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NBA Title Race Opener Than Ever

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

But the 2022-23 season, which began Tuesday night in Boston, defies historical predictability. The preseason favorite doesn’t always win (see 2021-22 Nets). But usually there is is at least one consensus preseason favorite.

Not this season. As of Monday afternoon, the team with the best championship odds is the Bucks, with +550 odds, meaning they have a 15 percent chance of winning, according to FanDuel. According to the Vegas Insider consensus, the Celtics are at +575. (When odds are presented in this form, lower numbers denote larger favourites, higher numbers denote larger long draws.)

Either way, that means the 2022-23 season has had the smallest pre-season favorite since at least 1984-85, which is as old as Basketball-Reference’s odds archive has expanded.

Overall, Las Vegas odds know what they’re talking about. Of the top eight preseason favorites in this dataset, six won championships and the other two reached the finals before reaching the finals.

Biggest Preseason Title Favorites Since 1985

Set Players (Rankings)
Set Players (Rankings)
2022 Networks 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 Knights 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 at the other end of the spectrum, only two teams have won the title with a probability of worse than 5 percent pre-season, according to the Vegas odds archive. The 2010-11 Mavericks were at +2000, which translates to 4.8 percent chance, and the 2014-15 Warriors were at +2800, or 3.4 percent.

That’s why it’s worth noting when a central element of Vegas odds stands out as a historical outlier—even if we accept that Vegas’ formulas may change over time. Previously, the preseason with the smallest favorite was 2007-08, where the Mavericks and Spurs were both +450 to win the title. After that, in 2019-20, the Clippers (+425) overtook the champion Lakers (+450) as their preseason favourites; Before that season, “Is the NBA’s Title Race Open Wider Than Ever?” I wrote an article asking. Then the answer was no but close. for the 2022-23 season. Yeahaccording to the data.

This uncertainty isn’t just in Vegas. FiveThirtyEight‘s predictive model sees “a larger field of title contenders than ever before in recent history.” And a simple scan of the top teams will reveal the same for any unbiased observer, where the top contenders are besieged by worries about injury and internal turmoil.

The result is a near-to-top shambles, with half a dozen teams per FanDuel with championship odds between +550 and +1000 (or 9 to 15 percent implied probability).

One of the biggest reasons for these more equitable championship rates is that talent looks more dispersed in the league. While the Big Trios and the Big Doubles have been very trendy in recent seasons, now these star suits look fragile. ESPN’s NBArank lineup dates back to the 2011-12 season, and this is the first season with no teammate matchups in the top 10.

Biggest Preseason Title Favorites Since 1985

Set proportions implied probability Playoff Result
Set proportions implied probability Playoff Result
2018 Warriors -187 65% To win
2019 Warriors -168 63% Losing in the Finals
2017 Warriors -128 56% To win
1997 Bulls +100 50% To win
1993 Bulls +120 45% To win
1988 Lakers +120 45% To win
2004 Lakers +140 42% Losing in the Finals
1998 Bulls +140 42% To win

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

  • Joel Embiid and James Harden? No one trusts the latter in a playoff series.
  • Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? The first hasn’t played a competitive game in a year and a half.
  • LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Both players are now prone to injury and the latter’s shot deserted him.
  • Devin Booker and Chris Paul? They exploded in one of the most uneven playoff crashes in NBA history.
  • Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? How much will the latter play exactly?

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

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

But in rematches between strong star teams, the favorites are not so clear and the odds are reacting accordingly. There was a slight difference in preseason odds 1994-95 after Michael Jordan retired first, and 1998-99 when he left the league for the second time. The odds dwindled from 2005 to 2008, when the Shaq-Kobe dynasty was overthrown but no super team rose to replace it. And again, they were tight in 2019-20 after Durant left the Warriors.

The relative democratization of talent provides less predictability in a sport (usually) ruled by talent. Look at the teams that have reached the Finals but lost in the three years since Durant left Golden State. Vegas gave the 2019-20 Heat a 60-to-1 championship chance before the season, but despite those long odds, they reached the Finals. The 2020-21 Suns and 2021-22 Celtics had pre-season odds of 40 to 1. They’re at least three of the four biggest long shots to reach the Finals. (The other was the 2001-02 Nets, again at 60-1.)

Considering this recent history, and with historical uncertainty for the ostensibly preseason favorite, the 2022-23 title race really looks more open than ever before. The pair isn’t usually associated with the strongest team in the NBA, but this season could be different.

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