How much will luck play a factor in the playoffs?
(Photo by Andrew Snook)
How much will luck play a factor in the playoffs? (Photo by Andrew Snook)

Who's lucky? And which WNBA teams are really good?

September 11, 2012 - 1:32pm

We all know luck plays a role – maybe a big role – in sports, and life, for that matter. But thanks to baseball stat wizard Bill James, it’s become a lot easier to determine just which teams are the luckiest in any given season.

James calls it the Pythagorean method, because he found he could approximate what a team’s expected winning percentage should be by creating a formula that involved squaring runs scored and runs allowed. The method also applies to other sports, though with modifications, and it’s based not just on some mathematical whim but by comparing past results to, in the WNBA’s case, points scored and points allowed.

With that lengthy preamble out of the way, we can look at the luckiest, and unluckiest, teams in the league based on how they’re performed in the win-loss column as opposed to the points scored-points allowed category.

But why do this, aside from pointing out the cruel vagaries of fate with which we are all too familiar? One thing is that over time, luck tends to even out. It doesn’t always, but as we head into the playoffs, teams that have overperformed – that is, won more games than their points scored and points allowed suggest they should have – are more likely to regress to the mean than the teams that haven’t been quite as lucky. Or, to put it another way, when some teams stumble in postseason, it may just be the law of averages having its say.

Let’s take the East first, and though the official standings have Connecticut in first place, the numbers say the Sun should actually have 19 wins rather than 21 – and that Indiana should have 20 instead of 19. In short, the Fever are really the better team, according to this stat, and should be the Eastern favorite.

At the other end of the Eastern playoff spectrum, New York’s luck is pretty much off the chart. The Pythagorean formula suggests the Liberty should actually have slightly fewer than eight wins – and they actually have 12. Meanwhile, Chicago is one behind projections, with 11 wins, and could be a bigger postseason threat.

(One major caveat: The Pythagorean formula is usually used after a complete season, when all teams have played all games. As I write this, New York has two games left against Tulsa and two against Washington, which could alter the Liberty’s points scored and points allowed enough to significantly impact the formula. But still …)

In the West, L.A. haters will be pleased to know the Sparks have been a little unlucky (should have 21 wins instead of 20), but San Antonio fans really can be depressed. The Silver Stars should be in second place, with 23 wins, instead of trailing the Sparks by a game in the loss column, and in danger of losing first-round home-court advantage.

The luckiest team in the West, though, has been Phoenix, which is three wins above projection, while Tulsa, Seattle and Minnesota are right around where they should be.

So in postseason, the numbers say San Antonio and Atlanta (2.5 games below what the formula predicts) are the most likely to surprise, while Connecticut and New York, should the Liberty make it, are the most likely to disappoint.

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On the court, New York has a major advantage over Chicago in the only battle for a playoff spot. As mentioned, the Liberty play 6-22 Tulsa twice, and 5-24 Washington twice.

Chicago, on the other hand, has Minnesota and Atlanta at home, sandwiched around a brutal three-game Western road swing: L.A., Phoenix and Seattle.

For the Sky to get past the Liberty, they need New York to lose one to Washington, and they must beat both Atlanta and Washington – as well as win one more of the remaining five games than New York (so if the Liberty go 3-2, Chicago must go 4-1).

With Sylvia Fowles and Ticha Penicheiro both hurting, the picture does not look bright for the Sky, especially after New York’s upset win over L.A. Sunday.

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ESPN is going to televise the draft lottery Sept. 26, which is good news all around. After all, why wait? And this way, teams will know what they’re looking at, and what they’re looking for.

And just for the record, here’s hoping that Tulsa gets one of the top two picks. The Shock have done good work this summer under Gary Kloppenburg, and deserve a break in the lottery – especially since Liz Cambage is pretty clearly a 6-8 flake who cannot be counted on. If she matures, great, but Brittney Griner or Elena Delle Donne are difference-makers whether or not Cambage can catch a plane from Australia in time for the 2013 season.