The Biggest NBA Playoff Betting Upsets of the Past 30 Seasons
Courtesy of Drew Shiller Twitter/NBCS Bay Area. Pictured: Dirk Nowitzki, Baron Davis (5).
- Sports Odds History has betting data on every NBA series going back to 1988.
- Let's dig into the archives to definitively pinpoints the biggest upsets in the past 30 years of the NBA playoffs.
The NBA playoffs tip off this Saturday with the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks claiming the top seeds in their respective conferences. The two teams will hope to avoid being added to the list below of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history.
Archives from Newspapers.com helped the Sports Odds History team add nearly all playoff series prices going back to 1988 plus NBA Finals prices for all but three years since 1969.
Of the 459 playoff series since 1988 where odds were available, 100 (22%) of underdogs went on to win the series. The list below restricts it to the seven underdog winners that were +500 or higher before the start of series.
This does not include the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cavaliers were +1150 to come back from a 3-1 deficit since they were only +180 prior to Game 1.
1990 Western Conference Semifinals
No. 5 Phoenix Suns (54-28) over No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers (63-19)
- Odds: Suns +500 / Lakers -700
- Result: Suns 4-1
The Lakers reached the NBA Finals in seven of the previous eight seasons and were favored to win the Western Conference yet again. Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had retired in the previous offseason, but the core of Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott steered the Lakers to their 11th straight season of 54 wins or more.
In the previous year, the Lakers swept the Suns when the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals, but each game was decided by single digits. All Stars Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson fueled the Suns’ offense as they both averaged 22 points per game.
The Suns won both of their home games by double digits and won two games in LA by a combined total of five points. Phoenix went on to lose in the conference finals to No. 3 seed Portland in six games.
2004 NBA Finals
No. 3 Detroit Pistons (54-28) over No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers (56-26)
- Odds: Pistons +500 / Lakers -700
- Result: Pistons 4-1
From 1999-2003, the Eastern Conference representative won a total of six games in the NBA Finals. Detroit had upset No. 1 seed Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals, but lacked a big-name superstar that had been common among past champions.
Following their three-peat from 2000-02, the Lakers struggled during the 2002-03 season, winning just 50 games and losing to San Antonio in the Western Conference Semifinals. They brought in veterans Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Horace Grant in the offseason and were the favorites at +140 to win the NBA championship prior to the start of the season.
Without home-court advantage, they defeated the Spurs and Timberwolves to reach the Finals and looked primed to capture another title.
During the Finals, the Pistons defense shut down the Lakers as they allowed only 82 points per game. Detroit won the series in five, beating the Lakers by at least eight points in their wins, and pulled off the biggest upset in NBA Finals history.
Shaquille O’Neal was traded to Miami in the offseason and the Lakers dynasty was over.
2009 Eastern Conference Finals
No. 3 Orlando Magic (59-23) vs. No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
- Odds: Magic +550 / Cavaliers -700
- Result: Magic 4-2
LeBron James won his first of four regular-season MVP awards as the Cavaliers were co-favorites with the Lakers to win the championship entering the playoffs. This was Cleveland’s best team in James’ first stint with the Cavaliers as they had not won more than 50 games until this season.
Orlando was led by Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard and played an “ahead of its time” style of shooting a high number of 3-pointers (eight more than the league average during the regular season) with Rashard Lewis, JJ Redick and Hedo Turkoglu. The Magic matched up well with Cleveland, having won seven of their previous 10 regular season games.
Entering the playoffs this series might not have had such a high series price but Cleveland swept each of its first two playoff series while the Magic took six games to defeat the 76ers in Round 1 and then went seven games in knocking off the defending champion Celtics.
Orlando stole Game 1 in Cleveland after Lewis made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 15 seconds left and the Cavaliers needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by James in Game 2 to tie the series. James averaged 38.5 points per game in the series, but it wasn’t enough as the Magic shot 41% from 3-point land and won the series in six games.
Orlando went on to lose the Finals in five games to the Lakers as NBA fans were denied a dream LeBron vs. Kobe NBA Finals matchup.
1989 Western Conference Round 1
No. 7 Golden State Warriors (43-39) over No. 2 Utah Jazz (51-31)
- Odds: Warriors +700 / Jazz -1000
- Result: Warriors 3-0
The Stockton-Malone era was in its second season and the pair directed the Jazz to their second division title in franchise history. In the previous season, Utah pushed the defending champion Lakers to seven games in the conference semis.
The Warriors won just 20 games in the previous season, but improved by 23 wins thanks in part to fifth overall pick and Rookie of the Year Mitch Richmond, who averaged 22 points per game. Perhaps the driving force of the series price being so high was that over the final 10 days of the regular season, the Warriors lost their last six games and dropped from the No. 4 seed to the No. 7 seed in the West.
