Dan Favale | Sat 24/02/2018 - 05:57 EST

Playing Pretender or Contender with NBA’s 10 Best Teams

Playing Pretender or Contender with NBA’s 10 Best Teams
Having one of the 10 best records in the NBA carries a certain cachet. It does not, however, guarantee that you're fit for title contention. Using win-loss projections as our guide, we take a look at whether you should view each of the top-10 outfits as legitimate championship bets—as contenders or pretenders.

Championship odds come courtesy of TopBet and are accurate as of Feb. 23 unless otherwise noted. Make sure you’re double-checking these lines regularly before placing a wager, as they are subject to change, particularly this late in the season.

Each of the top 10 teams were selected by taking stock of FiveThirtyEight’s record projections, with all ties broken by our own subjective interpretation of a squad’s title odds. Teams are presented in alphabetical order of the city they play in. 

Boston Celtics (+1800)


Projected Record: 53-29

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

This will take some people by surprise, yet it shouldn’t. The Boston Celtics’ offense isn’t good enough to float actual championship hopes. They rank inside the bottom five of points scored per 100 possessions since Christmas and, despite improved showings during crunch time, they don’t have the overall face-up creation outside Kyrie Irving to fare much better than they are now.

Looking at them as potential Eastern Conference Finalists is fine. But, as of now, they don’t have enough juice to come out over the Cleveland Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors. There’s a chance they don’t make it out of the first or second round, period.

Cleveland Cavaliers (+550)


Projected Record: 50-32

Contender or Pretender: Contender

The Cavaliers have done little to earn this actual contender billing. Their defense is still terrible, even after a very active and productive trade deadline. They’re longer and more athletic, but their pick-and-roll coverages remain whack, and they don’t have the time at this point in the season to hone their communication skills in the half-court.

But the Cavaliers do have LeBron James. And, in the Eastern Conference, that’s all that tends to matter. Their offense continues to keep pace with the best in the league, and they’ve surrounded LeBron with even more shooters. They remain the outfit to beat in the East, with a high likelihood of visiting a fourth straight NBA Finals—rendering them contenders by default.

Golden State Warriors (+350)


Projected Record: 62-20

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Dear bettors,

You’re welcome. 


Captain Obvious

Seriously, though: The reigning-champion Golden State Warriors are on track to win more than 60 games, field the NBA’s best offense and finish inside the top five of defensive efficiency—and they’ve yet to even play their best basketball of the season. Even if they don’t end up with the Association’s top record, they’ll rightfully stay the odds-on favorites to repeat as title-toters.

Houston Rockets (+350)


Projected Record: 63-19

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Treat the Houston Rockets as a viable threat to the Warriors if you haven’t already. Yes, their offense is that good. But they’re so much more than a three-point-gunning juggernaut.

Their defense in particular has been spectacular. They rank in the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions and guard like the league’s stingiest team whenever Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker share floor.

Also, get this: Through the 30 games Clint Capela, James Harden and Chris Paul have played together, the Rockets are a mind-melting 29-1.

Milwaukee Bucks (+7500)


Projected Record: 47-35

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Tabbing the Milwaukee Bucks as contenders can be seen as controversial. Their bench has been inconsistent all year, and their crunch-time lineups will get weird if Jabari Parker doesn’t make more progress following a return from the second ACL injury of his career.

Many of these issues, though, will take care of themselves. The second unit will gain traction once Malcolm Brogdon is healthy, and the defense is second in points allowed per 100 possessions since head coach Jason Kidd received the boot.

Even if the Bucks remain top-heavy, their championship chances should not be ignored. Rotations shorten in the playoffs, and all seven of their most-played lineups are posting a plus-8.9 point differential per 100 possessions or better. If there’s a dark horse in the league capable of coming out of its own conference, it’s these guys. 

Minnesota Timberwolves (+6600)


Projected Record: 48-34

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Dire question: Should the Minnesota Timberwolves even still be on this list? Jimmy Butler, their best player, suffered a non-contact knee injury during their Feb. 23 loss to the Rockets. If he misses extensive time, they’re finished. Done. Kaput.

Minnesota is already incapable of generating defense outside of its starting lineup. Remove Butler from that equation, and it’s positively screwed.

In the event Butler is fine, the Timberwolves still need to combat an untenable shot selection currently propping up their top-five offense, along with a defense that places 26th in efficiency and dead last whenever the second unit is on the floor. They’ll end their 13-year playoff drought once and for all, but don’t expect more than a first-round cameo from them.

Oklahoma City Thunder (+2500)


Projected Record: 47-35

Contender or Pretender: Contender

We’re going out on a limb here because we have to. Losing Andre Roberson for the year torpedoed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s championship appeal. They’re residing close to the bottom 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions without him and don’t have a clear alternative to his services.

Still, the surrounding Western Conference landscape props them up. Both the Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs are now dealing with key injuries, and the Thunder remain, thanks largely to Jerami Grant stepping in for Roberson, one of the few squads with the defensive switchability necessary to wage hardwood warfare with the Rockets and Warriors.

Philadelphia 76ers (+7500)


Projected Record: 47-35

Contender or Pretender: Neither

Meet our only exception. 

View the Philadelphia 76ers as whatever you want them to be. They have the best defense in the league since Christmas, and only the Warriors have a better net rating since Jan. 1. With rookie Ben Simmons figuring out how to pilot effective lineups that don’t include Joel Embiid, they’re in business once the playoffs begin.

At the same time, they remain woefully thin on the bench. Their backups are 29th in usage, and even after the addition of Marco Belinelli from the buyout market, they don’t have the second-string shot creation or wing spacing to tussle with the league’s deeper powerhouses.

If you want to treat them as a long-shot contender, go right ahead. If you want to gloss over their championship case until next season, that’s fine too.

San Antonio Spurs (+3500)


Projected Record: 46-36

Contender or Pretender: Pretender

Writing this feels weird. The Spurs are forever contenders—at least, they’re supposed to be.

This season has to be ticketed as an exception. Head coach Gregg Popovich recently said he doesn’t expect Kawhi Leonard to play again this year. That’s akin to a death knell for their title aspirations. The Spurs have the NBA’s second-best defense without him and will flirt with winning 50 games anyway, but they don’t have the from-scratch shot creators beyond LaMarcus Aldridge to do more than win a first-round playoff series.

Hoping for that much from them is even a stretch. Aldridge is a quality offensive hub, but he subsists on a large share of tough turnaround fadeaways. Without someone who can attack the basket off the dribble from the top of the key and draw free-throw attempts in volume, the Spurs are in trouble.

Toronto Raptors (+1600)


Projected Record: 59-23

Contender or Pretender: Contender

Stop sleeping on the Raptors. Unless you’re not sleeping on them. In which case, keep up the good work.

It’s fair to worry about the annual slumps DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have suffered through every playoff campaign since 2014. But this team is so much more than them now. The Raptors bench ranks first in point differential per 100 possessions, and they’re destroying opponents whenever Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet take the court without DeRozan or Lowry.

Let’s not forget that Toronto’s two stars aren’t the same players either. Lowry is more accustomed to working off the ball, while DeRozan has turned himself into a genuine three-point threat and elite-level pick-and-roll playmaker. 

If nothing else, consider that just two teams currently place in the top five of both points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions. The reigning-champion Warriors are one. These Raptors are the other.

*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference or NBA.com and are accurate leading into games being played on Feb. 24.

Category : Sports Betting News

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