NBA Eastern Conference 2020 playoff betting preview

The NBA is back, baby!


The NBA is back, baby!

After a layoff of more than four months, 22 of the league’s 30 teams will be in Orlando to finish up the 2020 season. Each team will start by playing eight regular-season games, and the top eight teams by winning percentage from each conference will advance to the postseason.

The only real wrinkle is the potential for a play-in game for the No. 8 seed. If any team outside the top eight is within 4.5 games of the final playoff spot, they will be rewarded with the opportunity to win their way in. They’ll need to win two straight games to replace the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, but it gives a bunch of teams a puncher’s chance to qualify for the postseason.

In the Eastern Conference, only nine teams have been invited to Orlando for the restart. The top six teams are all locks to advance, but the Washington Wizards are 5.5 games behind the Magic for the No. 8 seed and 6.0 games behind the Nets for the No. 7 seed.

There is definitely some value to be had with the Eastern Conference from a betting perspective. Let’s dive in, starting with the odds-on favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee Bucks

Key Injuries

  • None

The Bucks are the overwhelming favorites to advance out of the East, and with good reason. They were putting together one of the most dominant regular seasons in league history prior to the shutdown. They outscored opponents by an average of 10.76 points per 100 possessions over their first 65 games, and only a handful of teams have historically eclipsed that threshold. Their record of 53-12 also put them on pace for approximately 67 wins over a full 82 game schedule.

What makes those numbers even more impressive is that the Bucks have been able to compile them without pushing their players. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the team with an average of just 30.7 minutes per game, and Khris Middleton is the only other member of the roster to average more than 27.2 minutes. Overall, no one on the team ranks in the top 70 in terms of minutes per game.

That said, there are still plenty of questions with this team heading into the postseason. They were just as dominant during the regular season last year before ultimately flaming out against the Raptors. The team also lost Malcolm Brogdon after last season, so it’s possible the current roster isn’t as talented as their previous group.

Milwaukee’s style of play also results in some question marks during the playoffs. They rely on Giannis – who is a monster favorite to win his second-straight MVP award – but the one thing he still lacks is the ability to create his own shot during crunch time. If opposing defenses can pack the paint and keep Giannis away from the rim, he’s going to have to kick it out to Milwaukee’s perimeter shooters, and any team that relies on perimeter shooting is subject to volatility. Just look at least year versus the Raptors, when the Bucks shot a mere 31.0% from behind the 3-point line.

Ultimately, the best time to bet on the Bucks was earlier in the season, and I don’t think there’s a ton of value in grabbing them now. They’re currently -165 to win the East, which translates to an implied probability of 62.27%. That seems a touch high.

My favorite value with the Bucks at the moment is the under on their win total during the eight-game regular season. You can get under 6.5 wins at -225 on DraftKings, and there is no incentive for the Bucks to play very hard during the restart. They only need two wins to secure the top seed in the East, so I wouldn’t expect to see a ton of their key players on the floor once they’ve clinched. They should be much more focused on keeping everyone healthy and shaking off the rest.

Recommended Bets

  • Under 6.5 wins (-225)

Toronto Raptors

Key Injuries

  • None

No one expected the Raptors to be as good as they’ve been this season. They lost reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and they didn’t bring in anyone of note to replace him. They didn’t even have a first round draft pick last season after trading it to the Spurs in the Leonard deal.

In spite of that, Toronto actually improved in a few areas this season. They’re allowing nearly two fewer points per 100 possessions, which has led to them posting a better Net Rating than last year. Overall, their mark of +6.39 points per 100 possessions ranks fourth in the NBA, trailing only the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. They even ripped off a 15-game win streak, and they own a comfortable three-game lead over the Celtics for the No. 2 seed.

Still, I am not looking to back the Raptors in Orlando. For starters, there isn’t much incentive for them during the regular season. They have virtually no chance of catching the Bucks, and there is no real difference between the No. 2 and No. 3 seed this year since there is no home court advantage. Regardless of which seed they finish with, they will likely be looking at a matchup with the Celtics in Round 2 barring a potential upset.

Even if the Raps did have an incentive to play hard, they face an absolutely brutal 8 game stretch. They have the second-hardest schedule of all 22 teams in terms of opponent winning percentage, with matchups against the Lakers, Celtics, Bucks, and Nuggets. Only two of their opponents boast a losing record this season, and one of those teams – Memphis – is just one game below .500.

