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Friday, March 30, 2007
Updated: June 15, 9:00 AM ET
TrueHoop's Stat Geek Smackdown: 2007 Playoffs

ESPN.com

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It's the "Moneyball" moment of basketball. There are, at this moment, statistical experts who know things about basketball that go way beyond the box score, and they have the ear of the NBA. I decided to invite a lot of those people to participate in a contest.

(Some declined because they work for NBA teams -- I'm telling you, these people are in demand -- and wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict.)

The rules are simple: use whatever combination of statistics and hunches you want to pick every series of the playoffs. Each correctly picked series is worth five points. Correctly predicting the number of games is worth two additional points. Winner take all. It's a stat geek vs. stat geek smackdown.

As a little something to raise the stakes, I'm also challenging these stat experts to go head to head against ... my mom. She watched a lot of Blazer basketball in the 1990s. Fear her.

There's more than pride on the line. The winner gets one of the most amazing NBA products you have ever seen. It's a swanky, formal blazer, and it's lined with the jersey of your favorite team. Butter. My mom's going to look great in that.

TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD
  FIRST ROUND SECOND ROUND SEMIS FINALS
STAT EXPERT ORL-DET WAS-CLE NJ-TOR CHI-MIA GS-DAL LAL-PHX DEN-SA HOU-UTH CHI-DET NJ-CLE SA-PHX GS-UTH CLE-DET UTH-SA CLE-SA TOTAL
David Berri 5 7 0 5 0 7 7 0 0 5 7 7 0 7 5 62
John Hollinger 5 7 0 5 0 7 5 0 5 7 5 0 0 5 5 56
Justin Kubatko 5 5 0 5 0 7 7 0 5 5 7 7 0 7 5 65
Mike Kurylo 7 5 0 0 0 5 5 0 0 5 5 0 0 5 0 37
Jeff Ma 5 7 7 5 0 7 7 0 0 5 7 0 0 5 0 55
Kevin Pelton 5 7 0 5 0 5 7 7 0 7 5 5 0 5 5 63
Henry's Mom 5 5 7 0 0 5 5 0 0 0 0 0 7 0 0 34


SERIES PREDICTIONS

Finals matchup:
CAVS VS. SPURS

Conference final matchups: CAVS VS. PISTONS | JAZZ VS. SPURS

Conference semifinal matchups: BULLS VS. PISTONS | SPURS VS. SUNS | NETS VS. CAVS | WARRIORS VS. JAZZ

First-round matchups: ORL-DET | WAS-CLE | NJ-TOR | CHI-MIA | GS-DAL | LAL-PHX | DEN-SA | HOU-UTH

EXPERT PICKS: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS VS. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Berri

Hollinger

Kubatko

Kurylo

Ma

Pelton

Mom
Spurs
(In 5)
Spurs
(In 5)
Spurs
(In 5)
Cavaliers
(In 6)
Cavaliers
(In 6)
Spurs
(In 7)
Cavaliers
(In 6)

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

The Finals. A nervous time not just for the Cavaliers and Spurs, but also for the various stat experts still in position to win the 2007 Stat Geek Smackdown. Ohio State's Justin Kubatko, who runs Basketball-Reference.com is in the lead. And if San Antonio wins in four, five, or six games, the winner's jacket is all his. If San Antonio wins in seven, however, then Kevin Pelton, who works for the SuperSonics' website, will sneak into a tie for the victory.

In the event of a tie, we'll devise some kind of insane tie-breaker. Don't worry, it'll be totally scientific and fair (and it might involve pushups).

Jeffrey Ma of ProTrade could find himself doing pushups. If Cleveland wins in four, five, or seven games, Ma and Kubatko will be tied for the victory. If Cleveland wins in six games, however, victory is all Ma's. (And if San Antonio wins, Ma will lose his third spot to ESPN's John Hollinger.)

David Berri, lead author Wages of Wins, also had a theoretical shot at the victory -- but with steadfast nobility refused to pick against his statistical model, which says San Antonio has this one locked up in five.

By the way, if Ma wins, I owe a hearty apology to Kubatko. I broadcast to the world that Kubatko would pick San Antonio, which made it a mathematical certainty that, if they wanted to win the smackdown, Ma and Berri would pick Cleveland. My gaffe removed all doubt.

Interestingly, you'd have to think San Antonio in six would be one of the most popular picks. San Antonio is the favorite, and with the 2-3-2 format, Game 6 will be their first home game with a theoretical shot at elimination. Yet nobody picked San Antonio in 6.

