HomeNBANBA: Evaluating the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Break

    NBA: Evaluating the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Break

    Zachary Cohen evaluates the NBA Eastern Conference teams as they head into the All-Star Break.

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    NBA Eastern Conference Overview

    As we head into the All-Star Break, now is a good time to evaluate where each team stands in the NBA Eastern Conference and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

    NBA Eastern Conference: Contenders

    Boston Celtics
    The Celtics have been the best team in the league all year. They’re first in the league in adjusted offensive rating (120.9) and third in adjusted defensive rating (111.4), according to Dunks & Threes. They’re also first in adjusted net rating (+9.6) by a wide margin. Not many teams possess the talent and depth that Boston does, and it’s nice having a two-way star like Jayson Tatum setting the tone for the rest of the roster. This team plays selfless basketball on both ends of the floor, and everybody is bought in. Also, with Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, the Celtics have the best duo in the league as far as perimeter defense goes. That’s huge, considering the talent at the guard position in today’s NBA. 

     

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    Boston also did well at the trade deadline by acquiring big man Xavier Tillman. In an ideal world, the Celtics won’t have to play him very much in the postseason. But he’s a very good defender (+4.0 Defensive EPM, 99th percentile) and does some nice things offensively. He’s a good insurance plan if Kristaps Porzingis or Al Horford go down. That’s very possible, given Porzingis’ injury history and Horford’s age. 

    The only thing to worry about with Boston is the team’s shot diet. The Celtics shoot more from behind the 3-point line than anyone (43.8%). They’re also a bottom-five team in shot frequency at the rim (28.6%). That has caught up to Boston in the past. If the jumpers aren’t falling, how will the Celtics adjust? They very well could struggle to do so. That’s why I see some value in backing other Eastern Conference teams on the futures market.  

    Milwaukee Bucks
    The Bucks have had their issues this season, so they moved on from head coach Adrian Griffin and brought in Doc Rivers. This team has been a disaster on the defensive end, giving up 117.3 points per 100 possessions (according to Cleaning The Glass). That number has them in the bottom half of the league. That was somewhat expected in going from Holiday, a world-class defender, to Damian Lillard. However, the Bucks have played like an above-average defense in spurts. If they can flirt with doing that in the playoffs, they have what it takes to win a title. That’s the benefit of having Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

    When things get tough, Milwaukee will have the option of spamming the pick-and-roll game with two of the league’s best offensive players. The chemistry hasn’t quite been there for Lillard and Antetokounmpo, but they’re too good not to figure it out. And Antetokounmpo will likely get over not wanting to set screens in the playoffs. That will be a nightmare for opposing defenses, especially with Khris Middleton playing in space on the other side of the floor — and a handful of 3-point shooters to make defenses pay for overplaying anywhere. The Bucks are fifth in the NBA in made 3s per game (14.3). 

    Look for Milwaukee to turn things up in the postseason, when everybody plays a little harder on defense and talent tends to win out on offense. However, the Bucks will probably be a good team to fade the remainder of the year. They’re just 21-34 ATS this season, making them one of the worst ATS teams in basketball. 

    Philadelphia 76ers 
    The Sixers are a bit of a question mark moving forward, as it’s unclear when Joel Embiid and his league-leading 35.3 points per game will return from knee surgery. When Embiid is healthy, the Sixers are a top-tier team in the Eastern Conference. The combination of Embiid and Tyrese Maxey is as good as any in basketball, and Nick Nurse knows how to push the right buttons with the rest of the pieces on this roster. However, it’s a little hard to trust Philadelphia the rest of the way. 

    Even if Embiid does return, it’s not clear whether or not he’ll be able to play at the level he did earlier this season. Embiid is first in the league in Estimated Plus-Minus (+10.3), and he is in the 99th percentile when it comes to both offensive and defensive efficiency. He would have been the unquestioned MVP if he met the minimum game requirement. But if Embiid isn’t moving well or is forced to play limited minutes, that significantly caps the upside of this Sixers team. It’s all a bit of a downer for a fun team that added Buddy Hield at the deadline. 

    Philadelphia isn’t a lost cause because it is possible Embiid comes back and looks like the superstar he is. It’s just hard to advise betting on them with all this uncertainty. 

