Don’t Blink: A Review of the NBA Finals

The following is from Andres (Dre) Alvarez.

I re-read Blink this weekend. This book has a special spot in my heart, as Gladwell mentioned The Wages of Wins and this is what drew me into the Wages of Wins Network. One of the key points of Blink is that we may make a decision on a first impression — and despite evidence to the contrary — we will stick with our initial impressions.

For example… at the start of the season many people thought the Miami Heat were the odds on favorites for the title. At the same time, some thought Dallas was old and banged up and its window had passed (me included). How accurate was this initial read?

Rank Team MP WP48 WP
1 Miami Heat 19780 0.148 61.1
2 Chicago Bulls 19830 0.146 60.5
3 Los Angeles Lakers 19830 0.139 57.5
4 San Antonio Spurs 19780 0.136 56.2
5 Orlando Magic 19830 0.135 55.7
6 Boston Celtics 19780 0.134 55.0
7 Denver Nuggets 19705 0.131 53.8
8 Dallas Mavericks 19705 0.126 51.9
9 Oklahoma City Thunder 20005 0.124 51.8
10 Memphis Grizzlies 19880 0.114 47.3

Table 1: Top 10 2011 NBA Teams Season Total Wins Produced

When the season ended on the surface a lot seemed very clear. The Heat and Bulls were the new contenders out East. The old guard of the Lakers and Spurs would be battling for the West. Dallas was certainly in the mix, but as the 8th best team in the playoffs and 4th best out West, they certainly shouldn’t have been considered a contender.

But let’s slice the data a little differently.

Who We Thought They Were

Rank Team MP WP48 WP
1 Miami Heat 13540 0.151 42.5
2 San Antonio Spurs 13515 0.146 41.1
3 Boston Celtics 13035 0.142 38.6
4 Los Angeles Lakers 13705 0.138 39.3
5 Chicago Bulls 13085 0.138 37.5
6 Orlando Magic 13730 0.137 39.2
7 Dallas Mavericks 13440 0.121 33.7
8 Denver Nuggets 13680 0.116 33.1
9 Oklahoma City Thunder 13185 0.115 31.5
10 New Orleans Hornets 14045 0.111 32.5

Table 2: Top 10 2011 NBA Teams Pre All-Star Game Wins Produced

If we had ended the season after the All-Star break, then our pre-season reads would have indeed been correct. Miami was playing at the highest level in the league. Dallas was still a good team, but was certainly not at the same level of the top teams in the league.

Things Change

Rank Team MP WP48 WP
1 Denver Nuggets 6025 0.165 20.8
2 Chicago Bulls 6745 0.164 23.0
3 Oklahoma City Thunder 6820 0.143 20.3
4 Miami Heat 6240 0.143 18.7
5 Los Angeles Lakers 6125 0.142 18.1
6 Houston Rockets 6050 0.142 17.9
7 Dallas Mavericks 6265 0.139 18.2
8 Orlando Magic 6100 0.130 16.5
9 Memphis Grizzlies 6000 0.125 15.6
10 Portland Trail Blazers 6290 0.120 15.7

Table 3: Top 10 2011 NBA Team Post All-Star Game Wins Produced

After the All-Star break, many interesting things happened. Some good trades turned Denver and Oklahoma into contenders. Health brought Chicago improvement. While Dallas’ rank hadn’t improved, their performance relative to other top teams had. In fact barring Denver and Chicago, Dallas was playing at the same level as several other title contenders.

The Tipping Point

Name Pos G MP WP48 WP
Jason Kidd 1.0 16 554 0.295 3.4
Dirk Nowitzki 4.0 16 623 0.212 2.8
Tyson Chandler 5.0 16 481 0.190 1.9
Shawn Marion 3.3 16 516 0.163 1.7
Jason Terry 1.9 16 519 0.120 1.3
Jose Barea 1.5 16 284 0.165 1.0
Peja Stojakovic 2.8 16 333 0.065 0.4
Brendan Haywood 5.0 16 265 0.043 0.2
Brian Cardinal 3.7 4 7 0.863 0.1
Corey Brewer 2.7 6 23 -0.067 0.0
Ian Mahinmi 5.0 3 6 -0.384 0.0
DeShawn Stevenson 2.5 16 254 -0.225 -1.2
Grand Total 3.0 157 3865 0.144 11.6

Table 4: 2011 Dallas Mavericks Playoff Wins Produced Entering the Finals

  Name Pos G MP WP48 WP
  LeBron James 3.2 16 709 0.324 4.8
  Dwyane Wade 1.9 16 635 0.264 3.5
  Chris Bosh 4.5 16 641 0.143 1.9
  Mike Miller 2.3 13 147 0.352 1.1
  James Jones 2.7 12 272 0.116 0.7
  Mario Chalmers 1.0 16 358 0.046 0.3
  Joel Anthony 4.5 16 481 0.016 0.2
  Jamaal Magloire 5.0 3 18 0.113 0.0
  Zydrunas Ilgauskas 5.0 9 104 -0.015 0.0
  Juwan Howard 4.5 6 31 -0.120 -0.1
  Udonis Haslem 4.5 7 147 -0.085 -0.3
  Eddie House 1.6 5 23 -0.596 -0.3
  Mike Bibby 1.0 16 350 -0.143 -1.0
  Grand Total 3.0 151 3915 0.132 10.8

