The 2018 NBA season is just a few days away. The Eastern Conference kicks off with the top three seeds from last season looking most competitive.
The crucial difference, though, is the absence of LeBron James. For the first time since 2010, the East will be represented by a team in the Finals that does not contain LeBron.
For all the criticism of the Eastern Conference, it’s set to be more competitive than it has been in years. Here are a few thoughts and tips on each division…
The three best teams in the Conference are in the Atlantic Division. The two New York teams are in there as well, but neither are going to make much noise this season.
Despite missing two All-Stars, Brad Stevens masterminded the Boston Celtics to Game Seven of the Conference Finals. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are available for Stevens this season, and there’s an argument that Boston have the best roster in the NBA.
The Celtics are second favourites to win a ring (behind Golden State, of course). Stevens’ team are odds on at 19/20 to represent the East in the Finals.
It was not the most eventful offseason for the Celtics, but it didn’t need to be.
Jayson Tatum shone in the playoffs, Al Horford is going to continue to be Al Horford and Jaylen Brown is already a brilliant defender, who could become an All-Star. Add Irving and Hayward and you have a special group.
Boston will play each of Toronto and Philadelphia four times in the regular season. None of those matchups will mean much as individual results, but they will be must-watch games.
Toronto came from nowhere to land Kawhi Leonard. Early signs are that Leonard is the MVP version of himself and has seen off any injury that caused the unceremonious fall out with the Spurs.
🏆 2 x All-NBA— 888sport (@888sport) October 9, 2018
🏆 2 x Defensive Player of the Year
🏆 2 x All-Star
🏆 2013-14 NBA Champion
🏆 4 x NBA All-Defensive
The Claw in Toronto is going to fun 🏀 pic.twitter.com/m9r2WupNxx
There has been change aplenty for the Raptors, but this team won 59 games last season. Toronto could be even better this year. Their 8/11 price to win over 54.5 games is on the short side given the uncertainties, however.
The Philadelphia 76ers fell to Boston in the semi-finals last season. This offseason was meant to be a big one for Philly, but they struck out on their hunt for an All-Star as LeBron went to Los Angeles and Paul George remained with the Thunder.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are potential future MVPs. Markelle Fultz will be starting with Simmons in the backcourt to start the year, and how he gets on will be huge for Brett Brown’s team.
If Fultz can play anywhere near the level that made him go number one overall, the Sixers are a real threat. Even without Fultz, though, Philly finished last season very strongly, boasting a 22-5 record after the All-Star break.
Philadelphia made some smart complementary additions, too. The 3/1 on them to make the Finals is good value.
The Knicks and Nets are lottery teams again this year. Both teams have some exciting players, notably Kevin Knox and D’Angelo Russell, but this could be a race to the bottom (the Nets have their own draft pick for the first time since 2013).
The Knicks could have been an outside playoff shout with Kristaps Porzingis healthy. Instead, these two are waiting for next summer’s free agency.
TIP: 76ers to win the East @ 3/1
With no LeBron, the central is wide open. Cleveland are obviously going to be a lot worse. The question is, how much worse?
Tristan Thompson thinks they’re still the team to beat, but realistically, they are going to be on the cusp of the playoffs at best.
A lot depends on draft pick Collin Sexton, who is 17/2 to win Rookie of the Year. Cleveland’s 9/2 to make the playoffs could turn out to be a decent price.
LeBron’s successor as the best player in the Conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is one of the favourites to win MVP.
His Bucks are 11/10 to win the Central. Antetokounmpo is a generational talent and Milwaukee are a dark horse in the East.
Perimeter shooting is the key for the Bucks, and, if they can shoot efficiently from range, Giannis will be able to blow teams away.
Milwaukee are 13/20 to win over 46.5 games. In an up and down 2017/18, they won 44. They are the favourites to take that fourth seed - that looks a very good price.
Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers caught everyone off guard last season to take the fifth spot. They pushed Cleveland all the way but fell in the first round to a series of ridiculous LeBron performances.
Indiana face the difficult second album. They might lack star power, but they have depth. Indiana’s second unit is one of the best in the NBA.
Tyreke Evans is a stellar bench addition, but a lot will depend on Oladipo. If he can replicate last season’s numbers, the Pacers are a good price at 29/20.
The Detroit Pistons just missed out on the playoffs last season. The arrival of Blake Griffin did not quite get them over the line, but – with Dwane Casey at the helm – this is a big year for Detroit.
Long-term things could be bleak with Griffin’s contract. Right now, though, they have a very good coach and a frightening frontcourt.
Detroit need a big season. They cannot afford to be the odd team out this year. Their 1/2 price to make the playoffs is short but, providing they stay healthy, they should make it comfortably.
The Bulls are expected to finish fifth. Adding Jabari Parker was a good move, as was retaining Zach LaVine, but Chicago are a way off contending right now. The injury to Lauri Markkanen saps the remaining positivity from the club, too.
TIP: Pacers to win over 46.5 games @ 8/11
Only two teams from the Southeast Division made it into the playoffs last season.
The Washington Wizards had a disappointing campaign and left little impression in the postseason. The acquisition of Dwight Howard should make the Wizards a bit more exciting, but health is a concern.
Howard is already a doubt for the start of the campaign and it remains to be seen how many games John Wall plays.
Washington have talent. Led by Wall and Bradley Beal, they are capable of a top four berth in the East this season. Their 4/5 price to win over 44.5 games is decent value.
They only won 43 games last year, but a healthy Wall makes Washington a real threat and Howard, if available, provides crucial rim protection.
The Miami Heat were the other playoff team. Despite troubles with Hassan Whiteside, the Heat hustled their way through the year and played a feisty series with Philadelphia. Dwyane Wade returns this season, and they might yet land Jimmy Butler.
Miami are in a mess with the salary cap, though, which makes a deal tricky. Butler would change everything. It’s best to hold off on any outright bets until that saga ends.
The Hornets are the likely third best side in the division. Charlotte slumped to a 36-46 record in 2017/18 and had an underwhelming offseason.
Tony Parker provides playmaking support for the free-agent-to-be Kemba Walker and Miles Bridges is exciting but squeaking into the eight seed is the best hope for Charlotte.
Walker is a candidate to be traded midseason, which could see Charlotte tank in the second half.
Michael Jordan’s franchise changed coach and general manager in the offseason and are several years from contending. The 9/10 on under 35.5 wins is worth considering.
The Hawks and Magic – the two other teams in the division – were part of the tank race last season. As a result, they picked up two of the most exciting players in the draft in Trae Young and Mo Bamba respectively.
Orlando taking on Timofey Mozgov’s contract and Atlanta trading away Luka Doncic (or his pick, at least) are the highlights for those two.
Those decisions will be judged over the coming years. It’s still rebuild time for these two, but Young and Bamba give a flash of hope. Young is a good outside bet at 10/1 to win Rookie of the Year.
TIP: Wizards to win division @ 4/7
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*