Year: 1947. The Philadelphia Warriors won the first NBA championship in a five-game series win over the Chicago Stags. The Warriors had the NBA’s fourth best record (out of 11 teams) and were second in the East.
Plenty has changed since then, including a team with the league’s fourth best record contending for an NBA title. We’ll get into all that as we look at trends to consider when NBA betting meets futures betting on the NBA champion.
NBA Championship Futures Betting Tips
Regular Season Champs
Unlike the NFL or MLB, when hot Wild Card teams enter the postseason with momentum and can roll to a championship, NBA champions are the best in the regular season, too. From 1997 to 2018, 22 NBA champions were crowned. On average they won an incredible 60.7 games in the regular season. Fifty-six wins seemed to be the floor: 20 of the 22 teams reached at least that number, and the other two won 52 and 54 games, respectively.
Of course, meant those teams finished at or near the top of their respective conferences. Thirteen of the 21 NBA champions from 1997 to 2018 were the No. 1 seed, five others were the No. 2 seed and four others were the No. 3 seed.
The two exceptions were the 1969 Boston Celtics and the 1995 Houston Rockets. And even those two teams were pretty stacked. The Celtics had already won 10 titles and been the No. 1 or 2 seed 10 consecutive seasons leading up to 1969, when the finished fourth. And the Rockets? They had won the NBA Finals the previous season but were the sixth seed in the West that season.
Of course, these two teams are massive outliers. The best of the best remain the best of the best when the games really start mattering. Consider only teams that will be among the league’s best in the regular season, and go with the regular season winners once the postseason hits.
Net Rating Matters
Looking for numbers to back up your NBA champion? Look no further than net rating. The statistic is a team’s offensive rating minus its defensive rating, which looks at points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. The higher the net rating, the better the team.
From 1997 to 2018, the average net rating of the NBA champion was 2.7. Thirteen of those champions were either first or second in net rating, and only the 2011 Dallas Mavericks – an outlier for many reasons – finished outside the top-5 from 2007 to 2018.
Unsurprisingly, offense has reigned supreme. All six champions from 2013 to 2018 ranked in the top-5 in offensive rating, and only the Spurs in 2014 were outside the top 3; in that same span two of those winners – the Cavs in 2016 and the Warriors in 2018 – were 10 and 11, respectively, in defensive rating. It’s more likely to find a non-elite defense winning a title than it is a non-elite offense these days.
From 1997 to 2008, nine of the 12 champions ranked in the top 3 in defensive efficiency. Seven of those teams finished outside the top-5 in offensive efficiency. That’s no longer the case. Like betting on the MVP or scoring champion, the rise in team offensive efficiency has made it a requirement – not an added benefit – to compete for the Finals.
To be fair, defense helps. We’re not completely cutting it out of the equation. Teams still need to be competitive on that end of the floor to have a chance. Despite claims, there is defense in the NBA and it can be important. The 22 NBA champions’ average defensive rating from 1997 to 2018 was 5.2. Not exactly rocket science, but NBA champs are usually great on both ends of the floor. The biggest outlier in that span was the 2001 Lakers, who had the No. 22 defense. But they were also No. 1 in offense, which carried them to a title.
Oddsmakers’ Early Favorite
The above trend involves predicting which teams will be the best in the NBA. Sometimes oddsmakers make it easy for us. Of the 22 NBA champions from 1997 to 2018, 13 of them had the best championship odds before the season began. Five others had the second best odds in the league.
That number is even more pronounced when the postseason rolls around. Prior to Game 1 of the first round, the team with the best championship odds won the NBA Finals 17 of 22 times. Three other teams had the second best odds, and one team each had the third and fourth best odds, respectively. The key here is to go with what oddsmakers are saying: the favorites in that span have been as high as \-200 to win the NBA Finals, but more often than not it hits.