Tuesday, June 09, 2015

NBA Finals 2015, Statistics and Luck

The NBA Finals this year has proved more riveting than other years because of the ‘cruel’ and colorful history of the protagonists. Golden State Warriors, led by Rick Barry, last won the championship 40 years ago, in 1975. Cleveland Cavaliers … well, the Cavs have never won the NBA title. The last time Cleveland won a major championship was when the Browns, led by running back Jim Brown, who carried the ball 27 times and gained 114 yards, won the NFL title in 1964. That was 51 years ago!

And now the whole country (and many other countries where basketball is the real ‘beautiful’ game) is abuzz with the match-up between two of NBA’s biggest stars: Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Cavaliers’ LeBron James.

Curry burst on the NBA scene in the 2014-15 season, an intriguing and captivating MVP whose meteoric rise has fueled the passions of Bay Area fans, even more than the unpredictable but lovable characters of the San Francisco Giants who won the World Series three times in the last five years.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors
And LeBron James? Only that the he is the best basketball player in the world, considered by many to be the best ever, even better than Michael Jordan. When he left Cleveland for Miami Heat in 2010, he was labeled a Judas who had sold his soul for lucre. What time has wrought! All has been forgiven. Cleveland has again embraced James as its redeemer, one who will lead the long-suffering city to the Promised Land of sports.

Of the first two games played in Oakland, California, neither team played to its full potential, although LeBron showed with his statistics why he is the best. In the first game, the Warriors trailed for most of the game and only pulled out a win in overtime when the Cavs suddenly went cold. Simply put, the Warriors got lucky.

It is almost a given that a team can get lucky several times in a 7-game series but rarely consecutively. That’s what happened when James and company pulled out a win in the second game that could easily have gone to the Warriors as well. The two games have been sliced and diced in every conceivable data-driven way but after all the data have been analyzed, it is still luck- mysterious, unquantifiable luck - that held sway.

For the Cavs, the goal was simple: snatch at least one game from the lion’s den. That’s what the team did. For the Warriors, losing home court advantage would open up Pandora’s Box. That’s what unfortunately happened.

So what now?

From the perspective of statistics: If the claim is that the Cavaliers will win, and the significance level is set at the usual 5 percent (0.05), then there is a 5 percent probability that a Type I error is made, and the Warriors will triumph.

But as any statistician will affirm, improbable events happen. And they happen with more regularity than we think. There may be 1 in a million chance that someone will win the lottery, but it is still 1 in a million, especially for the person who ends up winning the lottery!

If the Warriors can win either the third (6/9/15) or the fourth game (6/11/15) in Cleveland, the team will win the NBA title in 7 games and send Bay Area fans to frenzy, removing the lingering heartbreak inflicted annually by the hapless San Jose Sharks on the loyalists. It will perhaps also mitigate the pain of the physical drought California is suffering through now, even if for a week or so!

But how probable is that? All statistics point to the distressing truth for Bay Area fans: The probability is low. To win in King James’s court will be a monumental challenge for Curry and his crew, even though statistics show that Curry is at his best on the road.

If the Cavs take the next two games, King James will likely deliver the title to Cleveland in six games, ending a drought for the city that has lasted over half a century.

But what about the improbable happening? Consider this fact dug up by Mark Purdy, sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News (6/9/15 edition): It turns out that Stephen Curry was born in the same maternity ward of Summa Akron City Hospital in Akron, Ohio, in March 1988, where James LeBron was born 4 years earlier, in December 1984.

Is that a fluke, a random quirk, a pure happenstance? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, there are improbables, and imponderables, that cannot be quantified completely, that lie outside the reach of super-rigorous data analysis and blazingly efficient algorithms.

Warriors or Cavaliers? The New Kid on the Block or the King?

The heart says Warriors. The head says Cavaliers.

As much as it breaks the heart of a Bay Area fan, here is the prediction: Cavs in 6, with a margin of error of plus/minus 5 percent.

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