Skip to Main Content
Fan Engagement, Media & Tech, Team Performance

June Comes Early: Forecasting Who Will Play for the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy

By: Sacha Pisani, Taylor Bechtold

After dispatching LeBron James and the rival Lakers in a thrilling six-game series, the Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers have reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history against young star Luka Doncic and the upstart Dallas Mavericks.

In the East, we’re treated to a rematch of last year’s conference finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors. Though it’s no shock that Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are back after finishing with the league’s best record during the regular season, the Raptors are seeking their second straight trip to the NBA Finals despite losing Leonard via free agency.

How did we get here? Stats Perform used a model similar to the one that projected and simulated the NCAA Tournament to give some insight on how the NBA’s regular season could have gone if play hadn’t been suspended on March 11. Our AI team has taken advanced data and created an offensive and defensive rating for each club. Those ratings were paired with the team’s opponent and adjusted for each team’s pace, and the home team was given a slight boost for home-field advantage. This data is then used to calculate a projected final score.

After some teams heated up late in the regular season to improve their seeding, we did the same to project the first-round results. While the seeding held in the East, there were some stunning upsets in the West as the Mavericks knocked off the second-seeded Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz upended the No. 3 seed Houston Rockets in six games. In the conference semifinals, the Mavericks beat the Jazz in six games to advance to the West finals for the first time since 2011, the Bucks dispatched the Miami Heat in six and the Raptors knocked out the third-seeded Boston Celtics in Game 6.

Now, we’re going to reveal who the model predicts will play for the 2020 NBA championship:

Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts after a dunk against the Raptors

Bucks over Raptors, 4-1

Following home wins in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals by a combined 43 points, the Raptors looked to make a series of it with a 113-92 home rout in Game 3. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the Bucks, however, responded by winning the next three games by a combined eight points to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the team there in 1974.

Toronto’s exit snaps a streak of four straight seasons in which the defending champions returned to the Finals the following year. The last team to win the title and fail to get back to the Finals the following season was the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs.

Kawhi Leonard guards Luka Doncic in Dallas.

Clippers over Mavericks, 4-3

After falling behind 3-1 in the West finals, Dallas pushed Los Angeles to the brink with a 111-97 win in Game 5 and a 113-108 victory in Game 6. The Mavericks’ surprising run, however, ends at the hands of the Clippers in a 114-106 loss at Staples Center in Game 7.

It is a landmark moment for the Clippers, who reach the NBA Finals for the first time in their history. It also snaps the third-longest streak without reaching the Finals in league history, behind the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks.

So there you have it, an NBA Finals with plenty of star power as the Greek Freak goes up against The Claw. For Antetokounmpo, it’s an opportunity to put his name alongside the all-time greats who have won both an MVP and a championship. For Leonard, it’s a chance to win his second straight title and the third of his career.

Stay tuned tomorrow when we reveal which team will hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Data modeling by Matt Scott, and research support provided by Evan Boyd.