Since 2019, at least one team has defied the odds to reach the NBA Finals. We explore which underdog might lose to Golden State in the 2023 Finals
The Draft Kings Sportsbook released its 2023 NBA title odds, and the Golden State Warriors have the second-best title odds, at +600 (meaning, if you bet $100 on the Dubs to repeat, you’d win $600). However, since Kevin Durant left Golden State and LeBron James left Cleveland, the path to the NBA Finals has been much more unpredictable. Last year, the Warriors were a distant 4th in the pre-season, with odds of +1100, and rewarded bettors with an 11-to-1 windfall. The favorites? Not so good.
The 2021-22 favorites were the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, who went into the year at +230 to win it all, followed by the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers, who were second with odds of +425. Combined, those teams won exactly zero playoff games, with the Lakers finishing 19.5 games below their projected wins and missing the post-season entirely. Where were the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics? 13th, at +4000. Steph Curry ruined some huge paydays for Boston fans who put their gambling money where their mouths were before last season.
In the 2020-21 season, it was a similar outcome. The world champion Lakers were the overwhelming favorites to repeat, at +275, but finished the regular season in seventh place and got bounced in the first round. The eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks? Second, with odds of +550, though they came one Kevin Durant shoe size of losing in round two. And where were the Finals losers, the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns? Tied for 12th, and like Boston a year later, their title odds were +4000.
And it was more of the same in 2019-20! The Clippers were the big favorites at +425, but they blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, a Doc Rivers special. (Side note: If Draft Kings ever offers a “Doc Rivers blows a 3-1 lead” prop bet, bet the house.) Slightly behind in second place where the future champion Lakers, at +450. But where was their defeated Finals opponent, the Miami Heat? 14th, at +6000.
What can we learn from these trends? First, the top favorite isn’t going to win it all, which is obvious – the Warriors are going to repeat, and they’re not the title favorites. What we also can infer is that the Finals loser is going to come from the middle of the pack, based on pre-season odds. Sorry, Celtics. It’s simply the gambling math.
So who is the best candidate to lose to the Warriors next June? Obviously, the Warriors will make it back to the Finals – what could go wrong with an aging team, with three different core players looking for new contracts after the season, turning over half their bench? The Milwaukee Bucks’ title odds are +700, which is far too likely. Likewise the Miami Heat are +1400 and the Philadelphia 76ers are +1500 – far too high for a Finals loser in this era. We would consider the Brooklyn Nets at +1600, but only because the franchise seems in disarray. Still, the 9th-best odds? Feels too high.
Instead, we will go with the 15th place Toronto Raptors, who have the magical title odds of +4000, just like the Celtics and Suns before them. The Raptors have exciting second-year player Scottie Barnes, defensive whiz OG Anunoby, NBA champion Otto Porter Junior, and point guard Fred VanVleet, a man who becomes unstoppable when his wife gives birth during the playoffs. They also have the ammunition to trade for Kevin Durant if the relationship with the Nets sours further. It’s a potential 2019 Finals rematch, and a chance for the Warriors to avenge another loss.
There you have it. The Toronto Raptors, the Finals longshot, a lock to go to NBA Finals. and lose. So actually, bet them to win the Eastern Conference instead. (They’re +1400, great value!)
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