The Southeast Division is in something of a transitional period. Atlanta and Charlotte are ascending thanks to young star point guards. Orlando willingly went into the tank at the 2021 deadline, and Washington could join them at any moment if Bradley Beal suggests he’s ready to move on. Even the inevitable Miami Heat are eventually going to have to reckon with the fact that the majority of their salary cap is tied to players in their mid-30s.
Balancing organizational direction with immediate reality is one of the hardest parts of handicapping win totals. All five teams in this division represent uniquely challenging over/under lines, so let’s work through all five and try to figure where these teams land this season even if we have a good idea of where they’re going over the next several. The following caveats apply here, as they will for all of our over/under picks.
- You’re generally going to get good value on the best teams if they stay healthy. The highest line this season belongs to Brooklyn at 54.5 wins. Three teams beat that figure in the 2018-19 season (the last 82-game season the NBA has played), and that number is a bit low compared to most years. Vegas knows that a certain number of teams are going to beat the highest line. They keep it low anyway hoping to draw in bettors that ignore the possibility of injuries. Think of the Lakers last season. Most bettors likely took the over, so when LeBron James and Anthony Davis got hurt, Vegas probably made a fortune. Still, such outcomes are on the rarer side. If you think you can identify the three or four best teams in the NBA, take their overs. Injuries will probably cost you at least one bet, but if you’re right about the other teams, they’re going to hit their over easily. Unsurprisingly, you’ll see plenty of overs at the top of the standings among these picks.
- Remember, teams played only 72 games last season. We’re back up to 82 this season. For that reason, I’ve not only listed every team’s record, but how that record would have translated to an 82-game schedule.
- Point differential is far more predictive of future performance than record. There are a number of reasons for this ranging from shooting luck to record in close games. ESPN uses a modified version of Bill James’ Pythagorean wins formula from baseball to estimate what a team’s record should have been based on their net rating, so that figure (along with an 82-game adjustment) will be listed below as well.
- There is no set formula for regular-season winning, but two traits tend to lead to winning over bets: defense and depth. The regular season is long and never goes as planned. Players get hurt. They get tired. They aren’t always committed to winning that random Tuesday night in Charlotte that might be meaningless to them, but critical to you as a bettor. Fewer things can go wrong for deep teams. Defense tends to be less reliant on individual players (with a few exceptions). Deep, defensive-minded teams can still underperform, but they tend to have higher floors. That’s what you want for these bets. You’re trying to beat the line by a half win here, not blow it away by 10.
- All lines come courtesy of Caesar’s Sportsbook.
2020-21 record: 41-31
2020-21 EWL: 42-30
2020-21 82-game pace: 47-35
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 48-34
There were two versions of the 2019-20 Atlanta Hawks. The first, coached by Lloyd Pierce, went 14-20. The second, coached by Nate McMillan, went 27-11, reached the Eastern Conference Finals and took as many games off of the Milwaukee Bucks as the Phoenix Suns did. The true Atlanta Hawks are somewhere in between those two extremes, but I lean towards McMillan’s juggernaut for a few reasons:
- Pierce may have had to deal with Bogdan Bogdanovic’s extended absence, but he wasn’t the only injured Hawk. De’Andre Hunter played only five regular-season games for McMillan and missed most of the playoffs. Cam Reddish didn’t play a regular-season game under McMillan. The Hawks even went 5-2 without Trae Young with McMillan as the head coach. He rarely had his complete roster and was still excellent.
- Atlanta’s four leaders in minutes are all 26 or younger. Nine of their 10 minutes leaders are back this season. This roster is incredibly young. Young players improve throughout seasons, and continuity helps that improvement carry over from season to season.
- The Hawks filled arguably their biggest hole soon after Pierce was fired. For years, Atlanta’s offense fell off of a cliff whenever Young went to the bench. The Hawks scored 101.7 points per 100 possessions with Young on the bench under Pierce. Under McMillan? That figure rose to 106.3. That’s not great by any means, and Bogdanovic accounts for some of that, but trading Rajon Rondo, who was terrible for them, for Lou Williams, who was mostly good, went a long way in making their bench offense passable. Williams is still on the team.
Atlanta is incredibly reliant on one star. If Young misses an extended period of time, you’re losing an over bet on the Hawks. But they’re so deep everywhere else that no other single injury except perhaps to Clint Capela would derail their season. Young is an elite offensive floor-raiser. His mere presence guarantees offensive competence. Assuming the defense holds mostly steady and the young players improve as expected, the Hawks should be able to top this figure comfortably.
2020-21 record: 33-39
2020-21 EWL: 31-41
2020-21 82-game pace: 37-45
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 35-47
Admit it, you want to bet on LaMelo Ball. The Hornets are a blast and their Rookie of the Year is poised for superstardom. It’s going to happen eventually. Why not now? Charlotte played at roughly a 45-win pace when Gordon Hayward was healthy. If he stays healthy and Ball makes the leap he’s capable of, there’s an argument for Charlotte blowing past this total and emerging as the Eastern Conference’s sleeper of the year.
