Why Do Longshots Slide Into The Stanley Cup Finals But Fall Flat In The NBA Playoffs?
If it weren’t for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the 2019 NBA Finals, the sports world would go dark between the months of April and September. Sure, there are a few great weekends of golf and baseball players take the diamond for a long 162-game season, but ironically, it’s hardwood and ice that keeps the fire burning.
Though the two work as a tandem to keep the sports junky afloat, the two postseasons are apt to play out much differently when it comes to storylines. There’s no better example than the 2019 postseasons, especially for the sports bettor, to show that the dichotomy between the two sports goes far beyond the surfaces they are played on.
Look no further than comparing NBA betting odds and NHL odds in the first round of this year’s playoffs. On the ice, favorites went 2-6 to kick off the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In hoops, the favorites would go 7-1 and all eight higher seeded teams advanced to the Conference Semifinals.
Even more jarring was the Columbus Blue Jackets’ historic first-round upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning tied the 1995-96 Red Wings’ NHL all-time regular season record with 62 wins in the regular season. They finished 21 points ahead of the second-place Flames and Bruins, averaged the most goals per game in the NHL since 1996 and broke plenty more records along the way leaving many to ponder if the Lightning were the best regular season team of all time. Others just outright said it.
At -400, the Lightning entered the opening round as the biggest series favorites on the board. Their stay in the postseason was short lived. But it wasn’t just that the Blue Jackets beat the Presidents Trophy winners. It was how they beat them.
Columbus outscored Tampa Bay 19-8, becoming the first team in NHL history to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the first round.
That wasn’t the only underdog story in the NHL playoffs. On Wednesday, the St. Louis Blues will face off with the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
One bettor has a chance to turn $400 into $100K thanks to a wager made on the Blues at 250-to-1 in January.
On January 9th, the Blues were last place in the Central Division and next to last in the Western Conference with a 17-20-4 record. They were able to string a few wins together before the all-star break to improve their record to 22-22-4, but 12 of 15 teams were still ahead of them in the conference standings. By February 19th, St. Louis had won 11 straight and were 32-22-5. A month and a half later, the Blues finished their season 45-28-9 and were heading to the playoffs.
NHL playoffs are seeded a bit differently than other major sports, but this season all four No. 1 seeds (division winners) failed to advance past the opening round.
It’s fair to point out that this isn’t the norm for the NHL; this is the year of the underdog. Never before have all four division winners, or even the top two seeds, been eliminated in the first round. Round 1 favorites were 7-1 in 2018 and, until this year, hadn’t gone worse than .500 in the last decade, according to archived odds from SportsOddsHistory.com.
Even with favorites dominating early last year, the 2018 playoffs still had a Cinderella story. The Vegas Golden Knights despite being an expansion team in its first year, made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Golden Knights’ run led to Vegas sportsbooks sweating the Stanley Cup Championship after some Vegas locals bet the Knights to win the Stanley Cup at 300-to-1 odds before the season started.
Now sportsbooks are on the hook again.
An NBA Equivalent?
At first glance, the NBA equivalent would be if the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors had lost to the eighth seeded Houston Rockets. The Warriors didn’t lose lose that year. They won 4-1.
In fact, only three 8 seeds have ever upset the No. 1 seed in the NBA playoffs. The first occurred in 2007 when the Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks.
There are no Vegas Golden Knights or St. Louis Blues in the NBA, though the Milwaukee Bucks tried their best impersonation this year.
With LeBron James’ move to the West Coast, Milwaukee had a chance to cash major futures tickets for bettors who grabbed them in the preseason at 100-to-1 to win the NBA Finals. The Bucks entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference favorite. After jumping ahead 2-0 in the Conference Finals, they looked well on their way to the NBA Championship before losing four straight to the Toronto Raptors.
Behind only the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors were +1400 to win the Finals following their summer acquisition of superstar Kawhi Leonard.
Until this year, the preseason favorites of each conference made it to the NBA Finals three years in a row.
Going back to 2009, no NBA Finals team has been a bigger longshot than +2800 to win the NBA Finals as of the first day of the regular season. That team was the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, followed by the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks and 2008-09 Orlando Magic, each at +2000.
Rarely can you find an NBA team with the mid-season odds of the St. Louis Blues that is able to turn it around and make a legitimate run at an NBA Championship. For the most part, we know who has the chance at being a contender before the season starts. And when there are surprises, such as Milwaukee this year, they’re usually sniffed out by the halfway point of the season.
