There are two types of teams in the Central Division: the Milwaukee Bucks, and teams that lose to the Milwaukee Bucks. As the Action Network’s Matt Moore recently noted, the Bucks are a preposterous 38-4 against teams in their own division since Mike Budenholzer took over as head coach. Not one non-Milwaukee Central Division team reached the playoffs last season.
But all four of them took steps in the right direction this offseason. Indiana upgraded from one of the worst coaches in the NBA to one of the best. Chicago spent over $200 million in free agency, and Cleveland and Detroit both made top-three picks. Milwaukee’s dominion over the division won’t be threatened this year, but on balance, things are about to get a whole lot more interesting in the rust belt. Let’s sift through the new-look Central Division and figure out how you can make money betting their win totals this season. The following caveats apply here, as they will for all of our over/under picks.
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- 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 Caesars Sportsbook.
2020-21 record: 31-41
2020-21 EWL: 34-48
2020-21 82-game pace: 35-47
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 39-43
Ignore the flashy offseason additions and just ask yourself a simple question: how good does the offense need to be to make up for what could be a fairly bad defense?
Chicago finished a surprising 12th defensively last season, but losing Thaddeus Young and Daniel Theis is really going to hurt on that end of the floor. Zach LaVine has improved meaningfully, but he’s still a negative on the defensive end. DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic are pretty glaring ones, and even if Patrick Williams’ defensive upside is sky-high, he’s still only 20. Alex Caruso is a fantastic defender, but Chicago is paying three other guards a combined $64 million and still has former lottery pick Coby White on the roster. How are they going to find minutes for everyone? Lonzo Ball has been a fairly good defender, but not as an on-ball stopper. His size makes him very switchable, but this defense doesn’t have the personnel to switch. There’s only so much his strong help instincts can… well… help. Derrick Jones Jr. would help quite a bit, but the Blazers couldn’t play him last season because of his offensive limitations. He’ll fit better in Chicago as a pure roll man, but will it be enough?
This defense is probably going to be ranked in the 20s. If you think they’re going to make up for that with a top-10 offense? By all means, consider the over. It’s just significantly harder to be a top-10 offense than it is to be a top-10 defense nowadays. Barring injuries, who are they beating out? Certainly not the Nets. The Bucks, Warriors and Nuggets have MVPs in their primes. Dallas and New Orleans have future MVPs coming into their own. Phoenix just made the Finals. Utah has unlimited shooting. The Lakers have three superstars. Can Chicago outscore Atlanta? Miami with Kyle Lowry? It seems likelier that the Bulls are above average offensively, but not elite.
That’s not even a certainty. The Bulls scored only 108.7 points per 100 possessions with LaVine on Vucevic on the floor together last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. It was a small sample, but that lineup ranked in the 28th percentile in league-wide scoring. LaVine should function just fine when DeRozan is handling the ball. He’s an elite shooter and cutter. DeRozan’s history leading bench units is more mixed, but last season was promising. Is Williams going to take a leap offensively? Can Caruso make 40 percent of his 3-pointers again?
There’s room for upside here. The roster, outside of DeRozan and Vucevic, is fairly young. There’s something to be said for accumulating talent. But LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic don’t have track records of leading elite team offenses. They’ll help each other, but likely not enough to overcome what could be a very weak defense. For now, Chicago looks like a play-in team.
2020-21 record: 22-50
2020-21 EWL: 16-56
2020-21 82-game pace: 25-57
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 18-64
So… who are the veterans on this team? Kevin Love has played in less than half of Cleveland’s games over the past three years. He isn’t exactly reliable. Ricky Rubio is, but he’s now on his fifth team in six seasons and it isn’t clear how valuable his contributions are at this stage of his career. Surviving as a non-shooter is hard enough in the modern NBA. Doing it in your 30s on a team with two other primary ball-handlers is damn near impossible.
Cleveland’s roster is fundamentally built around six young players: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Markkanen is the oldest… at 24. Those six players have combined to play 893 regular-season NBA games. LeBron James, by himself, has played in 1,310.
Age isn’t exactly a prerequisite for regular-season winning. Memphis has outperformed expectations significantly over the past two years with an extremely young roster, but it has done so with a few very specific types of veterans. Jonas Valanciunas was a half-court safety blanket offensively. When in doubt, the Grizzlies could always give him the ball for a post-up and get a decent enough look. Kyle Anderson is one of the smartest players in basketball. That’s a significant asset in a secondary ball-handler. It helps curb the worst impulses of their younger guys. Love was once the former, but likely isn’t now. Rubio might be the latter, but Anderson is surviving as a supporting player because his jump shot has improved. Rubio’s hasn’t. Cleveland had a perfect veteran for a younger roster in Larry Nance Jr. They went 13-22 in games he played in last season, but 9-28 in games he missed. Now he’s a Blazer. They allowed 115.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench last season. Ironically, that’s exactly as many as Portland allowed for the season. The Blazers just had the third-worst defense in modern NBA history.
That’s the problem here. The Markkanen addition combined with internal growth might improve Cleveland’s No. 28-ranked offense, but there is just no way such a young roster is going to be able to defend anybody. This team played at an 18-win level last season. Do you really want to bet on a 50 percent improvement with Nance, the best veteran on last season’s roster, gone without an obvious replacement? I don’t.
