The beauty of the current NBA season is the uncertainty. When was the last time, going into an NBA season, there have been legitimate questions about who the prohibitive favorite truly is? The Warriors have ruled the roost for several years. The Spurs and Lakers were previously perennial title contenders for nearly 15 years. Before that, we had Michael Jordan’s Bulls. This season, the Lakers and Clippers both have serious title aspirations and have good cases to be considered title favorites but it’s hard to conclude that they are prohibitive favorites.
In fact, FiveThirtyEight has projected the Rockets as the most likely title team (26%), with the Clipps (17%) and Bucks (15%) next in line (the Lakers are actually sitting well below three other teams). Betting odds are not definitive proof of which team is best but they do give us some general sense of who the favorites are. Currently, BetOnline has the Clipps as the leaders at +400 (i.e. bet $100 to make $400) and the Lakers are second at +450. How does this compare with prior pre-season favorites?
SportsOddsHistory.com has pre-season title odds for each NBA season since 1984-85. Let’s run through each season’s pre-season favorites and who ultimately won the title to see what we can learn (in some cases, multiple teams tied for second in odds. In those instances, we chose the team that advanced further in the playoffs):
-As expected, during the 1980s, the Lakers and Celtics mostly dominated the show.
-The odds went a little haywire when the defending titles teams were not intact for the coming season. The most uncertain time was before the 1993-94 season, when Michael Jordan abruptly retired from the NBA and the odds makers had to assess which of the remaining good teams was the favorite. The numbers favored the Knicks at +200. The Patrick Ewing Knicks were pretty good but, in retrospect, it seems silly that they would be such heavy favorites, when Phoenix (with Charles Barkley), the Stockton-Malone Jazz, Hakeem’s Rockets, and the Sonics had been arguably as good or nearly as good. The Rockets, a mirror image team to the Knicks, were somehow considered six times less likely to win the title (and ended up beating the Knicks for the title).
-After MJ’s second retirement from the NBA, in 1998, bettors thought the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were ready to take the title but the odds given were relatively weak for a title favorite at +300. They needed a better coach for the titles to happen.
-The longest odds for NBA title favorite occurred in 2007-08, when the Spurs and Mavs were co-favorites at +450, which is even longer than the odds for the current Clippers team. It is somewhat surprising that the Spurs could have be such weak favorites given their past success and the talent they had at the time (the Celtics did end up winning the title that year).
-The Warriors of the last few years were the first team to return less than a dollar for a dollar bet. In that sense, they were heavier favorites than even MJ’s Bulls. This is a nice reminder that, even though it felt like the Bulls were unbeatable, they had some serious challengers and the risk of collapse from age in Jordan’s later years was more palpable than it seems now. The 1996-97 Bulls were the previous heaviest favorites (at +100) coming off of the 72-win season.
-Some title teams have shocked the odds makers. In the 1980s and 1990s, the odds makers were usually pretty close on picking a title team (except for the 1993-94 Rockets, who were pegged at +1200). Since the 2000s, there have been several big surprises. First, the 2003-04 Pistons won at +1500 (in fairness, the team did not yet trade for Rasheed Wallace at the time the odds were set). Then, in 2010-11, the Mavs broke that level, beating the Heat despite a +2000 chance. But longest odds were the 2014-15 Warriors at +2800, who were considered a nice team but not in the same space as LeBron’s Cavs or the Spurs. Within two years, the Warriors were the heaviest pre-season favorites ever.
The most notable general take away from this exercise is that, when the odds makers had no consensus favorite to lean on, they picked poorly. Today, we are also in a period of flux. As such, we should view the Clipps choice as favorites with some skepticism as the best team in the NBA. Having said that, here are our picks for the coming season:
- Milwaukee Bucks: Should still be the class of the East. They may not be quite as good as last season but building around Giannis Antetokounmpo seems like a pretty reliable plan. It helps that the main competition in the East appears weaker.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Philly still has some holes but are well-coached and quite talented up front with Al Horford in the fold. That backcourt is less inspiring.
- Boston Celtics: Losing Kyrie Irving and Horford hurts. The lack of talent in the East and the core of Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker is enough to be in the second tier below Milwaukee.
- Raptors: Still a good team without Kawhi Leonard, if not a title team. The ranking could drop if the front office decides to sell on Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol.
