How well do Vegas futures predict playoff results in each sport?


Spurs and Heat… again.

On Friday, I wrote a post for FiveThirtyEight discussing the rampant inequality and predictability found in the NBA. I have a few more thoughts on that subject…

While the NBA has successfully suckered tens of millions of fans into believing the 2014 playoffs have been thrilling and unpredictable, with the LA Times even declaring, “March Madness suddenly seems like such a bore by comparison” (this is a pretty odd comparison considering the Final Four concluded with a No. 7 seed beating a No. 8 for the title), I’ve had a much different opinion, and this year’s predictable results simply fall in line with recent history.

While my original post mostly analyzed the odds distribution in each sport, I didn’t much consider the actual results, and it got me wondering… How well do those futures odds predict what actually happens on the court, as well as in other sports?

To analyze this, I ranked all the teams in each sport according to their preseason championship odds* (i.e. for 2014, Miami is No. 1, Bulls No. 2, etc.) I then plotted this rank against their eventual playoff results (0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in first round, 2 = made conference semifinals, 3 = made conference finals, 4 = made finals, 5 = won title) over the last four seasons. For comparison, I also included the NHL, a league that also has an 82-game regular season and four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs:

*Because any betting odds will add up to greater than 100 percent, I simply divided all the futures by the sum of all the teams’ odds to scale them down to 100 percent.

nba presason vs results

nhl presason vs results

The NBA has a clear strong correlation between preseason championship probability rank and playoff results, while the NHL is much weaker. Over the last four years, no NBA team ranked lower than fifth in preseason championship odds has made the finals. Compare that to the NHL, which has had six of eight non-top five finals teams in that time.

Here are the NFL and MLB distributions too:

NFL preseason vs results

(0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in wild card round, 2 = lost in divisional round, 3 = lost in conference championship game, 4 = lost Super Bowl, 5 = won Super Bowl)

MLB preseason vs results

(0 = missed playoffs, 1 = lost in Wild Card game, 2 = lost in LDS, 3 = lost in LCS, 4 = lost World Series, 5 = won World Series)

It’s easy to see how these other leagues’ plots differ from the NBA’s. Here are the correlations for each graph:

NBA = .647

NHL = .523

NFL = .440

MLB = .371

Clearly, the preseason favorites go further in the playoffs with a much higher frequency in the NBA than in any other sport.

Dominance of Miami

Much of the predictability in the NBA is due to the havoc the Miami Heat have waged on the wagering markets. To put Miami’s sports book dominance during the LeBron-Wade-Bosh era in perspective, here’s a scatter plot of the all the seasons in the MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL over the last four seasons, plotting each team’s championship odds at the start of the season against their odds at the start of the playoffs.


(Sorry, no pretty graphic with this one—just a screenshot of an R plot. Chartbuilder doesn’t take to kindly to doing scatter plots with multiple series.)

Only once in the last four years have the Heat not been favorites to win the title—the start of the 2011 playoffs, following the Big Three’s underwhelming debut regular season. Now, to really see how Miami’s recent run stands out, here are those odds when the four years for each team are averaged together.


Over the last four seasons, the Heat have averaged 24.6 percent and 28.4 percent chances of winning the title at the start of the regular season and postseason respectively. Compare that to the Sacramento Kings, which have averaged 0.3 percent and 0.0 percent respectively over that time.

Another interesting takeaway from this chart is that the Patriots have often wildly outperformed preseason expectations during the regular season, accruing more than double the title odds by the time the playoffs start. The Lakers, on the other hand, wildly underperform (or are simply very overvalued at the start of the year), nearly slicing their preseason title odds in half over the course of the regular season.

Odds Distributions

Probably the most striking image from my FiveThirtyEight story was this line chart of the distribution of championship odds at the start of the season in each sport.

Pre line chart

When you zoom in on the bottom two thirds of the chart, you can really see the near-zero odds of the barren bottom 50 percent in the NBA.

Pre line zoom

This NBA inequality is still apparent come playoff time. (I separated the MLB data into the years in which there was only one wild card per league and years in which there were two.)

Play line chart

While the NBA may look like it’s made up some ground here equality-wise, it’s important to note that the NFL and MLB have byes and play-in games, a structural advantage that automatically adds greater disparity in championship odds. The average top NBA playoff team, which has to win four rounds for the championship, still has better title odds than the average top MLB and NFL teams, which only have to win three rounds.


The day after my FiveThirtyEight story ran, the NY Times published a story that touched on very similar topics. Most interestingly came a quote from former Stanford professor Roger Noll, discussing one of my most despised regulations in sports:

“If you didn’t have an individual cap,” Noll said in a telephone interview, “if LeBron James was in a position to sell himself to the highest bidder, his salary would be much higher and you wouldn’t have a small number of top teams with more than half the superstars in the league.”

