Dennis Rodman, LeBron James, and Fun with Statistics

“Everybody’s talking trash these days, so why not keep quiet?” – Dennis Rodman

For those watching the sports pages, former NBA superstar (and total whack-job) Dennis Rodman recently made denigrating comments regarding current NB A MVP LeBron James. The main comment that caught attention: “It’s really not a comparison. If LeBron was playing in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he would be just an average player.”

I hardly agree with Rodman. LeBron James is the most physically gifted player in the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain. Better than Jordan, better than Dominique Wilkens, better than Shaq, better physically than anybody … except maybe Wilt. LeBron James would have never been average.

That’s not to say one can’t quibble with LeBron’s claims to “greatness” (whether he himself makes them or not). He doesn’t have the competitive mindset of Jordan (or Bird, Johnson, Erving, Bryant … and a host of others). LeBron just disappears at times – when there is nobody in the league that can stand in front of him. It’s mind boggling.

I honestly think LeBron’s move from Cleveland to Miami is indicative of the mental differences between he and former stars in the league. Not that former stars haven’t joined “designer teams” in an attempt to win titles – they have. But LeBron’s move seems more of a playground mentality: “I’m going to get together with my ‘boys’ and we’ll dominate.” It’s not the kind of mindset of someone who wants to go be the best, but someone who wants to put together a superior team and roll to victory after victory. He’s no gladiator.

Rodman does have a mildly interesting tertiary point here though. While LeBron would have been great in the 80s/90s, he would have had to play better talent. Not that the talent then was greater than the talent now (that’s a tough comparison), but the league was smaller. The number of teams has only trended up with time. Unless the talent density has trended the same way, then the teams in general will be more diluted. That makes winning tougher.

The Heat are playing in the NBA finals right now against the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won game 1 and the Heat game 2. I really don’t like either team, but will pull for the Spurs because (i) I tend to pull against the Heat and (ii) the Spurs start a former UNC player Danny Greene. Yes, I had to dig that deep to find a reason.

After game 1, where the Spurs won a surprise victory, the sports shows started pulling out the statistics about  how often the winner of game 1 goes on to with the title – 71.2% of the time. They love to do this. They love to give this or that game greater meaning. They love to attempt to invert causality whenever possible, as though the Spurs (who are not as good as the Heat) have somehow taken over by winning game 1. The fact is it only matters who wins four games. The order only matters in so much as a large deficit may cause one team to “give up” and effect later outcomes.

The 71.2% statistic is indicative of just how meaningless the game order is. If each game were a coinflip, then one would expect the winner of game 1 to win the series 65.6% of the time (64 remaining outcomes, 42 of which have team A winning three or more games). Since one expects that the better team will likely win game 1 it is no surprise at all that the winner of game 1 wins the series 71.2% of the time.

Now that the series is tied, expect to see all manner of statistics flying around about how the winner of game 3 will win the series. It’s not like the statistics are wrong, they’re just statistics though. The most likely culprit is this: in 13 finals with the 2-3-2 format and a 1-1 tie heading into game 3, the winner of game 3 has gone on to win the series 12 times! Sigh. Well, the winner of game 3 is likely the better team, and if they even have a probability of single game victory of 0.6 one would expect then to win 82% of the time. And the error bars on a sample size of 13 are not exactly small.

OK, enough basketball. Game 3 tonight. Go Spurs.

Maybe tomorrow will take up Dennis Rodman again … and his love of North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un.

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