Last year’s NBA Finals was a breath of fresh air for many fans. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, neither of which had won a title in 50 years, entered the playoffs with the sixth and seventh best odds to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, respectively. It was the first time in modern NBA history that neither Finals team had top-3 odds to start the postseason.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors played one another in every NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018, six different franchises have made it over the past three years. “I see this as… a real transition in terms of the league of the up-and-coming new stars, up-and-coming franchises, more parity throughout the league,” commissioner Adam Silver said in his 2021 Finals press conference.
Sportsbook odds reveal this year’s NBA title race to be even more wide open than last year’s. We can compare seasons using entropy, a measure of a dataset’s homogeneity used in information theory. When analyzing probabilities, entropy can reflect the amount of uncertainty in an event. For instance, if all 16 NBA playoff teams had an equal chance of winning the championship, the entropy would max out at 4. On the flip side, if one team had overwhelmingly large odds of winning the title and the other teams had no chance at all, the entropy would approach 0.
Using Vegas odds, we normalized teams’ implied championship probabilities at the start of the playoffs so that they added up to 1, then calculated the entropy for every year since 1989 (credit to Tom Bassine for this idea). This year’s entropy of 3.43 is the highest since 2005, when it reached 3.46. That year, the Spurs, Heat, Suns and Pistons each had +600 or lower odds to win the championship.
If you’re not a fan of logarithm-based calculations, consider another measure of parity: the odds that a team outside of the top three favorites wins the championship. This year, according to odds from BetMGM, there is a greater chance (51.7%) of a team outside of the top three winning than one of those teams (the Suns, Bucks or Nets) taking the title. That number has only ever been above 50% in the lockout shortened 1999 season and the two seasons when Michael Jordan’s baseball career left a gaping hole at the top of the league.
Unlike Jordan’s Bulls, the 2022 Suns are not heavy favorites. Their +260 odds are the weakest of any top contender in the last 10 years. By contrast, the Warriors had better than 1-to-1 odds to win the Finals at the start of the playoffs in 2016, 2018 and 2019 and at the start of the regular season in 2017.
Despite a 64-18 record, the Suns’ net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of +7.48 actually trailed the Celtics this year, and you’d have to go all the way back to 1993 to find a season when the Suns’ figure would have led the league. Phoenix pulled ahead in the standings because of their unbelievable 33-9 record in “clutch” games (i.e. those with a five point margin or less in the last five minutes).
Unfortunately, having an outstanding clutch record has not predicted playoff success recently. The last four teams with a clutch winning percentage of at least 70%—the 2021 Philadelphia 76ers, 2020 Milwaukee Bucks, 2018 Houston Rockets and the 2016 Golden State Warriors—each lost in disappointing and heartbreaking fashion.
That said, pre-playoff Vegas favorites have fared extremely well throughout NBA history, with 18 of the past 33 winning the title. The Suns have the public behind them too. More money has been wagered on Phoenix to win the Finals than any other team this season on BetMGM, DraftKings and FanDuel.
Bettors notoriously love favorites, but were burned last year when Kevin Durant’s shoe was one size too big and the Brooklyn Nets lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. Injuries to Kyrie Irving and James Harden also played a role.
Indeed, uncertainty around injuries factors into the increase in parity. Ten All-Stars missed a playoff game because of injury in 2021, more than twice as many as the next highest year this century, which was 2020. Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry are currently sidelined with undetermined return dates, and there are also Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard, each of whom missed the entire regular season but could still suit up for the playoffs.
Nobody likes injuries, but another reason for the NBA’s increase in parity is a deep talent pool with plenty of young stars, and that’s good news for the league. It’s fun going into a postseason with a wide open field vying to win the championship.