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Contenders to Watch
Editor’s Note: Mark Franco went 165-117 (59%) with his pro basketball selections last season, producing profits of $3,814 based on one-unit plays. Don’t miss out on his daily NBA Winners on VegasInsider.com.
 
The road to the 2013-14 NBA Finals begins Tuesday Oct. 2 with three games tipping off the regular season campaign.
 
Opening night starts with a bang as point guard Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls visit the two-time defending NBA champions Miami Heat. When Rose's comeback commences on Tuesday, there's no question the league will be savoring the return of one of its biggest stars. Rose sells tons of jerseys and tickets, plus he gets more people watching on television and almost certainly will raise the quality of play in the Eastern Conference.
 
The oddsmakers and most pundits believe this could very well be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals and it’s hard to disagree. Miami is the 6/5 favorite (Bet $100 to win $120) to win the East with Chicago pegged as the second choice (9/2).
 
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The late-night game on Tuesday will feature the “Battle of Los Angeles” with the L.A. Clippers squaring off against the Kobe-less L.A. Lakers from the Staples Center. The Clippers and new head coach Doc Rivers have high expectations in the Western Conference. Oddsmakers have the Clips listed behind Oklahoma City (11/4) as the second choice (4/1) to win the Western Conference. Due to the Kobe injury and some key departures, oddsmakers have the Lakers listed at 35/1 odds to win the West and that number should probably be much higher.
 
Bettors will tell you that the best team usually wins in the Association and I expect the Heat, Bulls, Thunder and Clippers to make deep runs next summer, barring injuries. Outside of that quartet, I believe there are a few other teams to watch this season.
 
One year ago, the Brooklyn Nets were highly paid underperformers who sleepwalked through their first-round loss to the depleted Bulls. The Nets will be starting fresh with a new coach in former player Jason Kidd. Plus the team made three big player moves in getting Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from Boston. Kidd’s inexperience will be offset by the meticulous preparation of lead assistant Lawrence Frank, who will help make sense of the substitution patterns that will be crucial to the Nets’ success this year. The Nets only serious competition in the Atlantic Division will be the New York Knicks, with the Celtics in rebuilding mode and Philadelphia being a non-factor in the division race. Toronto finished strong last season but a lack of depth will limit their potential.
 
The Indiana Pacers finished first in the Central Division last season and will battle the Bulls this season. It’s tough to imagine the Pacers playing the Heat any better than they did in last season's Eastern Conference Finals, which went seven games, but Indiana managed to improve dramatically this offseason. Most important is the return of Danny Granger, who played only five games in 2012-13 because of a knee injury. The Pacers also fortified their weak bench by adding Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. With Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson, Indiana has the necessary defenders to play man-to-man against just about anyone. The Bulls and Pacers could be set for the tightest division race in the league, but Indiana holds the slightest of edges when you look at health and depth.

Golden State was a fun team to watch a season ago and will be even better this year with now having some playoff experience on its resume. Stephen Curry is definitively the league’s best shooter, as his 45.3-percent shooting from beyond the arc last season is unfathomably high for a player who takes so many of his attempts off the dribble. His range is so deep and his release so quick that his simply having the ball in his hands applies a world of pressure to opposing defenses. Similar to the Atlantic, the Pacific Division will be a two-horse race between the Clippers and Warriors since the Lakers are banged-up and both the Kings and Suns are still in rebuilding mode.
 
Win Total Bets
 
Here is a look at two NBA regular season Win Totals that I've played at the LVH SuperBook in Las Vegas.
 
Best Over: Chicago Bulls 56 ½
 
Despite having a make-shift lineup at times last season, head coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls went 45-37.  With former league MVP Derrick Rose returning at 100 percent, this team will be at the top of the Eastern Conference and earning a dozen extra wins is very doable. Chicago has one of the best defensive units in the NBA, which is key in a conference that doesn’t have much firepower offensively.
 
Best Under: Orlando Magic 24 ½
 
This seems like a very low number but the oddsmakers have good reason. Even though rookie Victor Oladipo has turned some heads early, the Magic are still a very raw team. Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson are the only veterans on the roster and both will likely be dumped by the trade deadline. I expect Orlando to be competitive, especially at home, but a lack of inexperience will give them plenty of tough losses and not close victories.
 
 

  
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