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The NBA's biggest underdog Champion!

by Roland Beech NBA underdog champion

With the NBA providing an exciting recent playoffs culminating with the Toronto Raptors' first ever championship as a sizeable underdog to the mighty Warriors, it raises the question, where do the Raptors rank in the pantheon of least likely NBA champions in the modern NBA era?

Subjectively this is a tough one to answer, but fortunately our friends over at Basketball-Reference recently partnered with to provide some useful data for this purpose:

Often you hear the "modern era" referenced as beginning in 1979-80, conveniently the rookie season for both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, with dramatic improvements for both their respective teams to begin the famed Celtics-Lakers rivalry that would see one of them winning the title in eight of the next nine seasons! Sadly the B-R new data doesn't go quite that far back. On the other hand none of the ultimate champions from 1979-80 through 1986-87 could be considered anything close to a shocking upset since they were all the #1 seed in their respective the search remains the original plan: the NBA's biggest upset champion from 1980 forward (40 years!)

NBA Champion Preseason Odds

One obvious standard then for determining which teams truly pulled a surprise in winning it all is the expectations at the beginning of the season. The data for this comes in classic betting terminology, for example +700 for the Bulls' first title with Jordan. What this means is actually a 7-1 odds bet (technically, bet $100 and if you win you get $700 profit, plus your original $100 back).

Highest preseason odds for eventual NBA champion
Title Odds
Golden State Warriors 2014-15 +2800
Dallas Mavericks 2010-11 +2000
Toronto Raptors 2018-19 +1850
Detroit Pistons 2003-04 +1500
Houston Rockets 1993-94 +1200
San Antonio Spurs 2013-14 +1200
San Antonio Spurs 2002-03 +1100
Boston Celtics 2007-08 +1000
Chicago Bulls 1990-91 +700
Houston Rockets 1994-95 +450
San Antonio Spurs 1998-99 +450
There's a chance one of the '79-80 to '83-84 teams could have cracked the top ten, but unlikely and no chance they could have been high on this chart

So in the last forty years we've had seven NBA champions with 10-1 or better odds at the start of the season.

Leading the way is the Warriors in their 2015 playoff run at a lavish 28-1 coming off a 51-31 season but first round defeat in a tight seven game series against a 57 win Clippers team. A coaching change to Kerr, with further seasoning for the young team (only Draymond's 3rd year!) did the trick.

Second highest preseason odds belongs to the 2011 Mavericks at 20-1 -- coming off a 55 win season but disappointing first round loss to the Spurs with home court advantage, the media chatter was "you can't win with Dirk" and they should trade Nowitzki and *yawn* blow it up. Instead adding Tyson Chandler (and Pedja Stojakovic in January) and running it back saw a dominant playoff run to glory.

In third we have the Raptors at 18.5 to 1. An obviously high number given the Raptors were a 59 win team (!) the previous season (losing to LeBron) but had made the fantastic trade to bring on Kawhi and Danny Green while shipping out DeRozan who had continually had a negative on/off playoffs plus-minus for the Raptors (which only got worse in his first season with the Spurs).

Finally the 2004 Pistons at 15-1 represent an obvious tier of the big preseason underdogs who won. They were fresh from a 50 win/Eastern Conference Finals season. Their master stroke was adding Rasheed Wallace at the all star break, and increasing Tayshaun Prince's role (in his 2nd year). With Rasheed on board they finished the regular season 20-4 and battled their way to a title with a defensive emphasis.

NBA Champion Playoff Series' Odds

Being viewed as a longshot at the start of the season is one perspective but some teams quickly showed they were more than their preseason odds would suggest (for instance the 28-1 Warriors who would go 67-15 for the runaway best record in the league and make themselves the obvious favorites when the playoffs began), or added substantial talent during the season through trades (ala the Pistons getting Rasheed).

Consequently I also want to bring into the analysis the expectations when the playoffs were actually happening. Fortunately the Basketball-Reference playoff series odds provide an excellent means for this. By methodically going through each Champion's four rounds we can calculate a total "in playoffs odds" they had to overcome to win.

To illustrate, let's look at the Raptors run:

    Toronto Raptors ('18-19) round by round series odds
    1st round: -1200 favorite vs Orlando
    2nd round: -290 favorite vs Philaelphia
    3rd round: +230 underdog vs Milwaukee
    Finals: +230 underdog vs Golden State

To calculate the overall odds for the four rounds, we can view it as a parlay the $100 wagered on the Raptors in the first round becomes $108.33 when they win, wheeling that back in round two it becomes $145.69 after beating the Sixers...$480.78 after taking out the Bucks, and finally $1586.56 after knocking off the Warriors. Rounding that we can make it a 15.9 total parlay odds they would win the title ($100 becomes $1590).

An alternative way to look at it is with the % chance of winning each round --

    1st round: -1200 favorite vs Orlando = 92% expected chance of winning
    2nd round: -290 favorite vs Philaelphia = 74% expected chance of winning
    3rd round: +230 underdog vs Milwaukee = 30% expected chance of winning
    Finals: +230 underdog vs Golden State = 30% expected chance of winning
...which if you take 92% x 74% x 30% x 30% = 6% chance of running the table, which with more precise math (decimal points) gives you the same 15.9 to 1 odds of winning their way through each round.

