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Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots the ball over Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9). (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire)
March 9th, 2022
There’s something seriously odd going on with the NBA’s Eastern Conference odds.
The Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers are deadlocked with identical +275 odds to win the conference despite the fact all three teams are in radically different positions as the 2021-22 season winds down.
Come along as we provide a little context behind the numbers.
Brooklyn was in the pole position for the first four months of the season after racing out to a stellar 22-9 record. It was a particularly impressive feat considering Kyrie Irving’s "Half Man, Half A Season" status as he sat out his team’s first 35 games over his refusal to get vaccinated. The Nets also had to deal with the loss of sharpshooter Joe Harris, who underwent ankle surgery in November, and the intermittent availability of James Harden, who was later traded to the Sixers in a blockbuster deal.
Those issues would be enough to send any normal team veering off the tracks, but Brooklyn didn’t truly come undone until Jan. 15 when leading scorer Kevin Durant went down with an MCL sprain. The Nets stumbled to a 5-16 record over their next 21 games as KD watched the carnage from the sidelines.
Despite the losing streaks and turmoil, oddsmakers are still giving Brooklyn the benefit of the doubt. That’s due in large part to the return of Durant, who is averaging 27.3 since lacing 'em back up, the spectacular play of Irving on the road, and the steady contributions of Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, both of whom came over in the Harden deal and have immediately adjusted to their new roles.
The Best Player in The World is Back 🔥 Brooklyn Nets Kevin Durant #Netsworld pic.twitter.com/sr7zbOs1Vc— NetsKingdom 👑🗽 (@NetsKingdomAJ) March 2, 2022
The Best Player in The World is Back 🔥 Brooklyn Nets Kevin Durant #Netsworld pic.twitter.com/sr7zbOs1Vc
Promising signs aside, the Nets are still eighth in the Eastern Conference standings, and look far more like a play-in team than a championship contender on many nights. Can Steve Nash get his team back into the playoff picture with just 16 games remaining?
Speaking of Harden, the Nets may have inadvertently sabotaged their chances of winning the conference championship when they shipped the former MVP to the City of Brotherly Love. "The Beard" helped Philly eviscerate opponents by 17 points per game in his first four appearances, while averaging 26.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 12.0 assists during that span.
Harden’s eye-popping numbers weren't unexpected, but the fact that he and Joel Embiid already appear to be on the same page is a terrifying prospect for fellow contenders. Embiid has raved about the spacing Harden provides, and the pair have shown an almost telepathic connection on the pick and roll.
That Harden and Embiid duo 🔥 pic.twitter.com/250R3wEGgR— NBACentral (@TheDunkCentral) February 27, 2022
That Harden and Embiid duo 🔥 pic.twitter.com/250R3wEGgR
The 76ers are presently just three games behind the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference and have the league’s 10th easiest strength of schedule for the remainder of the season.
Injuries have also been a major subplot in Milwaukee, where the Bucks have been without starting center Brook Lopez for all but one game this season. His absence has caused the team’s defensive rating to drop from ninth a season ago to 12th this year, although that’s largely been mitigated by the emergence of Bobby Portis. The high-octane pivot is playing 29 minutes a game and is posting career-highs in points (15.5) and rebounds (9.1) while also shooting 41% from beyond the arc. Giannis Antetokounmpo has also been providing his typically brilliant two-way play, and finds himself in the top three in MVP odds for the third consecutive season.
Bobby Portis with the DENIAL at the rim ❌Live Now on ESPN pic.twitter.com/GaD7FJAJF1— NBA (@NBA) March 5, 2022
Bobby Portis with the DENIAL at the rim ❌Live Now on ESPN pic.twitter.com/GaD7FJAJF1
Winners of five straight, the Bucks are tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, and are still the champs until another teams knocks them off their perch.
The first-place Heat offer attractive odds at +500, but momentum belongs to the Sixers, who have now won eight of their last 10 games and have positively steamrolled the competition with Harden in the lineup. Teams can no longer collapse on Embiid as they did so freely with Ben Simmons on the court, and that added freedom has made "JoJo" an absolute beast.
Philly came up short in the past because of a lack of shooting and secondary playmaking, but that’s no longer an issue with Harden manning the point and picking defenses apart like a Costco chicken. Expect more blowouts down the stretch and a conference championship banner hanging from the Wells Fargo Center in another few months.
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