Also, take a look at the bottom of the standings: my mom had a theoretical shot at emerging from the basement. But Mom and Knickerblogger Mike Kurylo coincidentally both picked Cleveland in six -- so she has no shot, I'm afraid.

Now, why did they make the picks they made? The experts explain:

Hollinger: As well as Cleveland played the last two games, I think they might only be the fourth-best team San Antonio has faced in the postseason. The LeBron factor doesn't worry me; the only thing that does is the Boobie factor -- as in, if Daniel Gibson is actually a scoring machine, that improves the Cavs' odds considerably.

Kubatko: By the system I am using, San Antonio was the best team in the NBA going into the playoffs (despite Dallas' flashy W-L record), and they have done absolutely nothing to make me think otherwise. By my estimation the Spurs have about an 80-percent chance of winning this series, so an upset, while unlikely, wouldn't be truly shocking. James is going to score his points, but the Spurs can't let players like Gibson, Hughes, Gooden, etc. beat them. If the Spurs let James get his 20-30 points and hold the rest of the Cavs in check, then they should win the series in short order.

Pelton: Statistically, this is a total mismatch. San Antonio has, over the course of the season and the playoffs, clearly been the better team. However, this year has been as good a reminder as any that the better team doesn't always win the series. There are three reasons why I believe the series is closer than it appears on paper: LeBron James, a defense that has been the NBA's best in this postseason, and the emergence of Daniel Gibson. As was the case in the Eastern Conference Finals, I can see the defenses keeping this close and producing several close games. I envision Cleveland winning a couple of those (one at the AT&T Center) and getting a fairly easy win at home. That's enough to force a Game 7, though not necessarily enough to beat the Spurs on their homecourt in that game.

Berri: I am predicting the Spurs will win in five games. The difference between the Spurs and Cavs is similar to the difference between the Spurs and Jazz. In the regular season, the Spurs scored 106.4 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs scored 102.3. On defense, the Spurs allowed 97.3 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs allowed 98.2. So the Spurs are better both on offense and defense.

When we look at the individual players, LeBron produced 17.4 wins in the regular season while his teammates produced 33.9. Tim Duncan, though, produced 20.1 wins in the regular season while his teammates produced 43.4. In other words, the star on the Spurs is more productive than the star on the Cavs. Plus, the star on the Spurs plays with better teammates than the star on the Cavs. Given all that, it's hard to see the Cavs winning.

Although LeBron's scoring in Game 5 was impressive, it pales in comparison to what Tim Duncan did in Game 3 against the Phoenix Suns. In that game Duncan scored 33 points and captured 19 rebounds. Duncan also hit 63 percent of his shots in that game. Plus, this outburst came against the Suns, a team that is better than the Pistons.

People tend to over-emphasize recent events and under-value events in the past. The evaluation of James and Duncan is a good example of this bias. Duncan was better than James in the regular season. In the playoffs they are about even, although Duncan has played much better competition (Denver, Phoenix, Utah are better teams than Washington, New Jersey, Detroit). And yet all we hear is that James is going to take over the Finals. He might, but it seems more likely that Duncan is going to lead his team to a fourth title.

Ma: With the Finals looming and some points to make up, we think it's time to throw all stat analysis out the window and pick the Cavs for the following four reasons ...

1) Cavs beat Spurs in the season series (2-0)
2) LeBron James has the mental edge over Duncan after having posterized him.
3) I'd rather root for LeBron than Tim.
4) I have no chance to win this thing if I pick the Spurs.


BIOS

David Berri is Associate Professor of Economics at California State University-Bakersfield and lead author of
"The Wages of Wins."

John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. He created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and several other statistical measures.

Justin Kubatko runs the popular web site Basketball-Reference.com. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of Statistics at The Ohio State University.

Jeff Ma co-founded PROTRADE in 2004. He was the protagonist, under the name Kevin Lewis, in the bestseller "Bringing Down the House," the story of the MIT blackjack team.

Kevin Pelton is the interactive marketing coordinator for the Seattle SuperSonics and a writer for the team's site. He runs the APBRMetrics Forum for basketball analysis.

Mike Kurylo is a writer and founder of KnickerBlogger.Net. In 2006 he developed OTTER, a unique non-biased team ranking system.

Abbott's mom: Henry's mom hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.