The 2021 Eastern Conference finals were the first time since 2015 that the Atlantic Division failed to produce one of the conference's last two surviving teams. If Kevin Durant wore the proper shoe size and Ben Simmons wasn't afraid to shoot, it might've had both finalists last season. It produced seven All-Stars last season and hosts last season's No. 1 seed and this season's championship favorite.
To put it plainly, the Atlantic Division is very, very good. You're going to be tempted to pick all five teams to exceed their win total line, but realistically, someone is going to disappoint here. Let's dive into the Eastern Conference's best division and try to figure out who it's going to be. The following caveats apply here, as they will for all of our over/under picks.
- You're generally going to get a good value on the best teams if they stay healthy. The highest line this season belongs to Brooklyn at 54.5 wins. Three teams beat that figure in the 2018-19 season (the last 82-game season the NBA has played), and that number is a bit low compared to most years. Vegas knows that a certain number of teams are going to beat the highest line. They keep it low anyway hoping to draw in bettors that ignore the possibility of injuries. Think of the Lakers last season. Most bettors likely took the over, so when LeBron James and Anthony Davis got hurt, Vegas probably made a fortune. Still, such outcomes are on the rarer side. If you think you can identify the three or four best teams in the NBA, take their overs. Injuries will probably cost you at least one bet, but if you're right about the other teams, they're going to hit their over easily. Unsurprisingly, you'll see plenty of overs at the top of the standings among these picks.
- Remember, teams only played 72 games last season. We're back up to 82 this season. For that reason, I've not only listed every team's record but how that record would have translated to an 82-game schedule.
- Point differential is far more predictive of future performance than record. There are a number of reasons for this ranging from shooting luck to record in close games. ESPN uses a modified version of Bill James' Pythagorean wins formula from baseball to estimate what a team's record should have been based on their net rating, so that figure (along with an 82-game adjustment) will be listed below as well.
- There is no set formula for regular-season winning, but two traits tend to lead to winning over bets: defense and depth. The regular season is long and never goes as planned. Players get hurt. They get tired. They aren't always committed to winning that random Tuesday night in Charlotte that might be meaningless to them, but critical to you as a bettor. Fewer things can go wrong for deep teams. Defense tends to be less reliant on individual players (with a few exceptions). Deep, defensive-minded teams can still underperform, but they tend to have higher floors. That's what you want for these bets. You're trying to beat the line by a half win here, not blow it away by 10.
- All lines come courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.
2020-21 record: 36-36
2020-21 EWL: 40-32
2020-21 82-game pace: 41-41
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 46-36
Virtually every marker for the over is present in Boston. Their defense is going to be significantly better with Kemba Walker gone, Josh Richardson replacing Evan Fournier and Al Horford replacing Tristan Thompson. The fact that Brad Stevens gave Robert Williams a four-year contract indicates that he has more long-term faith in him than his coaching tenure suggested, and even if he's never put it together for a full season, he's flashed Defensive Player of the Year upside.
Nabbing Dennis Schroder for the taxpayer mid-level exception was a steal that helps solidifies a bench that was very reliant on young players last season. Now, Romeo Langford, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams and Aaron Nesmith will have to earn minutes. The worst of them just won't see the court. There's more than enough ammunition here for a mid-season trade, and like last year, the Celtics have a massive trade exception at their disposal if they want to upgrade. They can thank the Knicks for that. New York willingly gave the Celtics that exception by structuring their addition of Evan Fournier as a sign-and-trade.
The Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown duo brings all of the necessary star power, and Tatum should be better now that he's a year removed from COVID-19. Not only would I bet this over, but I would look into other futures bets involving this team. If you think that Boston will be the Eastern Conference's major sleeper, considering taking Ime Udoka at plus-1800 to win Coach of the Year. Jayson Tatum isn't a bad MVP long shot at plus-3000 either. Remember, this team not only played at a 46-win level last season, but made the Eastern Conference finals in three of the previous four. If you think there's any level of bounce back here, take the over.
2020-21 record: 48-24
2020-21 EWL: 47-25
2020-21 82-game pace: 55-27
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 54-28
Think about everything the Nets had to overcome last season. They made a blockbuster in-season trade. They had a first-time head coach that had never been a full-time coach at any level. Their three superstars combined to play in only 125 games, or around 62 percent of the total games they could have in Brooklyn. One of their buyout additions had to retire in the middle of the season. Before we even get into the Bucks series, everything that could have gone wrong for Brooklyn last season did go wrong.