“It’s a big mistake, and the N.B.A. hasn’t adjusted. So if you have as many as 25 teams that know before the first game is played that they probably won’t even be in the conference finals, doesn’t that make the regular season seem almost meaningless, more of an exhibition than a pathway to a consequential championship?”

I couldn’t agree more (and plan to write more on this in the NBA off-season).

In previous posts, I’ve argued against the randomness and extreme parity of college basketball, much of which is due to the 68-team single elimination playoff format—a huge contrast to the NBA’s best-of-seven series. If that sounds like the complete opposite of my above criticism of the NBA, then you’re right. The NCAA lies too far toward the extreme randomness/parity end of the spectrum, while the NBA goes too far to the extreme predictability/inequality end.

You don’t want seasons to feel like they’re extremely predictable like the NBA, but at the same time, you want the true best team to win with a relatively high frequency so that it feels like teams are justly rewarded. It’s critical to have a good balance between the two, and finding that equilibrium is something sports leagues have wrestled with—and will continue to wrestle with—for decades.


Why an NFL auction would be far superior to a draft—for players, teams, and fans

NFL Draft lioRealistic rating: 8.0

Pretty much every astute fantasy player knows that auctions are far superior to drafts. Here are the three primary reasons:

1. More fair: If there’s a superstar head-and-shoulders above everyone else, then a team with the first pick in a fantasy draft lucks into a huge advantage. Conversely, if the top players are about equal, then the team with the first pick is at a disadvantage, since the teams picking behind him are still getting roughly the same caliber of player in the first round, and then that team has to pick last in the 2nd round. It all comes down to random luck of the distribution of player talent.

This randomness disappears in an auction, where there isn’t any lucky advantage or unlucky disadvantage to be gleaned from having particular picks. Every team has the opportunity to pick every player and to pay exactly how much they believe that player to be worth. Because of this, auctions are much more liquid then drafts, as auction dollars are a much more granular measure of value than draft picks.

2. More research/availability: In drafts, if you have the first pick, you’re pretty much locked into taking Peyton, AP, or one of the other handful of elite RBs. That’s all you really have to think about. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have the last pick, it doesn’t matter what your opinion of AP is. If you think he’s going to have the greatest rushing season in NFL history, you don’t have any opportunity to put your money where your mouth is (unless you trade picks, which seems to be a rare occurrence due to the aforementioned liquidity problem).

3. More strategy: There’s an element of strategy in auctions that isn’t very prevalent in drafts. At any given time, the number of teams that need a particular position and the total money is left across the league has enormous implications on the values of players, causing them to constantly fluctuate—and teams can do things (whether that be nominating specific players or positions or driving up the price on certain auctions) to manipulate those fluctuations to preferred conditions.

Application to the NFL (and NBA/MLB/NHL)

These draft issues are largely prevalent in the NFL too. While many teams do trade picks, the vast majority simply pick from where they’ve been assigned in the draft order, which surely doesn’t fit with their specific values/needs if they had the choice.

For example, only a handful of teams at the top of the draft were really researching the likes Jadeveon Clowney as they were the only teams with the means to select him. Thus, more likely than not, the Texans did not value Clowney more than every one of the other 31 teams, yet they still ended up with him. In fact, it’s highly likely that the vast majority of the 256 players drafted did not go to the NFL franchise which actually valued them the most. Again, the less liquid nature of drafts creates market inefficiencies. Auctions are the opposite. With each bidding party having a very granular amount of funds, they can pick and choose exactly how much they value each player available, and players will go to the teams that value them most the vast majority of the time.

Proposal I: Auction draft

Let’s say each NFL team had an allotted amount of auction “money” (I say “money” because it would be a nominal amount) with the worst team from the previous season having the most money to spend and the Super Bowl winner having the least.

Let’s say we use the modified draft pick value chart created by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. Here, I’ve totaled the values of the seven picks each team is currently allotted based on their draft order. I’ve then multiplied that sum by 10 to have a more granular “dollar” amount. If these draft picks were converted into auction dollars, here’s how each team’s starting funds would look:

NFL Auction Values

As you can see, there’s a steadily declining distribution of funds down the auction chain. But how can this change things in practice? Here are some examples:

Kansas City was assigned the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft based on their 2013 record, and they selected a defensive end with that pick—but say they really loved Clowney and were willing to pay much more for him. As draft picks aren’t very liquid, it might be hard to find a trade that’s fair for both sides. In an auction, though, Kansas City can simply decide to allocate as much of its budget as it wants toward Clowney, and if Houston decides to match, then they have greater starting funds with which to outbid them.

