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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 the championships? What characteristics could help decide which team will win the ultimate prize? Sports fans might be interested in the sports analyzes in this article. Sports organizations and executives may be interested in learning more about our research projects and how we can help teams maximize their chances of winning.
After analyzing NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and NHL championship games or series, as well as golf and tennis major finals, 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 league characteristics 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 of particular interest for this year’s finals – and apply to every major sport we’ve looked at.
Leadership, both behind the bench and on the playing field, was found to be statistically significant in its relationship to championships won. Our research has shown that some coaches have the ability to motivate their teams to excellence. There are more coaches like Phil Jackson of the Lakers and superior Finals 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 are coaches with records well over 500 in Finals.
Leadership on the ground is also essential. Over the past 20 years, the team with the best offensive star, measured in points per game, has gone 14-6 (70.0%) to the NBA championships. This factor favors the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, with his average of 27.0 points per game during the season.
Similarly, hockey teams with better offensive leadership have gone 19-11 (63.3%) in Stanley Cup Finals over the past 30 years, based on 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 also holds true in the Stanley Cup Finals and NBA Championships. Over the past 30 years, the hockey team with the best goaltending save percentage has gone from 18 to 11 (62.2%). In recent years, since the high-scoring period of the mid-80s to mid-90s, the hockey defense has been an even stronger dynamic. The teams with the best save percentage left:
• 3-0 in the past 4 years (teams had the same save percentage one year),
• 6-1 over the last 8 years,
• and 13-4 over the past 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, defensive factors are more strongly correlated with winning championships than offensive factors. Over the past 20 years, the team with the best defense, measured by points against per game, has gone 13-7 (65.0%) in the NBA championships. This factor favors the Celtics (95.6 points against per game) this season. The Lakers gave up 97.0 points per game in the regular season.
Another key to winning is consistency. Interestingly, this type of “consistency factor” is usually tied to “less exciting heroics” 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 with home runs.
Likewise, in the NBA Finals, field goal percentage is more important than three-point shooting percentage. Over the past 20 years, the team with the best field goal percentage has gone 12–7 (63.2%) in the professional basketball championship series. This factor favors the Celtics this year, with their 48.3% FG% versus 45.7% for the Lakers.
2010 Championship Factors and Finals
So who will win the Stanley Cup Finals? The No. 2-seeded Black Hawks are heavy favorites over the No. 7-seeded Flyers (about 2.5 to 1 favorites), but the Flyers certainly have the leadership off the bench and between the posts. goal 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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