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Has it been the Year of the Stat Geek?
In November in the presidential election, baseball sabermetrician-turned-political data analyst Nate Silver nailed the winner in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown veteran John Hollinger was tapped to join the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies. In March, 29 NBA teams sent representatives to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and more organizations than ever are devoting serious resources to analytics. Advanced stats are routinely referenced on many NBA broadcasts and by mainstream outlets. Algorithms drive sales strategies, page views and traffic lights.
It's a stat geek's world and we're just living in it.
The seventh TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown has arrived. Along with newcomer Tom Haberstroh, we have six returning contestants this spring, including Matthew Stahlhut, the reigning champion. Stahlhut jumped out early last year and maintained his lead through each round. Benjamin Morris looks to regain his form from his first Smackdown in 2011, when he finished first.
Also returning is Jeff Ma, who holds the 2010 title. Ma is a retired member of the MIT Blackjack Team that beat Vegas, a former consultant to pro sports teams, author of "The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big In Business" and current CEO of tenXer. The 2009 Smackdown champ was Dave Berri of Wages of Wins, which will be represented for the second straight year by Arturo Galletti, who uses many of Berri's methods.
For the past three years, Stephen Ilardi has been consulting the Phoenix Suns, and this is his sixth consecutive Smackdown appearance. That makes him the second-longest tenured TrueHoop Smackdown participant to Henry Abbott's mom, the only person on earth who has competed in all seven TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdowns.
Our eighth entrant is "The Crowd," which debuted in 2012. The Crowd is the collective opinion of more than 100 ESPN.com staffers and members of the TrueHoop Network.
The rules haven't changed. Participants will draw on a combination of their expertise, guesswork and muse to predict the outcome of every playoff series. Predictions are submitted before each round. A correct pick earns five points, with an extra two points for correctly calling the number of games.
You have to hand it to Jeff Ma. The current Smackdown leader could've picked the Heat like the majority of the panel and probably coasted to victory. But Ma couldn't bring himself to choose Miami because he feels that -- get this -- that would be in poor character.
"I basically have this thing won since there's no doubt The Crowd will pick Miami, so if I want to limp into a win, I just pick Miami. But sometimes there are more important things than winning," Ma said. "In this case it is right versus wrong. ... I'm tired of the Heat playing possum and the role of dysfunctional family only to play like front-runners and celebrate like a bunch of pompous you-know-whats when they beat an undermanned team in Game 7 of a series that had no business going more than five games.
"Do I think the Spurs can win? Maybe. Do I think the Spurs will win? Not really. But I feel like a better person picking R.C., Pop and their crew than I do Riley, Spo and the biggish three. And in the end, I just want to feel like a better person, because I've already won this thing despite being a serious homer in Round 1 and the only one foolish enough to pick the [Celtics]."
Unlike Ma, most of the contestants found no moral or aesthetic objections in picking the Heat. If Miami wins in seven, Tom Haberstroh would tie Ma for the lead among the individual human beings in the Smackdown, though both Haberstroh and Ma would be nosed out by "The Crowd," our panel of several dozen experts.
"For me, this comes down to the fact that the Heat can finally return to their devastating brand of basketball: drive and kick to the corner," Haberstroh said. "The Bulls and Pacers lock down the corner 3 better than anybody, and with Roy Hibbert plugging the paint, the Heat couldn't unleash their LeBron-inspired versatility."
Benjamin Morris notes that the Heat are 4-1 against San Antonio in the LeBron era (one of those wins came this season in Miami with the Spurs' big three back in San Antonio). Matthew Stahlhut isn't deterred by the Heat's close conference finals series and picks the Heat in six.
"I'm curious whether people will underrate Miami based on having a close series with a very good Indiana team," Stahlhut said. "From my perspective, I expect that Miami will win this series rather easily because San Antonio will have great difficulty with perimeter defense, whereas Miami's perimeter defense is equipped to handle the Spurs' offense."
At the start of the season, Arturo Galletti predicted the Spurs to defeat the Heat in the Finals in six games, and he's going to stick with his pick.
"The Spurs are the historically great team that they were at the start of the season, but the Heat are not the team that they were in the second half," Galletti said. "Throw in home court, and it's dead even. The Spurs, though, have the best coach in the NBA. I also want to try to finish second, and I want to stick to my preseason Spurs-over-Miami-in-six pick."
The panel tilts strongly in favor of the Heat, but it's not a gimme by any means. Four of the panelists have the Pacers taking the Heat to at least six games, and one panelist has Indiana eking out the serires. Some of that is a reflection on Indiana's inspired play against the Knicks in the conference semis, some of that is caution over the health of Dwyane Wade, and in the case of Benjamin Morris, it's just plain old Smackdown strategy.
