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NBA Eastern Conference Preview

The 2023-24 NBA season is fast approaching with the Eastern Conference housing the major championship contenders heading into the opener.

Atlantic Division: Celtics are the only certainty

The Boston Celtics and heavy $1.30 favourites to win the Atlantic Division and are among the major NBA championship contenders at $4.50. They’ve gone close in recent seasons and have proven to be one of the best teams in the league. However, they resisted the urge to roll it back with the same group again and made moves that should result in an improved season. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams – two big contributors – have made way for Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis, in particular, can make or break their season. He averaged 23.2 points, shot 50% from the field and 38.5% from deep to register new career highs in 2022-23. Provided he’s healthy, Porzingis adds another element to the Celtics who needed a change. It may take the Celtics some time to get things going which in which the Under 54.5 wins appeals. Nonetheless, they will be there in the Eastern Conference Finals ($2.75 to win) at the pointy end of the season.

Who knows with the Philadelphia 76ers. James Harden is the Greatest Quitter of All Time and is playing another blinder as he looks to escape Philly. With Harden and a repaired relationship, the 76ers are a playoff team and smokey in the East at $10. Without him, their $4.33 to make the East Play-in Tournament appeals. Without him and with a Joel Embiid injury, you can’t look past their $6.50 to miss the playoffs entirely. They won 54 games last season – their most since 2001. Embiid is the defending MVP and Nick Nurse has a history of dragging teams beyond expectations. Still, a lot needs to go right for the 76ers if they’re to improve on last season.

Similarly, the New York Knicks face the difficult task of backing up a stellar 2022-23 NBA season. Their 47 wins were the most in over a decade. Jalen Brunson is undoubtedly the future of the franchise after averaging 24 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. Julius Randle earned himself a second NBA All-Star selection through 25.1 points, 10 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Exceeding expectations last season, it’s never easy to live up to the revamped expectations in the next. With the Under 45.5 wins at $1.68, just maintaining their level from last season would be a significant achievement. Until they land another star, the Knicks aren’t quite up there with the top teams in the East.

The Brooklyn Nets win total is set at 37.5 for the season but you can chalk one up before tip-off. Ridding themselves of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden is a win. For as talented as the trio is on the court, they proved to be a liability as a collective off it and contributed to a disastrous Big Three era. With it all in the rearview mirror and a clean slate moving forward, the Nets are in transition mode. How successful that transition is might depend on Mikal Bridges who developed from a solid role player in Phoenix to a potential star in Brooklyn. He averaged 26.1 points per game for the Nets and has an encouraging supporting cast in Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Thomas and Nic Claxton around him. Their $2.40 to make the NBA playoffs deserves consideration.

Early-season form will go a long way to determining the Toronto Raptors’ NBA season and long-term future. If things go poorly to start, there is every chance Pascal Siakam ends up on the trade block and the Raptors embrace the rebuild. If they show Utah Jazz of last season potential and look too good to tank or trade for potential, their path changes again. Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby’s continued development will be crucial. So too will Dennis Schroder bringing his FIBA form to Toronto. It’s unlikely to come together well enough to make the playoffs, though ($2.45).

Central Division: Milwaukee’s to lose

It’s the Milwaukee Bucks’ division to lose at $1.25. Giannis Antetokoumpo made a few noises around an openness to leaving the franchise if they didn’t take another step towards an NBA championship. The front office responded by trading for Damian Lillard in a move that put them alongside the Celtics as favourites for the title at $4.50.

There is some uncertainty around Adrian Griffin as an NBA head coach. He takes on a 58-win team that is expecting to compete from day one after blowing out in the first round of the playoffs last season. It’s a blessing and a curse to take on such a strong roster. There is no doubting their championship readiness, though. From what we’ve seen out of Lillard in an always-middling Trail Blazers team, he will play with a new lease on life this year. The season doesn’t really start until the playoffs for the Bucks, but they’ll be one of the most interesting teams up until then regardless.

