The best way to make an Eastern Conference wager in the futures market is one of two ways. You can either just go in heavily on the Cleveland Cavaliers, or you can make a recovery play. This is simply a way of spreading some money around on two or three longshots (in this case, everyone else) and then leveraging enough money on the favorite (in this case Cleveland) to recover all of those other bets. It’s the smart way to take a chance on the market if you feel like Cleveland is as incomplete and infested with plagues as everyone else is trying to make them seem. This is a different tactic than what you’ll have to do in the Western Conference, which I’ll attack later this week.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (-325 to win the Eastern Conference)
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here. We can all safely assume that Cleveland is both talented and driven enough to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. This isn’t to say that teams aren’t prone to monumental collapses at any given time, but there’s no point in going on and on about the Cavaliers.
They have dysfunctional problems, but they’re also fully healthy with three of the best players in the entire conference. That talent is enough to overcome a lot of their in-house adversity. Cleveland remains the best option in the Eastern Conference and is a great recovery play if you’d prefer to swing large on some of the other contenders.
And yes, I use the term “contenders” loosely.
- Toronto Raptors (+600 to win the Eastern Conference)
The North is excited, and you can hardly fault them. The Raptors have appeared to be the most cohesive team in the entire conference and have routinely threatened the Cavs for home court advantage. Of course, there are issues.
The matchup problems for Toronto are all over the place. Andre Drummond of the Pistons is a massive force, who could make Toronto suffer for selecting Terrence Ross over him in the 2012 NBA Draft (can you believe Ross was picked between Harrison Barnes and Drummond!?). Valunciunas is becoming a dependable playoff force but he had his hands full with the likes of Marcin Gortat last season.
Unless DeMarre Carroll returns, they don’t really have anyone capable of containing LeBron for an entire series. Patrick Patterson can sort of do it, but he’s not designed for that duty over the long haul. Joe Johnson (Heat) and Paul George (Indiana) can also expose the lack of wing defense the Raptors have right now just like an aging Paul Pierce did last season. Now do you see why they overpaid Carroll?
That’s the bad news for Raptors fans. The good news? The Raptors can also create a lot of issues for opponents on the other side. Their lineup of DeRozan-Lowry-Patterson-Ross-Valanciunas is the second best lineup in terms of offensive rating, scoring a ridiculous 131.6 points per-hundred possessions. The only team that outranks Toronto in this all-important category is Golden State.
The Raptors have escaped from the first round of the playoffs just once, and they’ve been to the post season eight times since their 1995 conception. That’s not a great history of winning, but all things considered this club has gone through too many transitions overall. If they can gut out a first round matchup using an explosive offense, the rewards go beyond a second round berth or an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
The longer Toronto goes, the better the chances that they’ll have Carroll back at full strength. They need him against LeBron, and the backers need to see Carroll before launching themselves at these 6/1 odds. If he’s back healthy, these are great odds from a value standpoint. Plus, the Lowry-DeRozan combination is nearly unstoppable, even going against the Cavs.
All they have to do is something they don’t often do – get past the first round. If they face Indiana, they’re going to have problems. Unfortunately, the same goes if they run in to Detroit. The point I’m trying to make is that while boundless optimism surrounds Toronto’s eager and loyal fanbase, there are a lot of dark clouds surrounding the silver lining of Carroll’s impending return.
- Atlanta Hawks (+1600 to win the Eastern Conference)
It’s been a strange brew for the Atlanta Hawks, who were the best team in this conference last year. They feel like they have all the same bits and pieces (minus Carroll, but plus an improved Kent Bazemore). And Atlanta has done something that’s generally flown under the radar, which should entice old school basketball gamblers.
The Hawks are the second best defensive team according to defensive efficiency trailing only the San Antonio Spurs.
In fact, they’re the only team in the conference that allows fewer than one hundred points per-one hundred possessions (98.8). It’s astonishing and reflects the coaching as well as the presence of Al Horford, who remains one of the best bigs in the business.
Their biggest wart is the margin of error. Atlanta only manages a +3.8 point differential overall and a +4.3 advantage per-one hundred possessions. Generally I’m worried about the team’s mental resolve. Yes, they could win 49 games this year, but they’ve also shown in the past that they lack that all-important mental toughness that’s absolutely necessary for the playoffs. As much as I like what the franchise is doing, they just don’t feel like they’re at the next level yet. There’s been little evidence that they can actually contend with the best teams in the league.
- Miami Heat (+1000 to win the Eastern Conference)
There was a moment in the homestretch where it seemed like Chris Bosh may have come back to bolster a suddenly threatening Miami Heat team. And make no mistake – these boys have been downright dangerous. The Heat are one of the better defensive teams out there, ranking 8th in defensive efficiency and 5th overall in points against with just 98.5 per game.
It’s hard to envision this team going that far without Bosh. He essentially puts them over the top. Joe Johnson was a great pickup, and has thrived in Miami, while Hassan Whiteside continues to prove why he’s going to be worth so much goddamn money. There are a lot of nice pieces here, but they’re all designed to work around and through Bosh.
The big evolution has to come from point guard Goran Dragic and I think we can probably expect that to happen next season rather than this year. Consistency is the biggest reason you bet against Miami. They’re 42-37 ATS as of this writing, and most of those games has them as underdogs so they’ve clearly been exceeding expectations without their star player. With him, I would love the Heat at this value to win the conference as a stash play. But I can’t totally endorse them without Bosh.
- Boston Celtics (+1600 to win the Eastern Conference)
I’m just going to cut to the chase here: if you love chasing long odds, and you prize coaching above all else then the buck stops here. Boston is the best, overall bet to win the Eastern Conference Finals because of their 16/1 odds. The probability of them beating both Cleveland, Toronto or anyone else to burst through to the Finals is slim. But there’s always a chance when you have the right culture.