Overall, the #1 NHL conference seeds — the teams with the most points from each conference — have been knocked out in the first round 18 times. A stark difference to the cloud of chalk that routinely frequents NBA brackets.
More than Meets the Eye
If you’re a keen bettor, you noticed the flaw in the Warriors-Lightning analogy. Like the Lightning, the 2015-16 Warriors team set a record for most regular season wins in the sport’s history. And like the Lightning, Golden State was anointed as the greatest regular season team the sport had ever seen. But had the Rockets beat the Warriors, it would have been an exponentially bigger upset.
The Golden State Warriors were -10000 to advance to the first round that year — 99% implied probability, or 97.6% when adjusted for the vigorish (the cut the sportsbook takes).
Columbus, on the other hand, was just a +325 underdog — 22.73% implied probability without the vig — yet that didn’t keep many people from asking if Columbus had just completed one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Thinking About Probability
The certainty before and disbelief after the Tampa Bay-Columbus series mirrors reactions to the 2016 presidential election.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, the thought of Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton seemed unimaginable to a lot of people. Just days before the election, Huffington Post’s prediction model gave Donald Trump only a 2 percent chance of winning.
FiveThirtyEight’s model favored Clinton but was much more bullish on Trump than others had been. It gave Trump a 29 percent chance, what would be +245 in betting odds. Even so, many people criticized Silver following the election for being wrong, when in fact, the model showed Trump’s chances of winning were well within the range of possible outcomes.
Same with the Blue Jackets.
In a preview of the first-round series, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model gave the Blue Jackets a 25% chance to advance:
“What this series isn’t is a foregone conclusion. A one-in-four chance is a small chance, but it’s still a chance, one that’s pretty large given the Lightning won over 75 percent of their games this season. Generally speaking, wildcard teams are pretty close to average and if that were the case for Columbus, the Lightning would instead have an 84 percent chance. That’s part of the reason the team’s Stanley Cup chances aren’t as high as some might expect – the road there won’t be easy.”– Dom Luszczyszyn
The gap wasn’t so much in Trump’s chances of beating Clinton or Columbus’ chances in beating Tampa Bay; the gap was in the perception of those events happening.
As Luszczyszyn pointed out, the Lightning had roughly the same odds to lose the series as they had to win the Stanley Cup, “If you feel comfortable with the possibility of the former, you should feel just as confident with the possibility of the latter.”
A bettor using Luszczyszyn’s model would have seen the value of betting Columbus +325. That same bettor likely wouldn’t have been so shocked that Donald Trump was elected had they used FiveThirtyEight’s forecast.
Forces at Play
So what makes playoff hockey so much different than basketball? How is that in back-to-back years bettors have been able to grab 300-to-1 and 250-to-1 odds on teams that have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, while favorites consistently dominate the basketball court?
It’s not the sample size of games. NBA and NHL teams play the exact same number of games in the regular season, but the NBA season is much more predictive than NHL’s.
In The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing author Michael Mauboussin uses data from five seasons of each of the five major sports to create a luck-skill continuum, showing which sports’ outcomes were most reliant on luck and which are most determined by skill .
Despite both sports having an 82 game season, the NBA and NHL were at polar opposite ends of the continuum. NBA was to the far right, closest to ‘skill’, and NHL was far to the left, closest to ‘luck’. NFL, MLB, and soccer were in between.
There are simple explanations for the differences. For one, basketball has more possessions than hockey — there’s actually not a even a measure of possessions in hockey due to the fast-paced and erratic nature of the sport. In this sense, sample size does matter. Basketball teams have more opportunities to score than hockey teams, and as a result, we get “truer” outcomes and fewer surprises come playoff time.
Another factor is that more players matter in the rink. A teams’ best player may only play around 20 out of 60 minutes in a hockey game, where as the NBA’s best players are capable of playing almost the entire 48 minutes.
In 2018, LeBron James played 40+ minutes out of the possible 48 minutes — at least 83 percent of the game — in 16 of 22 playoffs games. In six of those games he played over 95 percent.
Skill players such as Sydney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have to rest, keeping them from having the same impact on the ice that James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard have on the court.
Hope for Longshots
Asked what sport was hardest to predict, Nate Silver said he wasn’t sure that hockey was “that much different than random.” That may be a bit hyperbolic, but the sport is chaotic nonetheless.
The chaos is what makes hockey unique and one of the most exciting playoff sports to watch. It’s also what makes the NHL futures market one of the more intriguing sports to speculate throughout the year.
Whether it’s an expansion franchise, a last place team in January or a wild card facing the most regular season wins in history, in the midst of all the chaos, longshots can find hope on the ice.