The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are set to tip-off for the NBA Championship. Will the Lakers repeat as champions? Or will the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals like they did two years ago? What do the sports marketplace indicators say? And are there other indicators or factors we can consider? We contacted the authors of the book: “Who Will Win the Big Game? A Psychological & Mathematical Method” to get some input on factors that can help predict the winner of championship games.
Note that one of the authors helped to edit SportsInsights’ best-selling book on “Sports Investing.” The information on this site is for entertainment and educational purposes only. Use of this information in violation of any federal, state, or local laws is prohibited.
Sports Marketplace – What Do the Numbers Say?
An early look at betting percentages shows that Game One of the finals has 60% of bettors taking the visiting Celtics plus the points. The +6 opener (and currently +5.5 points) is causing a majority of the bettors to take the Celtics and the points. The steady stream of bets on the Celtics has moved the line from the opening line of Boston +6 at Pinnacle — down to Boston +5.5, at most sportsbooks.
Note that the Lakers are fairly big favorites for the series at about -180. So far, betting has not been very lopsided. However, the half-point line move offers some value for Lakers’ bettors from the opening number.
Championship Factors – Psychological and Mathematical
Based on the research from the book “Who Will Win the Big Game?” — some of the strongest factors related to success and “peak performance” in championships across all major sports include: big game experience, leadership (from star players and coaches/managers), consistency, and error control. This research is based on about thirty years worth of data for sports ranging from MLB, the NFL, NBA, NHL — and includes tennis and golf data. On average, the authors state that the key “psychological measures” they studied would yield about a 75% winning percentage in championship games and series. Note that this is a “straight-up” victory, with no point spread. However, these factors do have “positive value” ATS (against the spread) as well as “straight-up.” Conservatively, this would translate to just under 60%, against the spread.
Several of the key championship factors for this specific finals include:
Leadership and This Year’s Finalists
Leadership, both behind the bench and on the playing field, has proven to be statistically significant in their relationships to winning the big game. The book’s research has shown that there are certain coaches who have the ability to motivate their teams to championships.
There are more coaches with superior records in finals appearances than a random mathematical model would predict. The Lakers’ coach, Phil Jackson, with his 10-2 record in N.B.A. Finals, is one of the greatest coaches in history. Other examples of great motivators and leaders include Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Chuck Knoll, Bobby Bowden, Scotty Bowman, and Al Arbour. All of these coaches have records well above .500 in finals appearances.
Leadership on the court is also key. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better offensive star, measured by points per game, has gone 14-6 (70.0%) in N.B.A. Championships. This factor favors the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, with his 27.0 points per game average during the season.
Defense DOES Win Championships
In just about every sport studied, “defense” does truly win championships. Historical and statistical research has shown this to be true in the Super Bowl, as well as the World Series. This maxim proves to be true in the N.B.A. Championships as well.
Over the past 20 years, the team with the better defense, as measured by points against per game, has gone 13-7 (65.0%) in N.B.A. Championships. This factor favors the Celtics (95.6 points against per game) this season. The Lakers gave up 97.0 points per game during the regular season.
Consistency Factors are more Important than you Think
Another key to winning championships is consistency. It is interesting that the type of “consistency factors” that have proven to be related to winning are “less exciting heroics” than most sports fans would expect. For example, in baseball, the authors have shown that batting average is more important to winning World Series than home runs.
Similarly, in N.B.A. Finals, field goal percentage is more important than three-point shooting percentage. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better field goal percentage has gone 12-7 (63.2%) in finals. This factor favors the Celtics this year, with their 48.3% FG% versus the Lakers’ 45.7%.
Bottom Line: So Who Will Win?
So who will win the N.B.A. Championship? This year’s N.B.A. Final presents an interesting dilemma. The two leadership factors point to the Lakers (coaching and star leadership), but the other two factors (defense and consistency) favor the Celtics. Note, however, that the leadership factors have been the stronger factors over the years. In particular, the past twenty years have seen stars like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan lead their teams to championships at a rate of 70% (14-6).
Overall, the “championship factors” slightly favor the Lakers. In addition, early sports marketplace activity shows that there is some value on the Los Angeles Lakers in Game One, with the majority of bets coming down on the Boston Celtics.
We do not guarantee that the trends and biases we’ve found will continue to exist. It is impossible to predict the future. Any serious academic research in the field of “market efficiencies” recognizes that inefficiencies may disappear over time. Once inefficiencies are discovered, it is only a matter of time before the market corrects itself. We do not guarantee our data is error-free. However, we’ve tried our best to make sure every score and percentage is correct.