Or say Houston, which has many holes to fill, decided not to spend a big portion of their budget on Clowney and take the standard one each of a 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th-, 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-round caliber players. They could instead spend their $10,727 on seven 2nd round-caliber players (i.e. the 33-64th best players available; avg cost $1502) allowing them to plug in a very solid player at many different slots.

(In fantasy, this is known as the “stars and scrubs” vs. balanced roster strategies, but these plans have much more adaptability to NFL teams, which must account for their already rostered players when drafting rather than starting from scratch like most fantasy leagues.)

And in terms of strategy, a team highly coveting a WR might decide to nominate stud QBs early, in the hopes of depleting other teams’ funds and driving down the cost of WRs.

The process

The auction would work by rotating which teams could nominate players, with a nomination requiring a minimum starting bid of, say, $10 and a minimum $1 raise. All 32 teams could buzz in, and the auction would end after 20 seconds of no higher bids. (Let’s pretend there’s no high frequency trading “Flash Boys” going on here—although that would definitely be something Bill Belichick would love to explore.) Then the next team would nominate a player, and the process would continue until every team was out of funds.

As far as broadcasting, don’t worry, Mr. $25 billion commissioner, there could still be a Thursday night primetime show in which the best players are selected. According to the Harvard study, the 32nd pick is worth 200.3 points, or $2003 in auction money. For the first night, each team would nominate a player, but the minimum bid on that player would be $1500 so as to ensure it’s all big names coming off the board. (Personally, I’d rather not have this de facto “first round,” since auctions are more fun and strategic when some studs are still lurking on the board late, but it’d obviously be hard for the NFL to pass up a free night of primetime TV rights.)

One of the best things about this is that you could in theory speed up the draft, because trading would be rendered almost entirely irrelevant (i.e. No team no longer has to trade up to get a guy.) This absence of trades would mean that you wouldn’t have to allocate much time between auctions. At the same time, though, there could be many more than 256 players drafted in an auction format.

Some other notes:

  • Compensatory picks could easily still be awarded in this auction, simply by calculating their value and adding them to each team’s total funds.
  • Draft money could easily be traded during the season and might facilitate more trades. Say two teams can’t find even ground. If they each had an auction money allocation, one could easily kick in a bit to smooth out any deal.

Finally, here’s the best reason for an auction: Who wouldn’t want to see Jerry Jones blow half his budget on Day 1 on some pricey college star?

From the players’ point of view

Auctions would be much more fair for the players as well. With the draft, rookie salaries are largely pre-slotted by each draft position, without much regard for discrepancies in actual value.

For example, in 2012, Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck were the consensus top two picks and were huge outliers in terms of talent/value compared to the rest of the draft. Yet, due to the rigid rookie pay scale, they only received a marginal pay upgrade over the No. 3 pick Trent Richardson. In an auction, rookie salaries could be scaled by the amount of auction money spent on them, making it a big more meritocratic. If the next Andrew luck comes along and causes a team to splurge $3,000 auction on him, his rookie salary would be in proportion to that amount.

Proposal II: Free agency

This idea’s a bit more radical: How about no draft or auction whatsoever—and instead players coming out of college are simply free agents who can sign with any team? An obvious objection would be that the best players would simply sign with the best teams, and the bad teams would stay bad in perpetuity, but is that really the case?

Teams that are rebuilding would allocate much more of their salary caps to prospects coming up from college, whereas contenders in “win now” mentality probably wouldn’t want to tie up much of their cap on young prospects who could take years to develop into their prime. Also, thanks to a hard salary cap, no team could horde all the best talent.

Another thing to consider is that teams are in a constant state of roster turnover. As great as the Broncos and Seahawks are today, every one of the players on their roster will have become a free agent in the next five years. Because the NFL isn’t anywhere near as star-driven as the NBA, and the best players aren’t global icons that want to gravitate toward NYC, LA, and other “prestige” cities, complete free agency isn’t something out of the realm of possibility in terms of competitive balance.

And from the players’ point of view, it’s probably the most fair of all, as they aren’t locked into playing for a particular team or for a particular salary. (Of course, since college players don’t have a seat at the bargaining table when it comes to negotiating the NFL CBA, they receive the extremely raw end of the deal and will continue to as long as current NFL players are the only players with a voice.)

The death blow to this free agency plan, though, is that it would remove a big prime time ratings event from the NFL’s annual TV calendar, which Commissioner 18 Games probably wouldn’t be too happy about.

Bottom line: In a vacuum, complete free agency seems like the way to go. An auction is pretty close, though, and certainly a lot more entertaining. Not only would a auction make draft night more fun and fair for fans, it’d also help during the season in facilitating more trades. And on top of all that, it’s more fair for the players too. Seems like a win-win-win.

