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Harvard Sports Sees Chance of Knicks-Like Surprise Post Lockout

A shortened National Basketball Association season gives less-talented teams an increased chance of making the playoffs and potentially winning the championship, according to the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective.

The NBA, which locked out players on July 1, canceled the first two weeks of the usually 82-game season this week after talks failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement. More games are in jeopardy, according to the league, which played a 50-game season in 1998-99 due to labor strife, the first time the league lost games to a work stoppage.

Statistics show that fewer games don’t allow the better clubs to separate themselves in the standings, said David Roher, co-president of the collective, a student-run group dedicated to quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management.

“A 35-win team’s chances of making the playoffs increases as the number of games played decreases,” said Roher, referring to win totals from last season.

Assuming games are independent of each other, which can be debated, Roher says a 35-win team has about a 10 percent chance to make the playoffs in a 50-game season, double that of an 82-game campaign.

A truncated season may, for example, benefit the Milwaukee Bucks, who won 35 games last season, or Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats, who won 34. The Bucks finished ninth in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Indiana Pacers, with the Bobcats 10th.

The top eight clubs in each conference qualify for the postseason.

Short Season

The NBA and the players’ association reached a settlement in early January 1999, ending the previous stoppage and allowing 50 regular-season games to be played.

The New York Knicks finished eighth in the Eastern Conference that season with 27 wins, compared with 43 the previous year, and upset teams with higher win totals to reach the NBA Finals, where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs.

“The important thing is getting into the playoffs,” said Roher, a junior at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard who is scheduled to graduate in May. “The postseason is where, statistically, a lot more things can happen.”

Roher’s co-president, John Ezekowitz, declined comment because he’s a paid consultant for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. As a team employee, he faces a league-imposed fine for discussing matters related to the lockout.

All NBA playoff rounds are best-of-seven games. Major League Baseball uses a best-of-five format in the American and National League Division Series, followed by best-of-seven league championship series and World Series.

More Games

Seven games aren’t enough from a statistical perspective to ensure the better team wins, Roher said.

“It’s closer to 50-50 than you’d think,” he said.

For the better team to advance almost all of the time, teams would have to play at least a best-of-17 series, Roher said.

Perhaps that explains why New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi used the word “luck” 10 times while explaining why his 97-win team lost to the 95-win Detroit Tigers in the first round of the baseball playoffs.

The Yankees weren’t the only higher-win team bounced in the first round. The Philadelphia Phillies, who won a major league-best 102 games during the regular season, were eliminated by the 90-win St. Louis Cardinals.

The Minnesota Timberwolves had an NBA-low 17 wins last season. According to Roher, their best shot at a title is a protracted standoff between owners and players.

“Based on the principle of variance, a one-game season would be the ideal for that team,” he said.

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