    Cleveland Cavaliers
    I wrote about the Cavaliers as a bet to win the NBA title a few weeks ago. I’m not sure I believe Cleveland has what it takes to make the NBA Finals, but I think the Cavaliers are priced incorrectly right now. Cleveland is fourth in the NBA in adjusted net rating (+5.0) this year. With that in mind, I don’t see as big of a gap between the top teams in this conference and the Cavaliers. So, I think it’s worth playing them on the futures market, even if the main goal is to find an opportunity to hedge for a small guaranteed profit later in the playoffs. 

    It’s just hard to ignore how good this Cleveland team is defensively. The Cavaliers are second in the NBA in adjusted defensive rating (111.0), and they also added quite a bit of outside shooting to their roster in the offseason. They’re making nearly two more 3s per game this year than they did in 2022-23. That will take a lot of pressure off Donovan Mitchell, who was fighting an uphill battle against a good New York Knicks defense in the first round last year. Teams can no longer afford to blindly send extra help his way, and that will make Cleveland a significantly tougher out. 

    This is also a good team to bet on a nightly basis, as the Cavaliers play hard every night. They’re 29-22-2 ATS on the season, giving them a top-five covering rate in the league. 

    New York Knicks
    The Knicks are probably a piece away from being a legitimate title contender, but you can’t rule out the possibility of this team beating anybody in the playoffs. That means a lengthy postseason run isn’t off the table. As long as OG Anunoby and Julius Randle don’t suffer injury setbacks, nobody will want to face this team. The Knicks are fully capable of playing elite-level defense (they’re 10th in adjusted defensive rating), with Anunoby’s superb defense on the wing being a big part of that. The Knicks also have the offensive firepower required to efficiently score in a half-court setting. 

    Jalen Brunson (27.6 PPG, 7th in Offensive EPM) has been unstoppable all year long, Randle is a tough cover in space and the rest of the rotation is full of role players that play their parts to perfection. New York also added a much-needed scoring punch at the deadline, bringing in Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks. The Knicks needed a little more juice on that end, and they addressed it in a big way. It’s also possible that Mitchell Robinson will return for the playoffs, giving the Knicks a big-time offensive rebounder and a good positional defender. Tom Thibodeau also deserves some flowers. As long as he doesn’t go up against Erik Spoelstra, the Knicks are in good shape from an Xs and Os standpoint.

    The Knicks are also similar to the Cavaliers in that they’re generally a trustworthy ATS team. They’re 30-24-1 ATS on the year. They also go Under more often than not, as they have failed to reach the number 31 times this season.  

    Outside Looking In 

    Orlando Magic
    The Magic have been the most profitable ATS bet in the NBA this season. With their 118-100 win over the Knicks before the break, they moved to 34-19-2 ATS. Given the way they play, they’ll likely continue to be a good side bet moving forward — especially as they try to avoid the Play-In Tournament. Orlando is a top-five team when it comes to adjusted defensive rating (112.4), and the Magic are loaded with young talent. That generally means they have the fresh legs required to take advantage of teams that don’t take the regular season seriously.

    The problem with the Magic is that they don’t take enough 3s, with the outside shot accounting for less than a third of their overall shot attempts. It’s hard to win that way in today’s NBA, and Orlando also lacks consistent offensive production in the backcourt. The Magic will continue to address the guard position in the draft and free agency until that changes. Jalen Suggs is an obvious keeper, but they need another high-level guard who can shoot the basketball. 

    It wouldn’t be shocking if Orlando gives somebody a run for their money in the first round, or even finds a way to pull off an upset. But the Magic don’t have the talent to make an extended run right now. 

    Indiana Pacers
    The Pacers are one of the most fun teams in the league, as they are led by the ultra-talented Tyrese Haliburton (21.8 PPG, 11.7 APG, 1st in Offensive EPM). The 23-year-old is one of the best pick-and-roll guards in basketball, and he is the engine behind a team that is third in the league in adjusted offensive rating (119.8) and second in pace of play. This Indiana squad really gets up and down the floor, which is why the team has been involved in mostly Overs (34-23) this season. The Pacers also made a win-now move in trading for Pascal Siakam, a two-time NBA All-Star and 2022 All-NBA Third Teamer. 

