1996 Bulls vs. 2016 Warriors: Which 70-Win Team Was Most Dominant According to Betting Market?
Photo credit: USAToday Sports. Pictured: Michael Jordan & Stephen Curry
The conversation for the best NBA teams of all time begins with the 1996 Chicago Bulls. It likely ends with the 2016 or 2017 Warriors.
The 2017 Warriors won ‘only’ 67 games, and the 1972 Lakers, 1986 Celtics and 2000 Lakers all fit into that category, too. But we need to factor the importance of having the most- and second-most wins in NBA history heavily in these discussions.
The fact that the 2016 Warriors didn’t win the title does, in fact, disqualify them. But instead of parsing between the greatest teams, let’s ask a betting question instead.
Which team was the biggest favorite in NBA history?
- Preseason win total over/under: 59.5
- NBA record: 73-9
- Playoff record: 15-9
- ATS record: 43-35-4 (54.3%)
- Average line: -10.2
- ATS playoff record: 13-11 (54.2%)
- Average line (playoffs): -5.5
- Preseason title odds: +480
- Pre-playoffs title odds: -135
- Finals title odds: -220
The team with the most wins in the regular season ever… but no title. The Warriors came off their first title under the expectations that there was no way their follow-up season would be as good. Instead, they had the best regular season in history, at least by overall wins.
Their playoff performance against the spread (ATS) is tempered by the absence of Steph Curry, who was injured in the first round and didn’t return until late in the second round. The Warriors were 13.5-point favorites in Game 1 and weren’t double-digit favorites again until Game 6 of the Blazers series.
Even with Curry’s injury and going down 3-1 to the Thunder, the Warriors were underdogs only four times in those playoffs: Game 6 vs. OKC and Games 3, 4 and 6 vs. the Cavaliers.
- Preseason win total over/under: unknown
- NBA record: 72-10
- Playoff record: 15-3
- ATS record: 47-34-1 (57%)
- Average line: -10
- ATS playoff record: 9-9
- Average line (playoffs): -6.4
- Preseason title odds: +350
- Pre-playoffs title odds: -400
- Finals title odds: -950
It’s relevant that the Warriors had a better ATS performance than the Bulls. Even as popular as the Warriors were, they were not treated as invincible once the playoffs came around. But so much of that feels like it’s impacted by Curry’s injury.
The Warriors were favored by more than the Bulls in the regular season, but the pace differential should be noted. The average pace in 1995-96 was 91.8; in 2015-16 it was 95.8.
If we divide point spread by pace (estimated possessions per game), the Bulls finished with a higher spread per 100 possessions (-10.8) than the Warriors (-10.6). So the Warriors were bigger favorites in 2016… but not adjusted for the pace of the games.
But that’s based on league averages. If we look at their average lines compared to those specific teams’ pace, the disparity grows larger, with the Warriors an average -10.27 favorites per 100 possessions and the Bulls a whopping -10.97 per 100 possessions.
Based on that figure, we can estimate that if the ’96 Bulls played at the Warriors’ pace, they would have been, on average, 10.89-point favorites, and the 2016 Warriors at the Bulls’ pace would have been 9.35-point favorites.
So to sum up, the Bulls at a modern pace are almost 11-point favorites, and the Warriors at a mid-90s pace are slightly-below double-digit favorites. Both awesome, but we see that Chicago was more favored when adjusted for the speed of the game.
The Bulls were also obviously much bigger favorites in the futures market. I’m curious to know whether that’s the result of a more open and active market in modern times — meaning that books needed to hedge a little with how much LeBron James himself altered the money coming in — or whether the Bulls, being a singular cultural phenomenon, moved the needle that much.
The most shocking number is the ’96 Bulls’ Finals odds. The 1996 SuperSonics, led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, won 64 games and had the No. 8 offense and No. 2 defense. (The Bulls, predictably, were No. 1 in both categories.)
The Sonics were a truly great team that season, and the Bulls were -950 (!!!) to win that series.
It makes sense the Warriors had much shorter odds. They were facing LeBron and had just gone down 3-1 to the Thunder — and if we’re being honest, would’ve lost if not for Klay Thompson’s all-time volcanic eruption in Game 6.
And if you were curious how their seasons ended ATS, the Warriors were five-point favorites at home vs. the Cavaliers in Game 7, losing 93-89, and the Bulls were nine-point favorites in a closeout Game 6 at home (back in the 2-3-2 Finals format era) and won by 12.
When researching, I found something interesting. The years after those iconic seasons featured high records and included super-high average lines. So I looked at those, too…
- Preseason win total over/under: 66.5
- NBA record: 67-15 (over)
- Playoff record: 16-1
- ATS record: 39-38-5 (51%)
- Average line: -10.8
- ATS playoff record: 12-5 (71%)
- Average line (playoffs): -9.5
- Preseason title odds: -128
- Pre-playoffs title odds: -173
- Finals title odds: -300
- Preseason win total over/under: 64.5 (over)
- NBA record: 69-13
- Playoff record: 15-4
- ATS record: 42-40 (51%)
- Average line: -11
- ATS playoff record: 7-12 (37%)
- Average line (playoffs): -7.0
- Preseason title odds: +100
- Pre-playoffs title odds: -200
- Finals title odds: -600
We see a similar effect with pace on both spread numbers. Maybe more interesting is how the Bulls were a seven-point favorite on average in the playoffs and went just 7-12, while the Warriors were 9.5-point favorites in the playoffs and went 12-5.
The big caveat here is, of course, Kevin Durant. Had the Bulls in 1996-97 added, say, Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaq, they would have been bigger favorites as well.
But while the Warriors in 2016-17 clearly paced themselves after the 2016 debacle, their playoff run goes down as maybe the most dominant of all time. Losing one game in the entire playoffs and covering 12-of-17 with a double-digit playoff spread?
That Warriors team will get lost to history for many reasons, but while there’s no doubt the 1996 Bulls were better in terms of both the championship odds and average spread than the 2016 Warriors, there’s certainly an argument to be made that if they had applied themselves the way the 2016 Warriors had, the 2017 Warriors team might have gone down as the biggest favorites in NBA history.