You’d have to be crazy to bet on the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and/or Orlando Magic to win the NBA Eastern Conference, correct?
Well, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors fans would say so … but no team is a lock in late March … and hopes can get dashed in an instant, as any Portland Trail Blazers fan could tell you after what we saw with Jusuf Nurkic two nights ago.
The fact of the matter is this: The Bucks are somewhat exposed because of injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, and as good of a job as coach Mike Budenholzer has done, there are quite a few new members of this year’s Bucks team compared to last year’s Bucks team … and they have not yet been tested as a unit (although that certainly was not the case Tuesday night vs. Houston.)
Toronto is another story. The Raptors went into the playoffs with high hopes a year ago with Duane Casey as the Coach of the Year, but Masai Ujiri blew up the team and fired the coach after they flamed out in the second round against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a four-game sweep.
The team is whole again and recently added Jodie Meeks, but Kawhi Leonard has not played a postseason game in two seasons … and his future remains undetermined given his upcoming unrestricted free agent status.
DraftKings Sportsbook is listing the Magic, Heat and Hornets at 80-1 to win the Eastern Conference title; and the Pistons are sitting at 66-1.
We will spare you the odds of any of those outliers winning the NBA championship, because that just ain’t going to happen. (Although DraftKings has those odds up if you want to go there).
But the East?
Here’s what’s up:
Detroit Pistons (+6600)
The Pistons have a 95 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, with a fairly decent schedule that includes games vs. Orlando and Portland, a back-to-back with the Pacers, at Oklahoma City, then home for the Thunder, Hornets and Grizzlies before finishing up at New York.
They went only 1-4 on their recent five-game road trip, but Wayne Ellington was a nice replacement for Reggie Bullock and Ish Smith is a game-changer in terms of pace of play when he subs out Reggie Bullock. Andre Drummond is a 20-20 guy who could become a 30-30 guy depending on the playoff matchup. (If Detroit plays Milwaukee, for example, Brook Lopez will not be allowed to let Giannis handle the bulk of the rebounding chores.)
Orlando Magic (+8000)
The Magic have a 61 percent chance of making the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight.com, and their final seven games are at Detroit, at Indiana, at Toronto, home for the Knicks and Hawks, then at Boston and at Orlando. They are taking a six-game winning streak into Thursday night’s game at Detroit, and they have a dominant player in Nikola Vucevic if he is matched up against an inexperienced and/or weak center. Insert your own Marc Gasol/Brook Lopez joke here.
Vucevic himself boldly predicted that the Magic were only one decent winning streak away from being a playoff team, and he may just end up being right. Momentum is a big thing to carry into the postseason, and Orlando certainly has it is we get set to wrap up the month of March.
Miami Heat (+8000)
The Heat are a certainty to do one thing well: Run Erik Spoelstra’s system. The guy is probably the most underrated guy in the NBA coaching ranks (apologies to Luke Walton), and Goran Dragic and Co. are a sneaky 9-4 thus far in the month of March including road wins over the Thunder and Spurs.
Yes, this is shaping to be not much more than a farewell tour season for Dwyane Wade, but Miami has quite a two-headed monster at center with Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside, and there are seven players averaging double figures. As we saw last year in Game 2 of the first round against Philadelphia, Wade can still summon his younger self in big moments. So even though they are sub-.500 now, if the brackets work in their favor … you never know.
Charlotte Hornets (+8000)
The Hornets are another quandary. Nobody aside from Michael Jordan and UConn fans (nostalgic for the days of Kemba Walker) pays all that much attention to them, but Walker is the upcoming unrestricted free agent who consistently gets left off every “Best Free Agents Out There” list, and Frank Kaminsky is making himself relevant for the first time since he was at the University of Wisconsin.
Everybody seems to bring their “B” game when going up against these guys, most recently evidenced by the Spurs getting knocked off as James Borrego cold-heartedly left Tony Parker on the bench for the entire game. They have strung together four straight wins, the latter three coming against Boston, Toronto and San Antonio, and their chances of moving up to sixth to get a shot at the struggling Celtics or Sixers will largely depend on how they do on their upcoming West Coast trip to play the Lakers, Warriors, Jazz and Pelicans.
Is the East really wide open?
The bottom line is this when looking at the Eastern Conference and whether an outlier team will win: The Bucks are unproven; the Raptors are unproven; the Sixers and Celtics have locker room issues; the Nets are probably not getting out of the first round after failing to make a deal at the deadline; and the Pacers are sneaky good but are getting nowhere near the production from Wes Mathews that they were getting from Victor Oladipo.
If there ever was a year when an outlier with long odds was worth a flyer at 66-1 or 80-1 odds, this may be that year.
Chris Sheridan is a veteran NBA writer who has worked for The Associated Press, ESPN, NJ.com, GetMoreSports.com, Heavy.com and The New York Daily News. This is his debut column for TheLines.com. Follow him on Twitter @sheridanhoops