Matt Stahlhut notes, "Indiana has just the kind of defense that can give Miami trouble." Wade's knee issues caused Tom Haberstroh to temper his pick. "If Wade was 100 percent, I'd say Heat in 4 or 5," he says. "But his nagging knee injury injects a strong dose of uncertainty." Still Haberstroh likes Chris Bosh, the game's premier midrange shooter this season, as an antidote to Roy Hibbert's interior defense. Pull Hibbert out of the paint and he's far less of a menace.
Ilardi is part of the concurring majority opinion on the Heat, but he has Miami sweeping the series. "Ridiculous?" Ilardi asks. "Perhaps, but Frank Vogel just gave LeBron & Co. some pretty good bulletin board material by implying the Heat are 'just another team,' and it's never wise to provide LeBron with added incentive to make a statement on the court. Besides, in contrast to the teams' three regular-season matchups [two of which Indiana dominated], the Heat now have Birdman well integrated into two uber-efficient lineups that can provide Miami with a counter to Indiana's beastly play in the paint." Arturo Galletti also ranked Chris Andersen as a primary factor in his optimism about the Heat.
Then there's the case of Morris, who sits nine points behind leader Jeff Ma. Morris needs an "upset pick," he says, and as long shots go, he's not uncomfortable with the Pacers. "I don't think Indiana is drawing dead. They are 2-1 and plus-9 over their three matches against the Heat [all won by the home team], and I've been saying that George Hill may be one of the best players in the league since he was a rookie off the bench in San Antonio," says Morris. "Of course, Miami is still a huge favorite, and one day I'll probably look back at this and laugh at the idea of picking against LeBron James for any reason, but it's going to be impossible to catch Jeff Ma without picking against the Heat at some point, and the field is too crowded to wait for the Finals. So if I'm going to lambaste NFL coaches for playing to 'lose better' rather than playing to win, my integrity demands that I pick Indiana in six."
The Grizzlies are a trendy upset pick and were barely nosed out by San Antonio in seven games among our dozens of panelists in ESPN Forecast. Yet, apart from Steven Ilardi and Henry's Mom (the Smackdown's gritty contrarian) all of our experts chose the Spurs, the majority of them in a seven-game series.
For a group that trends toward certitude and favors empirical conclusions over gut instincts, we heard a lot of disclaimers about these picks. "The regular-season series couldn't have been closer -- two OT games! -- so I'm not terribly confident," ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh emails. "This pick is made with the smallest of margins." Both Haberstroh and Jeff Ma, who also picks the Spurs in seven, say that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will account for some of that margin.
Arturo Galletti expresses a view shared by a lot of us who were forced to make a prediction on this series at gunpoint. Memphis would be a slight favorite (51 percent) if every game was played in a neutral site," Galletti says. It's that close.
Benjamin Morris agrees. "This series grades out pretty evenly on most statistical fronts, and the teams split their season games 2-2 (with two of those games in OT)," Morris says. But experience and pedigree still count for something in Morris' eyes, which is why he's going with the Spurs. "The Spurs still have huge playoff and championship experience edges on the Grizzlies," Morris says. "Though the NBA has gotten crazier the last few years, those factors haven't lost all their potency yet, so I'll stick with Duncan, Popovich, & Co."
Back to Ilardi, who likes the Griz. Ilardi subscribes to the it's-all-about-matchups maxim, and here's his rationale: "There are two compelling reasons to pick the Spurs: (a) better adjusted net efficiency and (b) greater experience with the pressure of conference finals play," Ilardi writes, "But the Grizzlies pose a nightmare matchup for them, especially on the defensive end. Memphis has also shown a tendency to grind down opponents as each playoff series progresses, a trend that may not augur well for the aging Spurs."
The outcome of this series will have zero impact on the final result of the Smackdown. That's because all eight contestants picked the Heat to beat the Bulls 4-1.
Tom Haberstroh sums up the collective sentiment best. He projects what Matt Moore of CBS Sports calls a "gentlemen's sweep," with the Bulls winning a single game. "Tom Thibodeau runs a defensive clinic against the Heat, but it may only yield a win in Chicago," says Haberstroh. "If Dwyane Wade's fully healthy and Luol Deng isn't, this screams sweep."
Of the four conference semifinals series, this was the most divisive among our panel. Arturo Galletti has no love for Carmelo Anthony, but still likes the Knicks in a competitive, seven-game series.
"Carmelo Anthony is not a superstar but his belief that he in fact is led him to be the worst player on the Knicks in the first round," Galletti says. "Don't get me wrong, Melo has all the physical gifts required to be a superstar. It's his decision making that lets him down. When Melo plays within the Knicks system, when he passes the ball to the open man, when he avoids long contested 2-pointers and he takes to the post, the Knicks are a real contender. The Pacers meanwhile are a good, young defensive team. Those kinds of teams tend to falter right about now. I trust Jason Kidd more than I fear bad Carmelo Anthony."
