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Who Will Win the Big Game? Characteristics That Can Determine the NBA & NHL Champions
The 2009-2010 NBA Finals and NHL Stanley Cup Finals are underway. What factors ultimately determine championships? What characteristics could help decide which team will win the final prize? Sports fans may be interested in this article’s sports analytics. Sports organizations and executives may be interested in learning more about our research projects and how we can help teams optimize their chances of winning.
After analyzing the championship games or series of the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL, and the big finals in golf and tennis, we identified 50 characteristics of championships in our book, “Who Will Win the Big Game ? A Psychological and Mathematical Method.” Based on similar research, we focused on several championship traits that could help predict the winner of the NHL and NBA Finals.
In this article, we focus on dynamics such as leadership, defense and consistency. These factors are particularly interesting for this year’s finals – and apply to every major sport we’ve studied.
Leadership, behind the bench, and on the playing field, has proven to be statistically significant in their relationship to winning championships. Our research has shown that there are some coaches who have the ability to motivate their teams to greatness. There are more coaches like the Lakers’ Phil Jackson, and higher finals appearance records, than a random mathematical model would predict. Phil Jackson is 10-2 in the NBA Finals as a coach. Other examples include Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Chuck Knoll, Bobby Bowden, Scotty Bowman, and Al Arbor – all coaches with well over .500 records in final appearances.
Leadership on the court is also key. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better offensive star, measured by points per game, has gone 14-6 (70.0%) in NBA Championships. This factor favors the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, with his 27.0 points per game average during the season.
Likewise, hockey teams with better offensive leadership have gone 19-11 (63.3%) in the Stanley Cup Finals over the past 30 years, as measured by points scored. This factor favors the Black Hawks, and Patrick Kane (88 points) over the Flyers and Mike Richards (62 points).
In almost every sport we’ve studied, defense truly wins championships. Our research has shown this to be true in the Super Bowl as well as the World Series. This maxim proves to be true in the Stanley Cup Finals and NBA Championships as well. Over the past 30 years, the hockey team with the best save percentage has gone 18-11 (62.2%). Over the past few years, since the high scoring era of the mid 80’s to mid 90’s, hockey defense has been an even stronger dynamic. Teams with the better save percentage have gone:
• 3-0 over the last 4 years (teams had the same save percentage one year).
• 6-1 over the last 8 years,
• and 13-4 over the last 18 years.
This factor favors the Philadelphia Flyers with their.907 save percentage against the Chicago Black Hawks and their.903 save percentage.
Defense also helps basketball teams win championships. We note that, on average, there is a higher correlation between defensive factors and winning championships than offensive factors. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better defense, as measured by points against the game, has gone 13-7 (65.0%) in NBA Championships. This factor favors the Celtics (95.6 points against the game) this season. The Lakers gave up 97.0 points per game during the regular season.
Another key to winning is consistency. It is interesting that this type of “consistency factor” is typically associated with “less exciting heroes” than most sports fans would expect. For example, in baseball, our research shows that batting average is more correlated with winning the World Series than home runs.
Likewise, in the NBA Finals, field goal percentage is more important than three-point shooting percentage. Over the last 20 years, the team with the better field goal percentage has gone 12-7 (63.2%) in professional basketball championship series. This factor favors the Celtics this year, with their 48.3% FG % against the Lakers’ 45.7%.
2010 Championship and Finals Factors
So who will win the Stanley Cup Finals? The #2 seed Black Hawks are heavy favorites over the #7 seed Flyers (about 2.5-1 favorites), but the Flyers certainly have the leadership on the bench and between the goal posts to make it a series.
The NBA Finals present an interesting dilemma. The leadership factors point to the Lakers (coaching and star leadership), but the other factors (defense and consistency) favor the Celtics.
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