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Vegas Thinks The NBA Title Race Is As Wide Open As It’s Been In A Long Time

When the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s 2019-20 NBA championship odds first opened back in May, the Golden State Warriors were the early favorites to win this season’s title. At +175,1 the Warriors’ odds implied a 36 percent chance2 to win the championship — pretty high in absolute terms, but low relative to recent Warriors odds, as it priced in some uncertainty around whether Kevin Durant would re-sign with the team. That same uncertainty had the New York Knicks optimistically tied for the sixth-best title odds in the league (+1600), as the Knicks harbored hopes of drafting Zion Williamson and signing Durant and Kyrie Irving.

A lot has changed in the NBA since then. The Warriors lost Klay Thompson to a torn ACL and Durant to an Achilles injury before Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Paul George became Los Angeles Clippers; Anthony Davis became a Los Angeles Laker; Russell Westbrook became a Houston Rocket; and LeBron James crept closer to age 35.3 And true to form, the Knicks missed out on the top pick in the NBA draft, whiffed on marquee player acquisitions and saw their title odds fall to +100,000, tied for worst in the league.

When the NBA’s star carousel finally slowed, the top of the league felt about as balanced as it had in recent years. Heading into Tuesday night’s season openers, the Clippers were favored to win it all (+350, good for an implied probability of 22 percent), followed by the Lakers (+400, 20 percent), Milwaukee Bucks (+600, 14 percent), Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers (+800, 11 percent), Warriors (+1200, 8 percent), Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets (+1600, 6 percent) and Boston Celtics (+2500, 4 percent).4

So how balanced are these teams’ odds in the context of recent NBA history? For starters, the Kawhi-led Clippers are, in odds terms, the NBA’s weakest preseason favorite since the waning months of the George W. Bush administration, or late 2008. In basketball parlance, by then LeBron had already started four All-Star Games; Zion had just started third grade. In any case, Tuesday’s tipoff marked the first time since the start of the 2008-09 season that the NBA’s preseason favorite had championship odds worse than +300.5 Put another way, this is the first time in 11 years in which no NBA team entered the season with an odds-implied probability of at least 25 percent to win it all.

As Vegas odds go, only three of the past 35 NBA seasons6 have featured a weaker preseason favorite than this year’s Clippers: 2007-08 (Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, +450), 2006-07 (Mavericks, +400) and 2004-05 (Spurs, +400). All three of those seasons happened to come in the four-year period between the end of the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant era and the beginning of the Pau Gasol-Bryant pairing in L.A.7 The Spurs won two titles in that span (and three in five years), but Vegas frequently underestimated them along the way, and San Antonio never owned the top of the odds board as other dynasties have.

The Clippers are the weakest favorite in over a decade

Preseason odds to win the NBA Finals and season results, since 1984-85

Exact odds vary by date and sportsbook. The 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons were shortened by lockouts.

*Seasons with co-favorites

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, Sports Odds History, Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook

Despite the team’s low-for-a-favorite odds, Clippers fans would be happy to learn that in the 35 NBA seasons since 1984-85, the preseason favorite or co-favorite made the NBA Finals 27 times and won 18 championships. During the same 35-season period in the NFL, by contrast, only seven preseason favorites or co-favorites won the Super Bowl. The NBA’s +350 favorites don’t win the Finals with the same frequency as NBA favorites in general — only three of seven have made the Finals, and only two have won — but thanks to a handful of somewhat unexpected NBA champions,8 +350 actually represents the median preseason title odds for all NBA champions since 1984-85.9

Beyond the Clippers, the preseason parity of 2019-20 also harkens back to the mid-to-late 2000s. Five of this year’s NBA teams — the Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Sixers — came into the season with odds-implied probabilities to win the NBA championship between 10 percent and 24.99 percent, the most such teams since 2006-07. Eight teams — the five mentioned plus the Warriors, Jazz and Nuggets — carried odds-implied probabilities of 5 percent to 24.99 percent, the most since 2008-09. This stands in contrast to the past 10 years, when championship odds were concentrated in one or two teams per season — usually the Warriors, Cavaliers, Heat or Lakers — and then dwindled from there.

Whether you think there’s value in this year’s NBA odds ultimately comes down to whether you believe any teams have a greater probability to win the championship than the betting markets imply. These perceptions naturally vary between fans, pundits and computer models. FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, powered by the new RAPTOR player ratings, agree with Vegas about which nine teams had the highest preseason probability of winning the NBA Finals. But relative to the oddsmakers, RAPTOR is more bullish on the Rockets and bearish on the Lakers.

FiveThirtyEight’s model estimated that the Rockets entered the season with a 28 percent chance to win it all — best in the league and considerably higher than the 11 percent chance implied by their +800 Vegas odds. By that logic, the Rockets should have priced closer to +255 or +260. Meanwhile, our final preseason forecast gave the Lakers just a 3 percent chance of winning the Finals, seventh-best in the league and a fraction of the 20 percent probability implied by LeBron and Co.’s +400 odds. A 3 percent chance at the Larry O’Brien Trophy suggests that the Lakers’ odds should have been more like +3200.

In the end, this new era of NBA player movement makes the already difficult exercise of basketball prognostication even more challenging. Oddsmakers, computer models and casual bettors need to consider not only the teams today but also potential in-season trades — and which teams have the gumption and chips to pull them off. Here’s to an exciting 2019-20 NBA season, both on and off the floor.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Meaning that if a bettor wagered $100 on the Warriors, the bettor would net $175 if Golden State were to win the NBA Finals next June.

  2. Implied probabilities are presented at face value throughout this story, without adjusting for the underlying profit made by sportsbooks on the bets. Because of that cut (the vig), the likelihood of each outcome is overstated, and the sum of the implied probabilities for all teams in a given season is greater than 100 percent.

  3. LeBron and I were born in the same year. Only one of us has played over 56,000 minutes in the NBA.

  4. As of Oct. 22 and according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Odds change over time and vary among sportsbooks.

  5. Historical preseason odds are via Sports Odds History.

  6. Sports Odds History’s preseason NBA odds data goes back to 1984-85.

  7. The Lakers traded for Gasol on Feb. 1, 2008, so he did not affect the team’s preseason title odds until the 2008-09 season. The Celtics acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett ahead of the 2007-08 season and went on the win the NBA Finals that year. But Boston entered that season at only +1000 to win it all, tied for fifth in the league.

  8. This group includes the 2018-19 Raptors (+1850 preseason odds, 5th), 2014-15 Warriors (+2800, 8th), 2013-14 Spurs (+1200, T-4th), 2010-11 Mavericks (+2000, 7th), 2007-08 Celtics (+1000, T-5th), 2003-04 Detroit Pistons (+1500, T-7th), 2002-03 Spurs (+1100, T-4th) and 1993-94 Rockets (+1200, T-5th).

  9. It’s also the median among NBA champions since 1995-96, when the league expanded to 29 teams, and 2004-05, when the league expanded to 30 teams.

Greg Guglielmo researches and writes about sports and other topics under the name ELDORADO.

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