Two of the divisions in the Western Conference shouldn’t be much of a contest. But the same can’t be said for a wide open Eastern Conference that could see a major shake-up in the wake of LeBron James leaving for Hollywood.
Browsing some of the top sportsbooks online, let’s dive right in handicapping the three East divisions for the 2018/19 NBA season.
LeBron James’ four-year run atop the Central is over, meaning we’ll have a new winner for the first time since 2014. That year the Bucks were 15-67, their worst record in franchise history, and their 19-year-old rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points. What a difference a few years makes.
The Greek Freak is now arguably the conference’s best player and looks primed to take the Bucks to new heights with a strong supporting cast. Khris Middleton is on the verge of becoming an All-Star, Eric Bledsoe has given them stability at the point and they added Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova in the offseason. All that, led by Giannis’ likely MVP push, makes them the division favorites.
Then again, no Central team had a better offseason than Indiana. Bringing in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott should improve their second unit, Myles Turner is due for a bounce-back year and Victor Oladipo, fresh off a Most Improved Player award and fantastic playoffs showing, will have Indiana fighting for homecourt advantage.
It’s a classic case of whether you want to bet on the best player in the division – Giannis – or the best team – Indiana. Either way, we expect this to come down to the season’s last few weeks.
And we’re going to ride with the Pacers. It might take the Bucks a little while to fully adapt to new head coach Mike Budenholzer’s schemes, while Indiana will be full-go from Day 1 under Nate McMillan. That’ll give Indiana a head start on the division crown, but if we’re being honest it’s pretty much a toss-up, and the odds reflect that. We’ll take the Pacers’ +165 odds on Ladbrokes, but we wouldn’t blame you for going with Milwaukee’s +130 there as well.
This three-team race in the Atlantic might also be the race for the top seed in the East. We’ll begin with the favorites. A team one win away from last year’s NBA Finals adds Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Their young core is a year older and more experienced, and they’ve got the best X’s and O’s coach in basketball.
The Sixers have the best young 1-2 punch in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and they sky’s the limit on how good they can eventually be. They also won 52 games and will get a full season from Markelle Fultz. And the Raptors were the division winner a year ago and swapped DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
This division is stacked, to say the least. And yet, the smart money is on the Celtics. They rarely take days off in the regular season and they can afford to sit starters for rest purposes and still have a chance of winning because of that deep bench. It’s even better that you can get them relatively cheaply (20/23 on Ladbrokes) because of the competition they’re up against. Our bet is the Celtics earn their second division title in three years.
The Heat and Wizards have traded off winning this division each of the last three years. Miami was the winner by a lone game a year ago, so history would tell us it’s Washington’s turn.
The Wizards underwent a mini-overhaul this offseason, acquiring Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard. That’s not to say either player moves the needle, but it’s significant when remembering that John Wall missed half the year with a bothersome knee. A healthy Wall, plus Howard and Rivers, is certainly enough to make up the single game Washington finished behind Miami last season. Add wings Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, and it’s no surprise Scott Brooks’ squad is favored in the division.
But it’s tough to overlook the Heat. They’re going to bring back the core of their 44-win team and hopefully get more from Hassan Whiteside (54 games) and Dion Waiters (30 games). They’ve got a stellar backcourt in Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson, a frontline consisting of Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk and sophomore Bam Adebayo, and wings in James Johnson, Justise Winslow and Wayne Ellington to provide a scoring punch.
A healthy Wizards team might have the edge, but we like the balance Miami has at just about every position. Plus, Dwight Howard hasn’t exactly brought a winning culture with him the last five years in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte. Take the Heat and their solid 7/5 odds, compared with Washington’s 8/11 on Ladbrokes.