But Matthew Stahlhut is going against his gut instincts and picking the Pacers in six. "There is reason to believe that Indiana can win this series," Stahlhut says. "The Pacers are excellent at funneling teams to shoot contested long 2-pointers, which is one of the reasons they excel defensively. In fact, Indiana forced the most long 2-pointers in the league this year. The Knicks were successful on offense this year because they didn't take these kinds of shots, but they have players with a history of taking inefficient shots (hello, Carmelo Anthony!), which allows me to believe that Indiana has a chance to pull off the upset."
The manifest of the Memphis Grizzlies Bandwagon includes almost all of the Smackdown participants, the majority of whom like Memphis to knock off the Thunder in six games.
Here's Steven Ilardi's take: "Despite the emergence of Reggie Jackson as a legitimate starting point guard, the loss of Westbrook's explosiveness will be a devastating blow to OKC's offensive efficiency in this series, especially since Tony Allen can largely neutralize Kevin Martin as a second-option scoring threat. Further, the Thunder have difficulty matching up defensively with Memphis' bigs, and Fisher has no chance of keeping up defensively with anyone in Memphis' backcourt. Overall, this series looks like a made-to-order matchup for the Grizzlies."
Only two Smackdowners chose the top-seeded Thunder. Stahlhut does so with some trepidation because we don't know a whole lot about the Westbrook-less Thunder. "This is one of the toughest series to model because there is very little evidence of how Oklahoma City plays without Russell Westbrook," Stahlhut says. "So this is largely a pick against Memphis more than anything. It's hard to imagine the Grizzlies will continue to parade to the line, which was a huge factor in the last series, so I think OKC pulls it out in a hard-fought series."
There's a great deal of uniformity here, as six of the eight contestants have San Antonio winning in five.
"Popovich's defense will be far more disciplined than Denver's," Haberstroh says. "Steph Curry will be Steph Curry, but I can't see the other Warriors thriving against Tim Duncan and company like they did against JaVale McGee."
Any doubts skeptics might have had about the Spurs' resilience was put to rest in the first round. "The big question was if the Spurs were the team that won 67 of 82 over the close of last season and the beginning of this one or the team that limped into the playoffs," Galletti says. "The evidence points to the Spurs once again being a historically great team. I think the Warriors are a better team than their record, which is why I'm not picking a sweep."
The entire Smackdown field has Miami in a sweep except Morris, who is sticking by his "everyone in five" strategy.
"Miami should win this tuneup series in a walk, as Milwaukee ranked only 21st in the NBA in adjusted net efficiency," Ilardi says. "Barring a major injury to LeBron James -- and we can expect to see him take some hard fouls from Milwaukee's bigs -- the only suspense may come from tracking whether or not the Heat's bench players log more minutes than their starters."
Haberstroh was having trouble with our ballot. "Where's the 'Miami in 3' button?" he asks.
Ma was the only member of the panel to predict the Celtics in an upset. "Zombies never die, or at least they wake up when the playoffs start," he says.
Stahlhut concedes that the Celtics play their best ball in the postseason, but he doesn't believe they have enough this year. "Boston tends to outperform their in-season stats in the playoffs, which speaks to their scheming, preparation and management of player minutes," he says. "The Knicks struggle with transition defense, something that the aging Celtics will not be able to exploit. I think the Celtics will have a tough time overcoming both age and injuries to challenge the Knicks."
"When it comes to Clam Chowders, I go with New England over Manhattan every time, but I have to go with the Knicks here," Haberstroh says. "I love the way they play with Carmelo Anthony at the 4, and I'm not optimistic that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can bring it one last time. Actually, if Amar'e Stoudemire was healthy, I might go with the Celtics here."
There were no upset picks in Atlanta's favor. "There is a big drop between the top three Eastern Conference teams and the rest of the pack," Stahlhut says. "Atlanta is the perfect definition of an average basketball team that has benefited from a weak Eastern Conference. The Hawks' offense should struggle against Indiana's league-leading defense."
Ilardi says: "When healthy, the Hawks are still a tough out, but they're now hobbling into the postseason, with Zaza Pachulia, Al Horford and Josh Smith all having battled recent injuries."
Ma feels it will be a tight seven-game series. "This will be a close series where Indy returns to its defensive ways," he says. "It will resemble the NCAA tournament at times."
As is the case with the 4-5 matchup in the West, there's little consensus over the outcome of the Brooklyn-Chicago series. "This grades as the closest match on the board for me," says Morris. "From my general lack of faith in this Nets squad, I'm tempted to pick the Bulls, but I can't find any objective measure to back that up. Nets have a better record, point differential, fewer injuries and are comfortable playing at Chicago's slow pace. Chicago leads the head-to-head 3-1 but only by 10 points over four games [not enough to be predictively significant]. So even if we charitably assumed the teams were about even, the Nets' home-court advantage would still put them over the top."