And they still would have hit the over on this line with a 55-win pace. Now ask yourselves this: do you expect the Nets to have to overcome nearly that much next season? Because if the answer is no, you have an answer here. The Nets are perhaps the easiest over on the board. If they can even make it through the season with two of their stars staying mostly healthy, they're going to be fine.
Few teams in NBA history have been better insulated against injuries for regular-season purposes. That was the entire point of the Patty Mills signing. A backup guard has less utility for them in the postseason than most teams, but the Nets used their mid-level exception on Mills because he can scale so easily into an off-ball starting role next to either James Harden or Kyrie Irving. The Nets can rest either of them comfortably. If Aldridge is forced to retire again? Brooklyn still has Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Nic Claxton in his place. Losing Jeff Green as Durant insurance hurts, but that is more of a postseason concern than something the Nets have to deal with on a night-to-night basis. Harden is one of the NBA's greatest regular-season floor-raisers. He hasn't been on an offense that finished outside of the top seven since 2015. The defense was roughly league-average towards the end of the season.
Don't overthink this one. Unlimited shooting, unlimited ball-handling and a defense that wasn't nearly as bad as people wanted it to be is a formula for 55 wins as a baseline. The ceiling is substantially higher. If the Nets are healthy, they are going to have the greatest offense in NBA history, and they are going to push for 70 wins. If they aren't? We've already seen what happens last season, and it suits our purposes just fine.
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2020-21 record: 41-31
2020-21 EWL: 42-30
2020-21 82-game pace: 47-35
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 48-34
This is genuinely one of the hardest picks on the board. The Knicks embodied everything that generally leads to teams over-performing last season. They ranked No. 4 on defense despite losing their primary rim-protector (Mitchell Robinson) to injury for much of the season. They played harder than anyone in basketball. Tom Thibodeau doesn't let his teams take nights off. They made depth a real priority this offseason. How are they going to divide point guard minutes among Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley? What will the Knicks do with former No. 8 overall pick Obi Toppin if Julius Randle plays 37.6 minutes per night again? These are good problems to have! The Knicks are everything we typically look for in an over bet.
But their surprising No. 4 seed last season came in no small part from unsustainable shooting. Here's an incomplete list:
- Julius Randle shot 41.1 percent from behind the arc last season. He shot 29.5 percent for his career prior to last season. He hit 41.5 percent of his mid-range looks after making just 39.4 percent in his first season as a Knick and 31.9 percent with the Pelicans. The regression came here as last season progressed. He made almost 46 percent of his mid-range attempts in January, then fell to 42.5 percent in February, 36.7 percent in March and 39.8 percent in April.
- RJ Barrett shot 32 percent from 3-point range as a rookie, and then 40.1 percent as a sophomore. He made only 30.8 percent of his attempts at Duke. Shooting has always been a weakness, and while improvement is more common in young players, such a drastic uptick seems unlikely to last.
- Derrick Rose shot 41.1 percent on 3's with the Knicks. He's a 31.1 percent shooter for his career and he'd never topped 37 percent in any other season.
- Alec Burks has generally been a good shooter in the NBA, but he hit his career-high of 41.5 percent last season as well.
Here's the thing… the Knicks didn't just rely on their own players to make more shots than expected. They also needed opponents to miss more shots than expected. Teams playing against the Knicks made only 34.7 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers, the second-lowest mark in the league, 34.1 percent of their open 3s, the fourth-lowest rate in the NBA, and 39.6 percent of their mid-range attempts, the sixth-lowest figure in basketball. What makes this especially dangerous is that the Knicks didn't have a good shot profile. They allowed a lot of open 3-pointers and didn't take many themselves. They needed that luck more than almost any other team.
And then there's medical luck. The Barrett-Randle combination gave the Knicks 5,178 minutes last season. The next highest total for any set of teammates in basketball was 4,631 for Damian Lillard and Robert Covington. The Knicks got away with running their best players into the ground last season (yet another Thibodeau staple), but eventually, their bodies are going to feel the weight of all of those minutes. That doesn't have to mean a torn ACL. Randle and Barrett combined to miss only one game all of last season. Are you willing to bet that one of them doesn't sprain an ankle at some point?
