Who's the Underdog?

June, 7, 2007
6/07/07
4:28
PM ET

People have been saying that if Cleveland wins the NBA Finals, it'll be the biggest upset since ... well, pick your favorite NBA upset. How about Detroit in 2004 against the Lakers, or Portland in 1977 and Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers?

Here's a piece of news for you: David Berri, lead author of "The Wages of Wins," writes on his blog that neither of those series were upsets at all:

When we look at 1977 and 2004 we see the same story. In both cases a team with a number of "stars" took on a team lacking in star power. Or put another way, a team with a collection of scorers took on a team without as much scoring power. For example, the 76ers in 1977 had four players average at least 15 points per game (Erving, McGinnis, Collins, and Free) while the Blazers only had two +15 scorers (Walton and Maurice Lucas). In 2004, the Pistons were led in scoring by Rip Hamilton who only averaged 17.6 points per game. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. These four players each had several seasons in their careers when their scoring average topped twenty per game.

In each case, the media seemed to focus on the quantity of scorers available and simply concluded that the team with the most must be the favorite. Unfortunately, as is often stated in this forum, wins are about more than scoring. When we consider both offensive and defensive efficiency, we can see that that championships won by Portland in 1977 and Detroit in 2004 were not historic upsets. In fact if either lost, that should have been considered a mild upset.

For the record, by Berri's math, the Cavaliers are clearly underdogs against San Antonio.

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