After shooting 48% from the field in the regular season, the Jazz went cold in series, shooting only 43% to Golden State’s 49%. All-Star forward Chris Mullin caught the hot hand, pouring in 41 in Game 1 and 35 in the clinching Game 3. The Warriors became the first team without home-court advantage in 23 seasons to sweep a best-of-five series.
Golden State lost, 4-1, to No. 3 seed Phoenix in the following round.
2012 Eastern Conference Round 1
No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers (35-31) over No. 1 Chicago Bulls (50-16)
- Odds: 76ers +900 / Bulls -1400
- Result: 76ers 4-2
If any series deserves an asterisk on this list it’s this one, as 2010-11 league MVP, Derrick Rose, tore his ACL with about a minute to play in the fourth quarter of Game 1 with the Bulls up by 12 points.
Chicago was still -600 to win the series after Game 1, but the 76ers won Game 2 by 17 points and then won each of their home games to put away the Bulls in six games. It was not pretty, though, as the two teams averaged a combined 157 points per game for games three through six.
Philadelphia gave No. 4 seed Boston a series in the conference semis, but ultimately lost in seven games.
2007 Western Conference Round 1
No. 8 Golden State Warriors (42-40) over No. 1 Dallas Mavericks (67-15)
- Odds: Warriors +1200 / Mavericks -1800
- Result: Warriors 4-2
Dallas rebounded from a heartbreaking 2006 NBA Finals loss to Miami and secured the No. 1 seed in the West by six games over Phoenix. Dirk Nowitzki won his lone league MVP award as the Mavericks set a franchise record for wins.
The Warriors ranked second in the NBA in scoring with five different players averaging 16 points per game or more. Head coach Don Nelson, who was in his first season back as coach of the Warriors, played a fast-paced style with the youngest roster among playoff teams. Nelson was also the Warriors’ head coach when they upset Utah in the aforementioned 1989 series.
Many believe this to be the biggest upset in NBA playoff history, but Golden State had three other things going for it entering the series.
Nelson had previously coached Dallas for eight seasons up through 2004-05 and the Mavericks roster had changed very little since his departure. The Warriors finished the regular season winning nine of their last 10 and 16 of 21, so they were coming into the playoffs with momentum.
The Warriors defeated the Mavericks in six of their previous seven matchups, including each of the three games played in Dallas.
Golden State set the tone for the series, winning by 12 in Game 1 and then put an exclamation point on the series upset with their clinching 25-point win at home in Game 6. They would go on to lose to No. 4 seed Utah in the next round, 4-1.
1994 Western Conference Round 1
No. 8 Denver Nuggets (42-40) over No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics (63-19)
- Odds: Nuggets +1400 / SuperSonics -2000
- Result: Nuggets 3-2
Starting with the 1983-84 season, the NBA expanded the number of teams making the playoffs in each conference from six to eight. In the first 10 seasons of the No. 1 vs No. 8 matchup, the No. 8 seed was swept 12 out of 20 times and forced a deciding Game 5 just twice.
Up to 1994, the No. 8 seed Lakers in 1993 came closest to pulling off the upset against the Suns. As a +2000 series underdog, they won the first two games in Phoenix before the Suns turned things around and won the final three games.
Seattle set a then franchise record for wins and finished the season 26-5, including wins in their last 12 home games. The Sonics ranked in the top six in the NBA in both scoring offense and defense during the regular season and entered the playoffs as a +180 favorite to win the championship as Michael Jordan was still on baseball hiatus.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, had the longest odds of any team to win the championship entering the playoffs at 150-1. They were the youngest team in the NBA and no one on their roster had previously started or played more than 17 minutes in a single playoff game. They were a modest 28-13 at home and defeated Seattle in both of the Sonics’ trips to Denver during the regular season.
Seattle blew out the Nuggets by 24 points in Game 1 and won by 10 in Game 2. The Nuggets held serve in Denver, winning by 17 in Game 3 and won Game 4 in overtime, setting the stage for a decisive Game 5 in Seattle.
Seattle was a 12-point favorite in Game 5, which featured eight ties and 13 lead changes. The Sonics lead by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, but reserves Robert Pack and Brian Williams brought the Nuggets back and led by eight with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
A put-back with 0.5 seconds left by Sonics wing Kendall Gill sent the game into overtime. Denver scored the final five points of overtime and took the lead for good with 1:26 after LaPhonso Ellis’ 3-point play.
Dikembe Mutombo, who had eight blocks in both Games 4 and 5 and set an NBA record with 31 blocks in a best-of-five series, blocked two Seattle shots in the final 80 seconds to secure the win for Denver.
The Nuggets nearly pulled off another miracle comeback against No. 5 seed Utah in the Conference Semifinals when they fell behind 3-0, but ultimately lost the decisive Game 7.
The debate between the 1994 Nuggets and 2007 Warriors about which was the greater playoff series upset will go on, but at least we now have a missing piece of the puzzle with the series prices.