That could be a big problem for this Toronto squad. Despite their strong record, they’ve struggled against quality teams this season. They’re just 11-14 against teams with a winning record, including a 5-8 mark against teams with a winning record outside of Toronto.

Their current win total for the “regular season” sits at 4.5 — which feels low on the surface — but I think the combination of opponents and motivation makes the under an appealing wager.

Once the playoffs start, I don’t see a repeat of last year’s success. Kawhi was able to take them to a new level, and they lack that same upside with him off the roster. 

Recommended Bets

  • Under 4.5 wins (-115)

Boston Celtics

Key Injuries

  • Marcus Smart (COVID-19) — expected to play

I’ve been a little pessimistic to start the Eastern Conference preview, but that changes now. I am all on in the Celtics.

Boston’s roster is loaded with talent thanks to Danny Ainge’s ability to rebuild following the “Big Three” era. If not for some bad luck — Gordon Hayward getting injured in his first game, Kyrie Irving leaving in free agency — this team would arguably be one of the favorites this season.

Regardless, they still have one of the deepest rosters in basketball, which gives them a ton of lineup flexibility. They can go big. They can go small. They can go offensive or defensive. That versatility should allow them to adapt to any situation in the playoffs.

And the majority of those lineups play very well together. They’ve had 10 different five-man combinations play together for at least 30 minutes this season, and nine of them have posted a positive Net Rating. Overall, the Celtics’ Net Rating of +6.29 points per 100 possessions ranks fifth in the NBA.

Jayson Tatum is a staple of Boston’s best lineups, and he has blossomed into a true superstar in his third season. Boston has been +10.9 points better per 100 possessions with Tatum on the court, which puts him in the 95th percentile for all NBA players (per Cleaning the Glass) – pretty elite territory.

Tatum has been great all season, averaging 23.6 points per game with excellent efficiency numbers, but he took his game to another level once the calendar flipped to February. He increased his scoring average to 29.2 points over his past 16 games while shooting a blistering 46.8% from 3-point range. If he can keep up that level of play during the postseason, he has the potential to be the most impactful player in the East outside of Antetokounmpo.

Boston is +700 to win the East, which translates to an implied probability of just 12.5%. I think that’s simply too low. The Celtics haven’t had the same struggles as the Raptors against the best teams in basketball, posting a record of 18-13 against opponents with a winning percentage of 50% or greater. That includes a combined record of 3-2 versus the Bucks and Raptors, who are their biggest competition in the East.

I don’t like Boston’s chances as much against the Lakers or Clippers if they make it to the NBA Finals, but it’s hard to argue against them at +1700, a line that opens up a lot of hedging opportunities if they can advance that far.

As for the eight-game regular season, the Celtics have been blessed with the third-easiest schedule. Two of their matchups are against the Wizards and Nets, who will be rolling out JV-level squads in Orlando. They should have no problem picking up wins in those matchups, which puts them well on their way toward hitting the over on 5.5 wins.

Recommended Bets

  • Over 5.5 wins (+140)
  • Eastern Conference Champions (+700)
  • NBA Champions (+1700)

Miami Heat

Key Injuries

  • Derrick Jones Jr. (COVID-19) — expected to play

The Heat have been better than expected this season. They’ve been one of the best offensive teams in the league, averaging 113.53 points per 100 possessions, and they’ve done it thanks to some surprising contributors.

Duncan Robinson was undrafted out of the University of Michigan, but he’s become one of Miami’s most important players. He’s knocking down 44.8% of his 3-pointers, and his impact as a floor-spacer cannot be understated. The Heat are a whopping +13.7 points per 100 possessions better with Robinson on the floor this season, which puts him in the 99th percentile for all NBA players. That’s over 1,884 minutes as well, so it’s not an insignificant sample size.

Of course, Jimmy Butler’s impact on the Heat has not been all that surprising. He may be a headache – which is part of the reason why he’s on his fourth team in four years – but there’s no doubt the dude can play. He ranks seventh in the league in win shares per 48 minutes and ninth in value over replacement players (VORP).

That said, it’s fair to say the Heat have gotten a bit lucky this season. They rank ninth in the league with a Net Rating of +3.21 points per 100 possessions, which should theoretically put them on pace for just under 50 wins in a typical 82 game season. They were actually pacing for closer to 52 wins prior to the shutdown, so their record is slightly inflated.

