Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2022

Predictions, And Superteams, That Didn’t Age Well

As longtime readers can attest, the next piece that makes bold predictions about how a league’s season or playoff tournament is going to turn out will be the first such to appear in this space.  The reason is neither a dearth of opinions nor a fear of being laughably incorrect.  On Sports and Life has both plenty of the former and years of experience with the latter.  Rather it reflects two firm beliefs – one, that there is a difference between being a fan and being an expert; and two, that randomness and chance are fundamental aspects of all our sports, meaning even those with sufficient knowledge and insight to be considered experts have limited ability to predict outcomes.  To renew a phrase that, in contrast to predictions, appears in this space quite often, there is always a reason to actually play the game.

While On Sports and Life may abstain, prediction pieces are a staple of sports writing.  They appear just before the regular seasons of all our major team sports, and often again at the other end of the campaign, once the playoff field is set.  They also pop up in the days leading to individual competitions such as major golf tournaments.  Though one suspects many writers approach the assignment with all the enthusiasm of a rendezvous with a dentist’s drill, publications employing multiple scribes will offer up conversational stories in which the merits of each individual’s picks are debated.  Prediction articles are inevitable, unavoidable, and almost always wrong.

NBA fans received an especially emphatic reminder of that Monday, when the visiting Boston Celtics completed a four-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, 116-112 at New York City’s Barclay Center.  The victory, which had come to seem inevitable to many of the Nets’ faithful, ended their dreams of a title far short of that goal.  But more than that, it meant that of the two teams widely predicted to be the contestants in this year’s NBA Finals, one was bounced from the playoffs in Round 1, while the other never played a single postseason game, despite the league’s expanded tournament bracket.

In a distant and surely simpler time – namely, last October – the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets bordered on consensus picks as the franchises most likely to emerge from the Western and Eastern Conferences and battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  The two teams were picked by computers, like those that power the algorithms at BetIQ, a website that claims to “aggregate a vast repository” of stats and data and crunch it through proprietary analyses to advise gambling fans on what clubs to back.  The Nets were given a 29% chance of winning the championship, with the Lakers second among the league’s thirty franchises at 19%.  Both numbers were roughly three times the next best odds in Brooklyn’s and L.A.’s respective conferences.  The squads were even more popular with humans, with six of eight experts at CBS Sports choosing the Lakers as Western Conference champs, and seven of eight going with the Nets in the East.  So it went, across a range of outlets and forecasting models.

But all those predictions began to come apart literally as soon as the season tipped off.  Both teams were featured as part of the NBA’s opening doubleheader on October 19, and both lost.  The Nets were smoked by the Bucks in Milwaukee, 127-104, while the Lakers watched a 6-point halftime lead melt away under Steph Curry’s hot hand, as the Warriors rallied for a 121-114 win, disappointing the crowd at the Staples Center.

As is always the case when a campaign goes awry, neither franchise’s season turned on those or any other single game.  Nor does either have the luxury of going into the offseason knowing they are just one small fix away from realizing the potential that seemed so real to so many just six months ago.  Instead, when the Lakers last flickering chance of making even the play-in round was extinguished with a loss to the Suns on April 5, and when Boston ended Brooklyn’s misery at the beginning of this week, there were myriad reasons for the failure of each club. 

In L.A., LeBron James missed games early and late in the schedule due to various injuries, and he and Anthony Davis, who was also frequently hurt, rarely appeared together, sharing the court just once during a disastrous seven-game losing streak at the beginning of March.  But injuries alone didn’t doom the Lakers’ chances.  The team’s vaunted offseason acquisition of Russell Westbrook proved to be a flop, with the 9-time All Star suddenly looking all his 33 years while putting up terrible numbers.  Just this week the postmortems took an ugly turn, with Westbrook blaming recently fired coach Frank Vogel for misusing him, and the team’s front office leaking complaints that the Westbrook trade was forced upon it by the agency that represents both James and Davis.

Brooklyn also suffered from not being able to always put its best lineup on the floor, though for the Nets the problem wasn’t so much injury – though there was some of that – as petulance.  Kyrie Irving refused a COVID vaccination, rendering him ineligible for games at Toronto all season, and worse, for every Nets home game until very late in the schedule.  Usually playing without Irving meant more pressure on Kevin Durant and last year’s midseason pickup James Harden.  But rather than rise to the occasion Harden soured on the Nets and effectively quit on the team, ultimately forcing a trade to Philadelphia.

The overriding lesson for fans to take from the herd mentality that led so many pundits to jump on the Lakers and Nets bandwagons is that a superteam is more than a glittering roster.  Many of those picking both clubs were blinded by the star power assembled on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and South Figueroa Street in L.A.  Durant, Kyrie, and Harden, together!  LeBron, AD, and Westbrook, wearing the same uniform!  What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a bit, as it turns out, because even when both clubs managed to field their ideal lineups, the stars often failed to mesh.  Basketball remains a team sport, one in which a lesser roster of players who complement and feed off each other can triumph over a gaudy lineup of individual egos.  There may not be an algorithm for that, but perhaps a writer or two will keep it in mind, the next time they’re asked to offer up some predictions.

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