Pacers present good odds to take Eastern Conference at 20-1

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The NBA season has reached the mid-point with all 30 teams having played at least half of their 82-game regular season schedule.

Separation has taken place within some of the six division races with others still competitive. This is an appropriate time to review the division races with an eye towards finding teams on which to consider making futures plays to win a conference or NBA Title.

An argument can be made that the weakest division is the Southeast. For much of the season the entire division had sub-.500 records. Halfway through the season only Miami has a winning record. At 21-20 the Heat lead the Southeast but have just a 4.5-game lead over fourth-place Washington. It is possible that the winner of the division will make the playoffs with a record barely above and perhaps slightly below .500.

Another division that can be considered weak in some respects is the Central, also in the Eastern Conference. Just two teams have a chance to make the playoffs as Milwaukee started play Tuesday with a two-game lead over second-place Indiana. Then there is a 10-game drop off to third-place Detroit with bottom feeders Chicago and Cleveland each more than 20 games out of first place.

The best-balanced division has been the Southwest. Houston has a one-game lead over San Antonio but last-place Memphis is just six games behind the Rockets. Part of the reason there has been virtually no separation in this division can be traced to the slow starts by both the Rockets and Spurs. The Season Wins Total for Houston was 57. Yet at 25-18 the Rockets are on pace to win just 47 or 48 games.

A surprisingly strong division has been the Atlantic. Toronto has the best record in the East and is four games ahead of Philadelphia. Boston sits third, seven games behind the Raptors with a 25-18 record.

The team drawing some recent attention has been Brooklyn. Projected to win just 32 games, the Nets, at 22-23, currently sit seventh in the Conference and have played exceptionally well at home where they are 15-5.

The strongest division, top to bottom, is the Northwest. Four of the five teams are currently among the top eight in the Western Conference standings. All four have winning records and the last-place team, Minnesota, is just two games out of the eighth spot and just one game below .500 at 21-22.

Denver leads the division at 29-13 which is also good enough to have a half-game lead over Golden State for the top seed in the West.

Speaking of the Warriors, the Pacific Division also has four teams with winning records. The Warriors have opened up a five-game lead over the L.A. Clippers and should win the division comfortably. The L.A. Lakers and Sacramento are both two games above .500 with Phoenix the only team in the division with a losing record.

As to the concept of looking for attractive futures plays, the current structure of the NBA has resulted in my taking two different approaches to playing futures at this stage of the season. At the Westgate SuperBook, Golden State are odds-on 1-2 favorites to win the NBA title and even heavier 1-3 favorites to win the West.

At the same time, there are four teams tightly bunched to win the Eastern Conference where Boston remains the 7-5 favorite followed by Toronto (3-2), Milwaukee (4-1) and Philadelphia (5-1). No other team is priced less than 25-1 to win the conference.

My approach this season has been to look to play on teams in the East to win the Conference title and for teams in the West – aside from Golden State – to win the NBA Title.

One team that catches my eye in the East is Indiana. Through Monday, the Pacers had the third-best record in the East and the fifth-best record overall, 28-14. They trail first-place Milwaukee in the Central Division by just two games and have been largely an under the radar team due to the lack of a true superstar and an emphasis on team play as a result.

Not only do the Pacers have a solid home record (14-5) but they are also one of only two teams more than four games above .500 on the road (14-9). Toronto is the other such team at 15-8 away from home. At 25-1 odds to win the East the Pacers have attracted my attention.

In the West it’s hard to envision any team other than Golden State advancing to the NBA finals. Denver, at 25-1 to win the West, also carries odds of 50-1 to win the NBA title and at such odds would be a team to consider for futures play from the West.

As noted earlier the Nuggets led the Warriors by a half game in the standings through Monday and have the NBA’s best home record at 18-3. They are slightly above .500 on the road and would need to improve that pace to be considered a serious challenger to win it all.

Spurs at Timberwolves (Friday): As we go to press Minnesota has won two of three games since its coaching change, winning once at home and on the road. This is the fourth of four meetings between the teams and the Spurs have won two of the prior three, both at home. The lone loss was on this court in late November and it was an embarrassing blowout, 128-89.

Gregg Popovich has not taken kindly to such losses in the past and although the Spurs gained a measure of revenge nearly a month later with a 26-point home win, he will still be able to use the memory of that earlier loss to have his team focused for this spot. SPURS

Thunder at 76ers (Saturday): Both teams are contenders in their respective conferences and both currently enjoy top four seeds. Both teams are rested and do not play on Sunday as they meet for the first time this season.

Philly is still a team on the rise with a young and talented roster. OKC is the more veteran team and won both meetings last season, including a triple-overtime game on this court. In fact, the Thunder have won 18 straight games against the 76ers dating back a decade.

This is the best Philly team during this period and this would be the spot to back them to finally end that decade of futility. The Sixers were actually small home favorites last season on this court but fell by 10. That gap has closed. 76ERS

Hornets at Pacers (Sunday): Charlotte is currently seeded eighth in the East despite a losing 20-23 record and on a pace to slightly exceed its Projected Wins Total of 35.5. In their only prior meeting this season, Charlotte handily defeated the Pacers 127-109, covering as 3.5-point home underdogs.

The Pacers have greatly improved since that meeting. They are playing on back-to-back nights after hosting Dallas on Saturday, but this is the fourth of a five-game homestand. Charlotte also played Saturday night but is traveling to this venue for the first of a three-game road trip. The Pacers are 14-5 at home and five of their last seven home wins have been by double digits. PACERS

Last week: 2-1

Season: 22-16

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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