In the early stages of every regular season – across every sport – there’s always a handful of teams that start unexpectedly hot. Of course, the reverse is also true: there will be a handful of teams who get off to sluggish beginnings. Some of the former teams end up fading away, but not all of them. And some of the slow-starters get back to where we expected them to be, but, again, not all of them.
We can see those patterns begin to emerge at the start of this NBA season. By the end of October, for example, teams like the New York Knicks (5-1) and Washington Wizards (5-1) found themselves in a much better position than most pundits expected. And, at the other end of the scale, teams like the LA Clippers (1-5) found themselves in a worse position than most would have thought.
Of course, it is very early days, and nobody is going to win a championship in November. But which of these hot starts are the sportsbooks buying? To put it another way, have the NBA odds moved significantly since the start of the season?
The short answer is no. Teams have played fewer than ten games each, and sportsbooks tend to ‘hold their nerve’ until clearer patterns have emerged. In simple terms, there is not enough data (game results) for the sportsbooks to confidently crunch the numbers.
Knicks and Wizards have barely moved
The upshot is that teams like the Knicks and Wizards are basically where they were preseason – longshots. The Knicks’ odds sit somewhere around +5000 to win the NBA Finals, with the Wizards further back at +6000. Some sportsbooks may have snipped a little bit of those prices, but not by much. And, it’s going to take something very special across November for either team to move significantly and sit among the contenders.
The reason for this stasis in the betting markets is precedence. While any NBA team can start a season 5-1, there is very little precedence in longshots going all the way to the Finals and succeeding.
If you look back at surprise champions over the last few decades: Toronto Raptors (2019), Golden State Warriors (2015), Dallas Mavericks (2011), Detroit Pistons (2004), Houston Rockets (1994). Some might take exception at the use of the word ‘surprise’ there, but these are the championship-winning teams with the highest preseason odds over the last 30 years. But none of them are in the same longshot category as the Knicks or Wizards.
NBA can be viewed as more predictable
As you might expect then, NBA titles are usually won by the preseason favorites. And even when we do get a shock winner – 2015’s GSW, at +2800, had the highest odds of the teams listed above – it’s not truly a longshot in betting terms.
Does that mean basketball is a little more predictable than other sports? In a sense, it does, although that is stretching it a bit. But we know that basketball is a sport where an individual’s strengths are more likely to impact team performance. Malcolm Gladwell calls this theory “strong link”.
It’s complicated, but the upshot of strong link teams is that success is driven by a small number of individuals (Gladwell claims that most NBA Championship winners have had two or three superstars), with the rest of the team being passengers. This is not true of other sports, like soccer, which is a “weak link” sport.
As per the theory, if a terrible NBA team were to sign LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant tomorrow, they would automatically be favorites for the championship. If a bad soccer team were to do the same –Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar – it probably would not be enough. There are too many other positions on a soccer team to worry about.
The point, as such, is that the strong link theory makes an NBA season a bit more predictable in the long run. We know that, more often than not, the top teams – those with two or three strong links – will prevail. The sportsbooks buy into that, and it’s the reason that teams like the Nets and Lakers still have very short odds despite not blowing the doors off in the early season. And it’s the reason that you shouldn’t expect to see the Knicks’ and Wizards’ odds move dramatically in the near future.