Table 5: 2011 Miami Heat Playoff Wins Produced Entering the Finals

Once the playoffs got underway things changed. The Mavericks started playing like a better team than the Heat.  More specifically, Dallas got great production from some old favorites in Kidd, Dirk, Chandler and Marion. Additionally a magical tattoo and good timing helped Terry and Barea provide excellent support. Miami, on the flip side, did indeed get great play from LeBron and Wade, with good support from Bosh. Miller additionally played well, but with limited minutes. That said, heading into the Finals the Heat had a very top heavy team playing about as well as a slightly more rounded Mavericks. So what happened?

Final(ly)

Name Pos G MP WP48 WP
Jason Kidd 1.0 6 225 0.174 0.8
Tyson Chandler 5.0 6 224 0.166 0.8
Jason Terry 2.0 6 195 0.190 0.8
DeShawn Stevenson 2.8 6 103 0.262 0.6
Dirk Nowitzki 4.0 6 242 0.102 0.5
Shawn Marion 3.2 6 215 0.100 0.4
Brendan Haywood 5.0 3 25 0.041 0.0
Jose Barea 1.6 6 128 -0.012 0.0
Ian Mahinmi 5.0 3 27 -0.214 -0.1
Peja Stojakovic 2.8 4 26 -0.261 -0.1
Brian Cardinal 3.5 5 30 -0.262 -0.2
Grand Total 3.0 57 1440 0.115 3.4

Table 6: 2011 Dallas Mavericks Finals

Name Pos G MP WP48 WP
Dwyane Wade 2.0 6 234 0.428 2.1
LeBron James 3.0 6 262 0.161 0.9
Mario Chalmers 1.0 6 174 0.163 0.6
Mike Miller 2.3 6 94 0.067 0.1
Mike Bibby 1.0 5 87 0.021 0.0
Eddie House 1.5 2 25 0.040 0.0
Juwan Howard 4.5 5 29 -0.044 0.0
Joel Anthony 4.5 6 123 -0.108 -0.3
Udonis Haslem 4.5 6 176 -0.109 -0.4
Chris Bosh 4.5 6 237 -0.108 -0.5
Grand Total 3.0 54 1440 0.084 2.5

Table 7: 2011 Miami Heat Finals

There’s a ton of stories to tell about the finals. My favorite for the record is that Tyson Chandler deserved Finals MVP. With just six games (a very small sample), it’s almost virtually impossible to prove any particular story.  But I do have a few observations to make.

Both Teams’ Stars Showed Up:

This series had two of the top teams in the league playing. It’s easy to point out that top players’ regular season numbers dropped. The point, though, is night in and night out most teams don’t have to play a top team in the league. LeBron and Wade still combined for 3.0 wins for Miami and Kidd, Chandler,Nowitzki and Marion combined for 2.6 wins. They didn’t play spectacularly (with the exception of Wade), but they did play above average and help contribute to their team winning.

Dallas had more support than Miami

The biggest surprise for me was the play of Terry. I have blasted him for quite a while for costing Dirk a title in 06’ in game 6. He has redeemed himself in arguably winning a title for Dirk in 11’ in game 6. Most of the players outside of Dallas’ top 4 played great. No player with more than 48 minutes, other than Barea (can we say overrated yet?),  had a poor performance. Miami, on the other hand, had 5 players who played more than 48 minutes and played poorly. LeBron (who got most of the attention from the media) did not live up to his regular season standards, but his drop off was about as bad as Dirk’s. Bosh and Miller playing poorly was a bigger reason for Miami falling than LeBron’s “collapse”.

Summing Up

The key to the Finals is that it defied our expectations. We expected Miami to be good and they were. Dallas was not expected to be a contender (again, their window was supposed to be closed). While Miami was arguably the favorites the whole way through, the truth is their margin of being the favorite lowered and lowered to the point where this Finals should not be classified as an upset. Small things definitely impacted the winner of the Finals and that’s key. When small things can influence the winner, it means that the teams are close in skill.

This also means the fans and management in Miami shouldn’t overreact. For the most part things went as expected. Miami finished the regular season playing some of the best ball in the league. The made it to the Finals. In the Finals everything didn’t go according to plan. Two normally mediocre players in Terry and Stevenson played very well, while two good players in Bosh and LeBron played well below their normal levels. That said, it was a surprise because it defied our expectations not because it defied the numbers. In fact a few analysts were able to predict it or safely bet on it. There will be many stories about what happened in this series. The most boring — and most accurate — will be that two teams very close in skill played some very close games, and in the end one of them won*.

-Dre (@nerdnumbers)

*I have to make sure I give props to Ben Gulker of Pistons by the Numbers, who pointed this out in the Twitterverse to me long before I ran the numbers.

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