and this year a handful might be stretching it.
Naturally, the defending-champion Miami Heat are first and foremost, while the loaded Los Angeles Lakers (despite their train wreck of an opener) are top contenders as well.
The next team that might be considered championship-worthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder, just traded their third-best player, James Harden, and while the return provided plenty of future value, the Thunder appear to have compromised present value to save money.
These are choices made in business every day, but businesses don't necessarily come with championship windows and the Thunder may have sacrificed some of theirs if their new faces don't measure up.
Beyond those three, however, it gets awfully dicey. The San Antonio Spurs had the league's best record last season, but their best players are in the twilight of their careers; a situation not unlike what the Boston Celtics face.
Other teams that might be considered interesting -- the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies or Indiana Pacers -- don't appear quite ready to tangle with the big dogs.
The Chicago Bulls were set to rival the Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy for years to come, but then superstar point guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the playoffs last season, leaving this season in considerable doubt. It's possible that Rose makes it back into the lineup before season's end, but it's also not especially advisable to rush your franchise player back from a serious knee injury. For that reason, it appears that this isn't going to be a year of contention for the Bulls.
As it stands now, though, the Heat, Lakers and Thunder are the three teams with the greatest chance to win the NBA Championship. Those are the expectations.
Will another team rise up and exceed expectations? Will an injury knock a contender out of the mix? Now that the games are being played, we'll watch and find out.
Coming into every season, I like to look for value on the forecasted win totals.
Here are some that caught my interest this season (lines from www.bet365.com):
L.A. CLIPPERS OVER 50.5 WINS - The Clippers have surrounded Chris Paul and Blake Griffin with a lot of experience -- adding vets Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes to a roster that already included Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups -- and while there is risk that some of these players are beyond the point of being positive contributors, players that know how to win make for a valuable supporting cast and a team good enough to improve on last season's 50-win pace.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER UNDER 60.5 WINS - It's not easy to win more than 60 games in the NBA for any team, let alone one that traded their third-best player. Thunder should still be very good, and might be a 60-win team, but it seems much safer to side with the under now that James Harden is in Houston.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS UNDER 54.5 WINS - The Spurs have been great for so long, including the last two seasons, when they won a combined 115 games, but it's not unreasonable to think that age will finally catch up to them. With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili both north of 35, all it would take is a long-term injury to one of those cornerstones to leaves the Spurs with a merely very good, rather than exceptional, record.
INDIANA PACERS UNDER 50.5 WINS - Are the Pacers ready to take that next step, after winning 42 of 66 games last season? It's possible, particularly if Paul George makes a leap in his third season, but starting the year without Danny Granger is a concern and the offseason additions -- D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Ian Mahinmi -- don't have extensive track records of success in the league. Maybe it takes another year before the Pacers are ready.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS UNDER 47.5 WINS - With Andrew Bynum out indefinitely due to a knee injury, the Sixers are a high-risk team. They have enough depth to remain competitive, but they faded in the second half last season, going 15-22 after a 20-9 start. Unless Bynum gets healthy, and quick, it's not unreasonable to envision a battle just to play .500 ball.
SACRAMENTO KINGS OVER 30.5 WINS - It's been at least four years since the Kings have been remotely relevant (they were only 38-44 five years ago, so they may not have been too relevant then, either), but that struggling has allowed them to accumulate some quality young talent. Maybe they don't all fit together ideally, but with rookie Thomas Robinson joining DeMarcus Cousins in the frontcourt, Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton gunning from the wings and point guard Isaiah Thomas the one responsible for passing, well, the Kings could get up to the mid-30s in wins.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS UNDER 29.5 WINS - No John Wall. Nene is out. The opening night Wizards rotation was anchored by veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, guys good enough to be the best players on a 20-win team.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS OVER 37 WINS - Subjectively, I don't particularly like this one, because it means counting on the guard pairing of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to work, at least to some degree, and adding Samuel Dalembert is hardly the cure-all for a team needing an upgrade in the low post, but the Bucks do tend to play hard for head coach Scott Skiles, so a 38-40 win season shouldn't be altogether out of the question.
As for the Toronto Raptors, I'm enough of an optimist to like them over the 32.5 line that was posted, but I'm not alone. To get the Raptors over 32.5 costs -180, so my expectation for a win total in the high-30s (my projection is for 39) might have been a good play if the money line wasn't so prohibitive.
One last bit of business. I'm in three fantasy leagues, with rosters of varying sizes and category requirements, so there isn't a uniform strategy between the leagues, but here are the players that I have picked for this season, giving some indication on which players I think will provide value.
Steve Nash (2)
Kirk Hinrich (2)
Manu Ginobili (2)
Derrick Williams (2)
Jonas Valanciunas (2)
J.J. Hickson (2)
Nikola Vucevic (2)