After the San Antonio Spurs beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in game two of the Western Conference Finals on May 29, we heard many “experts” anoint them one of the best NBA teams of all time. Comparisons to the 1990s Chicago Bulls were evoked.
Now that the Spurs have lost three in a row and are on the brink of elimination, these comparisons seems kind of ridiculous. Why did people jump to these false conclusions? And, what can we learn from this?
At the time, the Spurs did look great. They had just won their 20th game in a row. They beat a very, very good Thunder team twice in a row to take a commanding 2-0 series lead. In those two games, the Spurs averaged 111 points per game. Oklahoma City played very well, but still couldn’t beat this “great” Spurs team.
… So, people overreacted.
The main culprit? They ignored, as they often do, the law of large numbers. They took a small sample of games and assumed that was more representative than the larger numbers. They then used it to make erroneous conclusions.
Yes, the Spurs had won 20 games in a row. But is that enough? Prior to that run, San Antonio had gone 40-16. That’s a very good record (.714), but not worthy of Greatest of All Time. But, people ignored that figure and focused on the 20-0.
Speaking of the 20-win streak, how impressive was that really? Not nearly as impressive as it initially seemed.
In those 20 games, the Spurs were favored 19 times, sometimes by astronomical spreads including seven double-digit spreads reaching as high as -16. On average, San Antonio was favored by 8.2 points per game! So, on average, they were expected to win by a very large margin. Some of that is due to the quality of their team. But, they were also playing some very bad teams.
A spread of 8.2 equates to approximately an 82% chance of winning in the NBA. So what are the chances that a team expected to win 82% of the time, reels off 20 wins in a row in a specific 20-game stretch? It’s fairly low – about 2%.
So, the chances that the 2012 San Antonio Spurs would win 20 in a row starting on April 12th 2012 and ending on May 29th 2012 is just 2%. But, is that the right way to look at it? If we ask a different question, we get a totally different answer…
What are the chances that this 2012 Spurs team would reel off 20 wins in a row at any point in the season (assuming they were an average of 8 point favorites in those 20 games)? Now we see that it’s much more likely than unlikely. The chances of this skyrocket to 68%! So, given that this 20-game run could have happened at any point in the season, and they were such big favorites, on average, in these games, the 20-win run isn’t really that impressive. It’s a great feat, but it really shouldn’t have led us to anoint this team one of the best ever.
And, of course people overreacted to other factors. People downplayed that the first two wins in this series were in San Antonio. A home team is supposed to hold serve at home. The Spurs went 1-1 ATS in those games meaning they really didn’t perform better than average.
And, forgotten in the leap to prematurely crowning the Spurs the 2012 Western Conference Champions was the fact that they were facing another great team in Oklahoma City and the series was about to go to OKC for the next two games.
So, as the Spurs face elimination tonight, and you ask yourself how could this be possible after they seemed so indestructible just a few nights ago, tell yourself it’s really not as crazy as it seems. The Spurs are a very, very good team. But they are facing an equally good team. And, a great short-term run does not mean the Spurs were anything close to the best NBA team of all time.
You can also bookmark this on del.icio.us.