2020-21 record: 20-52
2020-21 EWL: 24-48
2020-21 82-game pace: 23-59
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 27-55
Rookies tend to be fairly destructive to a team’s short-term hopes. Even if they put up numbers, they’re still learning about all of the subtleties of NBA basketball that tend to separate positive contributors from negative ones. It’s a small sample, but thus far under Troy Weaver, Pistons rookies have been an exception. Isaiah Stewart was fairly good for a rookie, and Saddiq Bey probably could’ve started on some playoff teams by the end of the season. Cade Cunningham is going to continue this trend. He’s one of the more polished two-way rookies to enter the NBA in recent years and unlike Cleveland, that will help position the Pistons to follow the Memphis model of youth-driven contention fairly closely.
Kelly Olynyk and Jerami Grant are half-court safety valves offensively. Cunningham is a bit more balanced than Ja Morant, seemingly capable of providing his transition electricity while serving as a steadier possession-to-possession hand at the wheel of the offense. The trio of Cunningham, Bey and Grant give the defense a relatively high floor. Anything Killian Hayes contributes almost becomes a bonus.
The Pistons aren’t going to compete meaningfully for a playoff spot this year, but they got everything out of a tanking season that they possibly could have. They developed their young players while adding valuable veterans and then landed a No. 1 overall pick that should help them immediately. Thus far, the Weaver regime has managed this rebuild flawlessly. If they played at a 27-win pace last season, why shouldn’t they be able to win 26 with an extra year of experience from everyone involved?
2020-21 record: 34-38
2020-21 EWL: 36-36
2020-21 82-game pace: 39-43
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 41-41
Your feelings on the Pacers are probably going to come down to your optimism or pessimism surrounding their health. If T.J. Warren were healthy, I might lean towards the over. Forget about the player he was in the bubble (a mirage that might only be attainable by breaking up the Turbonis frontcourt, which the Pacers haven’t been in any rush to do), if he could just replicate his two-way play from the pre-bubble 2019-20 season, he’d be exactly what the Pacers need. Indiana is now extremely light on forwards, especially after Doug McDermott left, and Malcolm Brogdon missing his 20 games or so annually doesn’t help the Pacers close gaps like that.
Rick Carlisle helps. The upgrade from Nate Bjorkgren is substantial, but not exactly in the ways that Indiana needs. Bjorkgren, for everything he did wrong, did manage to modernize the Pacers offensively. They jumped from dead last in the NBA in 3-point attempts to the middle of the pack and had real success down the stretch running the offense entirely through Domantas Sabonis once Myles Turner went down. Carlisle is an offensive genius, but it’s not clear how much room this roster has for growth. He’ll bring some sanity back to a defense that had almost no schematic or logical consistency last season, but he’s not exactly known for his expertise on that side of the ball.
This is probably one to stay away from. A lot is riding on health here, and the roster construction is unusual in that it lacks a traditional superstar but has more high-level starters and role players than most. Carlisle is the best coach it has had, but his presence would have been more exciting a couple of seasons ago.
2020-21 record: 46-26
2020-21 EWL: 50-22
2020-21 82-game pace: 52-30
2020-21 EWL 82-game pace: 57-25
Since Budenholzer took over, the Bucks have cumulatively played at the pace of a 58-win team. Barring significant injuries, the mid-50s appears to be the floor for this iteration of the Bucks, but the ceiling is substantially higher. This is the best regular-season roster that Milwaukee has ever had.
The Bucks sacrificed their depth for top-end talent in the Jrue Holiday trade specifically for playoff upside. Obviously, it worked but with an extra offseason to work with they’ve managed to replenish all of that lost depth. George Hill is back, Grayson Allen has joined him and Donte DiVincenzo should be healthy again. That trio combined with the departure of P.J. Tucker should improve Milwaukee’s offense significantly. The Bucks have never had this much shooting before. Yes, losing Tucker will impact the defense, but think of the sacrifices Milwaukee made last season trying to prepare for the postseason. They fell from No. 1 to No. 9 on defense because they had to perfect the art of switching. They did so, and now, they no longer need to devote regular-season energy to such tinkering. They can play more of the drop coverage that made them great early in Budenholzer’s tenure.
Beyond their own improvements, the Bucks should be very motivated to win regular-season games. They went 10-1 at home in the playoffs and 6-6 on the road. Do you think they want to play another Game 7 in Brooklyn? Of course not. They’re going to fight for home-court advantage knowing it’s their best chance of beating the healthy Nets.
Even if none of this were the case, there’s a reason the Bucks have been such a dominant regular-season team over the past several years: they have the best regular-season player in basketball. You might rather have Kevin Durant‘s shotmaking or LeBron James’ all-around brilliance in a playoff setting, but the regular season can be remarkably simple. An extremely durable, in his prime two-way star that can’t be stopped without extremely specific personnel and game-planning is exponentially more valuable across 82 games than four playoff rounds. Giannis Antetokounmpo gives the Bucks arguably the NBA’s highest floor. They’ve done a great job of raising their ceiling, but the simple combination of Giannis and shooting effectively guarantees top-10 rankings on both sides of the ball. That leads to regular-season winning.