Over the weekend the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook released their 2018-19 regular season win total over/unders, and to little surprise, the Raptors trailed only the media-darling Boston Celtics for the Atlantic Division crown. Their projection, which is created by oddsmakers based on expert advisement and previous trends, projected the Raptors to win 54.5 games. This tied them with the upstart Philadelphia 76ers, both of which trailed the Celtics by only 3 wins at 57.5. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks rounded out the division with 32.5 and 29.5 wins, respectively.
In contrast, ESPN’s statistical analyst, Kevin Pelton, also released his annual win/loss projections which are based upon ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) along with a projection of games played and a best guess at playing time. However, considering his projections vastly under-performed last year, going only 16-13-1 against the Westgate Superbook with numerous big whiffs (Foh!), he has apparently made tweaks to his algorithm in hopes of better accuracy this season.
Pelton’s analytical projection varied drastically from the Vegas odds maker’s with the Raptors rising to first at 55, the Celtics dropping to 53, and most notably, the Sixers plummeting to 48. The Nets and Knicks saw their projections rise to 37 and 31, respectively, but ultimately, still fell short of the hypothetical playoff picture. The stark variance between these two projections highlights the unusually large jumble of question marks surrounding the division’s elite coming into this season.
Looking at the lines, it’s easy to tell that the Vegas oddsmakers (who have a lot more money on the line than Pelton) had their reservations in placing the Raptors line too high considering the uncertainty surrounding both Nick Nurse’s coaching and, more importantly, Kawhi Leonard’s health. Yet, it seems they are overrating the injury concerns of the Raptors versus those of the Celtics considering their largest unknown, Gordon Hayward, is coming off of a broken leg whereas Leonard was supposedly already healthy enough to participate in the USAB Mini-camp before pulling out due to awkward-conversation reasons. Additionally, the Celtics other returning star, Kyrie Irving, is still yet to fully recover from his March knee procedure, evidenced by his inability to take part in the aforementioned mini-camp. In the words of SI’s Ben Golliver, “the best ability is availability”, and Irving has only played 60+ games three times his entire career— only once the last 3 years. The Celtics field a cast of stars capable of reigning the east, but it remains to be seen what form they will all take come the season.
On the other hand, the Sixers, who have been largely cast aside in the best-of-the-east discussions, may have the highest variance of outcomes. There’s no denying that their young core grew into playing together during their season-ending tear, but how much of that success came from a weak March-April schedule and the increased spacing provided by the hot shooting of buyout additions Marco Bellineli and Ersan Ilyasova? Will new additions Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala (both plus-shooters in their own right) provide the same effect or production? Never mind the fact that this calculus changes completely if the reports are true and Drew Hanlen has excavated Markelle Fultz’s long-lost jumper. While many a joke has been made at Fultz’s expense on NBA twitter this past year, people forget how seamless of a fit his prior outside-in scoring style is next to the primarily paint-dwelling Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It was no accident that every draft expert had him 1st on their board despite a plethora of franchise-altering talent behind him. Losing Zaire Smith to their annual first-round pick injury certainly lowers their ceiling, but if Fultz returns to form, the Sixers trio of young studs stands eye-to-eye with any nucleus in the east.
Lastly, with rumors of next offseason swirling around the New York area like its 2009, it appears both the Knicks and Nets intend on going for the best record they can this season, rather than bottoming out and maximizing their draft pick. The Knicks will be sans-Kristaps Porzingis for the majority of the year, and the Nets will be sans-A-level-talent as always, but the Lakers set the covet-a-superstar blueprint this year and the anti-tank philosophy jives with that– regardless of how bleak their current rosters win projections are.
Despite lacking star power, the Nets now field a surplus of effective role players at every position after adding quality veterans Jared Dudley, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, and Ed Davis to their rotation. If the Kenny Atkinson-truthers are right, they’ve got a fighters chance at the playoffs. The Knicks, on the other hand? Not so much.
However, for the Nets and Knicks, scraping their way to an eight-seed this year is relatively inconsequential in the long run anyways. Even though the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs this season, showing that they were a competent organization with solid young talent was enough of a sweetener for LeBron James to go with the big market. In almost any other city both these teams would likely tank from day one, but as fruitful as a top-five pick is from a long-term view, no superstar—or even star—is coming to a 21 win Brooklyn or New York team. Expect them to gun for wins, regardless of the results.
In the end, its likely none of this will end up mattering considering the Warriors widened the gap, even more, this offseason, but with virtually all the East’s elite set to play one another four times each, the Atlantic Division banner is shaping up to be the best regular season consolation prize in the league. With more question marks than ever, it’s hard to say how it will shake out.