Albeit weaker this year, the Eastern Conference is as difficult to call as ever. Sure there are some obvious tanking candidates, but most of the conference is seriously geared towards making the playoffs. Assuming the dominance of the previously previewed top dogs, there are five playoff spots up for grabs and at least one slot to secure home court in the first round.
Read on for my thoughts on the teams most likely to be fighting it out for that coveted 1-4 seed come the Spring.
2017-18 record: 39-43, 9th in the East
First up – the Detroit Pistons. Motor City have the potential to be one of the biggest improvers in the Eastern Conference this season, with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond preparing to play their first full season together – this big man duo could be the best in the league.
The team missed out on the playoffs by four games last season. But that was a season with Griffin only playing 25 games after his trade to Detroit and point guard Reggie Jackson only managing playing 45. Both these should be fully fit for the start of the season. Should they and other key players stay healthy, I really fancy Detroit to make the playoffs but 4/6 and shorter I’d rather back them to win over 39.5 games at 10/11 with Bet365.
With Griffin and Drummond playing at power forward and center respectively, you can expect Detroit to be a dominant rebounding team. I’ll be keeping an eye on the over/unders for Drummond and Griffin rebounds in games against weak rebounding teams throughout the season. Additionally, Drummond should be a lock to be an Eastern All-Star selection this season and 6/4 with Paddy Power seems a big price.
This team, should it stay healthy, has a great chance at making the top four in the East. Should they manage it, new head coach Dwane Casey could be looking at back-to-back Coach of the Year awards with different teams and he’s a juicy 33/1 with Paddy Power.
2017-18 record: 48-32, 5th in the East
Last year was a shockingly good season for the Pacers. The team had traded away their franchise player in Paul George and looked likely to tank for a lottery pick. However, Victor Oladipo had other ideas. Oladipo was the main part of the package from OKC that came to Indiana in exchange for George and was expected to improve being given a starring role.
But nobody quite expected him to have the kind of breakout season he had – vastly improving his scoring and playmaking, whilst also upping all of his shooting percentages, at the same time as leading the league in steals. Oladipo won Most Improved Player with 99% of the votes.
The big question for Indiana this season is whether last season was a freak season for Oladipo or is this the calibre of player he is in the long term? If he’s able to maintain the same level of production, the Pacers are a definite playoff team and a good shout for a top four seed. But if he regresses – which I think he will – the team should still make the playoffs comfortably, but I can see them falling below 50 wins on the season. For that reason, it makes it difficult to have an Indiana-based futures bet this season. But if you must, a small wager on the Pacers to win less than 46.5 games at 11/10 with 888Sport seems sensible considering Oladipo’s likely regression.
The only way I could see the Nate McMillan’s Pacers matching or exceeding last year’s win-loss record is if Oladipo doesn’t take too much of a backwards step and young center Myler Turner starts to live up to his promised potential. Indiana will most likely land somewhere between fourth and sixth seed in the East.
2017-18 record: 44-38, 7th in the East
Last year was a very ordinary year for Milwaukee – seventh seed and knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Boston. However, this season the team has the chance to grow under new head coach Mike Budenholzer and several much-needed additions to the roster.
The organisation was happy enough to let injury-riddled Jabari Parker leave in the summer and replaced him with perimeter shooters Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova and veteran big man Brook Lopez. These three and rookie Donte DiVincenzo should take some of the weight off Middleton and Brogdon’s shooting.
But of course, Milwaukee’s main man is Giannis Antetokounmpo. The ‘Greek Freak’ is going into his sixth season looking to improve once again. Since being drafted at #15 in 2013, Giannis has improved upon pretty much all aspects of his game every year. Becoming a bigger and bigger scoring threat, he scored almost 27 points per contest last year – making him the fourth most prolific scorer in the league.
There’s a chance he can grow upon this – especially if he shoots with any consistency beyond the arc – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Antetokounmpo average the most PPG this season (a massive 9/1 with Skybet). Should he achieve this or lead the Bucks to a top four seed in the East, Giannis will be in with a shout of winning MVP (currently 5/1 with Skybet, Bet365 and others).
The Bucks aren’t a particularly strong team besides their star man – Bledsoe isn’t a top class point guard, Middleton is a good but not elite scorer and there aren’t any obvious improvers elsewhere. Brook Lopez is due a decent season after a wasted year in LA and being a free agent next summer, expect him to return to his Brooklyn best.
Milwaukee’s success this season (and over the next decade) depends almost entirely on the play of Antetokounmpo. Should he be able to elevated his game once again and become an indisputable top 5 player, this team will be a tough match for any team in the East.