Skill, Luck, or a Little of Both
The summer playoff season is finally over. The Pittsburgh Penguins took home the Stanley Cup in six while the Golden State Warriors won the Finals in five.
The outcomes were far from a surprise though. Pittsburgh had the second best record in the NHL with 50–21–11. Golden State had the best record in the NBA again, and no one questioned the team’s ability.
The “best” or most skilled teams won and to no surprise. Pittsburgh and Golden State have both been dominant in their leagues, but is this normal?
The NHL is never clean cut in Stanley Cup winners. The top seeds of the playoffs only have a 38 percent chance of winning it all based on numbers since 1994.
NBA number one seeds have far better odds as they have won 52 out of the 71 NBA Finals. With a 73 percent chance of winning, it is easy to predict winners.
This huge gap changes how fans see a number one seed in both sports. To a hockey fan their number one seeded team is nothing to boast about. This year, Chicago was swept by Nashville in the first round, making it the first eight seed to sweep a number one seed in NBA and NHL history.
NBA fans know that their number one seed means far more. Entering into the Playoffs with that seeding normally means the team can cruise into the semi-finals before they are truly challenged.
In the book “The Success Equation,” author Michael Mauboussin explains why that is.
If hockey and basketball were placed on a continuum with one side being skill, represented by chess, and the other being luck, represented by winning the lottery, Hockey and Basketball would be far apart.
Mauboussin used data from the last five seasons and found that basketball games are determined more by skill than hockey. That is not to say that one takes less or more skill. It just means that the basketball rewards skill far better than hockey.
That is probably why the Washington Capitals never make it past the second round of the playoffs, yet their team always dominates the regular season.
In the history of the NBA, only one four seed and one six seed have ever won it all. The rest are all one, two and three seeds with one seeds having 73 percent of those titles.
Hockey is different though. In the last 10 years, an eight seed, a six seed and two four seeds have won it all in the NHL.
In a world where coin flips determined outcomes, hockey would not be far off based on regular season totals.
Looking at the 2015–2016 season, the win differential between the best team and the worst team in the NHL was 27 while in the NBA, it was 63.
Luck and Skill play a big part in both sports. With 82 games in a season, teams have to use both to do well, but in hockey, it is much more important. Less shots on goal, less time of possession and less clean cut scoring chances all equate to a more gritty game and unpredictable outcomes.
The top goal scorer in the league, Sidney Crosby, only scored 9 percent of Pittsburgh’s goals all season. Steph Curry scored 22 percent of Golden State’s points.
Both sports are full of amazing players. Their individual skill is insane, but their sports measure different things. The NBA will always show skill better than the NHL. The most star studded hockey team ever conceived will always have a great chance of losing just because of the game they are playing.
The fact that the true 16 seed of the NHL playoffs made it to the Stanley Cup Finals this season just shows that Cinderella stories are always easier to find on ice. NBA fans can keep their confidence in their top seeded teams, but NHL fans will always have to deal with nail biters.