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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 can help decide which team will win the ultimate prize? Sports fans may be interested in the sports analysis in this article. 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 championship games or series in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL, and major 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 characteristics that could help predict the winner of the NHL and NBA Finals.
In this article, we focus on dynamics such as leadership, advocacy, and consistency. These factors are especially interesting for this year’s finals and apply to all the major sports we’ve looked at.
Leadership, both behind the bench and on the field, has been shown to be statistically significant in its relationship to winning championships. Our research has shown that there are certain coaches who have the ability to motivate their teams to greatness. There are more coaches like Phil Jackson of the Lakers, and superior records in Finals appearances, 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 are coaches with records well over 500 in finals appearances.
Leadership on the court is also key. Over the past 20 years, the team with the best offensive star, as measured by points per game, has gone 14-6 (70.0%) in NBA championships. This factor favors the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, with his average of 27.0 points per game during the season.
Likewise, hockey teams with the best 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 actually wins championships. Our research has shown this to be true in both the Super Bowl and the World Series. This maxim also proves true in the Stanley Cup Finals and NBA championships. Over the past 30 years, the hockey team with the best goalie save percentage has gone 18-11 (62.2%). Over the last few years, from the high-scoring period of the mid-80s to the mid-90s, defense in hockey has been an even stronger dynamic. The teams with the best 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 over the Chicago Black Hawks and their 903 save percentage.
Defense also helps basketball teams win championships. We find that, on average, defensive factors are more highly correlated with winning championships than offensive factors. Over the last 20 years, the team with the best defense, as measured by points against per game, has gone 13-7 (65.0%) in NBA championships. That factor favors the Celtics (95.6 points against per game) this season. The Lakers gave up 97.0 points per game during the regular season.
Another key to winning is consistency. It’s interesting that this kind of “consistency factor” is typically associated with “less exciting heroics” than most sports fans would expect. For example, in baseball, our research shows that batting average is more closely related to winning the World Series than home runs.
Likewise, in the NBA Finals, field goal percentage is more important than three-point percentage. Over the past 20 years, the team with the best field goal percentage has gone 12-7 (63.2%) in pro basketball championship series. This factor favors the Celtics this year, with their 48.3% FG% against the Lakers’ 45.7%.
Factors of the championship and the end of 2010
So who will win the Stanley Cup Finals? The No. 2-seeded Black Hawks are heavy favorites over the No. 7-seeded Flyers (about a 2.5-1 favorite), but the Flyers certainly have the lead on the bench and in the sticks to make- nor a series
The NBA Finals present an interesting dilemma. The leadership factors point to the Lakers (star coach and leadership), but the other factors (defense and consistency) favor the Celtics.
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