November 28, 2022

Ah, the Central Division, more appropriately known as the Milwaukee Bucks’ punching bag. Since Mike Budenholzer took over in 2018, the Bucks are a staggering 50-8 against divisional opponents. That’s a 71-win pace against teams in the Central and a 53-win pace against the rest of the league (against which they’ve won roughly 64 percent of their Budenholzer-coached games). For the past four seasons, the Central Division has essentially been to the Bucks what the West Coast Conference is to Gonzaga: warmup fodder for their real games in the spring.

But the Bulls were actually half-decent last season! The Cavs have Donovan Mitchell! Cade Cunningham is on his way to stardom! And the Pacers … are trying their best! Maybe this is the year the Bucks are actually challenged atop the divisional standings. Let’s dive into the Central Division’s over/under lines to find out.

All odds via Caesars Sportsbook.

*Pythagorean Wins represent the number of games a team would be expected to win based on their point-differential.

Milwaukee Bucks

2021-22 Wins

51

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

51

2022-23 Win total line

52.5

The pick: Over 52.5

On paper, the Bucks look like the sort of team gunning for an under. Three of their four best players are in their 30s, and so are several key reserves. Their big free agent addition, Joe Ingles, won’t be ready until the middle of the season. Khris Middleton won’t be ready for opening night. They’ve already won a championship and won a Game 7 on the road, so it’s not as though they’ll be gunning for seeding.

But this line is just so low for a team like Milwaukee. The Bucks blew by it in Budenholzer’s first two years as coach and flirted with it in his next two, but they haven’t had an especially clean season in either. The 2021 team that won the championship spent the regular season overhauling its defensive scheme. Last season’s Bucks were largely without Brook Lopez. Lopez is 34. There’s no guarantee that he stays healthy this season. But Milwaukee is slightly better equipped to handle his potential absence this time around with Serge Ibaka on board for the whole season and Sandro Mamukelashvili starring at Eurobasket.

Teams with multi-time MVPs simply don’t win fewer than 53 games if healthy. LeBron James won 53 or more games (or the 82-game equivalent) eight years in a row at his peak. Michael Jordan did it the last seven years of his career. Tim Duncan didn’t dip below this pace until his 13th season. Stephen Curry has reached that mark in six of his seven healthy seasons under Steve Kerr. Even the much-maligned two-time MVP of the mid-2000s, Steve Nash, got to 54 wins in five out of six years. When you have a player as good as Giannis Antetokounmpo, you should typically expect to win 53 or more games so long as the rest of your roster is at least remotely acceptable. Milwaukee’s is. The Bucks have no great need to win 60 games, but merely having Giannis means getting into the 50s almost by default.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: Yes

Middleton’s absence and the general age of this roster should scare you off of Milwaukee’s No. 1 seed odds. The Bucks are -250 favorites to win the Central Division, and there’s simply no good reason to ever pay that price for a divisional bet. By all means, grab their championship odds a few weeks into the season, when Middleton’s absence inevitably leads to a sluggish start, but in terms of the regular season, the win total is probably your best bet here.

2021-22 Wins

44

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

48

2022-23 Win total line

47.5

The pick: Over 47.5

The short answer here is that Cleveland played at the level of a 48-win team last season and turned their fifth-best player and someone who played only 11 games into Donovan Mitchell, so yes, I would advise betting the over. Oh, you want the long answer here? OK. We can do that. In short, Cleveland has a remarkably high floor on both ends of the court.

Big men are disproportionately responsible for regular-season defense. Everyone knows how good the Evan Mobley-Jarrett Allen duo was together, but the two of them were also so good individually that Cleveland never really experienced defensive drop-off when one of them went to the bench. Lineups featuring Allen and no Mobley ranked in the 66th percentile in defensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass. Reverse the two and the Cavs still came in at league average. Together? They were in the 94th percentile. So yes, they are playing two small guards … but last year’s team did that as well. If anything, bigger roles for Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade likely make the supporting cast better defensively. Replacing Lauri Markkanen’s defense won’t be especially difficult, and Mobley, in only his second season, is probably going to get better.

