Good games, weird data

Dallas sounds optimistic about everything but tonight's game

Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals looked like a UFC fight where the underdog unloads the entire gas tank, only to realize their opponent still stand there.

Dallas' Reggie Bullock symbolizes the feeling well. The recent winner of the Kareem Abdul Jabbar Social Justice Award, Bullock's often covering a key perimeter player on defense and bombing from three on offense.

In Game 3, Bullock missed every single shot he took, including seven three pointers. His shots flowed well with the offense and often came with enough clean space to launch freely, but they would not fall. Here, a Luka Doncic pick-and-roll sprung Bullock for a wide-open corner three that just bounced out.

Dallas had a solid process but failed to produce results. Against a buzzsaw like Golden State, these slips leave the Mavericks staring at a near-impossible 3-0 series margin. Dallas's leadership hasn't fully surrendered, but the reaction to this loss conveys an underlying tone of satisfaction with just getting this far.

Here's Jason Kidd on the matter:

He's pre-emptively couched what looks like a series loss as a vital step toward true contention—a boss fight in Elden Ring where you get far enough to learn the attack patterns but wounded enough to know you're not winning. A 23-year-old with unprecedented early career success will do wonders for your long-term confidence.

All 20 of ESPN's experts picked the Suns to beat the Mavericks last round. Their ascendency might be surprising, but are they the most unexpected semi-finalists?

The most surprising Conference Finalists

Inspired by this Zack Kram piece on the Lakers' historic collapse, I wanted to frame this sentiment of "nobody expected us to be here" with an understanding of how much Vegas did expect this to happen. Basketball Reference tracks the preseason betting odds for which team will win the title, a useful barometer for season expectations.

This year's Mavericks had the 10th highest odds for 2021-22 squads; somewhat unexpected, but nowhere near the least likely. In fact, since 2000, twenty-two teams made the Conference Finals with worse preseason odds than these Dallas Mavericks, including both of the current Eastern Conference finalists.

Look at the audacity of the 2018-19 Trail Blazers, who at +30000 seemed more likely to end the year relegated to the G League.

Even the Golden State Warriors of this season had their skeptics. Of this year's remaining four teams, Vegas ranked Golden State with the best preseason chance to win the title. Yet, those odds (+1100) happen to be the highest of any "favorite" since 2000.

The upside of a shocking run

Of the sixteen most surprising Conference Finalists since 2019, five went on to win at least one title within three seasons:

2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks
2015-16 Toronto Raptors
2011-12 San Antonio Spurs
2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers
2014-15 Golden State Warriors

Toronto and Los Angeles used major acquisitions like Kawhi Leonard and Pau Gasol to jumpstart their contention. Milwaukee, Golden State, and San Antonio saw radical improvements to their homegrown players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry.

Dallas's path toward a title might require a bit of both. Their superstar continues to improve his game each season, but a mix of older role players and unrestricted free agents like Jalen Brunson could lead to a drastically different roster next season.

Worst cases and modern counterparts

An unexpected run to the Conference Finals usually produces sustained playoff appearances. Only one of the sixteen teams failed to make the playoffs in each of the following three seasons, the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns and their last run of the brilliant Nash/Stoudemire core.

Two other teams—2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers and 2008-09 Denver Nuggets—made the playoffs again, but did not win a series in any of the three following seasons. The Trail Blazers fell apart due to ineffective team building and injuries to their star, while the Denver Nuggets had their young cornerstone demand a trade two seasons later. All of the other teams with long preseason odds managed to win at least one subsequent playoffs series.

Let's not forget that both of the Eastern finalists had worse preseason odds than Dallas. Miami might fall into the veteran-heavy archetype, with aged stars like Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry. Boston, like Dallas, leans more on their young core.

Miami could implode and regress like the 2018-19 Blazers or 2009-10 Suns. Young stars in Dallas or Boston could force a trade and blow up these surprising contenders like the Nuggets.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, and preseason expecations often go awry. Only once since 2000 (2016-17) has the top four in preseason championship odds made the final four. Every other season, the NBA gives us at least one unexpected contender.

This year, we happen to have three. What will the future hold for them?

After some time off, I'm excited to get back into covering this fascinating season (and somewhat anti-climatic Conference Finals). Hope you all are doing well!

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Jamie Larson