Sports

The NBA Title Race Is More Wide Open Than Ever

Basketball tends to be more predictable than most other sports. Superstars can dominate more in the NBA. Team records stay more similar from one season to the next. And the best teams win more often in the playoffs.

But the 2022-23 season, which tips off in Boston Tuesday night, is defying predictability at a historical level. The preseason favorite doesn’t always win (see: the 2021-22 Nets). But there usually is a consensus preseason favorite, at least.

Not this season. As of Monday afternoon, the team with the best championship odds according to FanDuel is the Bucks, with +550 odds, which imply they have a 15 percent chance to win. According to the Vegas Insider consensus, it’s the Celtics at +575. (When odds are presented in this form, lower numbers signify bigger favorites, while higher numbers signify bigger longshots.)

In either case, that means the 2022-23 season has the smallest preseason favorite since at least 1984-85, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s odds archive extends.

Generally, Las Vegas odds know what they’re talking about. Of the top eight preseason favorites in this data set, six won titles and the other two reached the Finals before falling short.

Biggest Preseason Title Favorites Since 1985

Team Players (Ranks)
Team Players (Ranks)
2022 Nets Kevin Durant (1), James Harden (10)
2022 Lakers LeBron James (3), Anthony Davis (9)
2021 Lakers LeBron James (1), Anthony Davis (2)
2020 Clippers Kawhi Leonard (2), Paul George (10)
2020 Lakers LeBron James (3), Anthony Davis (5)
2019 Warriors Stephen Curry (2), Kevin Durant (4)
2018 Warriors Kevin Durant (2), Stephen Curry (4), Draymond Green (10)
2018 Rockets Chris Paul (7), James Harden (8)
2017 Warriors Stephen Curry (2), Kevin Durant (3)
2016 Thunder Kevin Durant (3), Russell Westbrook (7)
2016 Clippers Chris Paul (6), Blake Griffin (9)
2015 Cavaliers LeBron James (1), Kevin Love (7)
2015 Clippers Chris Paul (2), Blake Griffin (5)
2015 Thunder Russell Westbrook (4), Kevin Durant (8)
2015 Rockets James Harden (9), Dwight Howard (10)
2014 Thunder Kevin Durant (2), Russell Westbrook (5)
2014 Rockets James Harden (4), Dwight Howard (7)
2013 Heat LeBron James (1), Dwyane Wade (8)
2013 Thunder Kevin Durant (2), Russell Westbrook (9)
2013 Lakers Dwight Howard (3), Kobe Bryant (6)
2012 Heat LeBron James (1), Dwyane Wade (3)

And on the other end of the spectrum, only two teams have won the championship with worse than a 5 percent implied probability in the preseason, according to this archive of Vegas odds. The 2010-11 Mavericks were at +2000, which translates to a 4.8 percent chance, and the 2014-15 Warriors were at +2800, or 3.4 percent.

So when a central element of the Vegas odds stands out as a historical outlier — even granting that Vegas’s formulas might have changed over time — it’s worth noting. Previously, the preseason with the smallest favorite was 2007-08, when the Mavericks and Spurs were both +450 to win the title. After that, it’s 2019-20, when the Clippers (+425) edged out the eventual champion Lakers (+450) as preseason favorites; ahead of that season, I wrote a piece asking, “Is the NBA’s Title Race More Wide Open Than Ever?” The answer at the time was no, but it’s close. For the 2022-23 season, it’s a yesaccording to the data.

This uncertainty doesn’t just reside in Vegas. FiveThirtyEight‘s predictive model sees “a field of title contenders more wide-open than at any time in recent history.” And a simple scan of the top teams would reveal the same to any unbiased observer, with top contenders beset by concerns about returns from injury and internal turmoil.

The result is a jumbled mess near the top, with half a dozen teams, per FanDuel, holding championship odds between +550 and +1000 (or between 9 and 15 percent implied probabilities).

One of the biggest reasons for these more egalitarian title odds is that talent seems more dispersed throughout the league. While Big Threes and Big Twos have been all the rage in recent seasons, now those star team-ups look brittle. ESPN’s NBArank series dates back to the 2011-12 season, and this is the first season with no teammate pairings in the top 10.

Biggest Preseason Title Favorites Since 1985

Team Odds Implied Probability Playoff Result
Team Odds Implied Probability Playoff Result
2018 Warriors -187 65% Won
2019 Warriors -168 63% Lost in Finals
2017 Warriors -128 56% Won
1997 Bulls +100 50% Won
1993 Bulls +120 45% Won
1988 Lakers +120 45% Won
2004 Lakers +140 42% Lost in Finals
1998 Bulls +140 42% Won

Ask yourself: What’s the best superstar pairing in the NBA this season? Every possible answer comes with a serious caveat.

  • Joel Embiid and James Harden? Nobody trusts the latter in a playoff series.
  • Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? The former hasn’t played a competitive game in a year and a half.
  • LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Both players are now injury-prone, and the latter’s jump shot has abandoned him.
  • Devin Booker and Chris Paul? They were just blown out in one of the most lopsided playoff collapses in NBA history.
  • Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? How much will the latter play, exactly?

Heck, ESPN’s NBArank says the Timberwolves, a team not among the top 10 in FanDuel’s Finals odds, have the best top three this season, with Karl-Anthony Towns (13th), Rudy Gobert (18th), and Anthony Edwards (25th). That’s a far cry from when Durant, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green all placed in the top 10, with Klay Thompson not far behind.

When superstars join forces, they tend to be heavy favorites. Most notably and recently, the 2017, 2018, and 2019 Warriors are the only teams in Basketball-Reference’s database with an implied preseason championship probability higher than 50 percent.

But in the interregnums between powerful star team-ups, the favorites aren’t quite so clear, and the odds respond accordingly. There was a small spread between the top handful of teams in the preseason odds in 1994-95, after Michael Jordan first retired, and 1998-99, when he left the league a second time. Odds flattened from 2005 through 2008, when the Shaq-Kobe dynasty had been deposed but no superteam had risen to take their place. And again, they were narrow in 2019-20, after Durant left the Warriors.

A relative democratization of talent makes for less predictability in a sport in which talent (usually) rules. Just look at the teams that have reached, but lost, the Finals in the three years since Durant left Golden State. Vegas gave the 2019-20 Heat a 60-to-1 chance to win the title before the season, yet they reached the Finals despite those long odds. Ditto the 2020-21 Suns and 2021-22 Celtics, who both had 40-to-1 odds before the season. They’re three of the four biggest longshots on record to at least reach the Finals. (The other was the 2001-02 Nets, also at 60-to-1.)

With that recent history in mind, and with the historical uncertainty for the ostensible preseason favorite, the 2022-23 title race really does look more wide-open than ever. Parity isn’t generally associated with the top-heavy NBA, but this season might be different.

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