We go through this exercise every time basketball starts after an extended absence: if you have strong feelings about what you expect to happen this season, now is the time to cash in. It doesn’t take Vegas long to adjust to what happens on the court, but as a general rule in gambling, the more information the books have, the less opportunity for profit exists. Opening night is the slot on the calendar in which the books know the least they can possibly know all season. They’ve watched as little 2020-21 basketball as you have.
So if you think the Warriors are going to return to contention? Take them and don’t regret it. If you think the Lakers are going to run roughshod over the entire NBA? Buy the stock. That isn’t the direction these picks take, but opening night is about applying the preseason work you’ve done. There will be plenty of time to make value assessments on the fly, but right now, lines are low to account for the inherent limit in available information. If you think you know more than the books, pounce. With that in mind, here are our opening night picks.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets: Nets -7.5
Stephen Curry breaks undisciplined defenses. We don’t know where this Brooklyn group falls on that scale yet, but its underwhelming defensive talent and first-year head coach suggest developing it will take time. There are going to be moments in this game in which two defenders race after Curry off a screen and a Warriors wing springs free for one of Steve Kerr’s beloved backdoor cuts. If you expect that to happen frequently, the over is probably the bet for you. But the Andrew Wiggins-Kelly Oubre Jr. combination is such a steep decline from Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant that Golden State’s recalibration is going to be more difficult. Brooklyn can live with the open 3s Curry’s gravity creates if Wiggins and Oubre are the ones taking them.
But how the Warriors plan to defend Brooklyn is another question entirely, especially if Draymond Green misses this game as expected. Curry has rarely taken the Kyrie Irving assignment in recent battles, but switching isn’t exactly optimal with Curry and a center on the floor. Teams rarely switch-hunt extensively on opening night, but a motivated Durant isn’t taking any prisoners here. Let Irving attack a center and he’s going to come away with two points more often than not.
This ultimately becomes a talent question. Neither of these teams are close to a finished product yet, but Brooklyn has so much more talent at this moment, and likely so much more to play for just given Durant’s history with the Warriors, that they should be viewed as proper favorites in this game.
The Lakers and Clippers played four times last season, and the average game was determined by a single points in the Clippers’ favor. That isn’t to suggest that the Clippers should be favored in this game, but rather, to point out how close the four matchups last season were. Both sides took these games seriously. All four were close deep into the fourth quarter. If you expect that trend to hold, taking the points in a close game is usually a sound strategy.
The Lakers are probably the better team than the Clippers in the grand scheme of things, but they’re probably the one in greater need of gelling time. If Talen Horton-Tucker is playing real minutes, five of their 11 projected rotation players are new. The Clippers have new faces to integrate as well, but there’s an ease to working with the players that they added. Luke Kennard and Serge Ibaka can stand behind the 3-point line and provide immediate value through gravity. Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell need the ball.
There’s also the not insignificant matter of rest. The Lakers are a bit more than two months removed from their last competitive game. The Clippers bowed out of the bubble early enough to get a mostly normal offseason. That’s likely more of a macro concern than a micro one. It will cost the Lakers games within their early schedule, but it’s not going to make them a uniform degree worse in a single opening night clash. It just isn’t going to help matters. Put your futures money on the Lakers, but opening night should lean slightly in favor of the Clippers.