The Heat also have to deal with an absolute bear of a schedule in Orlando. They own the most difficult schedule in basketball in terms of opponent winning percentage. They’re going to have to square off with each of the top three teams in the East, and they also have matchups against the Nuggets and Thunder in the West. They have no matchups with the Wizards or Nets – who are easily the worst teams in Orlando at the moment – and the Suns are their only scheduled opponent with a winning percentage below 60%.

The neutral site, no-fans environment also has the potential to hurt the Heat. They were absolutely dominant at home this season, posting a 27-5 record in Miami, but they’ve posted a very pedestrian 14-19 record on the road. That doesn’t bode well for them.

The Heat own a two-game cushion over the Pacers and 76ers in the Eastern Conference standings, but the lack of homecourt advantage in the first round creates an interesting dynamic. The teams that finish fourth and fifth in the East will play each other in the first round, but that sets up a potential showdown versus the Bucks in round two. The team that finishes sixth will have a more difficult first round matchup against the Raptors or Celtics, but that means they wouldn’t have to play the Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals.

I’m not sure which road is easier, but I do think these teams should be prioritizing health over winning as many games as possible during the regular season. When you combine that with Miami’s brutal schedule and their poor road record, I love grabbing the under on their win total of 4.5 at -175 on FanDuel.

Recommended Bets

  • Under 4.5 wins (-175)
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Indiana Pacers

Key Injuries

  • Malcolm Brogdon (COVID-19) — expected to play
  • Victor Oladipo (injury) — Out
  • Jeremy Lamb (injury) — Out

I’m pretty disappointed that Oladipo is not returning to play this season, because I think Indiana would’ve had an outside chance of winning the East if he was healthy. This team has already been solid this season – they rank 13th in Net Rating – and Oladipo was their most impactful player before getting hurt last season.

Brogdon has been an excellent free agent addition after escaping Giannis’ shadow in Milwaukee, averaging career-bests in scoring and assists in his first year with the Pacers. Unfortunately, that increase in production has come at the expense of his efficiency. He’s making just 31.3% of his 3-pointers this season after shooting better than 42% from behind the line last year. You’re definitely going to lose some efficiency when you move from a supporting cast member to a No. 1 option, but that’s a massive decline. He’s someone that definitely would have benefitted from the presence of Oladipo.

Domantas Sabonis has arguably been Indiana’s best player this year. He’s excelled in all facets of the game, averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. That puts him in some elite company. Only 10 previous players have averaged at least 18 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists in a season, and eight of them are Hall of Famers. The only two who aren’t enshrined in Springfield are Giannis and DeMarcus Cousins, and they obviously won’t become eligible until they retire. Ultimately, you can’t find a much more impressive group of cohorts.

The Pacers’ win total for Orlando is set at a reasonable 4.5, but it’s heavily juiced toward the under. Their schedule is reasonable – they own the ninth-easiest mark in terms of opponent win percentage – but they’re another team that has struggled against quality competition this season. They’ve gone just 11-15 against teams with a winning record, and five of their eight opponents are above that threshold currently.

The one positive factor working in the Pacers’ favor is that they don’t rely on home court nearly as much as some of the other teams in Orlando. In fact, they’re the only team in the East outside of Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston that actually owns a winning record on the road. That could give them an edge over teams like Miami and Philly in a neutral court situation.

I would ultimately lean toward the under with Indiana, but I don’t really like the idea of paying -200. This is a pass for me.

Recommended Bets

  • None

Philadelphia 76ers

Key Injuries

  • Zhaire Smith (Injury) — Out

The natural temptation here is to look at Philly as a value in the restart. They entered the season with the second-best odds to win the Eastern Conference, and their starting lineup is extremely talented. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Al Horford have all been selected to all star teams, and Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson are excellent complimentary pieces.

That said, I think treating the 76ers as a “buy low” option would be a mistake. Their lineup just hasn’t really gelled together like expected.

There are still major questions about whether or not Simmons and Embiid can actually play together successfully, which is obviously not good for two “star” players. The 76ers have averaged just 107.7 points per 100 possessions with both players on the court this season, and they’ve allowed opponents to score 106.5 points per 100 possessions. The 76ers’ overall Net Rating this season is +2.16 points per 100 possessions, so that fact that it’s worse with their two big guns on the court is a major concern.

