Updated NBA Championship Odds: Are the Cleveland Cavaliers Legitimate Title Contenders?

LeBron James and the Cavs look like the team to beat once again in the East. Do they stand a chance against anyone coming out of the West?

Over the last few years, the seeming inevitability of another NBA Finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers (and realistically, of a title for Golden State) has sapped the fun out of chatting about championship contenders and betting on potential underdogs.

This year, the Warriors and Cavaliers are both still very much in the mix to square off for a fourth straight time, but at least they've looked a little less invincible, while a few other teams -- the Houston Rockets, in particular -- have emerged as potential contenders.

At the very least, nothing is a given these days, and betting the eventual NBA champion is becoming an interesting venture once again.

When it comes to Vegas’ betting odds, they typically correlate with the opinions of pundits and fans, paying attention to things like experience, past playoff failures, and so on. Our metrics, on the other hand, strip out that bias and deal with the facts using cold, hard numbers.

Here’s a look at how Vegas’ current title odds (via Bovada) differ from what our algorithms have as the title odds for each playoff team.

Team Bovada Implied Title Odds nF Title Odds Difference
Golden State Warriors 55.56% 25.51% 30.05%
Houston Rockets 35.71% 35.61% 0.10%
Cleveland Cavaliers 16.67% 25.87% -9.20%
Boston Celtics 6.67% 8.11% -1.44%
Toronto Raptors 1.49% 2.35% -0.86%
Philadelphia 76ers 1.49% 1.17% 0.32%
Utah Jazz 0.66% 0.94% -0.28%
New Orleans Pelicans 0.40% 0.44% -0.04%

Let’s start by saying that the Toronto Raptors (down 3-0 to the Cavaliers), the Philadelphia 76ers (down 3-0 to the Boston Celtics), the Utah Jazz (down 3-1 to the Rockets), and the New Orleans Pelicans (down 3-1 to the Warriors) are all pretty well toast.

According to, teams up 3-1 in NBA history have gone on to win the series 95.4% of the time (226 of 237 occurrences), while no team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit in 127 tries. The odds are very much in favor of a Cleveland-Boston clash in the Eastern Conference Finals and a much-anticipated Rockets-Warriors matchup in the Western Conference Finals.

Based on the numbers, we still give those underdogs a fighting chance in their respective series:

TeamConference Semis Odds
Philadelphia 76ers7.59%
Toronto Raptors6.72%
Utah Jazz5.62%
New Orleans Pelicans5.57%

But if we’re being realistic, they’re all on their way out.

When it comes to picking title favorites out of the four teams that are likely to advance, one of these things is simply not like the other: the Boston Celtics.

What the Celtics have pulled off without their two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward up to this point has been incredibly impressive, but that’s got to dry up eventually. It’s one thing to get past inexperienced teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Sixers, but Cleveland, Houston, and Golden State are another story entirely. Of course, we can't simply dismiss Boston after everything Brad Stevens and company have done, but their title odds are miniscule compared to those of the Cavs, Dubs and Rockets.

When you whittle down things to those three squads -- Houston, Cleveland and Golden State -- as true title contenders at this point, our algorithm continues to believe in the Rockets over everyone, as it has for the better part of the year. Vegas still sides pretty heavily with the Warriors, but most advanced metrics point to the Rockets as the superior team. If you are looking for a line to exploit based on our metrics, that’s the one.

In the meantime, Cleveland is emerging as a team that our numbers like a bit more than Vegas does. With all the teams in the Eastern Conference wilting, LeBron James is once again the King in the East. He looks poised to make his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance with a Cavaliers team that finished 14th in our NBA Team Power Rankings this year.

We even like the Cavs a bit better than the Warriors at this point, but exercise caution before betting the farm on them. Keep in mind that the Warriors and Rockets have fairly modest title odds right now by our metrics because they have to square off in the Western Conference Finals. Whichever one gets through that bloodbath will likely be favored by a fair bit over Cleveland or Boston in the Finals.