The 2020 NBA Title Chase Still Looks Like a Three Horse Race

Way back in October, before the start of what has turned out to be a historic season, three teams stood out from the rest- the Bucks, Clippers, and Lakers. Now, nearly 10 months later and finally at the start of the Bubble Playoffs in Orlando, the same three contenders appear to have strengthened their hold on the title race.

Using pre-season betting data from sportsoddshistory.com and pre-playoffs betting data from vegasinsider.com, we can see roughly how the NBA title picture has changed:

Screen Shot 2020-08-16 at 9.27.53 PM

We see the LA teams and Milwaukee reside solidly above the dashed line meaning that they are seen as stronger favorites today than they were in October. None of these teams by themselves are viewed as Warrior-like juggernauts of the past few seasons, but they are each in the neighborhood of 20-25% likely to win it all, according to the Vegas Insider odds. Collectively, they consume nearly 66% of the championship equity for this playoffs.

We can also see that the squads viewed as their biggest competition before the season are not judged to be as dangerous now. The Rockets and 76ers are each solidly below the dashed line, indicating a drop-off in title odds. The Sixers have suffered through somewhat of a disappointing year, posting only the 10th best net rating in the NBA. Now, they have to battle in the Eastern Conference playoffs without their second best player, Ben Simmons, who suffered a partial dislocation of his left patella in the seeding games. Houston attempted to shake up their squad with the addition of Russell Westbrook in the offseason and the jettison of Clint Capela in favor of Robert Covington and small-ball at the trade deadline. They have been an interesting team to watch, but haven’t quite been as dominant in the regular season as they may have hoped heading into the season.

Two other teams, the Raptors and Celtics, have had strong regular seasons and have driven their title fortunes up a bit. But Toronto and Boston are not seen as truly strong contenders; their title odds hover at 8% and 5% respectively.

Just how much of a 3-horse race are we witnessing? Well, going back to 2005, this year’s Lakers are seen as the strongest “third” contender. They have the best title odds of the team with the third highest chance of winning the title at roughly 19%.

Screen Shot 2020-08-16 at 8.58.38 PM

How does this year’s title race compare to the previous years in terms of stability? To measure this, I found the difference between each team’s pre-season title odds and pre-playoffs odds for each year from 2005 to the present. Then, I added the absolute values of those differences together for each year. A larger sum implies a more different title picture from the start of the season to the start of the playoffs.

Screen Shot 2020-08-16 at 9.06.42 PM

From this graph, we can see that 2020 has been more volatile than two recent seasons, 2019 and 2017, but not as volatile as some of the title races in the mid to late 2000’s. Initially, I thought this season would rate as one of the least volatile due to the stability of the three favorites, but the drop-off in fortunes of the next tier down (the Rockets, 76ers, and the (gulp) Warriors) has driven this metric to about average.

This type of analysis needs the caveat that I am only looking at title odds from two sources (sportsoddshistory.com and vegasinsider.com), so take it with a grain of salt. In particular, the order of the three favorites I think can certainly be debated. But I think the basketball community would agree that the LA teams and Milwaukee have separated themselves at least a bit from the pack. Heading into the weird Bubble Playoffs of 2020,  if someone other than the Bucks, Clippers, or Lakers takes the crown, that would be at least a mild surprise.

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