Obviously, Cleveland and Chicago are the NBA betting favorites to win the Eastern Conference, but here are three teams that could surprise if some of the big boys suffer serious injuries or turmoil.
1. Atlanta Hawks
NBA Odds To Win The East: +4000 at Bet365
This could seem like a controversial selection to some. Atlanta won only 38 games last season and couldn’t beat the Indiana Pacers when the regular season leaders in the Eastern Conference were playing what was by far their worst basketball of the season. Atlanta’s offense devolved to the point where the Hawks were cranking three pointers and doing hardly anything else. Why is this team a darkhorse in the East? The answer is surprisingly simple: Al Horford played less than half the season for Atlanta in 2013 and 2014. He is the Hawks’ best player, and if he can stay on the court this season, the Hawks, having gained a lot of experience playing without him, might be a much more complete team than a lot of analysts are ready to expect. This is a team that could win 50 games in the East if you combine the improvements that are likely to result from Horford’s return, plus the development of players who received extended minutes with Horford out.
2. Charlotte Hornets
NBA Odds To Win The East: +2500
This is a team that finished seventh in the East last season and has picked up a player who could add a lot of value to the team this season. Lance Stephenson helped the Indiana Pacers become one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference and one of the five or six best teams in the NBA the past two seasons with his ballhandling, energy, and scoring ability. If Stephenson can quickly blend in with a roster that already includes Al Jefferson in the paint and Kemba Walker on the perimeter, Charlotte could make the jump from the seventh spot to the third spot in the East by virtue of winning a crowded and balanced Southeast Division. Other teams, mostly the Washington Wizards, are getting a lot of preseason publicity, but the Hornets could very realistically sneak past everyone else in the Southeast, which is by far the division most likely to be competitive down to the final day of the coming regular season. While Cleveland and Toronto are clear favorites in the Central and Atlantic, the Southeast is wide open, and Charlotte could create some havoc there.
3. Miami Heat
NBA Odds To Win The East: +2000
What a difference a year makes in Miami. The Heat were the favorite NBA pick to win the East for three seasons. Last season, they were co-favorites with the Indiana Pacers. They won a fourth straight Eastern Conference title and were hoping to make it five this season. The Heat were optimistic that LeBron James would recognize how much of a good thing he had in Miami and would stay for at least two more seasons, in the middle of his prime, before considering the new free-agent situation in 2016. LeBron went to Cleveland, though, to join the Cavaliers, and now Miami is in a very different place. Yet, the Heat are not completely out of contention in the East. Chris Bosh didn’t go to Houston. He stayed in Miami with Dwyane Wade. Luol Deng was acquired in the offseason, so if the Heat avoid Cleveland in the playoffs and Chicago’s Derrick Rose gets injured, Miami could still be a player in the end.