The neutral site formula could also be a huge detriment to their success. They own an NBA-best 29-2 record at home this season, but they’re a dismal 10-24 on the road. They’re also just 12-18 against teams with a winning record. That includes a combined 2-5 record against the Pacers and Heat, who are two of their most likely playoff opponents.

The 76ers enter the restart tied with the Pacers in terms of record, and they play each other in the first game of the “regular season”. That contest could go a long way in terms of playoff seeding.

The 76ers’ best case scenario might be to finish with the No. 6 seed and hope to meet the Celtics in the first round, who are an excellent matchup for them. Philly has gone 2-1 against Boston this season, and the Celts just don’t have an answer on the interior for Embiid. If that matchup presents itself, I may consider getting down on the 76ers depending on the odds.

That said, there is a good chance the 76ers can leapfrog at least one of the Pacers or Heat given their absolute cupcake of a schedule. They own the second-easiest schedule in the league and the easiest in the Eastern Conference. The projection model at The Ringer gives them a 65% chance of finishing the regular season in the No. 4 or No. 5 spot.

Philadelphia’s current win total for the reset sits at 5.5, and you can get +170 odds on the over at FanDuel. That’s a steep total given their road struggles this season, but they do have matchups against the Wizards, Magic, Suns, and LaMarcus Aldridge-less Spurs. That could potentially be four wins right there, and they’d only need to go 2-2 in their other four games versus the Pacers, Blazers, Raptors, and Rockets.

The win total is ultimately a little too high for me – I would rather pay an increased premium for the over on 4.5 wins – but I wouldn’t hate it if you wanted to throw a dart at it.

Recommended Bets

  • None at the time of writing, but I will monitor the win total to see if the line updates.

Brooklyn Nets

Key Injuries

  • Kevin Durant (injury) — Out
  • Kyrie Irving (injury) — Out
  • Spencer Dinwiddie (COVID-19) — Out
  • DeAndre Jordan (COVID-19) — Out
  • Taurean Prince (COVID-19) — Out
  • Wilson Chandler (personal) — Out

You’ve gotta feel bad for the members of the Nets who are actually showing up to Orlando. They’re going to be down three of their four best players, so this is not even remotely the same team we’ll see at the beginning of next season. The team is expected to sign a few players prior to the restart, and this seems more like an opportunity to evaluate young talent than anything else.

That said, it’s going to be hard for Brooklyn to fall out of the playoffs. They own a six game lead over the Wizards in the Eastern Conference standings, with Washington in nearly as bad shape. Even the Nets they go 0-8 in Orlando – which is a possibility – the worst case scenario would be a play-in game for the No. 8 seed. Even that seems really unlikely.

One thing working in the Nets’ favor is that they have an easier schedule that the Magic and Wizards. In fact, Brooklyn has three total games between those three teams, and they have another potentially winnable game against the Kings.

There’s currently no win total available for the Nets, but I would consider a wager on the over if it comes in around 2.5. I can’t imagine it would be much higher than that.

It’s hard to expect too much from this squad given all their injuries, but they could have a couple of bright spots worth watching. Joe Harris has actually been their most impactful player this season in terms of on/off differential, with Brooklyn increasing their Net Rating by +6.5 points per 100 possessions when Harris is on the court. Floor spacing is extremely important in the modern NBA, and there aren’t many floor spacers better than Harris.

Jarrett Allen should also get a larger workload with Jordan out of the lineup, and that should make a pretty big difference for the Nets. They’ve increased their Net Rating by +4.5 points per 100 possessions with Allen on the court this season, and they decreased their Net Rating by -2.9 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the court. That’s a huge swing.

Lastly, Caris LeVert should get the opportunity to command a pretty massive workload in Orlando. He’s increased his usage rate by a whopping +9.9% with Irving and Dinwiddie off the court this season, resulting in an average of 47.7 DraftKings points per 36 minutes. He’s going to be someone worth considering heavily in the prop market and will be a virtual lock in DFS barring a monster salary increase.

