Who is Favored to Win the NBA Finals?

NBA Finals Betting Tips

Who is favored to make it to the playoffs? What two teams are most likely to make it to the NBA Finals? What team is furthest from an NBA Finals appearance? Basketball fans love a good debate, and sports bettors have a unique perspective on the NBA Playoffs picture.

That may seem counterintuitive.
Most NBA bettors focus on the regular season. That means thinking long-term about the teams likely to make the playoffs isn’t a big part of our typical strategy. However, an understanding of the teams likely to win the Finals, and the teams least likely to do so, is a pleasant side effect of the armchair handicapping and game-to-game analysis required of NBA bettors.

This post is all about finding those teams favored to win the NBA Finals, and some discussion about the playoff picture in general, as well as some signs that a team is likely to be nowhere near the basketball court in June.

Teams that Win the NBA Finals Have Good Win-Loss Records

How often does the team with the best record win the Finals? Of the NBA’s 74 championship teams, 45% owned (or tied for) the best regular season record.

That’s pretty close to a coin flip.

If you only count the 82-game seasons played since 1967-1968, the percentage of champions who owned or tied for the league’s best record goes up to near 60%.

Will the team with the best record in any given season win the finals? It’s likely – not predictably so, but very likely anyway.

A typical story of dominance in the modern league is 2015. The 2015 Finals saw the Golden State Warriors (who had just 9 losses all season) facing off against the Cavaliers, who brought a humbler 53-29 regular season record into the contest. Guess who won – the once-in-a-generation 2015 Golden State Warriors, in 6 games.

Here’s an outlier.
The 1978 Washington Bullets were the worst NBA Finals Champion of all time. Their 44-38 regular season record would have put them in 7th or 8th place in either modern conference. While we all know that the 70s NBA was one of the most parity-driven sports leagues ever, and it’s important to point out that the team they beat in the Finals had just a 47-35 record, not much better than the stinker the Bullets turned in.

You can pretty safely bet that the two teams favored to make the Finals will have winning records – it’s also a safe bet to assume that they’ll have among the best records in the league. Look at win total predictions for both conferences, and you can have a decent idea of what teams will likely meet in June.

Most NBA Finals Teams are Chalk Picks

I’m not the only one to say this – NBA team performance is fairly predictable, at least relative to the other long-season US pro sport, baseball.

That means touts do a decent job at things like predicting win totals and player awards.

That means you can look at NBA win total predictions at the beginning of a given season and make a decently confident wager on the eventual NBA champion.

Looking back at previous picks, you can see this trend in the 2020-2021 season. The general consensus on the Hawks win total was 44.5. Their eventual record was 41-31, fairly close to the predicted total. There’s an even closer pick from the Eastern Conference – most strategy guys were setting the win total for Philadelphia right at 49.5, and the team turned in a record of 49-23.

I say all that to explain why it shouldn’t be a surprise that you can predict the teams in the Finals with some regularity even as a casual fan.

All you need to do to get a leg up on futures predictions in the NBA is look at those win totals and start to think about where a team will end up in the playoffs. An easy playoff path and the right team at the right moment can easily slip into the Finals. Increasingly, that pattern is visible from a great distance.

There may also be some value in setting your own win totals and comparing your handicapped picks to what’s available from your sportsbooks. If you can get a better number from the book than you think you should, there’s your bet for the week.

Teams with Superstars are Favored to Win the NBA Finals

Whether or not a team with a superstar or two is more likely to win a game, the sportsbooks tend to favor those teams. That’s as a consequence of the general betting public’s tendency to favor those teams and players.

I’d never blindly back a team based on its roster alone, I’d need to consider the entire context, any injuries, roster changes, bad matchups, and other things that impact a game’s bottom line for my bankroll.

Let’s look at the last ten NBA Finals winners and identify how many of them were superstar teams. I define a “superstar team” as one that’s built entirely around one, two, or three players whose salaries are far higher than the rest of the roster.

2012 Champions:
Miami Heat (superstar team)
2013 Champions:
Miami Heat (superstar team)
2014 Champions:
San Antonio Spurs
2015 Champions:
Golden State Warriors (superstar team)
2016 Champions:
Cleveland Cavaliers (superstar team)
2017 Champions:
Golden State Warriors (superstar team)
2018 Champions:
Golden State Warriors (superstar team)
2019 Champions:
Toronto Raptors
2020 Champions:
Los Angeles Lakers (superstar team)
2021 Champions:
Milwaukee Bucks (superstar team)

Okay, so maybe the people who back superstars have something going for them. There’s been a big shift in the NBA away from team play and towards the play of individuals, and the building of rosters around the whims of one or two headline players that put butts in the seats.

This trend is growing and may at some point be something we can bet on and make money.

I don’t think it’s there yet, since the futures bet odds you’d get for betting on these superstar teams would be really low and tying up your bankroll for an entire season for a low payout doesn’t make any sense.

Gone are the days when the Spurs, the opposite of a superstar team, built a 5-championship dynasty on a shoestring budget, with little in the way of antics, egos, or personality clashes.

That’s just not the league we’re watching anymore.

Teams with Recent Playoff Success are Favored to Win the NBA Finals

The general public falls for recency bias with regularity. Sportsbooks respond in kind.

The cycle continues.

It’s normal to believe that a recent outcome has some impact on a future one. There’s an entire codified fallacy out there based on that concept.

In sports the gambler’s fallacy may be a little less fallacious.
Psychology plays a big part, especially during the grind of a sports season, playing sometimes five games in a calendar week. A string of wins can raise the energy and confidence of a team so that a streak begets a longer streak. The opposite is also true – losing a bunch can put you down in the dumps, leading to more losses.

This way of thinking extends all the way to the NBA Playoffs. It’s assumed that a team that made the playoffs last year is somehow likely to get in again. While this can be true, especially when a dynasty has formed, few roster changes are made, and the rest of the division is unable to react. But this isn’t always true.

The 2020 Finals featured two teams (the Lakers and the Heat) who hadn’t even made the playoffs the year before. But, again, this was big news, and is not the norm. Considering how often the Finals is a battle between the two best records in the league, it’s unlikely for a team that missed the playoffs to suddenly pop into them – it represents an outlying performance that you should hopefully be able to identify and profit from during the regular season.

Don’t get too caught up in the recency bias thinking when considering who may make the NBA Finals. You’re better off relying on real analysis, on statistics and trends than assuming that a playoff team from last year is playoff-bound this season.

Conclusion

Knowing who’s favored to win the NBA Finals won’t necessarily help you making day-to-day bets on regular season NBA action.

Please Note:
It might help you consider which teams are over- or under-valued by the book, but that’s about it. If you’re not making futures bets, then thinking about who’s favored to win the NBA Championship is probably just good background information that helps informs your bets in general.

That’s good practice, but don’t let it distract you from the everyday handicapping and league news needs of a typical NBA bettor.

PLACE YOUR BETS NOW!

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Rex Hoffman / Author

Rex Hoffman is a passionate sports writer, with over five years of experience covering sports journalism in line with the Vegas betting landscape. His favorite subjects include football, basketball, and baseball. As a Las Vegas resident, he enjoys finding an edge against the local sportsbooks and aims to share his extensive knowledge with both beginners and experienced bettors. Rex also dabbles in horse racing wagering and enjoys typical casino fare like blackjack and poker in his spare time.

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