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Setting The Pick – Playoff Contenders and Pretenders

Luka Doncic Luka Doncic - The Canadian Press

The Eastern and Western Conference truly feels like a tale of two cities heading into this year’s playoffs.

In the East, Boston sits 13 games ahead of Milwaukee and has been listed as the championship favourite on FanDuel for the entire season.


In the West, there’s a sprint to the finish line for the top-seed with Minnesota, Denver and Oklahoma City all within one game.

There’s also a massive scrum between five teams fighting to avoid the play-in tournament out West, all separated by 2.5 games.

On nights where the Raptors are getting walloped by franchise-setting margins and players like Malachi Flynn are putting up 50-point barrages, NBA fans must be eagerly awaiting playoff basketball.

The Play-In Tournament commences on April 16th; the playoffs begin in just over two weeks.

Let’s look at FanDuel’s market for Conference winners.

Here are two longshots I’d consider and two teams I’d avoid at all costs.

Contender - Dallas Mavericks to win the West 12-to-1

Coming out of All-Star Weekend, Dallas was riding a six-game win streak and full of promise after making two big splashes at the trade deadline.

They acquired Daniel Gafford from the Wizards and P.J. Washington from the Hornets, two win-now players, in exchange for two future draft picks.

Instead, they stumbled post-break and lost five of their next seven games pumping the brakes on their upside.

Since then, Luka Doncic has officially put the league on notice – the Mavs are back.

They’ve won 12 of their last 14 games and were over -900 on FanDuel to make the playoffs the last time that bet was available.

Dallas has the NBA’s second-best net rating, only behind Boston, and most impressively have a third-ranked defence.

For years, the scouting report on Doncic and company was straightforward – accept their onslaught on offence but make them pay on defence.

Doncic is easily a top-three shot maker in the NBA; Kyrie Irving is arguably the league’s most talented co-pilot. Their offence is designed for playoff basketball.

But if this 14-game sample of elite defence is sustainable, the West should be concerned.

Over this period, the Mavs have had quality wins over Miami, Golden State, Denver, and Sacramento twice.

They’ve held their opponents to a 50.6 effective field-goal percentage, No. 1 over that period.

Dallas has graded first in opponent rim accuracy according to Cleaning The Glass and allowed the fourth-fewest points in the paint.

Based on their final six games, chances are they end up in a first-round matchup with the LA Clippers.  

That’ll make for a fantastic trilogy fight after Doncic lost to them in heartbreaking fashion over his first two playoff appearances.

Contender - Philadelphia 76ers to win the East +950

 Joel Embiid Kyle Lowry Philadelphia 76ers

As I mentioned above, the Celtics deserve all the credit as undisputed favourites to win the East.

They’re on pace to finish with an all-time best net rating and have had the luxury of resting players for over three weeks given their gap over Milwaukee.

The big question out East – who’s Boston’s biggest threat?

If you run through seeds two through five, every single team has red flags.

Milwaukee has been .500 under head coach Doc Rivers and have lost two unforgivable games to lottery-bound Washington and Memphis. 

Cleveland has failed to find their rhythm working around player injuries, have lost six of their last 10 games and been four games below .500 since All-Star Weekend.

The up-and-coming Magic are impressively in fourth but inexperienced – four of their five starters have never played a single playoff game.

New York should’ve been a dark horse threat but the recent injury news regarding Julius Randle and OG Anunoby puts a serious damper on their upside.

As you run down the list, you’ll see the Sixers tucked away in the eighth-seed, out of most people’s peripheral vision.

Considering how agile Joel Embiid has looked in his first two games back this week, I’d encourage you to get on-board quickly.

The reigning MVP isn’t magically back to 100 per cent, but he’s impressed with his shooting touch.

His conditioning will need to ramp up and he’ll need to get comfortable playing with more physicality, but all signs point to him being at least 80 per cent of what he was pre-injury.

I also like betting on Philly due to their price.

Prior to Embiid’s injury in January, the Sixers were +470 to win the East. You can now get them at twice the payout.

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, there’s hope he’ll have enough time to regain his old form.

Add in the fact that Tyrese Maxey has officially arrived as a top-tier shot maker, Nick Nurse has replaced Doc Rivers, and playoff-veteran Kyle Lowry has been added to the fold, the Sixers have the necessary tools to give Boston a run for their money.

Pretenders - Sacramento Kings to win the West 50-to-1

Over the first half of the regular-season, the Kings were sitting in a Top-6 spot and looked capable of repeating their success from last year, getting as low as 14-to-1 to win the West.

For the majority of March, they could be found around -400 to make the playoffs on FanDuel.

I’m not telling you to simply fade the Kings, I’m encouraging you to consider betting on them to miss the playoffs.

Sacramento has quietly benefitted from injury luck these past two seasons.

Last year, none of their top-six players missed more than 10 games.

Unfortunately for them this season, their luck has run out.

Kevin Huerter suffered a season-ending injury to his left shoulder, a tough break for the Kings.

You could argue that undrafted guard, Keon Ellis, provides them more value as a defensive stopper and nullifies this loss.

But there’s no denying the Kings will be hurting with Malik Monk sidelined.

On March 30th, Adrian Wojnarowski announced that the Sixth Man of the Year favourite is expected to miss four-to-six weeks, likely missing the play-in tournament.

That’s probably where their season ends.

Of their remaining six games, the Kings face Boston, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Phoenix – all teams projected to be favoured by more than one possession.

Should they lose all those games, the math implies they’ll end up in the bottom half of the play-in tournament.

The Lakers need to win three of their final five games in this scenario to leapfrog Sacramento.

If the Kings get a date with Golden State, I worry their short-handed squad won’t be able to keep up.

The Warriors have put together six straight wins and seem to be finding their form at the right time. They also knocked them out in last year’s playoffs.

Pretenders - Milwaukee Bucks to win the East +310

Milwaukee Bucks

At the current price available, FanDuel is suggesting the Bucks have a 24.4 per cent chance to win the East.

Given their recent form, I have serious doubts.

For all the excitement accompanying them during preseason, Damian Lillard has been a major disappointment.

He’ll finish the year with the fifth-worst scoring average of his career, fourth-worst field-goal percentage, and third-worst three-point percentage.

We’ve heard all year, the Giannis Antetokounmpo-Lillard pick-and-roll needs time.

Well, it’s April, how long should we wait?

Alarm bells were certainly ringing when first-year head coach Adrian Griffin was fired after leading Milwaukee to a 30-13 record.

Doc Rivers was brought in the be the fixer and has subsequently gone 15-15 during his tenure.

The jury is out on whether he was an improvement.

The trade of Lillard for Jrue Holiday was all about his offence outweighing the loss of Holiday’s defence.

That seems to be a wash.

Milwaukee finished with a 3.4 net rating last season. They currently sit at 3.2 this year.

From an eye-test standpoint, Lillard and Malik Beasley can’t seem to stay in front of anyone on the perimeter.

Khris Middleton hasn’t looked healthy all season; his days as a 20-point scorer seems like a thing of the past.

Add in these two unforgivable losses to Memphis and Washington last week and I wouldn’t touch anything related to the Bucks until the price takes a significant haircut.