With the October 29th tip-off rapidly nearing, it's time to start looking at predictions for the season, and the folks at Bovada.lv have regular season win totals to help act as a guide for predictions or for placing bets. The Pacers, as with the championship odds, are slotted as the Eastern Conference's third most contender with a win total of 54½. That seems a fair line for the Pacers, as Grantland's Zach Lowe as been known to hold 55 wins as a rough estimate for what he believes defines an NBA title contender.
And he's right about 55 wins. Fifty-five is a pretty magical number in NBA terms. Growing up around the NBA, there has always been a unique feel for a team when they can reach that 55-win total. It feels like a work of art; something to stand back and admire. I can't be the only one who looks at 55-27 with a sense of awe compared to the comparatively pedestrian 53-29. It's one thing that leads me to pause when considering Indiana's place within the hierarchy of the Eastern Conference regular season standings be. Can the Pacers actually get to 55 wins?
Had the Pacers began the season at the rate they finished the season after their 10-11 start, they would've wound up in the 53-54 win range. Surely, they've done enough with their bench to add an extra win or two somewhere this season. That's the hope anyway. But I don't see much to complain about with 54½ wins. It seems fair. But is it going to be the third best record in the East? The Miami Heat lead the charge, as expected, with 61½ wins, but will they even get back to 60?
Don't forget the Heat needed a 27-game winning streak to push them over 60 wins for the first time in the Big Three era last season. For two and a half years, they had proven to be a high-50's win team, and there's plenty of reason to believe they'll come back to the pack after last season's 66-16 display unless everything we know about Greg Oden and Michael Beasley (and concerns about Dwyane Wade) prove to be completely wrong and everyone plays 36 minutes for 82 games and contributes positively to their team's success, in which case they'll win about 75.
It's why I would believe the Eastern Conference's top seed isn't a slam dunk for Miami, even though it's understandably a thought you feel a little crazy for having. It's why the Pacers will need to jump beyond that 55-win plateau, because without lengthy, serious injury to LeBron James (seriously, James can win 55 regular season games by himself), Miami isn't coming below that. Before Indiana can get to the top of the East, however, they will have to contend with what are expected to be at least two other teams that feel they have rights to the top seed in Chicago and Brooklyn.
The Bulls are notched at second in the East with 56½ wins, which seems fair considering the team's history of playing a little harder in the regular season than other teams might. But lessons learned by Tom Thibadeau and Derrick Rose suffering from some knee soreness could pull the reigns back on the Bulls running away with the East. Questions about how good Brooklyn will be across 82 games is why they're a potentially low 52½. Suffice to say, none of the East's top teams would be bets I'm particularly comfortable with, but things open up in the rest of the conference:
New York Knicks 49½
Toronto Raptors 35½
Two of these win totals seem like sure bets; going under on the Cavaliers and over on the Bucks. The Cavs, with an impressive offseason, find themselves with plenty of adoration for the potential of their young roster led by Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum, but for a young team like Cleveland, 40 wins feels like a huge accomplishment assuming everyone can stay healthy, but with long injury histories for not only Irving and Bynum, but Anderson Varejao, it seems unexpected that there should be a full roster available for stretches this season.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, has a roster clearly built to win more than 29 games. Seriously, just look at it. It's better than those rebuilding Pacers rosters that won 36 games because picking in the top ten would be too easy for Larry Bird and unfair for the rest of the league if he had a pick proportional to the quality of roster the Pacers had. I digress...but the Bucks' roster is not one that loses 53 games without any kind of lingering Timberwolves-type injury list. They're as well equipped to compete for the final spot in the Eastern Conference as Cleveland, Detroit, and Toronto even if I imagine they'll all hover around Toronto's 35½ win total regardless.
Atlanta and Washington seem like fair picks around 39 wins, but I think they'll be representing the Eastern Conference at the sixth and seventh seeds. Washington, with health, are going to be a nightmare in the first round. It'd be ideal to hand that series off to anyone but the Pacers. As for other picks, you can probably take the under on Philadelphia too. There's very little on that roster to suggest they can actually win 17 games against other NBA teams in 82 chances.
Out West, there are expectations of a Pacers home court series against teams outside of the top three:
Houston Rockets 54½
Dallas Mavericks 43½
Portland Trailblazers 38½
Utah Jazz 25
Phoenix Suns 21
As far as picks that seem safe to go for? Oklahoma City at 51½ seems absurdly low even if Russell Westbrook is expected to miss time. Kevin Durant should be able to lift them into the 50-win range on his own. Dallas feels very high at 43 wins, but a solid season from Dirk Nowitzki could make them a far better team than they would otherwise be.
With the win totals what they are, what are you expecting from this season? Are Pacers accurately slotted at 54½ wins? Who do you think are the safest bets? The ones you'd stay away from?