Which teams should you bet on in the Eastern Conference playoff race?

ByEric Moody ESPN logo
Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Boston Celtics are locked into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the other seeds are up for grabs as we enter the final stretch.

It's like musical chairs on the NBA stage, with a lot of teams trying to avoid the Celtics or theMilwaukee Bucks in the first round. Let's take a closer look at the top 10 teams in the Eastern Conference and some futures to watch.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics (57-16) have already wrapped up the top seed in the Eastern Conference and have a significant lead over the No. 2 seed Milwaukee Bucks. Boston could also clinch the league's best record, which would give them home-court advantage through to the Finals, if they advance that far. This is a Celtics team that ranks first in points scored per 100 possessions and fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions. Boston's biggest concern right now is bouncing back from two consecutive losses against an Atlanta Hawks team without Trae Young. It's crucial that the Celtics establish a tone before their playoff run where there is a strong possibility they'll face the Hawks, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers or Bulls based on the outcome of the play-in tournament. There's not any betting value with the Celtics, who are the favorites to win the NBA championship (+200).

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks (46-27) are locked into the No. 2 seed. Although Milwaukee ranks fifth in points scored per 100 possessions, they are not as stout on the defensive side of the court, ranking 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions. This has led to very inconsistent play which has continued under new coach Doc Rivers. A great example of this recently is watching the Bucks blow out a talented team like the Oklahoma City Thunder and then lose to a Los Angeles Lakers team without LeBron James in double overtime. However, this is a team with one of the most talented duos in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. There are two bets that caught my eye: Bucks to win the Eastern Conference (+295) and Bucks to win the NBA championship (+700).

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers (45-29) continue to battle the Bucks and the New York Knicks for playoff positioning. While Cleveland ranks 18th in points scored per 100 possessions, they impressively sit fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions. Defense is crucial, particularly in the playoffs, and the Cavaliers boast enough offensive firepower with players such as Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. However, there is one area of opportunity that Cleveland needs to address before the playoffs: offensive rebounds. The Cavaliers are not capitalizing on second-chance points, which unnecessarily complicates games and could prove detrimental in the playoffs. Betting on Cleveland to win the Central Division (+750) over the Bucks may hold value. They are 1.5 games back with eight games to go, while the Bucks have nine games remaining.

New York Knicks

The Knicks (44-29) have been plagued by injuries throughout the season, with players like Julius Randle and OG Anunoby facing uncertain timelines for their return. Despite these challenges, the team has managed to stay out of the play-in mix and currently holds the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. Mitchell Robinson recently returned to the rotation in a bench role, adding depth to the lineup. However, with the Eastern Conference standings tightly contested, every win or loss holds significant implications for playoff seeding. New York could potentially vie for the No. 2 seed or slip to the No. 6 spot. With five of their final nine games against teams with winning records, the road ahead is tough. There is value in backing New York to win the Eastern Conference (+1100), and getting Randle back would undoubtedly strengthen their chances of making a deep playoff run.

Orlando Magic

It wouldn't be surprising to see the Magic (42-31) finish the regular season as the No. 5 seed; they enter Saturday two games behind the Knicks for the No. 4 seed and one game ahead of the No. 6 seed Pacers. While Orlando isn't known for its offensive prowess, ranking 23rd in points scored per 100 possessions, they compensate with a slower pace that complements their strong defense. In fact, the Magic rank second in points allowed per 100 possessions. Their depth should be advantageous in the playoffs, boasting the fourth-highest scoring bench in the league. However, despite their strengths, I don't foresee Orlando making a deep playoff run due to their youth and inexperience, coupled with weaknesses on both ends of the floor. These weaknesses include a lack of perimeter shooting and inconsistency in one-on-one defense. From a betting perspective, I don't see any value here.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers (42-33) are vying to make their first playoff appearance since 2020, but they currently are clinging to the No. 6 seed, only one game ahead of Miami and 2.5 games in front of Philadelphia. This young Pacers team, led by Tyrese Haliburton, will gain valuable playoff experience as they strive to become legitimate contenders. While the addition of Pascal Siakam has bolstered Indiana, it's difficult to take them seriously given their style of play. The Pacers prioritize offense, ranking second in points scored per 100 possessions, but struggle defensively, ranking 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions. This approach hasn't historically led to playoff success in the league. From a betting perspective, I see no value here.

Miami Heat

What are the chances the Heat (40-33) make another unlikely playoff run? This is on the mind of bettors. Many reasons have contributed to the Heat's struggles this season, but the three main culprits are injuries, lack of chemistry and offensive efficiency. The Heat rank 21st in points scored per 100 possessions, but are a solid defensive team ranking eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions. Miami is getting healthier at just the right time and have one of the easiest remaining regular-season schedules. The Heat also have a recent history of outperforming their regular-season records with epic playoff runs. Miami has made it to the conference finals in three of the past four seasons and the Finals twice. Although the Heat could settle for a play-in spot and may be unlikely to win the Eastern Conference considering the competition this season, bettors shouldn't overlook Miami to win the Southeast Division (+145). They are 2.0 games behind the Magic, and both teams have nine games remaining.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers (39-35) are currently the No. 8 seed and are looking likely to be in the play-in tournament, unless they can leapfrog both the Heat and the Pacers for the No. 6 spot. Joel Embiid's absence crushed the 76ers' regular season performance, but there is hope as head coach Nick Nurse recently announced that Embiid has been cleared to travel with his teammates, and the star big man has also participated in a few light practices. Embiid's potential return before the end of the regular season could significantly boost the 76ers' chances of advancing after the regular season. Tyrese Maxey and Embiid form a formidable duo. A longshot bet worth considering is for Philadelphia to win the Eastern Conference (+1300).

Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks and the Bulls have been ninth and 10th for much of the second half of the season, but Atlanta has closed the gap on the Bulls after their epic comeback against the Celtics, and the Hawks could overtake Chicago. They have one more game against each other this season, and the Bulls already have the tiebreaker because they won the first two games. However, from a betting perspective, there is no value here, as neither team is likely to advance past the play-in tournament and into the playoffs.