We are less than a week away from the beginning of the 2017-2018 NBA season, and if it feels early – you are right, it is. The effort to curb back-to-backs has pushed the start of the season a little earlier this season. Hopefully, the result is both more and BETTER basketball.
The offseason drama reached fever pitch as the telenovela of the NBA dominated sports talk airwaves. Big stars changed addresses and big teams loaded up in their pursuit of the elusive (and nearing immortal) Golden State Warriors. There is no doubt that one of the quiet victims of all the reshuffling was the poor Eastern Conference. Over half the Conference is a Vegas projection to lose more games than they win, and six of the eight worst teams by Vegas over/under’s reside East of the Mississippi.
But that mediocrity could also lend some intrigue. Between the mediocrity-driven parity and the reduced incentive for tanking, the East could actually have a few interesting battles. The fight for the #8 seed could be fun. If you accept that Boston/Cleveland are the clear Top Two and that Toronto and Washington are a peg behind, and Milwaukee and Miami are likely playoff teams, the race for the last slot or two could be a blast. Charlotte? Detroit? Is Philly ready to finally make the leap? And if ANY of those teams falter, the bottom six in the East all look REALLY similar to me.
Here’s a look at the current Eastern Conference Odds, per VegasInsider.com
ODDS TO WIN EASTERN CONFERENCE:
- Cleveland -150
- Boston +250
- Washington +1600
- Milwaukee +1600
- Toronto +2500
- Miami +3300
- Philadelphia +3000
- Charlotte +10000
- Detroit +6600
The favorites to win the East are obvious, and depending upon the wager; to win the East as in represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals or represent the East as the #1 seed, my slant greatly changes. I’m all for the Cavs NOT being the #1 seed. I am not here for the “LeBron is vulnerable” narrative. Soon. But not yet. If healthy, the road to June goes through (and generally ends at the feet of) LeBron James.
However, there are some interesting Eastern Conference sleeper wagers; pint plays and other fun value propositions. Here are my five favorites.
#1. Philadelphia 76’ers to Make Playoffs -190
The Sixers are young, yes, but the East is bad and no one outside of the top three or four teams (and maybe not even them) can match the awesome arsenal of talent that has been stockpiled in Philly. We are obviously taking some assumptions of good health with any NBA prediction in October. And if you are concerned about the health of Joel Embiid, it is a reasonable concern. But did anyone else see his 22 point performance in 15 minutes of court time two nights ago??? This guy WILL be an All-Star THIS YEAR if healthy, and he is the cornerstone of this emerging franchise.
The rest of the roster is also young, but so, so, so talented. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz? Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor (possibly an eventual trade chip)? Add in the veteran influence and floor spacing of JJ Redick and this has the potential to be a complete team.
It seems hard to imagine this team can’t outpace teams like Detroit and Indiana, possibly even Charlotte (and I’m not sold they are significantly behind the Bucks, this year’s darling preseason “sleeper”)
The Process (Joel Embiid’s adopted nickname) should finally come to fruition at long last.
#2. Chicago Bulls to Make Playoffs +2000
This is a punt play, but I think there is some nice value at a 20:1 shot this young roster steals the #8 spot in the East. The Bulls play hard and aren’t short of some talent. They certainly won’t be the worst team in the East (I think Atlanta earns that mantle in 2018). Their starting lineup should be Kris Dunn, Zach Lavine, Justin Holliday, Bobby Portis and Robin Lopez, with Mirotic, Valentine and Jerian Grant coming quickly off the bench. It ain’t great, but it’s no worse than Atlanta, Brooklyn, New York (with the lone exception of Porzingis) and I’m not sure they are way behind Indiana, Detroit or Orlando.
#3. Miami Heat to Win the Eastern Conference +3300
This is a total punt play, but if you look JUST at the final 41 games of the season last year – the exact second half – the Heat were one of the best teams in the NBA at 30-11. Extrapolated out over an entire season, that would likely be good enough to be the #1 in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Will they win 60?? Of course not. But could they be a Top Four seed in the postseason? Why not. If you can get a Top Four seed at +3300 heading into the Eastern Conference semifinals, then you have locked on a decent hedge position.
The Heat will likely sport a lineup rotation that looks like this: Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder/Justice Winslow, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside. They have some offensive punch with Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson coming off the bench and have some young muscle to fortify the end of the bench with AJ Hammond and Bam Adebayo.
There are some shooting worries. In order for this thing to work, Waiters needs to remain the uncharacteristically efficient player he was last Spring, and they HAVE to get some improved shooting from Winslow, or else they won’t be able to get his defense on the floor. It was a 5 on 4 game with Winslow offensively. That must improve.
#4. Milwaukee Bucks UNDER 47.5 Wins
Man, 48 wins are asking A LOT of The Greek Freak. I like Giannis, and marvel at his athleticism and versatility. But I don’t think he is quite in the LeBron/Durant/Westbrook/Harden category quite yet. I’m not sure he can carry a team singlehandedly to 50 wins, and from an offensive standpoint, he’d basically have to. Malcolm Brogdon had a nice rookie year, but is he ready to be a second offensive option on a Top Four team? Is Thon Maker ready to break out as a starter? I love the addition of Greg Monroe as a sixth man option and think that defensively, this team will be in most games this season. But do they have enough offense to win all those close, hard-fought games?
#5. Miami Heat to Make the Playoffs -210
This feels like a FREE MONEY LOCK. All they have to do is finish ahead of Orlando, Indiana, New York, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Chicago and ONE of Charlotte/Detroit/Philadelphia. For a team that won over 70% of their games in the second half of the season?!? I don’t see any way the Heat miss the playoffs unless Whiteside and Dragic both fall to injury (which is possible). At just one to two, that’s pretty good value for a team that could more likely be Top Five than Bottom Five.