Six Biggest Longshots To Win NBA Finals

Written By Brett Gibbons on June 28, 2021 - Last Updated on July 7, 2021
nba longshots

Since preseason odds have been tracked (1984-85 season), the NBA has been a story of wagons. Rarely do NBA longshots win, since the NBA is a league about who has the most talent. Also given the format of playoff series, underdogs have a tougher path to upsets versus other sports.

Since 1985, just nine teams with +500 or greater preseason odds have won an NBA championship; only four teams were slated at +1500 or greater.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest preseason underdogs to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy among NBA longshots.

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T5. 1993-94 Houston Rockets: +1200

With Michael Jordan out of the NBA (at least temporarily), the race for an NBA title was up for grabs. Favorites that season included Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, Mark Price’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and Gary Payton’s Seattle SuperSonics. Instead, the Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, came out of the Western Conference and traded blows with the Knicks in the Finals.

The Rockets ended up pulling off a thrilling series win in seven games, establishing one of the most well-regarded NBA Finals of all time. Houston capitalized on the absence of Jordan, who would return two seasons later, capturing two Finals titles in that time.

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T5. 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs: +1200

This year begins a trend on this list that will come up many, many times: an underdog upending a LeBron James-led team. It was the fourth and final year for his Miami Heat era, whose dynasty(?) came to an abrupt and early end. The legendary trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili was coming to an end, but the group had one last hurrah under coach Gregg Popovich. The defining factor to this team was the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, who grew into the next crop of elite superstars in the NBA.

The favorites in the west were the Kevin Durant-led Thunder, followed by the Rockets and then the Spurs. It was a year where experience trumped talent and established that Pop and his crew of Hall-of-Famers should never be discounted. Looking back, this Finals could have been the final nail in the coffin for the NBA’s biggest villains since the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons.

4. 2003-04 Detroit Pistons: +1500

Aside from the Pistons being one of the largest NBA longshots in preseason history, Detroit pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history, too. The Los Angeles Lakers, operating with emerging superstar Kobe Bryant and established superstar Shaquille O’Neal, were an incredible -550 favorite coming into the series. It was looking to be a lock for coach Phil Jackson to win his 10th NBA title.

That is, until the defensive-juggernaut Pistons came to town and took the series 4–1. Detroit held L.A. to just 81.8 points per game, down from their season average of 98.2. Those who picked Detroit on a prayer to win the title benefitted greatly. It also solidified the legacy of players like Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace.

3. 2018-19 Toronto Raptors: +1850

The past three seasons before this one, the Raptors were a perennial playoff team that always won their first round matchup. They even found themselves in an Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. However, Toronto had a LeBron James and Cavaliers problem, with the Raptors being bounced easily by Cleveland three straight seasons (Toronto went 2-12 in those series).

That’s when superstar Kawhi Leonard was dealt to Toronto in a move that shocked the NBA world. The Raptors became an immediate force to be reckoned with, though preseason odds didn’t exactly reflect it. Leonard also established himself as a superteam killer in those Finals, as their opponent, Golden State, opened as a hefty -275 favorite. Injuries riddled the Warriors, but that didn’t take away from Toronto’s first-ever NBA championship.

2. 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks: +2000

The storyline that dominated airtime and headlines in 2010 was the first season of the Miami “Heatles” composed of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Dallas was not only an afterthought, they were projected for just 49.5 wins in the preseason and third in the Western Conference.

Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas turned red hot for the playoffs and ended up taking care of Miami’s superteam in six games. Even going into the Finals, the Mavs were +160 to win and the top-two favorite outcomes were Heat in seven games and Heat in six games. Who could have seen this one coming? Not many, apparently.

1. 2014-15 Golden State Warriors: +2800

The longshot of all NBA longshots. Believe it. At one point, the powerhouse known as the Golden State Warriors were considered serious longshots. It was the first year under coach Steve Kerr and just a season after the Warriors were bounced in the opening round of the Western Conference Finals.

Steph Curry was just beginning to explode onto the NBA scene, and it wasn’t until midway through the 2015-16 season in which Golden State’s trio was considered a Big Three.

That season, LeBron James returned to Cleveland to play with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, making them the preseason favorites to win the title. The Warriors were behind the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, and Mavericks in the West in terms of title odds. In hindsight, the Warriors were always the choice to win the title this season. However, in the moment, the Warriors were quite an underdog story.

PRESEASON ODDS OF NBA CHAMPIONS SINCE 1985

YearChampionOdds
1985Los Angeles Lakers+200
1986Boston Celtics+250
1987Los Angeles Lakers+400
1988Los Angeles Lakers+120
1989Detroit Pistons+400
1990Detroit Pistons+300
1991Chicago Bulls+700
1992Chicago Bulls+250
1993Chicago Bulls+120
1994Houston Rockets+1200
1995Houston Rockets+450
1996Chicago Bulls+350
1997Chicago Bulls+100
1998Chicago Bulls+140
1999San Antonio Spurs+450
2000Los Angeles Lakers+400
2001Los Angeles Lakers+180
2002Los Angeles Lakers+200
2003San Antonio Spurs+1100
2004Detroit Pistons+1500
2005San Antonio Spurs+400
2006Miami Heat+350
2007San Antonio Spurs+450
2008Boston Celtics+1000
2009Los Angeles Lakers+350
2010Los Angeles Lakers+225
2011Dallas Mavericks+2000
2012Miami Heat+225
2013Miami Heat+225
2014San Antonio Spurs+1200
2015Golden State Warriors+2800
2016Cleveland Cavaliers+280
2017Golden State Warriors-128
2018Golden State Warriors-187
2019Toronto Raptors+1850
2020Los Angeles Lakers+450
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Written by
Brett Gibbons

Brett is an avid sports traveler and former Division-I football recruiter for Bowling Green and Texas State. He’s a graduate of BGSU and works as an auditor for Google content curation products. He’s also contributed to Sports Illustrated and Fansided during his young writing career.

View all posts by Brett Gibbons