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The Folly of Prognostication in Sports

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Everyone asks, “Who’s going to win?” without understanding how gross that question is.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors are underway in the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Before the series was underway, Blazers fans were edgy about predictions of Golden State’s dominance. After a convincing Game 1 loss, the matter has taken on intensity. That’s why predictions and prognostications are the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I don’t understand how you do it but you had the Denver series clocked! You look like a word not safe for BE genius with that stuff about hang on after game 5 and how the Blazers would win game 7 in Denver even. And the Warriors stuff was right on too! How do you see the future like that? Give me your superpowers!

Ryan

Dave,

Once again the experts from ESPN and other places are all picking the other team to take out the Blazers. Will they ever learn? Why are they so bad at this if they’re experts? We will win it in 6 just like we did the two times they did this before! Go Blazers!

Jon

First of all, thanks for the compliment, Ryan. Thanks to all of you who send those in along with your questions. I do read them and appreciate them. I don’t reprint them often, because it feels self-serving, but it does make me feel good.

Not to argue with the guy who just called me a swear-word-level genius, but at no time did I say the Blazers would beat the Nuggets... not in the series, not in a given game. Here’s the truth: I *hate* that kind of prognostication. Almost every time I go on radio or do interviews, the question, “Who’s going to win this?” comes up. I don’t get it. I don’t like it. I’ll answer the question as best I can, but I don’t expect that future-telling is worth half a cent. I’d much rather spend time on other things.

If you read back to the Game 7 Preview against the Nuggets, I didn’t say which team would win. I said, “If Denver is going to win, it’ll probably look like this. If Portland wins, it’ll look like that.” Portland won. It looked like that. That doesn’t make me a fortune teller, nor do I have to be. There’s value in talking about the game from foundations of stats, experience, observation, and a splash of intuition. There’s value in reading that kind of thing too. The value doesn’t come in knowing the destination, but in understanding and appreciating the journey.

If I had said in that preview, “Portland’s going to win this! Book it!”, what worth would that have been to you during the game? How would it have enriched your experience or changed our communal perspective? It wouldn’t have added anything to the conversation, except perhaps retroactively when you said, “Wow! That guy was right!” (This time, anyway...)

If I say instead, “If X, then Y, but if not X, then Z,” you can follow along with that during the game. It helps us perceive the unfolding drama, the contest of styles, the battlefield on which the contest is fought, and who’s really getting the inside track towards the win.

If you did read that Denver piece before Game 7, you probably didn’t panic when the Nuggets rushed out to a strong first quarter. That was natural. The real decisive moments came after the Big Surge, as Denver’s big men faded while Portland’s guards advanced.

When the Nuggets’ lead was down to 9 at the half, you knew that Portland had them in decent position despite the ugly scoreboard. When the game got tight in the fourth, you knew Denver would go through Nikola Jokic, and that if he tried to iso his way to victory, it was going to work out decently for Portland. Watching him go 3-10 in the fourth quarter justified that assertion. As these things happened, you recognized the landmarks and were able to anticipate where this was going.

That game also could have gone the opposite way. Denver could have stretched their lead to 25 at the half, causing Portland’s guards to hoist desperation shots through the final two quarters. Jokic would never end up with 10 field goal attempts in the fourth, Portland never would have made a real comeback, and Denver would have ended up playing the Warriors in Round 3. That wouldn’t have changed the value of the preview. You’d simply have been looking at a different set of landmarks.

Here’s a News Flash: Nobody can really predict the future.

Here’s another: Prognostications don’t make anything happen in real life. The real money comes in understanding the steps of the process, being able to identify what’s happening out there and who it favors.

In the end, prognostications aren’t about anybody but the prognosticator and whatever entertainment/media entity is trying to profit off of them. This is part of why I dislike them (besides the chicanery inherent in pretending you can do something you can’t). The game is supposed to be about the players and about the community, not about some dude trumpeting predictions, reminding us every time he guessed right but muttering into his sleeve and moving on when he guesses wrong.

