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NBA Finals Betting Trends & Angles


July 5, 2021

NBA Expert

2021 NBA Finals Historical Angles

Now that the 2021 NBA Finals matchup is set, I thought it best to present some historical angles based on some research I found with the goal of simplifying everything and possibly finding some common denominators between past NBA Finals and this year's series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns.

The saying “if you don't learn from history then you're doomed to repeat it” didn't come out of thin air, and you can learn a lot from the historical results in any sport if you choose to ask yourself the right questions.

Sure, the NBA Finals results from 10 years ago have next to nothing to do what we will see on the basketball court in the coming days, but those teams all had rankings in every stat category relative to the other teams in the league in those seasons, and when you start to look at those, it's really easy to pick up on plenty of patterns to help in predicting future results.

So let's start there, even if I already know all the bettors that rely on breaking down each individual player's stat lines and metrics will be quick to dismiss this line of thought.

I'm told all the time by my editor(s) here at that “there is always more than one way to skin a cat” in this industry, so here's the way my knife works in that regard.

(All historical data goes back to the 2004 NBA Finals as that was as far back as I could find Offensive and Defensive Efficiency numbers for NBA Finals teams, so other data was used from that span for consistency)

NBA Finals Popular Betting Resources

Defensive Efficiency Ranking for NBA Finals teams as of date before Game 1

Defensive Efficiency Ratings Analysis
Year Game 1 Start Teams Rating Winner
2020 Sept. 30 L.A.Lakers 3rd Yes
2020 - Miami 9th -
2019 May 30 Toronto 3rd Yes
2019 - Golden State 14th -
2018 May 31 Golden State 9th Yes
2018 - Cleveland 29th -
2017 June 1 Golden State 1st Yes
2017 - Cleveland 21st -
2016 June 2 Cleveland 9th No
2016 - Golden State 7th -
2015 June 4 Golden State 1st Yes
2015 - Cleveland 16th -
2014 June 5 San Antonio 3rd Yes
2014 - Miami 12th -
2013 June 6 Miami 6th No
2013 - San Antonio 3rd -
2012 June 12 Miami 4th Yes
2012 - OKC 10th -
2011 May 31 Dallas 9th No
2011 - Miami 5th -
2010 June 3 L.A.Lakers 8th No
2010 - Boston 3rd -
2009 June 4 L.A.Lakers 5th No
2009 - Orlando 2nd -
2008 June 5 Boston 1st Yes
2008 - L.A.Lakers 5th -
2007 June 7 San Antonio T2 NA
2007 - Cleveland T2 NA
2006 June 8 Miami 9th Yes
2006 - Dallas 12th -
2005 June 9 San Antonio 1st Yes
2005 - Detroit 2nd -
2004 June 6 Detroit 2nd Yes
2004 - L.A.Lakers 8th -

Opened with a cliche about learning from history, so we might as well start with another one in “defense wins championships”. All of those numbers in the chart were as of the date before Game 1's date that particular year, and this is what I'm talking about with finding the patterns.

Outside of the 2007 NBA Finals when San Antonio and Cleveland were locked in a dead heat in Defensive Efficiency in ranking (tied 2nd in NBA), of the other 16 NBA Finals we've had in this span, 11 times the team that entered the finals ranked better in Defensive Efficiency won the NBA title. Hitting at a 68.75% clip over 16 seasons just betting on that stat alone is something I'm sure every bettor out there would have no problem backing, especially when it eliminates all the headaches of individual player breakdowns etc.

This year we've got Milwaukee ranking 6th in Defensive Efficiency at the moment, and Phoenix ranks 7th, so score one for the Bucks.

Offensive Efficiency Ranking for NBA Finals teams as of date before Game 1

The simplistic nature of the previous point deserves the counter argument in relation to offense. Meaning this chart was formed out of the exact same thought process just using Offensive Efficiency numbers prior to Game 1 instead.

With 9 of the past 17 NBA Champions owning the edge in Offensive Efficiency (or 52.9%), the idea of backing the better offensive team to win the Finals has to be considered, but doesn't bring nearly the success rate that leaning on the Defensive Efficiency numbers bring, but even if every NBA Finals series price had been -110 both ways, a 52.9% success rate would still be about break even.

Now, obviously very few series prices are lined dead even like that, but as a theoretical exercise it's not the worst way to look at things. The problem being, when the defensive numbers are so much more reliable in picking a winner, it can be hard to back the team ranking better in Offensive Efficiency over Defensive Efficiency if they are different.

That's precisely the case for the 2021 NBA Finals, as it's the Phoenix Suns who rank 6th, one spot ahead of Milwaukee's 7th. Slight edge to the Suns.

