Tue. Nov 29th, 2022

Welcome to the delusions of grandeur division. Every major NBA story seems to revolve around the Atlantic Division in some way. Kevin Durant wants a trade this summer? Toronto is an early front-runner, Boston reinvigorates the rumor mill with an apparent Jaylen Brown offer, Philadelphia makes waves when Durant is seen cavorting with James Harden in London, and Knicks fans, for once, get to take some pleasure in the fact that this was one superstar they didn’t land.

It’s not just Durant. Donovan Mitchell almost became a Knick. The Raptors picked the Rookie of the Year after spending an unprecedented gap year in Tampa Bay, which came two years after the team’s first championship. Philadelphia and Brooklyn made the biggest trade of the 2021-22 season and inadvertently completed the NBA’s Bermuda Triangle of inter-division trades. Boston is currently embroiled in the league’s biggest scandal. Every team in the division has had at least one All-NBA player in the last two years. Toronto’s 2019 title is the division’s lone banner of the past decade.

In other words, for all of the ink we tend to spill on these teams, they tend to generate chaos more than championships. These are among the five most volatile teams in basketball, and you have to keep that in mind when you’re betting on them. So let’s take a look at their win total projections and make over/under picks for the season while acknowledging that in several cases, there are far more profitable ways of capitalizing on Atlantic anarchy.

All odds via Caesar’s Sportsbook

*Pythagorean Wins represent the number of games a team would be expected to win based on their point-differential

2021-22 Wins

51

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins*

62

2022-23 Win Total Line

53.5

The pick: Under 53.5

Frequent readers will know that until a few weeks ago, I loved the Celtics this season. I picked Celtics to win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year. Well, since writing those stories, that Defensive Player of the Year candidate has undergone knee surgery while the Coach of the Year candidate has been suspended for the season.

Initial reports suggested Robert Williams III would miss just 4-6 weeks, perhaps getting him back on the floor in time for opening night. Days later, Boston announced his surgery and set a timeline of 8-12 weeks before he would return to basketball activity. Returning to basketball activity does not necessarily mean returning to game action, and returning to game action does not mean playing at 100 percent. Boston’s best defender might be ready to go by Thanksgiving. He might still be out when the calendar flips to 2023. We just don’t know. Considering his lengthy history of injuries and the fact that this surgery followed a hastened return last postseason in which he was visibly playing injured, his health is simple too unknowable to reliably bet on. He’s also utterly irreplaceable in Boston’s specific defensive scheme, which relies on switchable big men. Their season turned around when they allowed Williams to defend shooters in the corner, allowing him to cover ample ground as a freelancer and shot-blocker.

But Ime Udoka’s loss is the far more significant one. Boston gave eight players at least 300 total minutes in the playoffs. Six of them were on the 2020-21 team that needed the play-in round to squeak into the postseason under Brad Stevens. Stevens was an experienced and highly regarded head coach. Joe Mazzulla has only two years of head coaching experience and they came at Fairmont State. He’s now taking over an extremely high-pressure job, and he’s doing it with a roster that has proven more affected by coaching than most.

All of this said… the over is still a viable pick. Those 62 Pythagorean wins last season are no joke. Boston wasn’t just beating teams down the stretch. They were crushing everybody they played. From Jan. 23 on, they outscored their opponents by a combined 525 points. No other team beat their opponents by even half of that amount in that span. Malcolm Brogdon corrected a glaring ball-handling deficit. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still trending up.

But being as good as Boston was in the second half of last season is about luck as much as skill. Everybody has to be healthy. Everybody has to be on the same page. Boston has already exhausted its margin for error. If you think the best version of this team was going to challenge for the 62 wins it was expected to win a season ago, then surely the losses they’ve already endured bump that best-case outcome down into the high-50’s. Well… how often does a team get its best-case outcome? Do you really want to bet on no other major Celtics getting hurt? Or regressing statistically? Are you sure there’s no bad blood over the Kevin Durant trade talks?

The risk is simply too great to justify what is already a relatively high over, and if the Celtics get there, they’re probably going to be in line for some more profitable bets.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: No

If Boston hits this over, it likely means Jayson Tatum is a serious MVP candidate. The immovable object that was Boston’s 2022 defense is suddenly somewhat vulnerable. Mazzulla has to be considered a downgrade on Udoka. And yes, it must be acknowledged that Brown seemingly tweeted about the Durant rumors and didn’t seem especially happy about them. 

If Boston manages to win 54 games in spite of all of that? Tatum at +1100 to win MVP suddenly looks tempting. He’ll have a clear narrative behind him. You might also consider Boston’s Eastern Conference (+275) or championship (+550) odds, because Boston getting to 54 wins probably means Williams is relatively healthy going into the postseason. Essentially, you can get significantly better odds on the conditions that would lead to a theoretical 54-win season than you would on the win total itself. The risk at that number, even lowered a few wins from its peak, is still too high.

