This week, I actually started back to school for the first time since 2003. It's a Communications Science program, and three days into it I'm already wondering if I actually have any idea what it is that I'm doing. We'll see.
I bring this up because my professor, Dr. Jonathan Amsbary, reminded me of an old scientific rule about research I'd quite forgotten: as sample size goes up, variance goes down. It's relatively simple, really: the more times you test something, the more accurate your results should be.
For a sports equivalent, it's an explanation of the NCAA Tournament's lack of predictability vs. the NBA Playoffs (it also explains why the NCAA Tournament is more fun): one game is a poor sample size for determining the quality of opponents. The more times two teams play one another, the more likely it is that the superior team should prevail. Would Jim Valvano's NC State team have beaten Akeem, Drexler and Houston in a best-of-7 series? Of course not. But in a one-game setting, this happened ...
That doesn't happen in the NBA. The cream should always, always, always rise to the top. At the end of the playoffs, the team wearing the crown is the best team in basketball. That's the way it is, and should be.
Which is why this year's finals matchup — the Orlando Magic at the Los Angeles Lakers — is so bizarre and confusing. Neither of these teams seems like the team that should be wearing the crown as the best in basketball.
Bill Simmons — damn him — perfectly described all the ways Orlando defies every basketball convention with its continued success in his recent NBA preview:
The big difference between the '09 Magic and everyone else before them: They can play smallball without getting destroyed on the boards thanks to Howard. In their 19 playoff games so far, they finished with more rebounds only six times; in the Boston series, they were outrebounded in six of the seven games. But the Magic were never outrebounded by more than eight boards; only three times were they even outrebounded by seven or eight. That's why the Magic don't have off nights. Teddy KGB would say they had alligator blood: They hang around and hang around and hang around and you can never just wipe out their chips. They're like the NBA's first "Moneyball" team in this respect. Over 48 minutes, the percentages and numbers will usually work in their favor.The other big problem, obviously: there's no way ORLANDO wins an NBA title, right? It seems almost silly to even consider a franchise like this — with no history to speak of since stupidly trading Shaq back in 1997 — would topple the tradition-rich Lakers. It couldn't happen, right?
For instance, the Lakers got killed by Denver in Game 4 for a variety of aesthetic reasons (lack of energy, fired-up Nuggets team, the Lakers already won the game they needed, etc.) and one easy-to-understand reason: Denver crushed them on the boards by 20. You get killed on the boards in a playoff game, you're going to lose. Period. With Orlando, that variable has been removed. And if they're making 3s, look out. In playoff games in which they were minus-2 in rebounds or better, made at least nine 3s and shot 40-plus percent from three, they were 6-0 and won by an average of 13.5 points. In a typical series, they will play two games like that (and win both), which means they only need to win two of the other five … and because of that alligator blood, the odds are with them.
Does this make sense? Not really. It makes my head hurt and defies everything we ever thought we had learned about playoff basketball: The team with the best guy usually wins a series; defense wins championships; you live and die by the 3 (and always, you die); and playoff experience matters more than anything else. Not anymore. Throw that crap out the window. The Magic are OK defensively; they don't have the best guy; they're living by 3s; and they don't have much playoff experience. Again, my head hurts.
Unfortunately, Orlando already proved uniforms didn't matter much to them by toppling the MORE tradition-rich Celtics in the conference semis (even winning a Game 7, comfortably, in Boston). Then they proved they weren't interested in the NBA's best interests either by whipping the LeBrons in the conference finals.
(Note: this is absolutely why, if we're going to continue with the BCS in college football, we should put most of our faith in computers over pollsters. Coaches and writers see helmets, tradition and conference affiliations, but computers see only hard data and results. The names on the jerseys don't matter to the computers. And that's how it should be, frankly.)
Which brings us back to the Lakers. They're the favorite to win the title because a) they have the best player; b) they have home-court advantage; c) they SHOULD be the best team overall.
Starting in the Houston series, however — and carrying on to the conference finals against Denver — we learned something curious about the Lakers: for a team that hasn't actually won anything, they don't seem to be all that hungry. The Rockets — playing without their best player and with no go-to scorer — absolutely ran them out of the building TWICE in the conference semis, and the Nuggets basically did the same thing in Game 4 of that series. In fact, you could make a solid case they could've been swept by the Nuggets, except that George Karl refuses to draw up an inbounds play that doesn't involve throwing the ball to Trevor Ariza.
Even in their wins, it's not entirely clear whether the Lakers really care that much. Their best shooters don't really shoot that well; they're not a great defensive team; they got hammered on the boards by more physical teams in Denver and Houston. Their main goal appears to be as follows: hang around and let Kobe carry us in the fourth.
I should mention as a mea culpa that I don't like Kobe. I didn't like him when he and Shaq were winning championships in LA, didn't like him when he orchestrated Shaq's departure and certainly don't like him now as he tries to pretend to the world that he's a great teammate and all-around nice guy.
That said, not nearly enough has been made out of his performance in these playoffs. Think about this: Kobe hasn't stopped playing basketball for any significant amount of time since the summer of 2007 — he played a full season in '07-08, played every playoff game through the '08 Finals, played the entire Olympic run (carrying the team in crunch time along the way), played all the '09 season plus the playoffs ... and now he's in the Finals again.
It's ridiculous. He has very little lateral quickness; the better defenders (Battier, 'Melo) cut off his drives with relative ease. He can't even really jump; the times I've seen him dunk, he jumps just high enough to clear the rim. Basically, he's the old man in the pickup game, the one with a bulky knee brace who doesn't run down the floor every time — but man, when he gets the ball, look out. His fadeaway is as deadly as ever. And just when you think to yourself, "All this dude ever does is pull up and shoot" he fakes and drives it right by you while you watch helplessly.
As for my pick, I think the Lakers win this thing because of Kobe, as well as Lamar Odom, maybe the only player in the NBA who's a perfect match with Rashard Lewis (who destroyed Boston and Cleveland). I also think the Lakers are well coached enough to not double-team Dwight Howard (and leave their collection of jump shooters wide open the way Cleveland did repeatedly) and have enough large bodies (Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and friends) to throw at him and wear him out.
Of course, what I've learned in these playoffs is that we really don't know anything.