Offensive Efficiency Ratings Analysis
Year Game 1 Date Teams Rating Winner
2020 Sept. 30 L.A. Lakers 9th No
2020 - Miami 6th -
2019 May 30 Toronto 1st Yes
2019 - Golden State 7th -
2018 May 31 Golden State 2nd No
2018 - Cleveland 5th -
2017 June 1 Golden State 1st Yes
2017 - Cleveland 2nd -
2016 June 2 Cleveland 1st Yes
2016 - Golden State 3rd -
2015 June 4 Golden State 2nd Yes
2015 - Cleveland 3rd -
2014 June 5 San Antonio 3rd No
2014 - Miami 2nd -
2013 June 6 Miami 1st Yes
2013 - San Antonio 7th -
2012 June 12 Miami 5th No
2012 - OKC 2nd -
2011 May 31 Dallas 5th No
2011 - Miami 4th -
2010 June 3 L.A. Lakers 9th Yes
2010 - Boston 17th -
2009 June 4 L.A. Lakers 3rd Yes
2009 - Orlando 9th -
2008 June 5 Boston 10th No
2008 - L.A. Lakers 3rd -
2007 June 7 San Antonio 4th Yes
2007 - Cleveland 18th -
2006 June 8 Miami 7th No
2006 - Dallas 2nd -
2005 June 9 San Antonio 6th Yes
2005 - Detroit 18th -
2004 June 6 Detroit 19th No
2004 - L.A. Lakers 5th -

Team that finished Conference Finals sooner on the calendar

Team that finished Conference Finals Sooner Analysis
Year Teams End of Conf. Finals Rested Team Won Start of Finals
2020 L.A. Lakers Sept .26 Yes Sept. 30
2020 Miami Sept. 27 - -
2019 Toronto May 25 No May 30
2019 Golden State May 20 - -
2018 Golden State May 28 No May 31
2018 Cleveland May 27 - -
2017 Golden State May 22 Yes June 1
2017 Cleveland May 25 - -
2016 Cleveland May 27 Yes June 2
2016 Golden State May 30 - -
2015 Golden State May 27 No June 4
2015 Cleveland May 26 - -
2014 San Antonio May 31 No June 5
2014 Miami May 30 - -
2013 Miami June 3 No June 6
2013 San Antonio May 27 - -
2012 Miami June 9 No June 12
2012 OKC June 6 - -
2011 Dallas May 25 Yes May 31
2011 Miami May 26 - -
2010 L.A. Lakers May 29 No June 3
2010 Boston May 28 - -
2009 L.A. Lakers May 29 Yes June 4
2009 Orlando May 30 - -
2008 Boston May 30 No June 5
2008 L.A. Lakers May 29 - -
2007 San Antonio May 30 Yes June 7
2007 Cleveland June 2 - -
2006 Miami June 2 Yes June 8
2006 Dallas June 3 - -
2005 San Antonio June 1 Yes June 9
2005 Detroit June 6 - -
2004 Detroit June 1 No June 6
2004 L.A. Lakers May 31 - -

It doesn't always have to be about stats though when you are searching for common denominators, as something as simple as the timing/scheduling on the calendar can bring patterns as well. After all, the whole “rest vs rust” debate never gets left out when it's applicable for a new playoff series, and given that there was a disparity in rest days for the two teams this year, you know it will be mentioned a lot again, at least heading into Game 1.

Obviously, some of these past results can be argued that it's almost sheer dumb luck based on what the schedule makers did that particular year, but having extra rest heading into the NBA Finals has not historically been the best spot to be in.

Only eight of the past 17 NBA Champions had wrapped up their Conference Championship earlier than their opponent, which is a 47% success rate on the nose. That's probably not what Phoenix Suns backers want to hear heading into this year's Finals, even though the perspective in their case is going to be “the rest was good for Chris Paul to get healthy, something the Bucks didn't have with Giannis”.

It's not like there weren't key injuries in any of those previous 17 NBA Finals though, so to me, it all worked out in the wash to still connect at just 47%.

Score one for the Milwaukee Bucks here as well.

More Rest and Game 1 SU Results

More Rest and Game 1 SU Results
Year Teams Game 1 Winner Game 1 Winner Have More Rest?
2020 L.A. Lakers X Yes
2020 Miami - -
2019 Toronto X No
2019 Golden State - -
2018 Golden State X No
2018 Cleveland - -
2017 Golden State X Yes
2017 Cleveland - -
2016 Cleveland - -
2016 Golden State X No
2015 Golden State X No
2015 Cleveland - -
2014 San Antonio X No
2014 Miami - -
2013 Miami - -
2013 San Antonio X Yes
2012 Miami - -
2012 OKC X Yes
2011 Dallas - -
2011 Miami X No
2010 L.A. Lakers X No
2010 Boston - -
2009 L.A. Lakers X Yes
2009 Orlando - -
2008 Boston X No
2008 L.A. Lakers - -
2007 San Antonio X Yes
2007 Cleveland - -
2006 Miami - -
2006 Dallas X No
2005 San Antonio X Yes
2005 Detroit - -
2004 Detroit X No
2004 L.A. Lakers - -

A 47% success rate for the series for the team with more rest may not be great news for Phoenix series backers, and sadly the news doesn't get any better for them in terms of SU results for Game 1 either.

