Using betting futures to create odds, Milwaukee has a 9% chance to win the title. In each of the previous eight years, a 9% chance would rank third or fourth in the NBA entering the playoffs.
This year, it ranks sixth.
The 2021 title chase appears wide open with several teams holding at least reasonable odds.
The championship chances of each playoff team based on betting futures:
- Brooklyn Nets: 26%
- Los Angeles Lakers: 17%
- L.A. Clippers: 13%
- Utah Jazz: 11%
- Philadelphia 76ers: 10%
- Milwaukee Bucks: 9%
- Phoenix Suns: 3%
- Denver Nuggets: 3%
- Miami Heat: 2%
- Dallas Mavericks: 2%
- Portland Trail Blazers: 1%
- Atlanta Hawks: 1%
- Boston Celtics: 1%
- New York Knicks: 1%
- Washington Wizards: 0%
- Memphis Grizzlies: 0%
Still, six teams with at least a 9% chance to win the title entering the playoffs is quite high.
Under the current 16-team format, that happened only one other time, according to Sports Odds History. In 1995, the Spurs (15%), Bulls (13%), SuperSonics (11%), Magic (11%), Suns (11%) and Jazz (11%) entered the playoffs with relatively flat championship odds. The Rockets (4%) – who ranked below the Pacers (8%) and Knicks (8%) and were tied with the Hornets (4%) – won the title.
So, 2021 doesn’t compete with 1995.
But this is a major diversion from recent history – at least outside the bubble.
The Clippers entered the 2020 playoffs at Disney World as favorite with a 24% chance of winning the championship. That’s less than the 2021-favorite Nets’ 26% chance.
Prior to that, though, the Warriors spent five straight years entering the postseason with higher odds than Brooklyn has this year. In three of those years, Golden State was even favored over the field.
Again, it’s not just that no single team is highly favored this year. It’s that so many teams have a realistic chance. Last year, there was a steep drop after the Clippers (24%), Lakers (22%) and Bucks (19%). This year, many more teams are in the mix.
Here are teams’ championship odds entering the playoffs since 1984,* when the NBA adopted a 16-team playoffs, sorted by rank among teams that season. This year’s teams are red:
*Excluding 2003 and 1987, years Sports Odds History doesn’t have full data.
Notice how high 2021 places in sixth, fifth and even fourth. At No. 1, 2021 is notably unexceptional.
The 2021 playoffs aren’t unsettled only because of the championship race. Individual series are also topsy-turvy.
In the previous five years combined, two lower seeds were favored to beat higher seeds in the first round. This year, there are three:
- 7. Lakers over 2. Suns
- 6. Trail Blazers over 3. Nuggets
- 5. Hawks over 4. Knicks
Using betting odds to predict seed upsets in the first round, the three this year are most on record.
The seventh-seeded Lakers are also the lowest seed in the Sports Odds History database to be favored in a series.
But that was before Lakers star LeBron James was found to have violated the NBA’s coronavirus protocols. That could tilt the odds.
These playoffs are so unpredictable.