Highest parlayed playoff series odds for an NBA Champion
Playoff Series'
Parlay Odds
Houston Rockets 1994-95 77.4
Detroit Pistons 2003-04 22.9
Dallas Mavericks 2010-11 20.6
Toronto Raptors 2018-19 15.9
Miami Heat 2005-06 12.0
Boston Celtics 2007-08 5.1
Houston Rockets 1993-94 5.0
San Antonio Spurs 2002-03 4.1
San Antonio Spurs 2006-07 3.9
Cleveland Cavaliers 2015-16 3.8
We are currently missing series' odds for the '86-87 season and earlier...and while there may again be one of those teams cracks the top ten,
none seem likely to mount a push for the top spots on the board here.

By this look one team stands far above the rest -- the '94-95 Houston Rockets who were the underdog in each of their four rounds (+210, +210, +250, +130 ...or only a 32%, 32%, 29%, 43% chance of winning at each level), which leads to a massive 77.4-1 odds that they would run through four teams to history! The curiosity with the Rockets is, of course, they were defending champions!! They brought back all the main guys surrounding the otherworldly Hakeem, and added Hall of Famer CLYDE DREXLER mid season but after stumbling through a mediocre 47-35 campaign did not garner much respect in the playoffs, despite ultimately sweeping the Magic in the finals. Looking back, it seems fair to say the oddsmakers were sleeping on this one.

No other NBA champion was an underdog in more than two rounds, so the Rockets achievement does stand out. Four championship teams had two playoff rounds they won as an underdog, six had one round as a dog, and in a sign of the NBA "better team dominance" in best of seven games, twenty-one champions in the thirty-two seasons we have data for were favorites each round they played. The lowest parlay series' odds champion? You might think the Warriors, and they were close, but it's actually the '96-97 Bulls (1.36), followed by the '95-96 Bulls (1.42).

The next three teams on our upset champions series odds list all appeared high on the preseason odds list as well. The Pistons were massive favorites in round one, solid favorites in round two (where they came from 3-2 down to beat the Nets), slight underdogs to the Pacers in the conference finals, and then produced the single biggest series upset of a Champion winner at +500 over the Lakers in the finals! (There have been bigger single series upsets of course, but not by an eventual champion...the Warriors at +1200 over the Mavs in round one of 2007 a notable one, with Atlanta almost pulling it off in 2008 against Boston going to game seven at +4000!)

The 2011 Mavericks were big underdogs in round two against the 2x defending champion Lakers, and in the finals against LeBron's Miami juggernaut. The 2019 Raptors as detailed above were underdogs against the Bucks and Warriors.

The NBA's Biggest Underdog Champion!

With two different takes so far (highest preseason odds, highest postseason series odds) we've had two different answers for the biggest upset champion -- the '14-15 Warriors win on preseason expectations, the '94-95 Rockets win on postseason expectations. The final step is to combine the two numbers to track which team deserves the "biggest underdog" acclaim. This is easily done -- we will "parlay" the two bets together (something of course you couldn't actually do since they are very much correlated outcomes).

So a team that was 5-1 in preseason and then won through the series at 4-1 odds would be 24-1 final payout (you bet $1, win at 5-1 so you now have $6, bet that back at 4-1 you now have $24). Or to use a real example, the '14-15 Warriors who were 28-1 in preseason but after a 67-15 regular season went through the playoff rounds as heavy favorites (-3000 in round 1, -1000 in roud 2, -880 in round 3, -220 in the finals) to the tune of a modest 1.8 parlay odds manage a 52.2 final rating... which it turns out is only good for 8th place on the final leaderboard.

Top NBA Underdog Champions
Playoff Series'
Parlay Odds
Underdog Champion
Dallas Mavericks 2010-11 20.0 20.6 432.6
Houston Rockets 1994-95 4.5 77.4 425.7
Detroit Pistons 2003-04 15.0 22.9 366.4
Toronto Raptors 2018-19 18.5 15.9 310.1
Houston Rockets 1993-94 12.0 5.0 65.0

As it shows there are really four teams in contention for the honor and then it drops off massively. Rounding out the top ten are the '07-08 Celtics (56.1), '05-06 Heat (54.0), '14-15 Warriors (52.2), '02-03 Spurs (49.2), and '13-14 Spurs (41.6).

For me in the end it comes down to this. The '14-15 Warriors had the biggest preseason odds, but after a 67-15 season were prohibitive favorites when the playoffs began so they can't be our top upset. There are instead four strong contenders:

NBA underdog champion The Raptors were the 3rd highest preseason odds champion and 4th highest series odds champions so a valiant effort, but not quite the top since, in addition, all the three above them faced a single series where they were bigger underdogs. They were helped by the Warriors being ravaged by injuries, yet wins over Philadelphia and Milwaukee suggest they had a tough road throughout. A quality underdog titleist, but off a 59 win season and with improvement expected following the Kawhi roster move, there are more shocking winners to my eyes.