    The problem with the Pacers is that they tend to struggle when teams can throw extra bodies at Haliburton and really force him into uncomfortable situations. So, their high-octane offense is a little unreliable when they face good defenses. They’re also one of the five worst defensive teams in the league in adjusted defensive rating (119.5), and they’re weakest at the point of attack. That’s not exactly a winning style of basketball, making this a hard team to trust in the postseason. But Indiana is building something special and contention isn’t too far away. 

    Miami Heat
    The Heat are a hard team to write off, as we saw in last year’s run to the NBA Finals. Everybody counted Miami out before the playoffs started, but the team continued to scratch and claw its way to victory — and some uncharacteristically hot 3-point shooting definitely helped. As long as the Heat are a good defensive team and have Erik Spoelstra walking the sidelines, they’re a threat to win a playoff series. But it feels like Miami is a piece short, especially on the offensive end. They’re just 22nd in the league in adjusted offensive rating (113.6). And while they’re good defensively, it’s hard to stack wins when you’re having trouble scoring. 

    Miami is a team that nobody wants to draw. But it’d be shocking if the Heat make another run like last year. And the deadline acquisition of Terry Rozier doesn’t feel like enough to save them.

    The Rest 

    Chicago Bulls
    The Bulls are one of the feistier teams in the league, making them a good ATS bet (28-25-2 ATS) on most nights. They’re taking the regular season very seriously and Coby White’s play has been a revelation this year. But Chicago lacks the talent required to put a scare in most playoff teams. That makes them a bit of a non-factor in the postseason, which isn’t surprising considering Zach LaVine (and his $40 million per year) is sidelined. 

    Atlanta Hawks
    The Hawks are a top-10 team when it comes to adjusted offensive rating (118.0), and Trae Young has looked like a top-20 player for most of this season. However, this Atlanta team lacks depth, and the team is miserable defensively (29th in adjusted defensive rating). Perhaps the Hawks will win a game or two if they do end up in the playoffs, but it’s hard to see them doing anything else. These guys just don’t fit together. 

    Brooklyn Nets
    Outside of being a weirdly good team when it comes to the first quarter of home games (22-7-1 ATS), there’s not much to write home about with Brooklyn. This Nets team is facing an uphill battle in making the Play-In Tournament, and they’re not a trustworthy bet on a night-by-night basis.  

    Toronto Raptors
    The Raptors are another team that will likely miss out on the Play-In Tournament, and they’re a team to fade moving forward — especially on the road. The Raptors are also a team to target when it comes to team totals. Toronto was a defensive-minded team earlier in the year, but the group is miserable on that end now. Opponents should put up big numbers against them. 

    Detroit Pistons
    The Pistons have been one of the punchlines of the NBA season, but they’re actually a decent ATS team (26-26-1) and made win-now moves at the deadline. They could end up being a profitable team to bet on down the stretch, as they’re much more competitive than the public perceives them to be. 

    Washington Wizards
    There’s not much to say when it comes to the Wizards. They’re not as competitive as other bottom dwellers right now, so they’re a harder team to gauge when it comes to sides. But their miserable defense and fast pace of play tend to inflate their totals. That has led to Unders coming in regularly over the last two months. The Under is 28-26 in Wizards games this year.

    Charlotte Hornets
    The Hornets are right near the bottom of the league in both adjusted offensive and defensive rating. They’re absolutely pitiful at the moment, but they could be a good team to target with totals. Charlotte has been getting lit up regularly over the last couple of weeks, and the Hornets have some fun offensive players now. So, Overs might be the way to go with this bunch.

    Zachary Cohen
    Zachary Cohen
    Zach has been writing about betting since he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, which is when he started working with StatFox — and contributing to the weekly Platinum Sheet. His work has since been featured for brands like Covers, Sports Illustrated and Tennis Channel. Zach is extremely passionate about the NBA, but he does a bit of everything and has found a niche as a tennis handicapper. Outside of work, Zach likes nothing more than shooting around in an empty gym or watching bad comedies.

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