- Heat: After Toronto, the rest of the conference is .500ish at best. The Heat have a great coach and Jimmy Butler, so that could put at the top of the meh heap.
- Nets: Despite all nice movement in the off-season, for now, the Nets’ talent-base isn’t much different than last year, a fun and hustling team but not great. 2020-21 should be much more fun.
- Pacers: If Victor Oladipo is healthy, they could inch up but they are a .500 team without him.
- Magic: Another team that plays hard but is limited in talent. Aaron Gordon is the brightest light.
- Pistons: Could very well be a playoff team but they rely heavily on Blake Griffin, who isn’t likely to get any better or healthier than he was last year.
- Hawks: They have a bunch of young talent in Trae Young and John Collins. Still not good enough to make the playoffs.
- Bulls: The season should be about developing Wendell Carter and Lauri Markkanen. It remains to be seen if Jim Boylen overplays some of the decent vets instead.
- Wizards: Could fall even lower if they trade Bradley Beal.
- Hornets: We agree with the consensus that letting Kemba Walker go for Terry Rozier is not promising.
- Knicks: Can’t seem to sign any big free agents. The second tier group will play better but won’t be good.
- Cavaliers: There are some interesting players here. It’s not clear how Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are going to fit. Yes, they should trade Kevin Love ASAP.
- Los Angeles Clippers: Leonard and Paul George form a great foundation and Doc Rivers has always done a good job of winning in the regular season.
- Houston Rockets: I don’t think flipping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook definitely makes the Rockets better this season. The trade made sense because of CP3’s likelihood of cratering in the near future. In the end, the Rockets remain a tier-one contender as long as James Harden continues to excel.
- Utah Jazz: Like Denver, Utah is a top flight team and could be anywhere from three to five out West. Mike Conley is an improvement at point but, perhaps, not as much as perceived.
- Los Angeles Lakers: A high variable team. LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be enough to be a serious contender. On the other hand, the front office is a mess and the process of finding a coach was silly. If the team hits a rough patch, we could see overreaction and undue panic.
- Denver Nuggets: Still a very good team. Nikola Jokic & Co. are as good as the other teams above them.
- Golden State Warriors: GS can still score but the defense, which has steadily declined, looks even worse. It’s hard to keep competing with a below average defense and without Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson (for now).
- Portland Trail Blazers: Essentially the same team the last few years. Some years that team does well in the playoffs and some years they get waxed because of bad match ups. Should be more of the same. The puncher’s shot of having a decent playoff run remains.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: If they keep the team together, OKC can make the playoffs. If they sell, CP3 and Danilo Gallinari, they will drop like a rock.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl Anthony Towns is great but the team was bad last season and it’s not clear they are much better. Could benefit the most if OKC tanks.
- Dallas Mavericks: The future is exciting with Luka Doncic and Kirstaps Porzingis. Porzingis will need to be treated carefully and there isn’t much other talent to contend just yet.
- San Antonio Spurs: The end is finally coming for Pop’s team. They don’t have the high-end talent they used to.
- New Orleans Pelicans: All eyes will be on Zion Williamson. The Pels have an interesting core of Zion, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball. This isn’t yet enough to contend for the playoffs unless Williamson is an immediate superstar.
- Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox looks like a special player at least. Not much else going on here.
- Memphis Grizzlies: They are now looking to tank. They still have enough talent and infrastructure to at least hurdle the Suns.
- Phoenix Suns: Oh boy was this team terrible last year (28th in offense and 29th in defense). Even if they play a bit better, it’s hard to see them being watchable.
-MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo
-Rookie: Zion Williamson
-Coach: Doc Rivers
-Milwaukee over Orlando, 4-1
-Philadelphia over Pacers, 4-1
-Boston over Brooklyn, 4-3
-Toronto over Miami, 4-3
-Milwaukee over Toronto, 4-1
-Philadelphia over Boston, 4-2
Eastern Conference Finals
-Milwaukee over Philadelphia, 4-2
-L.A. Clippers over Oklahoma City, 4-0
-Houston over Portland, 4-1
-Utah over Golden State, 4-3
-L.A. Lakers over Denver, 4-3
-L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers, 4-2
-Houston over Utah, 4-3
Western Conference Finals
-L.A. Clippers over Houston, 4-3
-Milwaukee over L.A. Clippers, 4-2