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Head-to-Head: Third Best in the East

Basketball Insider’s Nate Duncan and Tommy Beer go head-to-head in a debate over who is the third best team in the Eastern Conference.



Aside from the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers, no Eastern Conference teams have seen this season unfold according to plan.  As a result, those two teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, while the third best team in the East is currently a mere two games over .500.   Which of these teams will emerge as the third seed in the conference, and can any Eastern team even remotely challenge the HEAT or Pacers in the conference semifinals?  Basketball Insiders’ Tommy Beer and Nate Duncan debate.

Duncan: Shockingly for an Eastern Conference in which the Bulls, Nets and Knicks were deemed heavyweights before the season, the favorite for the third seed now appears to be the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors currently hold the third seed with a 22-20 record, but record-wise they are in a morass of teams including the Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. However, the Raptors are playing much better ball than anyone else competing for the third seed. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson are all having career years for the Raptors. Since the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay on December 8, they are 16-9. Their underlying statistics back up that outstanding record as well; Toronto is outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions since the trade. In fact, that mark ranks fifth in the entire league over that time frame, shocking for a team that was deemed tankworthy earlier in the season. By contrast, the Nets and Hawks rank ninth and 14th since December 8, while the Bulls are 17th.  Although I hesitate to put all my eggs in the statistical basket, from that standpoint the Raptors look like the clear favorites.

Beer: Coming into the 2013-14 season, the expectations for the Brooklyn Nets were sky high. Brooklyn enjoyed arguably the most active and successful offseason of any team in the league – mortgaging their future to add Hall-of-Famers in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, while also fortifying the bench with top-tier role players such as Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson and Jason Terry. The total cost to owner Mikhail Prokhorov was astronomical. The Nets’ luxury tax bill alone is higher than the GDP of many industrialized nations. And the man tasked with coaching this juggernaut was the recently retired Jason Kidd.

In the build up to the regular season, the Nets were viewed by many as legit contenders for the Miami HEAT’s crown. However, the Nets looked like anything but championship contenders over the season’s first two months. On New Year’s Eve, the Nets were demolished by the Spurs in San Antonio (their sixth loss in seven games), dropping Brooklyn’s record to putrid 10-21, an embarrassing 11 games under .500. Kidd had already (unceremoniously) fired his lead assistant in Lawrence Frank, and the team’s best big man, center Brook Lopez, had his season end prematurely due to a broken foot. It appeared there would be no way to avoid a nightmare season.

Yet, somehow, the Nets seemed to flip the switch in the New Year. Brooklyn reeled off five straight wins to start 2014, and is now 8-1 in the New Year. Brooklyn has received improved play across the board. Joe Johnson is averaging 19 points per game in January. Deron Williams has returned from a debilitating ankle injury, but told Coach Kidd he’d prefer to come off the bench to not disrupt the chemistry of a successful starting lineup featuring Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Anderson and Shaun Livingston.

Reserves Andray Blatche and Kirilenko have provided a major spark off the bench as well. In fact, the Nets are now 9-1 in the 10 games Kirilenko has played at least 13 minutes this season. Brooklyn is 9-21 in the games he’s missed or played fewer than 14 minutes.

After a nightmarish start to the season, things have been downright dreamy in Brooklyn since the calendar flipped to 2014.

Duncan: Tommy, you seem to know a lot about the Nets.  Did you somehow gain access to Lawrence Frank’s daily reports?  I agree with you that the Nets have looked great since the new year.  In that time frame, they are scoring 108 points/100 and allowing only 101.5/100.  In addition to better health, the key has been the return to form of Kevin Garnett.  He was supposed to be a panacea for their defense, but Nets were oddly terrible defensively with him on the floor early in the year.  He also was one of the worst offensive players in the game early on.  Since then, he has really come on, and since January 1 the Nets allow only 88.7 points/100 when Garnett is in the game.

Deron Williams recently made his latest return from his myriad ankle injuries as well.  If he can recapture the form he flashed at the end of last season and Garnett can keep it up (neither of which is guaranteed), the Nets could very easily play better than the Raptors the rest of the way.  And the Nets have more players with an established track record than the Raptors, so one could argue that the Nets are more likely to sustain their excellent recent play.

On the other hand, you could argue that the Nets have many older players with worse injury histories than the Raptors’ much younger starting five. The Raptors have also been an outstanding third in defense since the Gay trade, and I think we can expect a little regression to the mean because Toronto does not have any players with outstanding defensive track records on their roster.

That said, the Raptors’ point differential on the season is 5.5 points/100 better than the Nets.  All of those desultory blowouts early on really hurt the Nets in that metric.  But even if you want to make the (reasonable) argument that the Nets aren’t that team anymore, the Raptors are still 2.5 points/100 better than the Nets even since the Gay trade.  They have even been a point better since the Nets’ “switch-flipping” on January 1. Combine that with Toronto’s 2.5 game lead in the standings, and I think they are the clear favorites even if you buy that the Nets may perform a little better over the rest of the year.