But when does Hayward ever stay healthy? Skip past the 2017-18 season that he barely played in and he’s still missed an average of over 19 games per season since leaving Utah. At this point, it would be irresponsible not to build an absence into projections. The player Ball is going to be in a few years will be more than capable of weathering that storm, but at present, this still isn’t exactly a roster optimized for him. Mason Plumlee is an improvement upon Cody Zeller at center, but he’s hardly the lob threat Ball needs. Kai Jones will be one day, but he’s extremely raw right now. Scouts were split on James Bouknight, but at a bare minimum, he’s probably going to be a downgrade on Devonte’ Graham at least at first. What version of Kelly Oubre are we really getting here?
There was a novelty to playing the Hornets last season that probably contributed to them exceeding expectations. Preparing for the team with a million ball-handlers and no centers is really difficult on the sixth night of a nine-day road trip. Some of that novelty has probably worn off. I’d advise against betting on Charlotte either way. There’s so much upside with Ball that an under pick is risky. But it’s where I’m leaning right now largely because of Hayward’s health and an offseason that was geared more toward the future.
2020-21 record: 40-32
2020-21 EWL: 36-36
2020-21 82-game pace: 46-36
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 41-41
Miami’s top six is spectacular. It’s hard to imagine a trio of stars complementing each other as well as Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo. Lowry infuses sorely needed shooting and point-of-attack defense without sacrificing any switchability. He’s going to fit like a glove in Erik Spoelstra’s motion offense. He hasn’t had two high-IQ ball-handlers like this since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Duncan Robinson and P.J. Tucker are one-side contributors, but they balance each other out in that way. Tyler Herro is going to score a ton of points off the bench.
But what about the roster beyond them? Markieff Morris had a very nice run with the Lakers in the 2020 playoffs, but his shooting regressed last season. Victor Oladipo has played 88 games in the past three years. The only other established reserve here is DeWayne Dedmon, who’s fine in a pinch but probably not someone teams should be relying on as a steady rotation player.
Look, this is the Heat we’re talking about. They had this same problem on paper two years ago and they pulled Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn out of a hat. If you want to trust that someone out of the Gabe Vincent-Max Strus-Omer Yurtseven-KZ Okpala crowd pops? I wouldn’t blame you one bit. They’ll be attractive on the buyout market as they always are. Depth isn’t going to be the reason the Heat do or don’t win the 2021 championship.
But it’s probably going to cost them a few games here and there when injuries pile up. Lowry and Tucker are 36. Butler is 33. Those guys are going to miss time with some ailment or another, and without seeing this bench in action, it just isn’t an easy one to trust. So reluctantly, I lean toward the under here.
2020-21 record: 21-51
2020-21 EWL: 14-58
2020-21 82-game pace: 24-58
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 16-66
This roster is preposterously young. Only three players on it are in their 30’s. E’Twaun Moore just signed as the 15th man. Robin Lopez and Terrence Ross are on expiring contracts and figure to be trade pieces a year after Orlando dumped Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier at the deadline. Everyone else is in their 20’s. Some players are in their early 20’s.
Markelle Fultz has played 113 NBA games… and he is somehow the backcourt’s most experienced likely rotation player. Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton debuted last season. Jalen Suggs is a rookie now. Even among rebuilding teams, Orlando’s young depth is rare. All four of those guards are going to need serious developmental minutes. So will Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner and Chuma Okeke. Even if the Magic had veterans, they just wouldn’t have minutes to give them. They have a first-year coach who presumably has a fair bit of job security. This is a long-term project and he’s going to take advantage of that.
Generally speaking, teams that want to win don’t trade all of their winning players. Suggs is pro-ready enough as a rookie to make this interesting, but the Magic still played at a 16-win pace last season and that came with Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier on the roster for half of the year. More minutes for the kids and less motivation to win should keep the Magic below 20 wins.
2020-21 record: 34-38
2020-21 EWL: 31-41
2020-21 82-game pace: 39-43
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 35-47
How big of a downgrade is Russell Westbrook to Spencer Dinwiddie? It’s probably smaller than you realize. Dinwiddie nearly an All-Star in 2020 after filling in for Kyrie Irving as Brooklyn’s primary ball-handler. Westbrook missed the 2021 All-Star Game after a slow start that was at least in part due to injury. He isn’t quite the nuclear athlete that he once was anymore. He took more than 10 shots at the rim per game in Houston, but fell to five with the Wizards. The best version of Westbrook is substantially better than Dinwiddie. A jump-shooting version is not.
Even if it’s a modest dip, that move netted Washington four extra rotation players: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and, by trading down with the Lakers’ No. 22 overall pick, Aaron Holiday. Raul Neto played the fifth-most minutes on the Wizards last year. That’s not going to be a problem this time around. They’re incredibly deep at almost every position. Harrell won Sixth Man of the Year two years ago, and it’s not even clear how many minutes he’ll get after Daniel Gafford’s breakout and Thomas Bryant’s return. Kuzma, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avidja and Corey Kispert have about are about as stylistically diverse as the Wizards could hope for out of their forward rotation, and all of them are young enough to show major improvement. Caldwell-Pope brings badly needed point-of-attack defense.
Bradley Beal could blow this up an in instant with a trade request, but it’s worth wondering if one is ever going to come at this point. Beal could’ve escaped Washington years ago. He’s still here. That doesn’t mean he’s staying forever, but he at least seems open to seeing how this plays out. With significantly more depth, shooting and defense, the Wizards should take a bit of a leap in the standings this season. Whether that’s enough to convince Beal to stay for the long term, we can’t say.