2021-22 Wins

51

2021-22 Pythagorean*

49

2022-23 Win Total Line

50.5

The pick: Over 50.5

Philadelphia hits the over with the same number of wins it had last season. This one should be relatively simple. The 76ers had James Harden on their active roster for their last 24 games a season ago. This year, he’ll be around from the start. Yes, getting P.J. Tucker, DeAnthony Melton, Montrezl Harrell and Danuel House matters quite a bit, but the single most important addition the 76ers are making for the purposes of this bet are 58 possible games of James Harden. Philly won at a nearly 55-win pace in the games he played a season ago.

Of course, those other additions matter quite a bit too. Every team Tucker has finished the season playing for since 2017 has won 50 or more games (or the shortened-season equivalent). Correlation does not equal complete causation here, but there’s fairly strong statistical evidence suggesting that acquiring Tucker has a meaningful impact on team defense. The 2017 Raptors jumped from 19th in defense before landing Tucker to fourth afterward. The 2018 Rockets improved from 18th to 7th. The Heat went from 10th to fourth. Tucker isn’t just a great defender. He’s a defensive culture-setter. Joel Embiid made it clear how badly the 76ers needed one of those after losing to Tucker in the playoffs.

Melton helps quite a bit on that front as well, but in a different way. He was one of just 13 players to rack up 100 steals a season ago. That list also included Matisse Thybulle, and the Sixers as a whole led the league in the total steals. Why does this matter? Because the NBA finally adopted the European transition foul rule. A take foul in transition now results in one free throw and possession. This will theoretically deter fouling in transition, which makes steals more valuable than ever. Harden teams always generate turnovers at a high level. His saving grace defensively is his quick hands. He’ll put them to good use this season.

And if you’re worried that Embiid missing time due to injury could ruin all of this? Well, remember, Philadelphia actually had a positive net rating with Andre Drummond on the floor a season ago. The 76ers have typically struggled without Embiid in part because they’ve had truly atrocious backup big men. Montrezl Harrell won Sixth Man of the Year in 2020. Not only should he be able to fill in admirably in games Embiid misses, but he can also help keep Embiid’s minutes relatively low.

We’ve gone four paragraphs without mentioning Harden’s weight loss, Tyrese Maxey’s impending third-year leap or the words “B-ball Paul.” You can have playoff misgivings about Harden and Embiid, but this team is going to be awesome in the regular season. 

Is this the best way to bet on this team: Yes

If you see No. 1 seed odds you like, consider them, but I’d advise caution on bets that tie in other teams. That’s why I’m avoiding Atlantic Division odds. Philadelphia might be great, but it might not matter if Boston is as good as it was a year ago or Brooklyn gets its act together. The 76ers look like the most stable team east of Milwaukee right now. Take advantage of that. 

2021-22 Wins

44

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins*

43

2022-23 Win Total Line

49.5

The pick: Under 49.5

Ignore the drama for a moment. Just consider the following:

  • Kevin Durant has played 90 games in the past three seasons.
  • Kyrie Irving has averaged just 46 games played over the past five seasons.
  • Ben Simmons hasn’t played in an NBA game in 15 months and had back surgery in May.
  • Joe Harris had multiple ankle surgeries last season.
  • Seth Curry had ankle surgery in May.

The top five Nets all have major medical question marks. That says nothing of the fit questions within this roster. Can Simmons play with a true big man like, say, Nic Claxton? Keep in mind that Claxton is a 54 percent free throw shooter for his career. How much control does Steve Nash have over the locker room? In addition to Brooklyn’s own 2029 first-rounder, the Nets still have a valuable future first-rounder from Philadelphia incoming. Will Marks package those picks for immediate upgrades knowing how uncertain Durant’s future is?

I’m picking the under because of the question marks. I’m telling you not to bet either side of the equation here. There are so many more profitable ways to take a strong position on the Nets. This team probably isn’t going to care about regular-season wins anyway.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: No

Even if you think the Nets are going to be a juggernaut, I’d advise avoiding team outcome-based bets here. Vegas is being extremely cautious with them. For example: the Nets have a lower win total than the 76ers… but at Caesar’s, they have significantly higher odds to win the Atlantic Division. Philadelphia is available at +320. Brooklyn is available at +200. That’s highly unusual, but it represents just how good the betting market thinks the Nets can be.

But what would it take for the Nets to reach that ceiling? Here’s a bet I’ve been advocating for all offseason: Steve Nash to win Coach of the Year. He’s currently available at +1800, but had been as high as +2500 earlier in the offseason. Think about who awards voters are going to want to credit if things go right in Brooklyn. It won’t be Durant for MVP because of the stigma of the trade request. It likely won’t be Simmons for Defensive Player of the Year because Brooklyn’s team defense won’t be ranked highly enough. But the coach Durant tried to get fired? If he gets the Nets to the top of the standings, he’s going to get credit for keeping this locker room together. We even know voters have a soft spot for Nash because they gave him two MVP awards.