Ball-handlers are disproportionately responsible for regular-season offense, and the same basic principle will apply here. Mitchell and Darius Garland will be great together, and both should be wonderful off-ball threats on an offense capable of maximizing those skillsets. Mitchell had a down year shooting last season, but hit roughly 43 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in the year prior. Garland has evolved into one of the NBA’s best deep shotmakers, joining the extremely exclusive “30/30” club last season by making at least 30 shots from at least 30 feet away. How on Earth do you defend, say, a Garland-Allen pick-and-roll 30 feet from the rim? Drop and Garland bombs away from deep. Chase him over the screen and he races past you. Blitz and Allen, a surprisingly adept passer, has a 4-on-3 with two other All-Stars as options. Overhelp in the paint and they just swing it around to Mitchell, one of the best guards in basketball at maximizing mismatches and advantages.

But the real value in having both of them isn’t what they’ll do together. It’s what they’ll do separately. Cleveland lineups featuring Garland last season were in the 73rd percentile offensively, but lineups without him were in the 15th. Well now, those Garland-less lineups will be led by an even better shot-creator. Mitchell just led the NBA’s No. 1 ranked offense. Yes, that is a team-wide accomplishment, but it’s an extraordinarily impressive one for any lead guard to be a part of. Here is the complete list of primary ball-handlers for No. 1 offenses this century: Mitchell, James Harden (twice), Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry (three times), Chris Paul (twice), LeBron James, Tony Parker, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash (eight times!), Deron Williams and Kobe Bryant. The takeaway here, aside from how underrated Nash was, is that leading a No. 1 offense essentially means you’re a Hall-of-Fame-caliber shot-creator. Utah’s playoff foibles have deprived Mitchell of that reputation.

So yes, there are question marks here. We don’t yet know who their fifth starter will be, though Wade, Okoro and Cedi Osman would all be fine picks. More pressingly, it’s not fully clear how much space they’ll be able to generate offensively if either Mobley or their small forward struggles to make 3s consistently. But in the grand scheme of things, that is a relatively solvable problem. Assuming Cleveland stays healthy, it is going to be above average on both offense and defense with the potential to push for a top-five finish on either side of the ball depending on what it prioritizes in lineup construction. Winning less than 48 games under those circumstances would be almost impossible.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: No

Let me give you a menu:

  • Plus-300 to win the Central Division. I’d probably pass for lack of value. As we covered, the Bucks are also a high floor team. This might be a sensible hedge if you grabbed the Bucks to earn the No. 1 seed and just want to be covered in case of their worst-case outcomes.
  • Plus-900 to earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yea, I like this a lot. I don’t think it’s especially likely, but it’s great value especially in relation to those divisional odds. If Cleveland finishes ahead of Milwaukee, there’s a very good chance that means the Cavs have won 55 or more games and are competing for a top seed. At the very least, I like this as a slight hedge if you pick Philly in this same spot.
  • Plus-1400 for JB Bickerstaff to win Coach of the Year. My pick is Mike Malone, but Bickerstaff checks a lot of boxes here. He got overlooked last season just as Monty Williams did two years ago. He’s relatively early in his head-coaching tenure. His team is probably going to win a lot of games. If Cleveland is as good as I expect it to be, he’ll be in the mix.
  • You’re going to find different adjusted lines at every book, but anything in the 50-52 win range with inflated odds really appeals to me. 

The Cavs and Sixers are the two teams I’d recommend taking big swings on in the regular season. Avoid their Finals and championship odds because there are too many variables to account for at this point, but Cleveland is the East’s upside play.

Chicago Bulls

2021-22 Wins

46

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

40

2022-23 Win total line

42.5

The pick: Under 42.5

I’m as pessimistic about Chicago as I am optimistic about Cleveland. Let’s lightning round the reasons:

  • Nobody knows when Lonzo Ball is going to be healthy. Ball was arguably the second-most important Bull last season. Chicago’s entire defensive scheme relied on Ball and Alex Caruso being so good at the point of attack that their backline weakness with DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic could be hidden. Aside from being one of Chicago’s best shooters, his primary offensive value came in transition. The Bulls ranked second in transition points per play last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and Ball is one of the NBA’s best transition playmakers.
  • Speaking of health question marks: Zach LaVine had knee surgery in May, Caruso dealt with several injuries last season and Patrick Williams missed most of his sophomore campaign due to a wrist injury.
  • The Bulls ranked 18th in the NBA in first quarter net rating last season, 15th in the second quarter and 22nd in the third quarter. But in the fourth quarter? They jumped all the way up to sixth. Their 25-16 record in clutch games was the fourth-best in the NBA, and it came almost entirely as a result of DeRozan making an unsustainable amount of shots. DeRozan shot 53.5 percent from the field in clutch situations a season ago. A year earlier, he was at 45.2 percent, which is in line with his career average. If you expect DeRozan to regress to the mean? That’s going to cost the Bulls a few games. If you expect DeRozan to regress with age? That’s going to cost the Bulls a few games.
  • Chicago entered this offseason with a desperate need for forward depth. Instead of pursuing two-way forwards with their mid-level exception like Philadelphia (P.J. Tucker), Toronto (Otto Porter) or Minnesota (Kyle Anderson), the Bulls chose only to dip into their exception for a backup center (Andre Drummond). You’ll be shocked to learn that in doing so, they ducked the luxury tax … mere months after ownership promised to pay the tax for a contender.