NBA underdog champion The '03-04 Pistons with the 4th highest preseason odds and 2nd highest series odds can make a case based primarily on their holding the biggest Finals upset odds at +500 over the Lakers. The Lake show at that point featured the feuding Kobe-Shaq dynamic at its peak, and the Pistons embodied "team play/sum greater than the parts" as well as any champion of the past forty years. While they finish third in the overall stat ranking above, for me they are a strong candidate for top billing. Detroit however got back to the Finals the following year, losing a tight game seven to the Spurs, and even improved to 64-18 two years later as part of a run of six consecutive seasons making it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals, so hardly a one off fluke season. Meanwhile none of the teams they defeated in the playoffs -- Milwaukee, New Jersey, Indiana, Lakers -- would get to even a conference finals in the next three seassons.

NBA underdog champion The '94-95 Rockets were indeed the clear winner based on playoff series by series odds, an underdog each round, topping out as a +250 underdog against the Spurs in the western conference finals. There's much to admire about this team led by 'heart of a champion' Hakeem Olajuwon taking advantage for two years of MJ's foray into baseball (the Bulls won the next three titles right after this). However do we really want to say the biggest upset champion of the last forty years in the NBA was a defending champion that had added another hall of famer???

...which leaves the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. Skepticism abounded at the start of the season, with these quotes typifying most of the media sentiment:

    John Hollinger/ESPN -- picked them 5th in the west, "more of the same...middle of the pack western conference playoff team"
    Sam Smith / -- picked them 5th in the west, "they'll trip up along the way as they always do"
    Sean Devaney/Sporting News -- "the dynasty that never was...they can't get out of the west"
Vegas set the over/under for wins on the season at 49.5 but despite a solid 57-25 year to earn the 3rd seed the 'media experts' didn't think they would do much in the playoffs. In round one versus Portland the majority thought they would they would be a quick out ...ESPN & Yahoo Sports predictors combined had it 10-7 in favor of Portland! Woj had the Blazers sweeping! Famed NBA Bettor Haralabos Voulgaris had rooted for this matchup to happen just so he could bet big on the Blazers (albeit with the underdog odds).

In round two versus the 2x defending champion LA Lakers, it was a unanimous 19-0 among the ESPN / Yahoo media types that the Lakers would triumph.

In round three they took on the young up and coming Oklahoma City Thunder featuring Durant, Harden, and Westbrook...

...and then finally it was the Miami Heat LeBron_Wade_Bosh Superteam, where around 70% of the media were picking the Heat.

One further way to rate the great underdog champions is to ask what quality of opponent they actually had to face in the the Mavs case they beat a 2x defending champion, a Thunder team loaded with talent who made it to the NBA Finals the very next season, and LeBron's Heat who went on to win the next TWO championships. In other words they beat the champion of the previous two years AND the champion of the next two years AND the other finalist in the following season....sounds impressive! And all while being picked to lose in the first round by the majority of media prognosticators.

[In comparison the Rockets did beat a future finals team in the Stockton/Malone Jazz but none of their other opponents made it to the late stages of the playoffs in the following several seassons, and they never had to face the true terror of the times...the Bulls.]

What happened to the Mavs after the incredible magical championship year? They haven't won a playoff SERIES since...
This seems to be another point in favor of proclaiming the Mavs the most unlikely NBA Champion of the past forty years.

Prior 4 Yrs
Next 4 Yrs
Total "Either Side"
Series Wins
Dallas Mavericks 2010-11 1 0 1
Toronto Raptors 2018-19 4 ? 4+
Houston Rockets 1994-95 5 3 8
Detroit Pistons 2003-04 3 9 12

Of course, it would be remiss of me to not make the obvious disclosure -- I can hardly be the person to make the final call on this, even with objective metrics that I didn't know in advance how it would turn out... as I was a part of this Mavericks team. In my second season at that point as the "Stats Coach" I was a full time member of the coaching staff, sitting behind the bench during games, in all the meetings, practices, locker room film sessions, on the plane on the way to the next city, and trying to bring some of the "new numbers" into the way we played the game with an unbelievable coaching staff that included Dwane Casey and Terry Stotts as Rick Carlisle's lead assistants.

What made the Mavericks win so satisfying, aside from pretty much the whole country outside of Florida rooting for us to knock off LeBron in his year one in Miami, was that it was the first championship for so many of the Mavs people, from the great Mavs' players (Dirk, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Tyson, Pedja ...) who had suffered so much criticism for never getting a win and could finally put all that talk to rest forever, to Mark Cuban, to Rick getting his ring as a head coach (he has one as a player and assistant)...and for the many deserving Mavs longtime staff members, including VP of Technology Ken Bonzon who was always one of my greatest personal supporters ("you are worth five wins!"). For all of us with the Mavericks, and the fans and city itself, this was an amazing highlight moment.

NBA underdog champion

I'm the second 'Mavs hat' in from the right edge
NBA underdog champion

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