There was a point last season when the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like they could develop into championship contenders. They flamed out a little bit in the end as the wheels fell off a promising start, but they’ll be better for the run together. Donovan Mitchell comes into this season on the back of a career-high 28.3 points per game. His regular season form is unquestioned. The key for Cleveland is not needing to rely on him so much in the big games. Evan Mobley can be a big factor there. His skill set is incredible and he has all of the potential in the world. It’s time for him to start consistently displaying it on the court. If he can feature in the Most Improved Player conversation at $23, the Cavaliers are an intriguing option to get out of the East at $8.

In stark contrast to the Celtics above, the Chicago Bulls are rolling it back with a roster that appears to have run its course. Boston recognised a need to change their direction. Chicago, meanwhile, is hoping that this is the season Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic put it all together, and that this is the season Lonzo Ball can not only get onto the court and stay there but play up to his potential. Their ceiling is low already, but the win total should be lower than 37.5 and will be when the Bulls come to the realization that they need to make moves and become an active party around the deadline.

The Indiana Pacers, on the other hand, look good to go over their 38.5 wins ($1.99). Buddy Hield, Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin make for an exciting core. Hield is one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, Haliburton one of the most efficient, and Mathurin earned an All-Rookie first-team selection last season. Myles Turner is a solid defensive anchor and Obi Toppin is an interesting addition. They won 35 games last season and look a lot better on paper heading into this one.

On a different “look good” scale, the Detroit Pistons will be better this season. How much remains to be seen. Cade Cunningham managed only 12 games last season and his health assures improvement. Monty Williams is one of the best and most respected coaches in the NBA who will trigger an improvement in this group. He takes on a team that produced the worst record in the NBA last season but one that is young and exciting. That combination often results in over-hype. Detroit’s win total is set at 27.5 – a total they’ve not cleared since the 2018-19 season. The $1.71 price for the Under suggests they’ll go at least one more season below 28 wins.

Southeast Division: Play-in producers

Things didn’t quite go to plan for the Miami Heat over the offseason. After making a run to the NBA Finals as the 8th seed, the expectation was for Damian Lillard to arrive in town sooner rather than later. Instead, he’s turned up in Milwaukee. As impressive as their late-season run was, the Heat struggled throughout the regular season and benefited from a vulnerable conference in the playoffs. They were already a bad three-point shooting team and lost Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, too. Counting out Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra as division winners at $1.53 is always fraught with danger, but the Under at 44.5 wins ($1.83) stands out right now.

At the opposite end of the three-point spectrum, the Atlanta Hawks are still trying to shoot their way to relevancy. Will Trae Young also continue in his high-usage play? If he can start to make those around him better, the Hawks are all but assured of an improvement on their 41 wins (Over 41.5 wins – $1.85) following the addition of Patty Mills and Wesley Matthews. If he continues down his current path, it’s difficult to imagine much change for the franchise overall. Quin Snyder is a proven NBA coach and has dominated with defence, but he has his work cut out for him with Young and the Hawks.

The Orlando Magic are in the early stages of a rebuild through the draft but have done well up to this point. Paolo Banchero is the reigning Rookie of the Year and will have benefited from his time with Team USA over the summer. Franz Wagner is a potential star, too. This is a very young roster that could swing heavily in either direction after winning 34 games last season. The feeling right now is for a more positive swing up and Over their 37.5 win total ($1.97) and into contention for the play-in ($2.30) or playoffs ($2.73).

La’Melo Ball missed half of the last season for the Charlotte Hornets to win only 27 games. However, even a full NBA season of health isn’t enough to get too excited about this group just yet given the uncertainty. Their drafting of Brandon Miller raised eyebrows. They will need to orchestrate Miles Bridges’ return to the league if he returns at all. P.J. Washington has been paid on potential that he’s not been able to consistently live up to throughout his NBA career to date. Reaching the play-in at $4 is their unlikely peak.

The Washington Wizards let go of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis to really embrace the tank. Already with the lowest total in the NBA at 23.5 wins (Under 23.5 wins – $1.78), it could still sink lower with more moves. The chaos of a team led by Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Poole is all that appeals because the Wizards are otherwise a non-factor this season.

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