Lakers’ +275 Title Odds May Understate Their Chance of a Repeat: Data Viz

Lev Akabas
·3 min read

The Los Angeles Lakers should be heavy favorites for the 2021 NBA championship after a convincing 2020 title run in which they needed just five games to win three of their four playoff series. The team also retooled last month, adding Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder, the two leading vote-getters for Sixth Man of the Year last season, along with veteran Marc Gasol.

LeBron James’s Lakers have +275 odds to win the NBA championship on DraftKings and most other sports gambling sites, implying a 27% chance of winning it all. The sportsbooks were impressed with the team’s offseason moves, as the price on the Lakers has shifted from its +400 opening. The only other teams with better than 15/1 odds are the Los Angeles Clippers (+550), the Milwaukee Bucks (+550) and the Brooklyn Nets (+600).

If they’re not still celebrating an NBA Finals victory that felt like it was last week, Lakers fans should rejoice at being crowned preseason favorites, a designation that puts this 2020-21 Lakers squad in company with many title-winning teams.

In the past 36 seasons, the team with the best preseason odds to win the title has gone on to win 18 times, with another eight finishing as runners-up. Heavy favorites, specifically, have fared even better. Of the 24 favorites that began the season with better than 3/1 odds, more than half won the championship and only two failed to reach the Finals.

In the NBA, teams below the predicted upper echelon can only climb so high over the course of a season. The chart below shows every NBA team since 1985, sorted within each column by preseason title odds ranking that year.

Since 1985 no team outside of the top eight in championship odds to begin the season has won the title, and only three teams outside of the top five have done so: the 2004 Detroit Pistons, 2011 Dallas Mavericks and 2015 Golden State Warriors.

In regard to both the overwhelming prowess of favorites and the futility of teams at the bottom of the pack, the NBA is unique among the four major sports.

MLB favorites almost always make the playoffs, but only 10 have even reached the World Series. The NHL has had more favorites become champions than in the NFL, but it’s also seen a baker’s dozen of favorites flunk out before the quarterfinals.

None of them compare to the NBA. While no NBA team ranked below eighth in preseason odds has won the championship, multiple Cinderellas in each of the other sports have emerged from the bottom half of the league to win it all.

This season every NBA team, from the elites to the cellar dwellers, will play a shortened 72-game slate with limited fan attendance, but the Lakers will be more pointedly impacted than their competition by the fact that this offseason will have been by far the shortest in major sports history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The absence of a normal offseason as well as a condensed schedule could undermine the Lakers, who suited up for 29 total games in the bubble in Orlando, concluding with the Finals just two months ago. In stark contrast, it’s been 287 days since the Warriors last played an NBA game.

If history tells us anything, though, we shouldn’t be shocked to see the Lakers back in the NBA Finals or even hoisting the trophy next summer. The sports betting public agrees. On DraftKings, 26% of 2021 NBA championship bets have been placed on the Lakers, far outpacing every other team. The Lakers comprise 25% of title bets on BetMGM. On both platforms, the Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Warriors are the next four teams, with each accounting for between 6% and 15% of total wagers.

LeBron James himself has won four of the last nine available NBA championships, and yet, in a year filled with pandemic-related complications, the Lakers’ odds imply just over a 25% chance of emerging on top. The Lakers are heavy favorites, but probably not heavy enough.

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