And if you think the Nets are going to be a train wreck? Caesar’s is offering +350 on them to participate in the play-in round. Think about how deep the Eastern Conference is and remember what happened a year ago. The Nets were a terrifying opponent once the postseason began, but because of injuries, absences and drama, they had to win their way into the playoffs. It’s not hard to envision that happening again now that Cleveland has solidified itself as a likely top-six team.

Toronto Raptors

2021-22 Wins

48

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins*

48

2022-23 Win Total Line

47.5

The pick: Over 47.5

Toronto has been vexing Vegas for more than a decade. The Raptors have gone over their projected win total in 10 of the past 11 seasons, according to Basketball-Reference. That’s what makes this line so bizarre. The books know how frequently Toronto overperforms. The Raptors are a relatively young team, as they devoted only two starts all of last season to players above the age of 30 (both belonging to Goran Dragic). Scottie Barnes is in line for significant improvement after a stellar rookie season. They weren’t especially lucky from an injury perspective either, as OG Anunoby missed 34 games and everyone else dealt with bumps and bruises here and there.

So what is Vegas seeing that we aren’t? Wear-and-tear is the obvious answer. Only 21 players in all of basketball a season ago averaged at least 35 minutes per game, but five of them were Raptors. Nick Nurse has adopted this Maple Thibodeau persona over the past two seasons, specifically, but roster concerns played a major part in how he’s allocated minutes. The Raptors simply haven’t been very deep over the past few seasons.

But they’ll get a full season of Thaddeus Young after landing him at the deadline. Otto Porter is probably overmatched as a full-time starter at this point in his career, but as Golden State just proved, he’s a stellar 20-minute reserve. There are two major questions here. First: does Precious Achiuwa’s shooting hold? His defensive inconsistency likely drove Nurse crazy a season ago, but shooting 39 percent from behind the arc across 25 games and relatively high volume is nothing to sneeze at. Second: is this finally the year Toronto trades for a center? A reunion with Jakob Poeltl feels too obvious to be ignored.

There are just too many ways for Nurse to theoretically get to 10 suitable players to assume he’s going run his starters into the ground this season, and fewer starter minutes probably means more negative bench minutes. But given the youth, the fringe improvements and the track record, I just find it hard to believe the Raptors are going to be worse than they were a season ago unless serious injuries are involved.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: Yes

You might think the Raptors are better than Celtics, Nets or Sixers, but it’s unlikely that they surpass all three. That takes No. 1 seed and division bets off of the table, and for the time being, it feels premature to consider them championship contenders. There’s no obvious way to profit off of Toronto aside from the over/under, so the best play here is likely trusting Toronto’s history of beating the books on the win total line.

New York Knicks

2021-22 Wins

37

2021-22 Pythagorean Wins*

41

2022-23 Win Total Line

39.5

The pick: Under 39.5

As we alluded to in the Toronto blurb, Thibodeau teams tend to overperform regular-season expectations because he runs his starters into the ground. Here’s where things get interesting: Thibodeau’s best players may not be his starters.

Seven Knicks had positive net ratings a season ago. The only starter among them was Alec Burks, who came off of the bench for half of the season. Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Evan Fournier? All negative. It was one of last season’s most glaring statistical trends. New York’s starters lost to everyone else’s starters, but their bench managed to claw them back into most games by destroying everyone else’s bench.

Now, thriving on the bench does not necessarily guarantee success in the starting lineup, but it’s fair to wonder how much synergy the players that actually do start really have together. Randle was an All-NBA player when the Knicks allowed him to run the offense. They just signed Jalen Brunson and chased Donovan Mitchell to make sure Randle wouldn’t get that chance again. As we’ve covered in other spaces, role player Randle is a dicey proposition. Pairing him with another traditional big man like Mitchell Robinson limits spacing, but doesn’t come with the sort of defensive boost most two-big lineups generate. Thibodeau’s affinity for veterans is already on display. He named Evan Fournier the favorite to start at shooting guard over Quentin Grimes even though the front office made Grimes a sticking point in Mitchell negotiations.

That’s the story to watch in New York this season. Thibodeau’s inclination is going to be to lean on players like Randle and Fournier. The front office is going to want him to play the young players. They need to know what they have in Grimes. Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley are extension-eligible after the season. That friction in a deep Eastern Conference suggests to me that while the Knicks will be competitive, they are probably a slightly sub-.500 team.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: Yes

You can get a very slight odds boost on the Knicks participating in the play-in round if you prefer to bet seed over record. Caesar’s is offering them at +125, and that gives you a bit of leeway in the standings. I still prefer their record slightly because it accounts for the bottom falling out. The East isn’t the West. There aren’t four bottom-feeders desperately racing for the No. 1 pick. Detroit is going to be decent. Until Indiana makes trades, it is going to be decent. Even Orlando will have moments. There are just too many teams theoretically capable of knocking the Knicks out of the top-10 to convince me to buy in at that number. 





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