Cleveland’s pre-trade-deadline struggles opened the Eastern Conference up. The loss of Kyrie Irving last summer made the East far more competitive than the West as it was, but the troubles of Isaiah Thomas on his return from injury were just a small area of the Cavaliers’ problems prior to their blockbuster trades at the deadline.
LeBron James has been having – by some metrics, at least – a career year. Time seems to be meaningless to LeBron. Even so, the ageing Cavaliers team of earlier this year was riddled with defensive liabilities. Now surrounded by a more athletic roster, James is reinvigorated again, and averaged a triple-double in February.
The Cavs are at 4/5 to win the East. A fourth-straight Finals matchup with Golden State remains the most likely outcome, but just making the Finals is to be respected. Particularly when you bear in mind how many NBA franchises have never made it that far.
Speaking of which, Toronto are the second favourites to progress from the East. The Raptors have participated in 21 seasons thus far, but the closest they came to making the Finals was in 2015-16, when they lost to – of all teams – LeBron’s Cavs.
It’s been a great year so far for Toronto. Carrying a conference-leading record into March speaks volumes. Their team has a balance that is not easy to find in an NBA team. With just five losses at Air Canada Centre so far, gaining home court advantage is potentially a game-changer for the Raptors.
While we expect every franchise to benefit from playing in front of their own crowd during the playoffs, you can’t help but think it means a little more for the team with the best home record in the league.
The 3/1 price on the Raptors making the Finals is longer than I had expected. I can’t see Kyle Lowry and co. beating the Warriors or Rockets in a seven-game series, but they are definitely strong enough to get that far.
At a marginally longer 13/4, Irving’s Boston Celtics have slipped in this market. Their poor run prior to the All-Star break made that somewhat inevitable, but it was also an expected regression after their flying first half of the season.
Boston’s offence is too reliant on Kyrie. It might seem a strange accusation when you have a star as versatile as Irving, but their scoring options are limited compared with Toronto and Cleveland. It’s looking likely they will have to overcome the Raptors and Cavs to make it to the Finals for the first time since 2010.
I just don’t see the value in Boston at 13/4 at the moment. Having homecourt over Cleveland in the conference semi-finals gives them reason to have hope given the Cavs’ 15-15 road record, but it’s different come playoff time.
Grouping those three teams together when we talk about the playoffs is understandable. That’s what having the best player in the world does for a team. It is worth remembering, however, that Washington are only half a game back on Cleveland, with Indiana, Milwaukee and Philadelphia all within two games of the Wizards.
Even in the absence of John Wall, I’m surprised to see Washington out at 20/1. They could yet sneak into the third seed, which could see them avoid the Cavs until the conference finals. I hardly expect to see them beat LeBron, but 20/1 is certainly a decent price.
The other team who I think represent good value are Philadelphia. Their streak came to an end at the hands of the Wizards this week, but they are still only two off Washington and have shown marked improvement even during this season. Throw the potential return of Markelle Fultz into the mix, and the 40/1 price suddenly looks tempting.
So, if you want a dark horse longshot, it’s the Sixers and Wizards. Elsewhere the value is with Toronto, who have the best chance of stopping LeBron on his march towards a seventh straight Finals.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*