Why prevent NBA teams from only playing four players?


Chris Kaman seeing his psychiatrist.

Realistic rating: 9.5

Last night, Lakers center Robert Sacre invoked a little-known NBA rule when he fouled out of the Lakers-Cavs game. With the Lakers not having any players available on their bench at the time of Sacre’s sixth foul, they would have been down to only four players had Sacre been forced to leave the game, thus triggering Rule No. 3, Section I, which states:

“No team may be reduced to less than five players. If a player in the game receives his sixth personal foul and all substitutes have already been disqualified, said player shall remain in the game and shall be charged with a personal and team foul. A technical foul also shall be assessed against his team. All subsequent personal fouls, including offensive fouls, shall be treated similarly. All players who have six or more personal fouls and remain in the game shall be treated similarly.”

First off, let me say that as a huge proponent of instituting “power play”-type situations in many sports other than hockey (I’ll save that for a later post), I’m vehemently against this rule. Wacky things in sports like a shortstop having to pitch, a goalie having to take a shootout shot, or a quarterback having to punt are ALWAYS insanely entertaining—highlights fans talk about for years. Playing a basketball game with four players more than qualifies for that category. Why go out of your way to prevent such fun from occurring?

Possible exploitations

The other issue I have is that I don’t understand how referees can arbitrate when a team qualifies for this rule. The reason the Lakers triggered it was because they only dressed eight players that night, and that number shrank down to five due to a Nick Young knee injury, a Chris Kaman foul out, and a Jordan Farmar leg cramp all occurring prior to Sacre’s sixth foul. But how could the refs know if Farmar’s cramp was really a “cramp”?*

The reason I bring this up is because teams could theoretically lie about the health of their players if it would keep a star player with six fouls in the game. A prominent example of a situation in which a team could benefit from exploiting this rule would be Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. When LeBron James fouled out with 1:51 left in the first overtime, the Heat fell apart without the league MVP, eventually losing in a second overtime to notch the series at 2-2. Since LeBron was such a valuable asset to have on the floor, it’s almost certainly  worth the tradeoff of having any potential fouls he commits be technicals, so the Heat would surely prefer to have him on the court, even with that corollary in place.

The issue, though, is that according to the wording of the rule, it seems that since the Heat had available players on their bench, LeBron could not remain on the floor. This is wherein my question lies: What would have prevented Heat bench players like Norris Cole and Mike Miller from suddenly “””””“cramping up”””””” (add like seven more quotation marks) and reducing the number of available Heat players to just five, thus forcing LeBron to stay in the game? (Even if the Heat couldn’t sub out for the rest of the game, retaining a player of LeBron’s caliber would still likely make such a ploy more than worthwhile.)

*It should also be noted that the Lakers were on the verge of putting Steve Nash—who was resting that night—in the game, but decided against it. Wouldn’t that technically have made him “available,” thus negating the Sacre situation?

Miscellaneous issues

1. Another issue about this rule is that it—admittedly, very marginally—changes the strategy of the game before a player fouls out. Whenever a player has five fouls, it gives a strategic edge to his opponents, because the player theoretically doesn’t want to foul out, so he may be a bit more tentative on defense, allowing teams to deliberately go at him when they have the ball. Without that fear, a five-foul player may continue to play at his normal defensive standard.

2. If the six-foul player accrues a tech every time he fouls, what happens if he draws two of these? Does he simply not have a technical foul limit anymore?

3. Can other players who had previously fouled out now come back in the game with the technical corollary in effect? So many questions.

4. What if Sacre suffered a truly debilitating injury. Would his writhing body have to lay in the corner of the court while his teammates played? Or would the Lakers have had to forfeit, even though they had a double-digit lead?

It’s worth noting that the Golden State Warriors encountered a similar situation in 2010, but when Devean George fouled out, the referees forced Don Nelson to play a clearly hobbled Chris Hunter.** This seems like a clear double standard compared to the one the referees employed for the Lakers last night.

**Nellie had to swap in three injured players, instructing each of them to throw a quick intentional foul, so that he could eventually put George back in the game. Here’s a video of some of that genius strategy:


Well, the obvious solution to me, as referenced above, is to simply remove this rule and force teams to play with four players.

If the league *must* have some form of this rule, then I’d simply suggest a steeper penalty than just a technical foul whenever the six-foul player draws a whistle to prevent any of the aforementioned chicanery. Perhaps something like a flagrant foul—where the team gets two free throws and the ball—would do the trick.

Bottom line: Teams playing four players would almost never come into play, so changing this rule really isn’t that intrusive. (According to SportsCenter, it’s only happened twice in the last 10 years.) If a team screws up this badly, let the opposing team (and fans) reap the benefits.