Bill Simmons thinks the NBA title is a coin flip

Hey! Make sure to put an asterisk next to LeBron if he wins anything!

Bill Simmons recently put up a post that is certainly meant to be controversial for the sake of controversy. In “Which NBA teams deserve a footnote” Simmons uses the shotgun approach to ensure he insults your team if it has won an NBA finals. This season the former MVP and the former Defensive Player of the Year have both ended up on the bench for the playoffs. Certainly the team out of the east and possibly the team that wins the finals should have this noted in the history books right?

I can’t actually disagree entirely. After all, part of being an NBA fan is nitpicking the tiny details to explain what happened. The truth is there are always random factors that impact the outcome! Players get injured or healthy at the right or wrong time (depending on your perspective) Players go hot or cold. A team gets reffed out of a game. A player foolishly jumps off the bench. I could go on and in fact Bill Simmons does…to the tune of 24 teams. The earliest team he lists is the 1965 Celtics. Including this season (which Simmons includes) there were 47 title teams to chose from in that time frame. Bill Simmons thus thinks over half of all NBA titles in the last five decades deserve to be explained in depth.

Here is where I can no longer really agree. Random stuff happens to impact the outcome of the playoffs. What’s more, no major league playoff system is even statistically significant. Here’s a good explanation from the Drunkard’s Walk.

If one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55 percent of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. And if the superior team could be expected to beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of each 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every five matchups…

In the lopsided [2 out 3] probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance…

The playoffs are inherently random! They can’t play enough games to guarantee the best team always wins. There can enough enough games to be enjoyable for fans and profitable for teams but expecting anything more is silly. Going one step further, we should quantify freak events. Namely, is a good player getting injured at or near the playoffs such a rare event we should really feel the need to point it out? Well not really. As Grantland points out, the history of the NBA is riddled with injuries near playoff time.

The end result is that Grantland is simply doing a clever trick that many blogs — including this one — use. It’s fun to make a subject sound controversial. All Simmons has said is that the playoffs and the eventual title winners in the NBA have a lot of randomness built in. By pointing out so many examples though, Simmons answers his own premise. There is no need for footnotes or asterisks next to title winners. A title on its own means a good team in the right circumstances was able to have a good run of games. To use this as a metric for best team or best player makes no sense. Individual teams don’t need asterisks next to their accomplishments. Perhaps though, the NBA title itself could use one.


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