If the Blazers win, that’s about them, their hard work and skill and execution. The victory had nothing to do with my prediction. They don’t exist to aggrandize me. Who the not-safe-for-BE-word am I, to make the game they play about my supposed smarts or clairvoyance? That’s minimizing and gross.

Even so, we should have empathy for those “Expert Dummies” at national networks that our second question cited, the ones who picked the “wrong” team and ended up with egg on their faces, and now appear to be doing it again with the Warriors.

Every national network has its share of talking heads who really do make it all about themselves. I don’t need to cite any; you already know their names. More power to them and their predictions! They must be entertaining somebody, as they’re making huge amount of money to do what they do.

Truthfully, though, few of the experts you see in those, “Who will win?” polls are self-aggrandizing entertainers. They’re analysts, smart and mostly-nice people with real expertise. But you’re only as good as the question put to you. And guess what? Nobody is asking about defensive schemes or head-to-head matchups. They ask a binary question about the eventual victor of a series before any games have actually been played. (Because any actual data would make the issue too obvious and about the game instead of us, right?)

Since that’s the case, why would you not predict the event that has the greater chance of happening? The only reason to do otherwise is if everybody else is going with the odds and you want to get a rub by going against them, looking like a genius if the longshot comes through.

The experience is something like being an expert on Texas Hold ‘em and being asked to predict the outcome of the river card between two players. Your expertise tells you that 8 cards are known, 44 unknown, and only 11 of those 44 give victory to Player A. The odds could be printed out right there at the bottom of the TV, but nobody’s asking you that question. Nobody’s asking you about how the hand developed, player strategy, or anything of the sort. They’re just asking who will win that hand.

Under those circumstances, if you’re being honest, why would you not say, “Player B will win” every time? 75% of the time, that will be true. That’s the most honest and accurate answer to the question. But that doesn’t mean Player B actually will win, nor that you were wrong (much less bereft of knowledge) if Player A gets his draw.

The fact that you didn’t say Player A—that you could never honestly say Player A under those circumstances—shows you actually do know something about the game. If the question were a little more detailed, you could also say that Player A will win the hand 25% of the time even though you’d always put your money on Player B. But they didn’t ask that. You’re forced to give one answer, completely free of nuance, with a minimum of information conveyed. You’re set up to look like a genius or an idiot, to be cheered or yelled at, and that’s the entire point.

I don’t think this dynamic is helpful or honest, which is why I do things the way I do. In this little corner of the world, we have influence over the medium and we’re free to ask any questions we find important.

I don’t know who will win the Blazers-Warriors series. Neither do you. It’d spoil the fun and completely marginalize the teams if we did.

I do know what we said in the preview to Game 1:

  • Golden State has a good defense, better than Denver’s in some ways.
  • Other than Kevin Durant playing, screen defense will be the most critical factor for the Blazers. They’ll need to adjust to the way Golden State uses screens.
  • Three-point shooting from the supporting cast also matters greatly.
  • Portland should be able to earn a rebounding advantage.
  • The Blazers need to win either Game 1 or Game 2.

We saw the Warriors’ defense on Tuesday night. The Blazers did not adjust well to screens. The supporting cast went 4-16 on three-pointers, but the issue went deeper. Portland’s forwards and centers missed plenty of easy shots as well, giving the Warriors a green light to train that defense directly against the starting guards whenever they pleased. This bred disaster, as Lillard and McCollum ended up 11-31. Portland rebounded well enough, but that wasn’t enough to make up the difference.

I couldn’t tell you that the Blazers would lose, but I could help you understand why they’d win or lose. That unfolded in front of our eyes in real time. The Blazers will need to address these same issues in Game 2. That’s not fortune-telling. That’s something we can all talk about and watch together, being a little disappointed if they can’t turn it around, feeling overjoyed and proud if they do, getting surprised and talking even more if they find a way to come out of left field with a factor we hadn’t anticipated being important.

That’s what the game is about. We’re not supposed to be geniuses or idiots. We’re supposed to be together, gathered around this thing that has potential to inspire us all and grow our community.

Game 2 tips Thursday evening at 6:00 PM, Pacific on ESPN.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com