Beer: The Nets had plenty of talent on their roster last season, and were able to win 49 games and capture the fourth seed in the East. However, they were knocked out of the playoffs by an under-manned Bulls team missing many of their top players. In that bitterly disappointing first-round defeat, an issue that had been a major problem for Brooklyn all season reared its head in a major way – lack of leadership, aggressiveness and intensity. The hope was that the the blockbuster trade that resulted in Brooklyn obtaining Garnett, Pierce and Terry would be truly transformational. As much as future Hall-of-Famers KG and Pierce would help the Nets on the floor, their biggest and most important impact was supposed to come in the locker room. There are very few individuals who can nearly single-handedly change the culture of a franchise immediately upon his arrival. It just so happens that KG is one of those players.

However, early on in the year, KG was not only terrible defensively early on (as you noted above), he was also remarkably inefficient and ineffective on the offensive end as well. But the Nets seemed to have flipped the switch since the start of the New Year. In addition, it seems that Coach Kidd has finally found his bearings and is comfortably settling into his new position.

So are we in agreement that these are the only two real possibilities for the three seed (barring massive injuries, of course) or is there anyone else you feel could be a legitimate contender for that spot?

Duncan: It sure doesn’t look like anyone else could contend.  The Raptors and Nets are really the only Eastern teams playing above .500 quality ball at this point.  The Hawks and Bulls have almost even point differentials on the year, but both of them are likely to play worse over the course of the year considering the Al Horford injury and the Luol Deng trade.  Moreover, those two teams have had two of the easiest schedules in the league and those toughen to about league-average over the rest of the year.  Meanwhile, the Raptors and Nets have had two of the harder schedules in the league, and they have the two easiest schedules the rest of the way.

So, it looks like the seedings would favor that it will be Pacers and HEAT versus Nets and Raptors in the second round in some permutation.  Do you see any way that the Nets and Raptors will actually challenge those two teams or could even win the series?

Beer: Honestly, I don’t see any way either the Raps or Nets put up much of a fight against the HEAT or Pacers. Miami and Indiana have been so clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference this year, I’d be shocked if either team was even take to a Game 6 before their seemingly inevitable showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Duncan: I could see either of these teams taking the Pacers to six games, if only because the Pacers’ offense could go cold and lead to a very low-scoring series.  But ultimately I don’t see the Pacers losing to either squad.

Although it’s unlikely, I do think it’s possible that either the Nets or Raptors could give the HEAT a series and maybe even win, if only because there is a chance that Miami may not be the team we remember from the last two postseasons by the time these playoffs roll around.  Zach Lowe did a great job detailing why he thinks Miami may be in a bit more trouble defensively this year than past editions.  To that, I would add that LeBron James does not quite look like the all-encompassing force of nature he has been in past years on defense.  Whether that is him starting to slow down a little bit at age 29 (players usually peak from a pure athleticism standpoint at 23-25) or simply taking it easier in the regular season remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade has now missed the last four games while defensive stalwarts Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem are also getting up there in age.  If Wade is not himself again in the playoffs, and the rest of the roster suffers incremental decline from being a year older, they could be vulnerable.

As I mentioned, Toronto has been much better than Miami statistically since the Gay trade. And Brooklyn matches up very well with the HEAT with their new smaller lineup and great size on the wings.  While it is still very difficult to see either team really challenging the HEAT, there are enough statistical indicators there that an upset would not be completely out of left field.

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2021 NBA Draft Top 3 Picks & Top 10 First-Round Selection Odds



The 2021 NBA Draft is scheduled for Thursday, July 29. The draft will begin at 8:00 p.m. (EST) on ESPN platforms at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, and it is the first time the draft is being televised on both ABC and ESPN. Free agency will also begin on Monday, Aug. 2 at 6:00 p.m. (EST). For NBA Draft betting, there are several available apps for placing bets, like from Bovada, MyBookie, Intertops, BetUS, BetOnline, BetNow, 5Dimes, and DraftKings and FanDuel are other feasible options, in addition to the sites listed above.

Anyways, the Detroit Pistons have the first overall pick of the draft, followed by the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, etc. Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham is the projected first overall pick. Jalen Green, the six-foot-five NBA G League player who forwent college basketball and attended San Joaquin Memorial High School, is expected to get drafted by the Pistons. The Pac-12 Player of the Year (2021) and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year (2021) winner, Evan Mobley, is projected to get picked by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

However, teams have been negotiating trades with one another, leading up to next week’s draft. Per Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors are expressing interest in trading with the Cleveland Cavaliers in order to move up to the No. 3 spot of the draft. In the second round, the Milwaukee Bucks have the 31st pick of the draft. There is a chance that these are just meaningless internal discussions, existing only to explore the values of specific players and to keep other general managers on their heels.