Recommended Bets

  • Over on win total if its 2.5 or less
  • Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen overs in the prop market

Orlando Magic

Key Injuries

  • Jonathan Isaac (injury) — Questionable (currently with the team)
  • Al-Farouq Aminu (injury) — Questionable (not currently with the team)

The Magic enter the Orlando bubble in the best shape among the bottom-three East squads. It’s still unclear if or when Isaac and Aminu will be cleared to play but, other than that, they’re going to be at full strength. That gives them a clear leg up on the Nets and Wizards.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t result in a ton of betting value at the moment. They have odds of -10,000 to make the playoffs on the DraftKings sportsbook, which translates to an implied probability of 99.01%. You could make a case that their odds of making the playoffs are actually slightly higher – maybe around 99.5% or so – but it’s not worth the risk for such a small payout. 

Their current win total is set at 3.5 on FanDuel sportsbook with -110 odds in each direction. They have a pretty similar strength of schedule to the Nets, which makes sense given they play each other twice. The big difference is the Magic don’t have a game versus the Wizards, and they do face a tough three-game stretch against the Raptors, 76ers, and Celtics. They do, however, avoid the Bucks and Clippers, which is something the Nets cannot say. Overall, I would say the Magic arguably have more winnable games than the Nets even if their schedule is slightly tougher top to bottom.

Ultimately, the matchups between the Magic and Nets are likely to determine which team hits the over and which team hits the under on their win totals. If one team can go 2-0 in those games, it’s going to be hard for the other to go over.

The big question is: are the Magic talented enough to hit the over even at full strength? They haven’t fared well against top-level competition this season, posting a record of 5-26 against teams with a winning record. That is easily the worst winning percentage among all teams invited to the Orlando bubble.

With that in mind, I think the Magic’s win total is probably slightly inflated just by virtue of being at full strength. It’s easy to think they’re in better shape than the Nets, but the difference between those two teams is probably not as stark in reality.

The most impactful players on Orlando’s roster from an on/off court perspective are all role players: D.J. Augustin, Mo Bamba, Wes Iwundu, and Michael Carter-Williams own the four top marks on the squad. The Magic have been worse this season with Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Markelle Fultz on the court than off, which is not good considering they lead the team in minutes played.

Overall, I like the idea of taking the under on the Magic’s win total in combination with the over on the Nets. This is obviously dependent on the Nets getting a favorable number, but I think the public is sleeping on just how poor the Magic are, even at full strength.

Recommended Bets

  • Under 3.5 wins (-110)

Washington Wizards

Key Injuries

  • Bradley Beal (injury) — Out
  • Davis Bertans (injury) — Out
  • John Wall (injury) — Out

Poor Washington. Apparently team owner Ted Leonsis pushed hard to make sure his team got invited to the restart, but the players weren’t nearly as enthused. That’s like RSVPing “plus one” to a wedding only for your significant other to break up with you a week before the date.

Wall was always a long shot to actually play this season, but the absence of Beal and Bertans is going to be a huge deal. The team has been +8.4 points per 100 possessions better with Bertans on the floor this season – have I mentioned yet that floor spacing is important? – while Beal has done the majority of the heavy lifting for the Wiz. He leads the team in minutes, usage rate, win shares, and basically every other important stat you can think of. Overall, the two-man combination of Beal and Bertans has a Net Rating of +2.0, and the majority of their most productive five-man combinations contain both players.

They also have the third-hardest schedule among the Eastern Conference bubble teams, mainly due to the fact that they can’t play against themselves. They start with two relatively easy games against the Suns and Nets, but each of their final six games comes against a team with a winning record.

The Wizards also figure to be affected by the neutral site games. They actually posted a .500 record at home this season despite their pedestrian record overall, but they’ve struggled to an 8-24 record on the road. Their road record against teams that were invited to the bubble? 2-19. Woof.

It’s pretty obvious this team is going to struggle in Orlando, but their win total is set at just 1.5 games. What makes matters even more complicated is that the under is juiced up to -145.

I know the Wizards are bad, but are they that bad? If they can post a winning percentage of even 25% in the bubble, they would hit the over on their win total. The only team to post a winning percentage below 29.2% this season was the Warriors, so it’s not easy to be that dismal.

Of course, we do have to keep in mind this is just an eight game sample size, and the eight teams with the worst records were not invited to participate. There will be no easy games on the Wizards’ schedule.

Ultimately, I find it very difficult to bet the under on such a low number, but there’s also zero chance I’m going to actively wager on the over. The small sample size means there is going to be a decent bit of variance in these outcomes, and who knows what teams are going to do in terms of rest? Washington’s final two games are against the Bucks and Celtics, and there’s a chance we see watered-down versions of both rosters in those contests.

Recommended Bets

  • None

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