The Celtics Are the Clear Favorite in the East

Aidan McGrath
Aidan McGrath@ffaidanmcgrath

With the NBA All-Star break wrapping up, it's time for NBA fans to gear up for the homestretch. The 2023-24 season is officially past its halfway point, both in terms of games played and landmarks reached. Fans and teams have one thing left on the horizon -- the playoffs.

The East started off as a two-team race between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. But the Celtics have pulled away to be the clear favorite, per the Eastern Conference odds at FanDuel Sportsbook, while teams such as the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers have joined the Bucks as legit contenders.

Are the Celtics destined to win the East or will the conference give us a wild postseason like it did a year ago? Using the NBA odds at FanDuel Sportsbook as a guide, let's break down the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.

NBA Eastern Conference Odds

Boston Celtics43-12+110
Milwaukee Bucks35-21+300
New York Knicks33-22+650
Cleveland Cavaliers36-17+850
Miami Heat30-25+1400
Philadelphia 76ers32-22+1500
Indiana Pacers31-25+2700
View Full Table

A quick glance at the odds reveals that this is essentially a four-team race, with the Celtics leading the pack by a healthy margin. But each of the Bucks, Knicks and Cavs are worthy contenders, and as we saw a year ago, anything can happen in the playoffs. In short, the conference is far from decided at this point.

Boston Celtics (+110)

The Celtics have looked like one of the best -- if not the best -- teams in the league all season long, so it's not too surprising that they sit atop the odds at +110. Their 43-12 record is the best mark across the NBA, giving them a solid leg up on the rest of the competition coming out of the All-Star break.

Zooming out, Boston looks like the most well-rounded team in the league. Their offense ranks first overall by numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics while their defense clocks in at third-best. They're up 6.0 games over the second-place Cavs in the East, so they're nearly a lock to be the 1 seed in playoffs -- especially considering that they have the third-softest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.

The one real hang-up here is Boston's capacity for underestimating the competition and taking the foot off the gas. They've recorded some hard-to-fathom losses this year to teams like the Hornets, a Tyrese Haliburton-less Indiana Pacers team , and a Los Angeles Lakers squad without either of LeBron James or Anthony Davis.

That's a nasty habit they'll need to kick. We saw Boston lose a seven-game series to the 8 seed Miami Heat in last year's playoffs, a memory that's likely still fresh in the mind of some of their core players.

Milwaukee Bucks (+300)

If you're looking for someone who can knock off Boston, the Bucks looks like the clear top choice going by the odds.

Their 35-21 record leaves them 8.5 games behind the Celtics, but their 1-1 record against the C's this year along with the overall talent on the Bucks' roster might mean that Milwaukee is closer to the Celtics' level than that 8.5-game deficit suggests.

The Bucks' offense ranks fifth-best by numberFire's metrics and is averaging the second-most points per game (122). For most of the season, they haven't struggled much at all when it comes to putting points on the board, recording just three sub-100-point games to date.

Milwaukee's issues have come on defense.

In a mirror reflection of their own scoring, the Bucks' foes have notched at least 100 points in all but three games. Milwaukee's defense left much to be desired earlier in the year, leading the team to part ways with first-year head coach Adrian Griffin back in January.

It's too soon to say whether the shift to Doc Rivers at head coach will work out, but in Rivers' 10 games as the team's leader, they have seemed to improve some on defense -- allowing an average of 113 points per game in that span, which would rank as the 12th-fewest in the league over the season. Unfortunately, the shift in approach has seemed to disproportionately affect their offensive output as the Bucks have averaged just 111 points per game under Rivers (fifth-fewest), leading to a 3-7 record since Doc took over.

The Bucks have the star power with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard to get things figured out, but given what we've seen from them so far this year, Milwaukee is a little tough to stomach at +300.

New York Knicks (+650)

Arguably, none of the East contenders needed the All-Star break more than the Knicks did.

The team made great strides after the calendar turned to 2024 and went 14-2 in January, but they have limped to a 2-5 record in February while dealing with a slew of injuries to key players.

That the team has managed to stay competitive in the face of their mounting injuries is a testament to their strength as a unit. They lost starting center Mitchell Robinson (ankle) early on this season, but the emergence of Isaiah Hartenstein helped soften that blow. Hartenstein then missed time himself with an Achilles injury. Meanwhile, both Julius Randle (shoulder) and OG Anunoby (elbow) suffered significant injuries over the last month and still seem to be a ways away from returning to the court.

Jalen Brunson's Herculean efforts have helped keep the Knicks competitive through these injury-marred weeks, and they could look like a completely different team by the time the playoffs roll around in April. The Knicks' starting lineup is an impressive +16.6 points over their opponents per 100 possessions with all of Brunson, Randle, Anunoby, Hartenstein and Donte DiVincenzo playing together.

Their performance together stacks up favorably even against some of the best competition in the league -- Boston's starters have recorded a +11.4 mark while the Bucks' primary unit is +16.4. If the Knicks can get healthy for the playoffs, they will be a tough out.

Cleveland Cavaliers (+850)

With all the turbulence we've described at the top of the Eastern Conference to this point, you might be thinking that the Celtics are a pretty sweet bet at +110 odds (and they are, to be fair). But the Cavs need to be on your radar.

It's a bit odd that the team with the second-best record has only the fourth-best odds to win the conference, right? And it's not just win-loss record where Cleveland lookds good. The Cavs are safely the second-best team in the East going by numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics (69.2 nERD) -- they're just about as close to the Celtics' league-best 76.4 nERD as they are to the Bucks' 62.0 nERD.

After a bumpy start to the season, Cleveland has coalesced around an elite defense and won all but three of their games since the new year. They've even won two of their three games against the Bucks during that time, contributing to Milwaukee's slide in 2024.

But there are still two ways to look at the Cavs' recent surge.

The team's 18-3 record since January looks mighty impressive on paper, but it featured a ton of games against some of the worst teams in the league. Doubters would certainly point to their soft schedule as a reason for concern about their performance coming out of the All-Star break. After all, it's not like they'll be playing against teams like the Washington Wizards or Brooklyn Nets come April and May. Cleveland will need to test its mettle against some of the East's other top teams down the stretch.

However, optimists (like myself) would point to the team's newfound healthiness in 2024 as a positive indicator for future success. The team struggled through early-season injuries to key starters Evan Mobley and Darius Garland but have found their stride at the right time and are close to fully healthy as they make their playoff push.

In my eyes, Cleveland is an interesting bet at these +850 odds.

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The above author is a FanDuel employee and is not eligible to compete in public daily fantasy contests or place sports betting wagers on FanDuel. The advice provided by the author does not necessarily represent the views of FanDuel. Taking the author's advice will not guarantee a successful outcome. You should use your own judgment when participating in daily fantasy contests or placing sports wagers.