The Celtics and the problem with being championship favorites

The Celtics are in a great spot right now. Riding high in the Eastern Conference, putting up better numbers than last season, and generally justifying their position as true contenders. They’ll be in the Playoffs, and more than likely top the Eastern Conference come the end of the regular season.

Of course, much of this was expected. The Celtics started the season as championship favorites in the NBA odds. Although, many sportsbooks had Boston tied with Denver in that respect. However, as the season has unfolded, the Celtics have justified that faith and then some. They are on a trajectory to hit somewhere around 63 wins; almost 10 more than sportsbooks predicted preseason.

It’s been great, and the fans know it. Yet, basketball, and sports history in general, is rife with cautionary tales on the preseason favorites not justifying that status. Consider the most recent winners of the NBA Championship. When you look at the preseason odds, you have to go back to the Golden State Warriors team of the 2018-19 season to find a team that started the season as a favorite and went on to win the championship. The Celtics (last season), Nets (2021-22), Lakers (2020-21) and Clippers (2019-20) all failed to live up to the tag.

NBA tends to be (relatively) kind to the favorites

Certainly, none of that should come as a surprise – if sports were as easy as the sportsbook’s pick winning each season, then we wouldn’t watch. Yet, basketball tends to be a bit more predictable than other sports, particularly the Big 4 US sports. In NBA, one of the preseason favorites tends to win the championship. The 2022 Celtics were big underdogs in the 2021-22 season, but, as we know, they ultimately came up short against GSW in the NBA Finals. The 2015 Warriors and 2011 Mavericks are among the biggest shock winners in the modern era. But the general trend for NBA is a lack of shocks.

Of all major sports competitions, Premier League soccer tends to be the kindest to the preseason favorite. Across the 21st century, it’s close to 50%. Of course, we must be aware that sportsbooks might pick different favorites or co-favorites, so the data can be questioned. Of all major sports, tennis is regarded as the most predictable. Yet, we should note that the data itself can be skewed when you consider periods of dominance from players like Serena Williams or the Big 3 in men’s tennis – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic. The least predictable? That’s golf – by a considerable distance. As mentioned, NBA scores higher than the NFL, MLB, and NHL (in that order).

Celtics have justified the preseason hype

So, what does this mean for the Celtics this term? Well, Brad Stevens and his team won’t be thinking about the odds at all. But we can say that the team has been justifying their status as preseason favorites. The Celtics’ championship odds have shortened as the season progresses, and that’s a good sign. We have seen plenty of preseason favorites slump as soon as the regular season begins, so the fact that the Celtics continue to justify that tag the better.

That said, it should be noted that the Celtic’s current odds for the 2024 NBA Championship, which are quoted at around +300, give us an implied probability of 25%. It’s fair to say that most fans – and, indeed, bettors – don’t think of it that way when backing their team to win a title. Would you, as a Celtics fan, take a one-in-four chance of winning the NBA Championship? That’s what the sportsbooks think, so it’s up to the team to both justify and defy the odds en route to winning an 18th NBA Championship.