The best team is not the luckiest

May, 23, 2011
5/23/11
1:03
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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In knocking off the Celtics, LeBron James hit some tough contested 3s, which delighted many but left me doing that little low, whistle-under-your-breath thing. Lucky.

A 33 percent 3-point shooter hitting two guarded 3s go in in a row, that's not greatness. That's rareness.

Luck, or randomness, is part of this deal, for sure. Every team needs it, every champion has it.

But making those unlikely shots ... that's weak as a way to prove anything about anybody.

Getting a great hand from the dealer, in other words, is no way to prove your card skills, because over time everybody gets just about the same number of good hands. The skilled player is the one who wins more anyway, not the one who wins more when he lucks into a full house.

So, if just making this or that shot is not the real measure of a team at its best, what is?

It has something to do with the number and quality of scoring opportunities a team can get.

Ray Allen, open the corner, is fantastic. In the boxscore every field goal attempt is worth the same, but in basketball, they're really not. That look, with a great shooter, open from a spot where he's lethal, and likely to get now two but three points ... might be worth twice as much as, say, a long Rajon Rondo 2-pointer.

These stats exist by the way. Synergy has a version of them which ignores whether you're covered or not. Hoopdata gives every players shooting percentage at different distances from the cup. Suffice it to say that savvy teams like the Rockets and Celtics are well aware of the degree to which player A from spot B is more valuable than player C from spot D.

If you could make a number that factored in shooting percentage from that spot, with that much space from the defense (this is coming), while adding in how likely you are to get to the line and hit those free throws, you could come up with a value for every attempt. Let's pretend we have that system, and it says an open Allen corner 3 might be worth about two points, on average. That Rondo jumper might be worth 0.7.

When this kind of measure exists, you'd be able to look at Game 3 of the Eastern conference finals and say a Chris Bosh free throw line look is worth 1.3 points, James at the rim worth 1.6, a wide open Mike Bibby 3 worth 1.9. Then you could add together the quality of every single Heat look to say that the Heat got 100 points worth of scoring opportunities. That they ended up with just 96 points is then either just an unlucky case of a couple misses that are normally makes, or maybe something special from the defense making those covered shots tougher than normal.

The measure of a defense, by the way, would be the opposite of this: What kind of looks do other teams get against them?

The point of all this is to take luck out of the equation.

When you see something happen in basketball, what you're seeing might be a demonstration of skill. Or it might be sheer randomness. If it's an open player taking a shot that he's particularly good at, well, then, that's skill, hard work, teamwork and everything else that leads to greatness in every walk of life. If it's some tougher kind of shot, and it goes in anyway ... that's a make that comes from all that good heroic stuff, plus a dose of luck.

Of course, those are some of the most exciting shots in the game. But as they're held together with randomness, they're wholly unpredictable, and, I'd argue, hardly the most telling about which team or player is the best. But that's changing. We're well on our way to being able to distinguish between what works, and what just happened.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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