No. 1 Pick Odds

While Cade Cunningham has the best odds (-8000) of being selected first overall, there are a few other aforementioned players here that are at the top of the list, too. Jalen Green has +1500 odds, Evan Mobley has +2200 odds, and Jalen Suggs possesses +2500 odds. Needless to say, however, Cunningham will be selected first before everyone else. Here’s why. According to 247Sports, the six-foot-eight Big 12 Player of the Year (2021) and Consensus first-team All-American (2021) ranked No. 1 in the final rankings class of 2020. Heading into college, the native Texan was already an established top-ranked, talented recruit.

Green and Mobley were also highly touted stars coming out of high school, but hands down, Cunningham has the best résumé for NBA scouts and general managers. In 27 games played for the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ 2020-21 season, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, helping to lead his team to the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys lost 91-81 against the No. 3 Texas Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament, and then the team lost 80-70 versus the No. 12 Oregon State Beavers in the NCAA Tournament. The Detroit Pistons need all the help they can get.

  • All table odds were retrieved from Bovada 

No. 2 Pick Odds

Jalen Green has the favored odds (-200) of being selected second overall in the 2021 draft, followed by Evan Mobley (+170), Jalen Suggs (+650), and Jonathan Kuminga (+2200). Regarding Green’s G League performance, in 15 games started, he averaged 17.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. The 19-year-old also played for an average of 32 minutes per game. Despite oddsmakers projecting the highest possible odds for Cunningham’s No. 1 selection, the No. 2 pick is not as clear.

In 33 games played for the USC Trojans, Evan Mobley averaged 16.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. Referencing the RSCI Top 100 rankings, the seven-foot tall forward/center was ranked third on the list. Below .500 NBA teams, such as the Magic and Raptors, could trade up to draft the big man. It all depends on the teams’ different needs and priorities.


No. 3 Pick Odds

Evan Mobley has the best odds (-200) of getting drafted third overall. In the 2020-21 USC Trojans’ season, they lost 72-70 in the Pac-12 Tournament against the No. 23 Colorado Buffaloes. Then, they proceeded to lose 85-66 in the NCAA tournament versus the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs. Mobley had a team-high of 19 points and seven rebounds in that Elite Eight loss.

Though, if Jalen Green is still on the board at this point, it would not be out-of-the-blue if he was selected third ahead of Mobley, considering his odds are +150. For the other odds, Jalen Suggs is next (+250), followed by Jonathan Kuminga (+900), Scottie Barnes (+1200), Davion Mitchell (+6600), and Josh Giddey (+6600).

“To Be Drafted in the Top 10” Odds

With all eyes on the top three picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, there might be some folks speculating if players like Kai Jones and Josh Giddey have reasonable odds of at least making the top 10 in the draft. Jones’ odds are +275, whereas Giddey’s odds are +135. UConn shooting guard James Bouknight has -250 odds. Six-foot-nine, 19-year-old German basketball star Franz Wagner has -150 odds of being selected somewhere in the top 10 overall. Moreover, Jonathan Kuminga’s odds are -10000. The 18-year-old G League player is projected to land sixth in the draft.

Plus, according to several mock drafts, Davion Mitchell is expected to be picked by either the Golden States Warriors (seventh) or New Orleans Pelicans (tenth). His odds are -300. Keon Johnson is another one. Per’s mock drafts, K. Johnson is projected to be taken No. 8 overall by the Orlando Magic, assuming this team does not pursue any potential trades to move up. Additionally, FSU’s Scottie Barnes has -10000 odds of getting selected in the top 10, and some mock draft beat writers also have Barnes going to the Magic.



Draft betting is much like player prop bets and NBA Finals betting. There are plenty of uncertainties and variables one must consider before placing bets, such as a specific team trading up or down during the night of the draft. Think about all the possible outcomes and scenarios before placing a bet, even if you choose to play it safe.

It is imperative for gamblers to search for any news articles or videos the same day of the draft, in order to keep up to date on important breaking news. Before placing bets on professional basketball, keep in mind that Bovada is the best betting site for NBA-related content and requested wagers.


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Raptors, Magic aim to obtain No. 3 pick from Cavaliers in 2021 NBA Draft



The 2021 NBA Draft is the 75th edition of the draft, and it is scheduled to take place next Thursday, July 29. According to numerous 2021 NBA mock drafts, the Cleveland Cavaliers are projected to draft Evan Mobley, the seven-foot tall forward/center and Pac-12 Player of the Year (2021) for the USC Trojans, with the third overall pick. Referencing’s consensus mock drafts, there were six top players who appeared in all twelve of the mocks they surveyed: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, and Jonathan Kuminga. The Detroit Pistons are expected to take Cunningham with the first overall pick, followed by the Houston Rockets selecting Jalen Green with the second pick of the draft.