The Bulls are everything you should look for in an under bet. They’re rapidly aging, have injury issues, outperformed their statistical expectation a year ago, have uncommitted ownership and play in a big enough market to drive public money onto the over.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: No

I’d say I slightly prefer the Bulls to participate in the play-in at -110 than Chicago’s under, which is sitting at -115 at Caesars. The odds are essentially the same, but I’d rather get a range of something like 36-46 wins than go all in on an under If you want to bet a Chicago collapse, though, you can grab them at +115 to miss the playoffs. That’s a bit risky given the play-in round, but it’s probably my favorite overall play on the board for Chicago.

2021-22 Wins

23

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

19

2022-23 Win total line

30.5

The pick: Under 30.5

This was one of the tougher calls in the East for me. The Pistons built for a play-in push. Bojan Bogdanovic goes a long way toward solving their shooting woes even if they do play two-big lineups. Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks provide needed stability on an extremely young team. Last year’s record and numbers don’t do justice to what this team was at the end of the season largely because of how good Cade Cunningham became by April.

And yet, I’m drawn to the under for a few reasons. Building for the play-in is one thing. Committing to that goal throughout the season is another. If they start out slowly, there’s going to be pressure to get Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and perhaps even Killian Hayes meaningful minutes. There’s a world in which the Pistons look like an over for much of the season before tailing off at the end in a mini tank once the play-in goal is off of the table.

The defense is also a pretty big question mark. There are a lot of theoretically strong defenders on this roster. Cunningham should grow into a stopper. Saddiq Bey has the tools to be a great defender. Both Duren and Isaiah Stewart have upside defensively. But young players just tend to struggle on that end of the floor, and aside from Noel, the veterans they’ve added since the deadline just aren’t going to help matters. It’s hard to build a good defense on a roster giving Marvin Bagley significant minutes

Is this the best way to bet on this team: Yes

I’d probably just stay away from the Pistons considering Cunningham’s upside, but if you insist on betting them, the win total is probably your best pick. Worst regular season record at +1100 is a little interesting as a hedge for your true choice just in case Cunningham gets hurt, but there’s nothing especially appealing here.

Indiana Pacers

2021-22 Wins

25

2021-22 Pythagorean wins

31

2022-23 Win total line

22.5

The pick: Over 22.5

I’ll confess, I struggled with Indiana largely as a matter of philosophy. I picked Orlando’s over. No other team is in this range. Therefore, picking Indiana’s over as well would essentially amount to a prediction of every Eastern Conference team winning at least 23 games. That’s fairly rare, though not unprecedented. At least one conference has seen every team win 23 or more games four times in the past 10 82-game seasons, so it’s certainly unlikely, but hardly impossible.

Once I was willing to go down that road, Indiana’s over became fairly straightforward. Rick Carlisle has never hit this under in his entire head coaching career. The Pacers as a team haven’t won fewer than 23 games since 1985. It’s very, very difficult to win less than 23 games when you aren’t actively trying to win less than 23 games. The Pacers never tank, and all indications suggest that they don’t plan to start now. The Athletic reported Monday that “owner Herb Simon showed increasing interest as the summer went on in having new lead guard Tyrese Haliburton, Turner and Hield start the season together” as negotiations with the Lakers on a Russell Westbrook trade went on.

Haliburton’s presence here is the clincher. He currently has the second-best odds for Most Improved Player at +1100. The Pacers probably won’t be good enough for him to contend for the award, but it just goes to show how much faith the basketball world has in Haliburton. Having him around and healthy for most of the season simply won’t allow for an all-out tank. Even last year’s Thunder managed to play at a 23-win pace when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suited up. The same principle applies here.

Is this the best way to bet on this team: Yes

Save all of your worst record bets for the Western Conference. The Pacers aren’t good enough to make the play-in, and therefore their playoff odds are out the window as well. Even if you’re going for the under, the win total is the play here. 

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