Ilardi is going out on a limb and taking the Bulls. "The conservative play is to take Brooklyn in six, but I still like Chicago's chances, with or without Rose," he says.
Finally, Henry's mom is picking the Nets in six but writes that, "I had to look up who the hell BKN were!"
All eight participants pick the Thunder to move on, but only Ma has the series going seven games. He cites the Rockets' run-and-gun offense as why. "The high variance style of Houston is great for upset potential." Ma says. "Too bad this isn't the NCAA tourney with one-and-done."
Ilardi agrees that Houston poses a threat but doesn't think the series will go longer than five games. "Houston is a dangerous team for a No. 8 seed -- with an adjusted net efficiency we'd normally associate with a 50-win team -- but they will simply be outmatched by OKC, despite what may prove to be an epic scoring outburst by Harden," he says.
Tom Haberstroh is bullish on the Thunder. "History tells us that a team with OKC's point differential is almost guaranteed to win the title," he says. "James Harden may get them one day, but it's not this year -- not until Chris Bosh goes to Houston in 2014-15 [bonus prediction!]."
Stahlhut isn't concerned that the Spurs have dropped seven of their last 10 games. "San Antonio has struggled lately because of injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and Pop tactfully resting Tim Duncan," he says. "Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, San Antonio was an elite team and a top-five, for most of the year. Their most-used lineup doesn't even have Ginobili in it and is a massive plus-23 efficiency differential."
Ilardi says: "The playoffs are not an ideal time to field test a seldom-used starting lineup, as the Lakers will be forced to do in this series with their new core of Steve Nash [banged up]-Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard."
Morris says that he wouldn't be "shocked" by a Lakers upset of the Spurs, but he wouldn't pick them unless you gave him "favorable odds."
Even with the Nuggets banged up and Warriors guard Stephen Curry shooting the lights out, not one Smackdown contestant has this series going more than six games for Denver.
"The loss of [Danilo] Gallinari will eventually hurt the Nuggets, but not in this series," Shahlhut says. "Despite Denver's struggles to defend the 3-point line, their superiority on the offensive boards [assuming Kenneth Faried can go] and creating turnovers on defense should make this a quick series."
Ilardi might have been tempted to predict a sweep for the Nuggets but backed off. "Denver is the third-best team in the league [in terms of adjusted net efficiency], but the odds are always stacked against a sweep," he says.
Of the eight first-round series, the Smackdown was most divided on the Clippers-Grizzlies matchup. Haberstroh has the series going seven, with the Grizzlies winning the decisive game in Los Angeles. "You thought the Lakers' defense was bad this season?" Haberstroh says. "The Clippers have given up more points per possession since the All-Star break."
Stahlhut believes the margin between Los Angeles and Memphis is razor thin and that home court will be decisive. "Former stat geek competitor John Hollinger complained about winning 56 games and not getting home-court advantage," Stahlhut says. "I suspect he understands how important home court is in this series. On a neutral court, my numbers have the Clippers as slightly better than a coin flip at 55 percent. With home court, the Clippers become a favorite at 62 percent. If Memphis had home court, they would be the favorite at 56 percent to win the series."
Morris has the Clippers winning in five game, but he has every series going five games. What gives? "In my analysis … if you pick the home team in a series in a contest where you only get credit for the series length when your team also wins, it is generally also correct to pick five games [at least in the 2-2-1-1-1 format]," he says. "While the details are a bit complicated, the basic logic is that, in conditions of substantial uncertainty, a lot of the time your series won't actually be as 'even' as it appears."
Arturo Galletti is an electrical engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt in the lovely isle of Puerto Rico, where he applies his talents to good, honest work (most of the time) by keeping his production lines running day and night (and weekends), and works on sport analysis in his free time.
Tom Haberstroh is an ESPN Insider who once came within 100 M&M's of the actual number of M&M's inside the big jar at St. Luke's Easter Sunday Mass in 1993. He has fallen in love with statistics ever since, especially when it comes to basketball and baseball.
Steve Ilardi is a clinical researcher, professor of psychology and author of "The Depression Cure." He also was an analytic consultant to the Phoenix Suns.
Jeff Ma is a former blackjack expert, movie star and sports savant and currently the CEO of tenXer, a company trying to reinvent the way people work using metrics and magic.
Benjamin Morris publishes original research and criticism on his blog Skeptical Sports Analysis. Since graduating from Yale University in 2003, he has spent most of his time on independent research, writing and gambling.
Matthew Stahlhut, who graduated from the St. Louis University School of Law in 2007, has been an attorney and a statistical analyst for a group of sports gamblers.
Henry's Abbott's mom hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.
The Crowd is a collection of more than 100 ESPN.com and TrueHoop Network writers.