To casual NBA fans, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the unquestioned top team in the Eastern Conference. Any club that features LeBron James is going to be a perennial championship contender, and when you throw in talents like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, it’s easy for many to pencil the Cavs into the NBA Finals already. But when you dig beneath the surface, things are not going as smoothly as they should be in Ohio, which presents a few interesting options for hoops bettors.
Oddsmakers at Bovada are clearly buying into the hype. Cleveland (42-17) is a hefty -400 favorite to win the Eastern Conference at the shop, while second place Toronto (39-19) and upstart Boston (36-25) come in behind them at +550 and +1000 odds, respectively.
That’s simply too much chalk for a squad that’s been anything but consistent over the past month. The wine and gold rely too heavily on James, who’s used to putting the team on his back but is starting to show major signs of fatigue.
The Cavs’ off-court distractions (see: ex-head coach David Blatt’s swift exit in January) don’t help, and guard J.R. Smith recently summed up the general feeling in the locker room by saying his concern is “extremely high” regarding Cleveland’s chances down the stretch.
Don't Count out the Dinos
Meanwhile, the Raptors continue to chug along at a fantastic clip north of the border. Led by the dynamic backcourt duo Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto has established itself as a legit threat to challenge LeBron and company for the Eastern Conference banner.
At just 2.5 games back as of March 1, the Raptors have a favorable schedule heading into the postseason. Thanks to a road-heavy start to the campaign, the Dinos will play 14 of their remaining 24 games at the Air Canada Centre, including a stretch of seven in a row starting on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz.
Toronto has the fifth-best offensive rating in the NBA per 100 possessions (110.61) and is fifth in offensive efficiency. Dwane Casey’s club has shot 50.2 percent from the floor – fourth in the league – and will get a huge boost when defensive stopper and sweet shooting small forward DeMarre Carroll returns from injury prior to the postseason.
Maybe it’s because they’re coming off back-to-back first-round playoff exits, but there are still many pundits who doubt Canada’s lone NBA team’s chances at making a deep postseason run. Their defense has sagged at times this season – especially at power forward – however, general manager Masai Ujiri bringing in Warriors castoff Jason Thompson for the rest of the year is a nice addition that will provide some veteran depth at the four in a lineup that sorely needs it.
Team Chemistry Could be Key
The Raptors made waves last week when they toppled the Cavs thanks to a last second dagger by Lowry in a career-high 43-point performance. The win was inarguably Toronto’s biggest of the season, and emotional victories like that one can go a long way in strengthening team chemistry with the NBA’s real season on the horizon.
If Cleveland can stay healthy (unlike last year), they’ll always have a chance to go all the way thanks to the heroics of No. 23. But seeing the Raptors on the board at +550 should rightfully look appealing to bettors seeking NBA futures value in a market that’s clearly not showing them enough respect.
The East hasn’t been this strong in quite some time, meaning a major playoff upset or two is a very real possibility in what’s been an unpredictable year. Regardless of what happens this spring, the Cavaliers simply aren’t worth the price at this point, and sharp bettors would be wise to consider the hungry Toronto Raptors as an alternative option.