Last week in this space, I wrote about what I’m expecting from the Western Conference
in the eight week stretch between the end of the All-Star Break and the beginning of the playoffs. This week, I’m going to focus on the East, before my attention turns to March Madness for the next few Wiseguy Reports.
There’s no question that the Eastern Conference is finally getting better after nearly two decades of playing second fiddle to the West. Since Michael Jordan (and everybody else) left the Bulls following their sixth title in 1998, the Eastern Conference has only won five championships, something the Lakers and Spurs have each done five times by themselves during that span! Detroit won in 2004, Miami won in 2006, 2012 and 2013 and Boston won in 2008.
And from all indications in the betting markets, the East isn’t very likely to win a title this year either. Cleveland is the only team in the East priced at less than 15-1 to reach the finals. In fact, the Cavs are prohibitive favorites to come out of the East; in the range of -500 to win their first three playoff series.
Make no mistake about it – Cleveland deserves to be the favorite to come out of the East. In fact, they deserve to be a big favorite. Sunday’s impressive win at Oklahoma City – the Cavs tenth win in their last twelve games – certainly isn’t going to change the opinion of the betting markets towards the negative. LeBron has carried his team to the Finals in each of the last five seasons, despite Steph Curry’s ascendance and Kevin Durant’s brilliance, still the best player in the NBA.
The hard numbers support the Cavs as the top team in the East. Cleveland ranks #4 in offensive efficiency (points per possession) and #7 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). Two other Eastern Conference teams rank in the Top 10 in both categories – Toronto and Boston.
I’m not sold on the concept of any other team besides those three squads being in contention to win the conference by the time the first week of June rolls around. The Chicago Bulls opened the season as the #2 priced team in the East, but the Fred Hoiberg era has not gotten off to a good start, to put it mildly.
The Bulls currently rank #24 in offensive efficiency and #12 on defense. Their leading scorer and (by far) best player this year, Jimmy Butler, is languishing on the sidelines in street clothes with a knee injury, expected to be out for at least another few weeks. From a pointspread perspective, the Bulls have been dramatically overvalued all year, entering the last week of February with a 22-33 ATS mark, ranked #28 in the NBA out of 30 teams. Only Phoenix and Oklahoma City have been worse, and those pointspread bottom feeders are only one game worse than Chicago.
But pointspread success does not necessarily correlate with winning multiple series when the playoffs come around. Chicago does have a solid mix of talented youngsters and key core veterans. They’ve been getting strong contributions from the likes of E’Twaun Moore, Bobby Portis and Doug McDermott, while Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose have been capable of carrying the load since Butler got hurt.
That being said, I don’t get the feeling that this is a close-knit team with a firmly cohesive locker room. It’s a similar feeling with Atlanta these days, a team that earned the #1 seed in the East last year and won a pair of playoff series before getting swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cavs. Atlanta stood pat at the trading deadline, not usually a good sign for a squad with numerous key pending free agents. The Hawks certainly don’t have the feel of a team primed to flip a switch and improve in late April and May.
Miami has a core group of veterans with a couple of championship rings on their fingers from the LeBron era. But the Heat have looked old and sluggish for extended stretches this year and the latest medical setback to Chris Bosh is an absolute game changer for a team that was a longshot to win a couple of playoff series anyway.
There are another half dozen teams fighting for a playoff berth. The Pacers should get there; but Frank Vogel’s squad certainly is not elite. Charlotte, Detroit, Washington, Orlando, Milwaukee and the Knicks are in contention for a playoff berth, not a trip to the Finals.
All of these eliminations leave us with three teams as serious contenders; the same three teams that the advanced metric stats pointed out – Cleveland, Toronto and Boston. Even though the Cavs deserve to be favored, I would most assuredly not recommend a bet on Cleveland -500 to win the East at this time; not exactly a value laden wager.
Which leaves us with one question – are the Celtics or the Raptors more likely to be able to win a seven game series against the defending (and currently healthy) Eastern Conference champs? I’m not sold on the Raptors chances. Yes, Toronto has won 15 of their last 18 since the first week of January. Dwane Casey truly has an elite backcourt with All Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Center Jonas Valanciunas gives them a double double machine and decent shot blocker in the low post.
But the Raptors defense has been hit and miss; both this season and in recent years under Casey. Key wing defender (and last year’s top free agent signee) DeMarre Carroll is sitting on the sidelines with no timetable for a return following midseason knee surgery. Toronto is not a great rebounding team either. Starting #4 Luis Scola and backup Patrick Patterson have essentially been voids at their position, leaving Toronto without the low post defensive muscle that they’ll need to win three playoff series.
That leaves me with Boston as the top challenger to Cleveland, making the Celtics worthy of a modest wager to come out of the East at 15-1 or better. I’ve written about Brad Stevens’ squad more than once in this column this season; the epitome of a value team.
Boston has no superstars and only one All Star, a guy nobody seems to respect, point guard Isaiah Thomas; their first All Star since Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett made the team back in 2013. Key wing defender Jae Crowder, coming out of the All Star Break: “It’s time to go NOW. It’s time to roll. We’re all locked in, we’re all a close-knit group.”
The Celtics lead the NBA in turnovers forced. They’re remarkably unselfish, as Carroll said, a “close knit group’ with a very strong locker room. The Celtics have the toughness and resiliency not to crack in the face of pressure; a team that has responded extremely well to adversity both this season and last. And we cannot and should not under-estimate the difference between Brad Stevens and Tyronn Lue’s coaching acumen in a seven game series should the Celtics match up with Cleveland in the playoffs.
In head to head matchups, the Celtics have beaten Cleveland four times in the last two seasons. Boston isn’t likely to win a title this year, but in this price range, they are the clear value team to come out of the East.
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