Just about every NBA expert assumes the Cleveland Cavaliers will win the Eastern Conference for a third straight season. However, I’ll be putting some money down on the surging Washington Wizards to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
Some around the NBA snickered when Washington hired Scott Brooks as its head coach last April. Brooks had done a pretty good job at Oklahoma City leading the Thunder to three appearances in the Western Conference Finals and one in the NBA Finals, losing to LeBron James' Miami Heat. Brooks was also considered only a caretaker for a team that had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Brooks was tight with Durant before being fired, and I'm sure the Wizards' front office hoped that might help convince Durant to sign with Washington – his hometown team – in free agency, but he didn't even meet with anyone from the team before choosing Golden State.
Brooks' debut season did not start well with Washington 7-13 through 20 games. However, since early December this has been one of the NBA's best teams. Washington's 35 wins since Dec. 5 are the most in the Eastern Conference. During that time, the Wizards are averaging around 111 points per game. They are now right there with Boston in pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs aren't exactly playing great ball at the moment and clearly miss the injured Kevin Love, so it's very possible that Washington could catch them. The Wizards are a great home team at 26-9, and 21-14 ATS in NBA betting. I wouldn't wager against them if they had home-court advantage in the East playoffs. The Wizards are one of four teams in the East to have a winning record against both the Eastern and Western Conferences.
The NBA's best backcourt probably remains the Warriors' Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but I'd rate Washington's John Wall and Bradley Beal at No. 2. Beal, finally healthy, is averaging a career-best 23.2 points per game – he is one of nine players this season to have four 40+ point efforts this season -- and Wall is putting up 23.1 per night along with 10.8 assists (second in the NBA). Washington is 40-20 when Beal and Wall are both in the starting lineup. In those games, the Wizards average 109.4 points on .477 percent shooting.
Supporting Cast Is Stepping Up
We knew Beal and Wall were good; what has made the biggest difference has been the jump in play of small forward Otto Porter and the addition of Bojan Bogdanovic at the trade deadline from the Nets. Porter has made himself a ton of money as a pending free agent as he's averaging 14.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. Porter is shooting an NBA-best 45.5 percent from long range. That's by far the best number of his career. The new CBA makes it much easier for teams to keep their free agents in terms of finances so I doubt the Wizards let him go.
If there was one weakness on the Wizards it was the bench. Bogdanovic has been huge there. He's averaging 16.0 points with Washington and shooting 49 percent from long range. He leads all reserves in total points and is second in made 3-pointers since the All-Star Break.
Washington concluded a tough five-game Western Conference road trip at Minnesota on Monday. That will be tough in the second of a back-to-back after the Wizards rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit to win in Portland on Sunday, 125-124 in OT. It was Washington's fifth straight victory and its first win when trailing by at least 21 at half since Jan. 9, 1987 against the Bucks (trailed by 22). The rest of the week sets up to be a success as the Wiz will be favored Wednesday vs. Dallas, Friday vs. Chicago and probably Saturday in Charlotte.
The games to circle the rest of the way on Washington's schedule in terms of the chase for the East's top seed would be March 20 in Boston and March 25 in Cleveland. The Cavs game starts a five-game road trip that includes visits to playoff teams the Clippers, Utah and Golden State.
The Wizards are +1000 on BetOnline NBA odds to win the East, and that's potentially great value if they can get the No. 1 seed.