Handicapping the NBA Division Leaders
by Trevor Whenham - 2/22/2012
We’re only about halfway through the NBA season, but there are four divisional leaders that have opened up a comfortable lead in their division so far. The 76ers are up by four games in the Atlantic Division, and the Bulls, the Heat, and the Thunder are up by more than that.
A lead like that certainly isn’t insurmountable at this point, but if a team continues to play well then four or more games is likely enough to hold on and secure a home court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.
So, are these four teams likely to hold on? Let’s take a look at each in turn (odds are from Sportsbook.com):
Philadelphia 76ers (-110 to win the Atlantic)
We’ll start here with the least likely to hold on. I’d say that they are the only one that isn’t all but guaranteed to hold on, but that would give away the ending of this article.
Philadelphia has played phenomenally well this far, and the Sixers are by far the class of their division to this point.
There are some issues, though — or at least concerns.
For one, the team has seemingly been overachieving, and the fact that they are mired in a four-game losing streak right now would suggest that they could easily adjust downwards.
More significantly, there are two underachieving teams behind them.
The Knicks have woken up recently thanks to “Linsanity,” and now they are healthy and at full strength. They are built to be much better than they have been up to this point, and could easily find much better form and continue to close this gap.
Boston has yet to find their next gear, but we know they have it as well, and they are as capable as New York is of getting hot and closing the gap in a hurry.
Philadelphia is very young — perhaps too young to hold up under the intense pressure they are sure to face going forward.
The Knicks at +140 seem like a more attractive bet at this point.
Oklahoma City Thunder (-1400 to win the Northwest)
It’s telling that I am doing these in increasing order of odds, and the second-lowest price is -1400. Needless to say, the oddsmakers like the chances of the last three teams holding on to their leads.
The Thunder have the best record in the Western Conference. They are playing very well, and their form has remained solid recently.
The three teams chasing them — Denver, Portland and Minnesota — are all at least 7.5 games back, and all have real flaws, and real issues with experience that make it hard to trust them down the stretch.
The Thunder aren’t going to collapse, and even if they did it would be tough for one of these teams to play well enough to close the gap. Thunder fans can comfortably budget for those playoff tickets — probably a lot of them.
Chicago Bulls (-2500 to win the Central)
The Bulls are quite possibly the best team in the league — if Derrick Rose is healthy, that is — and they play in perhaps the softest division in the league. They are very secure.
They are playing well and they have shown that they can survive when Rose isn’t able to go — at least in the regular season.
Indiana is the only team in the division that is even remotely a contender — Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit are hopeless. Indiana has been a pleasant surprise this year, but they haven’t been as strong recently as they were earlier, and there are a lot of holes on the roster even though they are moving in the right direction.
Chicago is very secure.
Miami Heat (-2500 to win the Southeast)
This race should have been more interesting than it is. Atlanta is solid, but they haven’t taken the step forward that they need to and they have struggled to a 3-7 record in their last 10. They aren’t going to challenge Miami.
The Magic should be able to at least scare the Heat a bit, but the Dwight Howard trade drama has been a distraction, and it’s quite possible that he won’t still be in Orlando for the stretch drive.
The Heat are also playing darned well — they have won seven straight. Miami is essentially going to be able to cruise to the finish line uncontested in this one. There is no drama here at all — other than whether the Heat or the Bulls will host their conference final showdown.
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