The Knicks did everything right this offseason. They addressed their weaknesses and increased their upside. They even dumped Elfrid Payton, one of the most quietly impactful decisions of the offseason when you remember that the Knicks lost his 1,463 minutes by 83 points but won the 1,975 minutes he spent on the bench by 245. It's entirely possible that the Knicks are a better team this season than they were last, but regression to the mean and a deeper, healthier Eastern Conference pushes them down the standings. That's the pick here.
2020-21 record: 49-23
2020-21 EWL: 50-22
2020-21 82-game pace: 56-26
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 57-25
Over the past four seasons, Joel Embiid has missed an average of 20 games apiece. The actual figure is fairly stable. It's never gone above 22 or below 18 in that period. They're exactly .500 in regular-season games that he's missed since the start of the 2017-18 season at 40-40. A year earlier, the Sixers went 15-36 in games Embiid missed. There are a number of variables that help explain that, but here's the biggest: Ben Simmons wasn't healthy for the 2016-17 season. He's been Embiid's running mate ever since.
Simmons is a very flawed playoff player for reasons that don't need to be covered in-depth here, but he is a magnificent regular-season floor-raiser with the right kind of surrounding talent. Embiid's absences allow the 76ers to gear their playing style more towards him. He is one of the best transition players in the NBA, so they run. Their defense takes a step back but remains well above-average.
Well, now, Simmons wants out. The sort of franchise-alerting talents Philadelphia wants, like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal, don't appear to be available. That means that one of three things is going to happen:
- They are going to trade him for players that make them better in the playoffs, but worse in the regular season. Think CJ McCollum here, someone who could maybe push their No. 13-ranked regular-season offense into the top 10, but would have a significantly negative impact on their defense.
- They are going to trade him for a package built around draft picks in the hope that doing so gives them the ammunition to trade for someone like Lillard or Beal down the line.
- They aren't going to trade I'm at all.
All three of these options are going to impact the win total. If they get McCollum or a similar player, they'll be helping their half-court offense at the expense of essentially everything else they do well. If they get picks, they're a near-automatic under. If they don't trade him at all, he's already indicated that he plans to hold out. At a bare minimum, their chemistry as a team has been destroyed by the sheer awkwardness of the situation. At worst? He's not even in the lineup.
Philadelphia might be able to overcome this with 82 healthy Embiid games. He's just that good, and had he remained healthy, he probably would have won MVP last season. But Embiid never stays healthy. You have to factor in 20 missed Embiid games per year, and if Simmons isn't around to carry the team when he isn't, suddenly you're staring at a quarter of the season in which you're likely playing like a lottery team. In a much deeper East that isn't dealing with nearly as much drama as the 76ers are, that's probably going to lead to a short-term step back.
2020-21 record: 27-45
2020-21 EWL: 35-37
2020-21 82-game pace: 31-51
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 40-42
Prior to last season, the Raptors had hit the over nine years in a row. It just isn't clear how much predictive value that statistic has when the single common denominator behind that streak was Kyle Lowry, who now plays for the Heat. That loss is significant. Even at 35, Lowry was still Toronto's best player last season. He affects games in all of the invisible ways that lead to extra regular-season wins, and without him, the Raptors have no real reason not to listen to trade offers for some of their other veterans if other teams are willing to blow them away. Masai Ujiri isn't going to waste multiple years in the middle of the standings. The Raptors tanked aggressively down the stretch last season.
But let's say the Raptors compete in good faith all season. Virtually every factor besides Lowry's departure is working in their favor. They played at the level of a 40-win team by net rating, and they did that playing 1,300 miles away from their home. Moving back to Canada from Tampa should be worth several wins. So should the season-long presence of Khem Birch. It's a tiny sample, but when he played with Lowry and Toronto's three key returning veterans (Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam), the Raptors outscored opponents by a team-high 41 total points.
Just as the Knicks benefitted from opponents shooting luck, Toronto was severely hampered by how many shots their opponents made. Teams playing the Raptors hit 42 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers, the second-best mark in basketball. That's going to regress and help Toronto's defense, which ranked 15th last season and should only get better thanks to incoming rookie Scottie Barnes, one of the best defensive prospects to enter the draft over the past several years.
If you're afraid the Raptors will struggle without Lowry, I wouldn't blame you for taking the under. The half-court offense is probably still going to struggle unless Anunoby continues to improve as a ball-handler. But Toronto's organizational competence was not limited to Lowry. They have one of the NBA's smartest front offices and one of the best coaching staffs. They win games on the margins, and in a more normal season than last, they should be far closer to .500.