The sun rises in the East, as Jeru the Damaja once taught us. For years, we’ve rightfully scoffed at the Eastern Conference, what was primarily a one-team conference, or arguably a one LeBron conference, for the better part of a decade.
Now, four of the top six teams in 538’s CARMELO team ratings are from the East, which is a comprehensive algorithm from Nate Silver’s nerdy numbers cauldron that mixes two-thirds RPM and one-third BPM rather than weighting them equally.
Why should we be interested in this custom metric? CARMELO’s preseason projections last season were second-most accurate of the 20 projection systems tracked by the statheads at the ABPRmetrics message board, and this is another year where their model has successfully identified strong teams before the market has (such as the Nuggets).
The West still claims far more depth and again, of course, hosts the NBA’s version of Voltron in the Oakland, which we’ll discuss below. The East, as 538 confirms, is a competitive and top-heavy conference worthy of bettors’ attention.
NBA Eastern Conference Champion Odds
In the wake of James going to the Lakers to post on Instagram, the East has become an utterly compelling arms race that saw Toronto, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee all add serious talent to already talented rosters at the deadline. Boston still claims an elite net rating and a deep roster, albeit they’ve won just once since the All-Star break. As we’ll discuss, this conference race is a tricky, but fun, puzzle to consider.
Favorites to current fifth seed Boston at nearly three-to-one odds, while Milwaukee’s regular season performance suggests they should be far bigger favorites. The Bucks are rightfully the favorites in the conference at +200 (+210 FanDuel Sportsbook), but this number doesn’t align with their actual production this season. Which is to say, Milwaukee is on pace to secure well over 60 wins while producing the league’s best net rating by more than 46 percent.
If you buy that the Bucks’ 60-win season indicates regular season dominance in the first year under a new coach and system will translate to playoff dominance, then placing modest coin on Milwaukee to make the NBA Finals isn’t a bad play. I’m ignoring the field past Boston, as there isn’t a viable dark horse in the conference.
Even as a rabid Sixers fan, I’m compelled to admit that I think Toronto is the best team in the conference, thus why I’d only be somewhat modest in placing Milwaukee wagers. The quick and dirty take is that Toronto is more experienced and just as deep and prolific as the Bucks’ rotation and mostly trails them in regular season success because Kawhi Leonard has already rested for 18 games.
My interpretation is the Raptors season reads as Finals-or-bust, with the all-in move to acquire Marc Gasol a few weeks back building on their already risk-averse acquisition of Leonard. I was skeptical they’d be able to integrate Gasol’s ball-dominant game (he was third in the NBA in touches per game with Memphis) in time to see meaningful results, and of course they now rank first in assist percentage since the deadline and are tinkering with a “Lineup of Death” that sports an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) above 140 points. I think Toronto at +210 (+190 at Caesars NJ Sportsbook) is my favorite pick for the conference.
My Sixers are a real threat given an elite starting lineup that boasts one of the better net ratings among groups above 100 minutes, but their lack of guard depth and overall rotational depth against three capable Eastern peers could prove fatal. Boston has struggled to strike chemistry on offense and seemingly in the locker room, and their odds don’t bake in their struggles enough for me to bite.
NBA Western Conference Champion Odds
The Western race seems more like a coronation than a competitive bracket despite the field proving so deep and diverse past the expected champion Warriors. This prop somewhat reminds me contextually of Zion Williamson’s perch above the crowd of draft prospects in the prop bets for the NBA draft in that the Warriors are consensus contenders for the Finals.
The OKC Thunder are the dark horse challenger if there is any threat to the Warriors. Assuming we see Paul George fully healthy by April, he’s a great challenger for Kevin Durant. Even as Russell Westbrook’s triple-double parade isn’t always efficient; the team does feed of his ferocity and has the type of athletes to disrupt Golden State’s perimeter-driven game similarly to the “switchy” lineup the Rockets ran out last summer against the Warriors in a seven-game epic for the conference crown.
With DraftKings Sportsbook producing somewhat soft odds (+1100) for a Thunder team best-equipped to challenge the Warriors, they become the savviest target of the entire field of conference props. I’m confident this Golden State team takes care of any foes they face en route to a meeting with whatever team survives in the East, so a savvy move could be to balance out interest in them at -350 with some weight on the Thunder given such a rewarding return.
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