Only seven times in those last 17 NBA Finals has the team who came into Game 1 with more rest gone on to win Game 1 SU (41.1%), with it only happening twice in the last seven years as well. It will be interesting to see how this historical angle holds up this year with the Bucks still waiting on the status of Giannis for Game 1, as I'm sure that will be the biggest talking point over the next 48 hours for many regardless.

And while I didn't go back and look at roster construction for all those past Game 1's in this span, it's not hard to venture a guess that one team – in this case the team with less rest – was without one of their best players for the NBA Finals opener which goes back to the idea of simplifying as much as you can here.

But with a point-spread floating around Phoenix -6 currently pending any news on Giannis, and a 58.9% historical success rate on the NBA team with less rest winning Game 1 outright, taking the points with Milwaukee now and adjusting to any lineup news after likely isn't the worst way to approach things.

Game 1 winner = NBA Championship?

  • 2020 L.A. Lakers (Yes)
  • 2019 Toronto (Yes)
  • 2018 Golden State (Yes)
  • 2017 Golden State (Yes)
  • 2016 Cleveland - No
  • 2015 Golden State (Yes)
  • 2014 San Antonio (Yes)
  • 2013 Miami (No)
  • 2012 Miami (No)
  • 2011 Dallas (No)
  • 2010 L.A. Lakers (Yes)
  • 2009 L.A. Lakers (Yes)
  • 2008 Boston (Yes)
  • 2007 San Antonio (Yes)
  • 2006 Miami (No)
  • 2005 San Antonio (Yes)
  • 2004 Detroit (Yes)

The news doesn't get much better for the Phoenix Suns in terms of their title chances if those Game 1 SU historical percentages hold true again this year and we see Milwaukee take the opener. That's because 12 of the past 17 NBA champions have won Game 1 of the NBA Finals (70.5%), including each of the past four winners, and six of the last seven.

Obviously this is one that's yet to be determined, but no matter which side you are on to win the title this year, backing them on the Game 1 ML should be considered as well.

Have the eventual NBA Champs made at least the Conference Finals in the previous three years?

  • 2020 - L.A. Lakers (No)
  • 2019 - Toronto (Yes)
  • 2018 - Golden State (Yes)
  • 2017 - Golden State (Yes)
  • 2016 - Cleveland (Yes)
  • 2015 - Golden State (Yes)
  • 2014 - San Antonio (Yes)
  • 2013 - Miami (Yes)
  • 2012 - Miami (Yes)
  • 2011 - Dallas (No)
  • 2010 - L.A. Lakers (Yes)
  • 2009 - L.A. Lakers (Yes)
  • 2008 - Boston (No)
  • 2007 - San Antonio (Yes)
  • 2006 - Miami (Yes)
  • 2005 - San Antonio (Yes)
  • 2004 - Detroit (Yes)

Saved this final angle for last as it was a question I asked myself when looking at all the previous seasons of these past Finals teams.

It was related to the NFL idea that most Super Bowl winners over the years have been ones who made the playoffs the year before. The NBA playoffs are much more inclusive in terms of the number of teams that make it, but they are also more about organizations reaching certain “levels” as they build a contender, with each organization working under the idea that every team's “championship window” tends to be about three or four years.

Now, while this historical angle can be considered a little skewed after all those years of Golden State vs. Cleveland, the fact remains that 14 of the past 17 NBA Champions (82.3%) had played in at least one Conference Finals within three years before winning their title, a scenario that once again favors the Milwaukee Bucks after they lost to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

But what makes this angle even more pertinent this year is the fact that of those three seasons where the eventual winner hadn't recently been to a Conference Finals, all three of those seasons saw both NBA Finals participants in that same boat, so one of them was guaranteed to win.

If you were to put that another way, we've not seen a team without recent Conference Finals experience (within 3 years) beat one that had recent Conference Finals experience over that entire 17-year span.

From a historical perspective, that's got to be the final nail in the coffin for the Phoenix Suns chances to win a title this year, as their last playoff series of any kind prior to this season came in the 2009-10 season.

NBA Finals Predictions & Final Thoughts

Tally it up, and we've got a 68.75% angle in favor of Milwaukee (Defensive Efficiency), a 53% angle in favor of Milwaukee (finished Conference Finals later in the calendar), a 58.9% SU angle in favor of the Bucks for Game 1 (less rest), and then the potential for a 70.5% angle to be in favor of Milwaukee for the series (Game 1 winner wins series) should they end up pulling off the outright upset in Game 1.

All of that compared to Phoenix potentially having that 70.5% angle on their side with a Game 1 win, and just a 52.9% series angle on the Suns side (Offensive Efficiency) to combat all those other historical angles seemingly working against them.

Not hard to pull the trigger on a Milwaukee Bucks series wager in the +160 range with all that info in hand.

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