Cue Brad Stevens, the savior of the Boston Celtics. He’s instilled a terrific sense of purpose in his players, and pulled the most from a roster that a lot of other coaches would’ve dragged through the mud.
Analyzing Boston depends on how you look at them. Under the lens of regular stats, Boston is the 5th best offensive team (105.6 points per game) and the 14th strongest defensive team. Using advanced metrics rated over a hundred possessions, Boston ranks 13th in offense and 6th in defense. So what gives?
Boston plays a small ball style that’s a little like what the Warriors do, but with much lesser talent. They can switch up their nine-man rotation to adapt to whomever they’re playing against, and there aren’t a lot of holes here overall. When they need to, Boston can almost ramp up the scoring at will.
Everything begins and ends with the trusty combination of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. Sometimes Marcus Smart will relieve one of them, but the rest of the lineup is dependent on Boston’s opponent. That’s the brilliance of Stevens’ offense. It’s fantastically unpredictable.
Contending with size is always going to be the chief problem for Boston but they can make up for that with a blinding pace and crisp ball movement that punishes teams for rolling out larger rosters. There are few players that can really dismantle what Boston tries to do.
Unfortunately, one of the players that can do that is LeBron James.
Between the two probable upset teams in the conference, I prefer Toronto, but you wouldn’t be idiotic to throw a chip shot at Boston and keep your fingers crossed. That’s how well the players have responded to Brad Stevens.
- Charlotte Hornets (+6600 to win the Eastern Conference)
You did it, Charlotte! The Hornets are finally in the playoffs thanks to a breakthrough year from Kemba Walker and the re-emergence of Jeremy Lin, who remains my frontrunner for 6th Man of the Year. There is a lot to like here in terms of spread busting potential on a game-by-game basis. And I actually like them to beat out Atlanta or Miami given that the value of their series odds will be so, so delicious.
Charlotte has a lot of pieces that are worth keeping your eye on. Al Jefferson is good for at least one win in a series. His numbers have died down this season due to some injuries, but he’s been much closer to resembling the automatic double-double he used to be. Don’t forget that this guy was the main piece in the Celtics trade for Kevin Garnett with Minnesota. He’s not nearly as transcendent as KG, but he’s really, really good.
Walker has been the revelation of the season and his play has generated sincere MVP talk. More than anything, that chatter is about his massive impact on Charlotte’s wins rather than his actual chances of winning the coveted award. He has remained a solid point man and decision maker, but his scoring has been incredible this season. He’s averaging a career best 21.1 points per game.
Beyond them, Batum is a pest in the playoffs and a defensive presence that a playoff team needs. The other pieces – Frank Kaminsky, Lin, Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams – don’t give this team the feeling that they can win. But in terms of pacing with the bottom three-quarters of this conference, Charlotte isn’t that far off. They need a lot of luck to go deep, but they have two players who can perform hostile takeovers of games. Sometimes that’s enough to escape the first round.
- Indiana Pacers (+6600 to win the Eastern Conference)
Everything that the Pacers are capable of comes down to Paul George. Two years ago he was going toe-to-toe with LeBron James and pushing his team far past their limits before an awful broken league during national team exhibition cost him the majority of his 2014-15 campaign. George has resembled his former All-Star form, with 23.2 points per game and 7.0 rebounds along with 4.0 assists.
Betting the Pacers long term is foolish because they’re built around too many streaky players. But man-oh-man if this team gets hot, whoever has to deal with them in the first round is in deep shit.
Monta Ellis epitomizes this quality to a tee. He averaged 20.4 points against San Antonio two years ago in a seven-game thriller while playing for Dallas. Last year, he torched Houston in a losing effort for 26.4 points per game. Vogel has never been a coach to let his players off the leash, but you pay Ellis $10.3 million a year to light up the post season. It’s what he does best.
Myles Turner continues to be one of the best rookies of the year, but building your hopes around a player so new to the league can be dangerous. Turner is a tight defensive player and a strong offensive producer who needs to ride momentum. Without it, he sort of begins to fade.
The ultimate dilemma with Indiana is qualifying them properly. The optimist in me says that they’re streaky, but that might just be another fancy word for erratic. Sometimes the playoffs bring out the best in teams, and the trio of George Hill, Monta Ellis, Paul George and Frank Vogel have been to the gauntlet of the playoffs before. The best case scenario is a rousing first round upset, but the more realistic and obvious one is a five or six game loss and an early exit.
Paul George is fantastic. It’s the rest of the team I’m concerned about.
- Detroit Pistons (+5000 to win the Eastern Conference)
One of the things you have to understand is that Detroit is getting 50/1 odds simply for the fact that they’re facing LeBron and the Cavaliers in the first round. They’re not meant to survive and that’s fair. Detroit’s precarious defensive situation against LeBron is one of the big reasons to not sink any money in to this team. Tobias Harris might be doing a great imitation of 2007 Tayshaun Prince in a couple weeks.
If they somehow manage to slide up to play Toronto, they have a better chance simply because of how they match up against them. But all this is hopeful thinking. Detroit’s 50/1 odds are much better than Charlotte’s or Indiana’s, and they’d be even better if they were in the middle of the pack instead of being at the back end. That’s how good this team is.
Whether it will ultimately matter remains to be seen. Detroit is either due for a first round exit against Cleveland or a gritty series against the Toronto Raptors. I love what they’ve been doing, but I have to see them in the first round before I start spending wildly on them in the post season.