The 2009-2010 NBA Finals and the 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 may be interested in the sports analytics 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 NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and NHL championship games or series, and major golf and tennis finals, we identified 50 championship characteristics in our book, “Who Will Win the Big Game? A Psychological Method. and mathematical. “Based on similar research, we focused on several characteristics of the championship that could help predict the winner of the NHL and NBA Finals.
In this article, we focus on dynamics like leadership, advocacy, and consistency. These factors are particularly interesting for the finals this year and apply to all the major sports we have studied.
Leadership, both behind the bench and on the field of play, has proven 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 higher records in final appearance, 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 more than 500 records in final appearances.
Leadership on the court is also key. In the last 20 years, the team with the best offensive star, measured by points per game, has gone 14-6 (70.0%) in the NBA Championships. This factor favors the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, averaging 27.0 points per game during the season.
Similarly, the hockey teams with the best offensive leadership have had a 19-11 (63.3%) record 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 really does win championships. Our research has shown this to be true in both the Super Bowl and the World Series. This maxim proves to be true also in the Stanley Cup Finals and in the NBA Championships. In the last 30 years, the hockey team with the best percentage of goalie saves has had a record of 18-11 (62.2%). In recent years, from the high-scoring period of the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, hockey’s defense has been an even stronger dynamic. The teams with the best savings percentage are gone:
• 3-0 in the last 4 years (teams had the same savings percentage one year),
• 6-1 in the last 8 years,
• and 13-4 in the last 18 years.
This factor favors the Philadelphia Flyers with their 907 percent savings versus the Chicago Black Hawks and their 903 percent savings.
Defense also helps basketball teams win championships. We found that, on average, defensive factors are more correlated with winning championships than offensive factors. In the past 20 years, the team with the best defense, measured by points against per game, has been 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 during the regular season.
Another key to winning is consistency. Interestingly, this type of “coherence factor” is typically associated with “less exciting heroic deeds” 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.
Similarly, in the NBA Finals, the field goal percentage is more important than the three-point shooting percentage. In 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.
Championship factors and 2010 finals
So who will win the Stanley Cup finals? The # 2 seeded Black Hawks are big favorites over the # 7 seeded Flyers (about 2.5-1 favorites), but the Flyers certainly have the lead on the bench and between the goal posts to do a number of that.
The NBA Finals present an interesting dilemma. The leadership factors point to the Lakers (training and star leadership), but the other factors (defense and consistency) favor the Celtics.