NBA Picks: Eastern Conference Woes Worth Exploiting

Jason Lake

Monday, August 19, 2013 7:49 PM UTC

Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 7:49 PM UTC

The 2013-14 NBA betting season is nearly upon us. If you like making money, take a look at the Eastern Conference, where at least five teams will be trying as hard as they can – to lose.

It’s great to be back for another season of sports betting here at SBR Forum. This is a fantastic time to be a handicapper; we’ve got a world of information at our fingertips, and a wonderfully irrational betting public to exploit. And the NBA is doubling down on the crazy this year – yeah, there’s a championship to be won, but half the league is actively jockeying for position in an epic race to the bottom of the standings. The reward for tanking? A shot at a potential superstar in the 2014 NBA Draft, aka the Andrew Wiggins Sweepstakes.

East is Least

The gap between the NBA’s haves and the have-nots is especially wide in the Eastern Conference. This is nothing new, of course. But what is fairly new is how cavernous the gap has become. In 2012-13, the best teams in the East made a healthy profit against the NBA odds, with all three division champions ending the regular season in the black:

Atlantic: New York Knicks (54-28 SU, 46-34-2 ATS)

Central: Indiana Pacers (49-32 SU, 42-39 ATS)

Southeast: Miami Heat (66-16 SU, 46-36 ATS)

This was first time since 2008-09 that each of the three division winners in the East showed a profit. It’s not easy to beat the NBA odds when everyone expects you to win. The Heat were the defending champions in 2012-13, led by the world’s most famous basketball player in LeBron James, and they still managed to make a profit on their way to yet another title. 

MJ vs. LBJ 

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a moment to look at Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and see how they fared in the regular season after winning the title (not including the years after Jordan’s first two retirements):

1991-92: 67-15 SU, 41-39-2 ATS

1992-93: 57-25 SU, 36-44-2 ATS

1996-97: 69-13 SU, 42-40 ATS

1997-98: 62-20 SU, 39-40-2 ATS 

Backing Jordan’s Bulls with your NBA picks back then was like squeezing blood from a stone. So what’s different now with LeBron’s Heat? The easy answer is that changes in the league’s salary cap structure and draft rules have given poor teams more and more incentive to lose basketball games. True, but that didn’t prevent the Heat from going 8-14 ATS last year as double-digit favorites. Chalk doesn’t taste any better in 2013 than it did in 1993.

Tanking for Dollars

The dominant NBA betting theme for 2014 is whether all those tanking teams will play so poorly that they underperform their already-low market expectations, thus making the Heat and the other top contenders even more profitable. It’s easy enough to divide the Eastern Conference along class lines:

Upper class: Miami, Indiana, New York, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets

Middle class: Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors

Lower class: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers

The biggest offseason shake-up in the East was in the Atlantic, where the Celtics entered the Wiggins Sweepstakes by trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets for draft picks and a collection of cast-offs led by Gerald Wallace. The 76ers did their part by sending all-star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Hornets for draft picks, including this year’s sixth overall pick, Nerlens Noel, who’s recovering from a torn ACL and isn’t expected to play until Christmas.

There are three other teams in the Western Conference (the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz) who are looking toward the 2014 NBA Draft, making it eight teams in total vying for a spot in a draft that features five blue-chip prospects, including Wiggins. If any of the teams in the middle class struggle in the early going, they could easily fold their tents and join the Tank Parade.

This is a glorious situation for the Heat and the other four title contenders in the East. With all those other teams battling to lose as many games as possible, covering double-digit spreads doesn’t seem so daunting anymore. It’s just a question of how far the tanking can be pushed until the league pushes back, and how cynical the basketball betting market has become. The NBA – it’s fantastically messed up.
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