Can your team win the NBA Finals?
Coach David Thorpe’s guide to wildly differing projections from trusted sources
BY DAVID THORPE
We know it’s a year of parity. What we didn’t know is that this season would so profoundly scramble two of the most accurate sets of public predictions. Vegas, and the historically very accurate probabilities calculated by Basketball Reference, Most years, they cling pretty close to each other, but not now!
Everyone thinks the Celtics are the favorites. But after that … chaos! This week, Vegas considers the Bucks odds to win the title to be second to Boston, with a 14 percent chance to win this year’s title. Basketball Reference, meanwhile, has last year’s Finalists ninth most likely to win it all, behind the Pelicans and Kings.
The Warriors, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Clippers, and Nets also have huge disparities. It’s fascinating and fun—unless you want to know what’s going to happen!
We are dealing with two different approaches to prediction:
The secret sauce that runs the Basketball Reference odds isn’t public, but we know enough to say it’s driven primarily by performance this season. It doesn’t care that Khris Middleton has missed 39 games; that everyone expects the Warriors to be better when it matters; or that Kawhi Leonard is starting to look like his old self. That’s a weakness of this system. On the other hand, it does know that if you start as strong as the Grizzlies or Cavaliers, you tend to do well in the playoffs. It’s unbiased, for better or worse.
Vegas, on the other hand, ultimately is designed for a market of humans, with all their biases. Everyone knows the Bucks and Warriors can make the Finals, we just saw it! Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry are MVP-level stars who are in highlights every night. It’s hard to beat Vegas. But it has its constraints. New up-and-coming teams are a weakness—they don’t have the reputation to attract bets yet. The Cavaliers have great odds according to Basketball-Reference; if Vegas put their odds that high, would anyone bet on them?
So we’re in a bit of a standoff between two ways of thinking, into which we have decided to introduce: David Thorpe.
This year, the title is literally up for grabs; any team could be upset in the first round. Those are the consequences of parity. Before the season, we wrote how teams have to keep themselves from falling too far down late in the season as it’s going to be really difficult to rattle off a 10-game win streak and climb in the standings. You might catch one team, but you’re not going to leapfrog three or four spots when all the teams are fighting to win games.
Though Boston seems to be the clear favorite, there will be a real fight for the top seed in the East. The West is wide open. Everyone’s talking about the Grizzlies and Nuggets, but I’m convinced the Warriors still have some fight left in them—as do the Clippers.
I’ve taken a closer look at some discrepancies between the “Vegas” viewpoint—the average odds between four major sportsbooks—and the Basketball Reference lens to determine whose probability is more accurate and to answer a series of questions: How can the two be so far apart on the Warriors? Do the Kings really have a decent chance of reaching the Finals? Are the Grizzlies the team to beat in the West? Have the Bucks already missed their window this year?
And finally, does your team have a real chance to win the NBA Finals?
Those are some huge discrepancies! Below, I’ll dig in with my take on a baker’s dozen contenders: the Bucks, Warriors, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Clippers, Nets, Suns, Kings, Mavericks, Lakers, 76ers, Pelicans, and Nuggets.
BUCKS TITLE ODDS
Basketball Reference: 3%
My main concern with the Bucks is Khris Middleton. Can he return to top form by the time the playoffs begin? He’s only played eight games all season; his appearance Monday night marked his first since December 15.
Giannis has missed some games, but he can still have a great playoffs. But Middleton will need real game reps to reestablish his rhythm and timing, and that doesn’t happen doing 1-on-1 or even 4-on-4 in practice. With no hiccups, Middleton will have 35-or-so regular-season games to prepare for playoff intensity. Something tells me that’s unlikely. Milwaukee won it all in 2020-2021 behind a half-court offense that could still score enough when teams stifled Giannis. That’s because when all else failed, Middleton could make tough shots at the end of those possessions. Remember, when buckets got scarce for anyone but Giannis in Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals, Jrue Holiday shot 4-for-19, Middleton 6-for-13. He’s that guy for the Bucks.
Timing and rhythm aren’t switches you flip; they require a slow burn in which players ask themselves, “How do I get my footwork down on this?” or “How do I time up my release to make shots I know will be contested?” Someone like Middleton knows: I have made that shot before; I can make it again. The problem is, he’s almost guaranteed to be less effective in converting those shots in the early going. Getting back to that level will take a lot of work between now and the playoffs.
On the other hand, the Bucks have found a way to defend without Middleton, meaning they won’t have to sacrifice any of their defensive weapons when he’s fully back in the fold. Also, they’ve been struggling on offense as it is, so plugging him back in and letting him take some shots won’t hurt much, either. Of course, the cost of allowing Middleton to get back into form will be substantial—at least for a bit. It’s slow-acting medicine. The idea will be to ramp him up to 30 minutes soon after the All-Star break (he has been playing 15 minutes off the bench in his first games back).
After the All-Star break, we should know if Middleton is on the right track and whether he’s coming along faster than I anticipate. Coincidentally, he should be fresher than the average player come April. Assuming the best-case scenario, which is dangerous, let’s say Middleton becomes that same dependable guy he’s been. A subpar Middleton will make their first-round matchup crucial, they could absolutely lose if they stumble into the Celtics, 76ers, Cavaliers, or Nets in the first round.
At this point, I lean toward believing it’s too late for Middleton to reclaim his offensive game—plus, he’ll have injury maintenance to avoid longer setbacks. Unfortunately, I think this leaves the Bucks with a very slim chance of winning this year’s title. It’s one thing to miss two weeks in January; had someone told me Middleton would miss 45 games or so to start the season, I’d have picked another team as this year’s champion. Without their bailout guy at his most effective, the Bucks will lack the firepower needed to overcome the Sixers and/or Celtics.
Who’s closer? Basketball Reference
WARRIORS TITLE ODDS
Basketball Reference: 0.3%
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