While the Toronto Raptors are currently set to pick fourth and the Orlando Magic are expected to pick fifth, per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, both teams have made trade offers to the Cavs in order to move up to acquire the third spot. O’Connor stated, “League sources say the Cavaliers have received significant trade interest for this selection, and the Raptors and Magic Orlando—the next two teams up to pick—have made offers to move up. But Cleveland might just stay put.” Now, it is unknown what the Raptors and Magic are prepared to give up. Orlando has the advantage over Toronto, considering they also possess the No. 8 pick.

On Mar. 25, the Magic traded All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and forward Al-Farouq Aminu to the Chicago Bulls, in exchange for Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round picks. The two first-round picks were for 2021 and 2023, first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. This is why Orlando has extra leverage over Toronto. Some experts are speculating that Orlando will trade Mohamed Bamba, Gary Harris, and the fifth and eighth picks of the draft. To the fans, that right there sounds like a raw deal.

However, on the flip side, a team like the Raptors are in desperate need of a viable center. Last season, they finished 27-45 (.375), ranking 12th in the Eastern Conference. If not the Magic, the Raptors might be more than willing to give up the same, if not more. Toronto could trade Pascal Siakam and the No. 4 pick. In the previous offseason, a few of the notable departures for the Raptors were Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Both of these aforementioned players played important roles in helping the Raptors to win their first NBA championship in the 2018-19 season. Though, the Raptors would have to make it a top priority to re-sign Kyle Lowry as well. On Oct. 7, 2019, Lowry signed a one-year, $31 million contract with the organization.

Not to mention, the Magic already have Mohamed Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., and Johnathan Isaac on their roster. Furthermore, after recovering from their injuries, Isaac and Markelle Fultz will be returning to the court this season. Maybe Magic general manager John Hammond is using a trial-and-error approach, hoping to keep the most talented, best center available on the roster. If one throws enough sludge at the wall, eventually something will stick.

Leading up to the draft, basketball enthusiasts can continue to speculate and ask questions, but none of these potential draft moves are carved in stone. The transactions will not occur until the night of the draft, so one person’s educated guess is as good as anyone’s right now. All too often, teams get fleeced every year during the draft because various coaches and general managers either underrate or overestimate a player’s value.

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Injury Update: Hawks’ Onyeka Okongwu out 6 months after shoulder surgery



After Atlanta Hawks‘ Onyeka Okongwu underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder on Wednesday night, the 20-year-old center will take the next six months off. Okongwu is a 6’8″ two-time California Mr. Basketball (2018, 2019), selected sixth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. After agreeing to a rookie contract, Atlanta signed him to their roster on November 24, 2020, and he made his NBA debut on January 15, 2021. The signed multi-year contract was worth a guaranteed $11.9 million over the course of two seasons.

According to a report first published by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Dr. Neal ElAttrache operated on Okongwu in Los Angeles, California, and he suffered this shoulder injury earlier in May. He will likely be eligible to play as early as late February 2022. While the typical recovery time for a torn labrum after surgery is between three to six months, labral tears can negatively impact athletes in a sport like basketball, if they are not careful. It will not recover by itself without the proper care.

Yesterday, the Hawks organization released a statement: “Onyeka Okongwu underwent surgery earlier tonight in Los Angeles to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Dr. Neal ElAtrrache of Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic performed the surgery. Okongwu will now enter a period of rest and rehabilitation and is expected to make a full recovery in approximately six months.”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, in 50 games played, he averaged 4.6 points and 3.3 rebounds. Over the course of the 2021 postseason, Okongwu played a total of 166 minutes, averaging 9.2 minutes played per game, in eighteen games for the Hawks. He scored five points in the first round series versus the New York Knicks, 19 points in the conference semifinals versus the Philadelphia 76ers, and 24 points in the Eastern Conference Finals series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

In his junior and senior seasons playing for the University of Southern California Trojans, he earned those aforementioned California Mr. Basketball awards. In 28 games played in college, he averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 total rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. His average field goal shooting percentage in college was also 61.6 percent. He will be turning 21-years-old this December.

Referencing his current contract negotiations via Basketball-Reference, Okongwu earned $5.8 million in this past 2020-21 season. Furthermore, he will earn $6.1 million in the 2021-22 season, $6.3 million in the 2022-23 season, and $8.1 million in the 2023-24 season. The 2022-23 and 2023-24 add-ons are team options.

Moreover, the upcoming free agency will begin on Aug. 1, 2021 and the regular season is scheduled to start on Oct. 19, 2021. For betting purposes, the 2022 NBA Finals will air throughout June 2022. The NBA has transitioned its schedule back to normal format. The league office anticipates that future playoff series will no longer get pushed back to the months of June and July. Similar to everything else, however, this current schedule is subject to change due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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