Who Will Win the Big Game? Characteristics That Can Determine the NBA & NHL Champions


The 2009-2010 N.B.A. Finals and N.H.L. Stanley Cup Finals are under way. What factors ultimately determine championships? What characteristics might help decide which team will win the ultimate prize? Sports fans might be interested in this article’s sports analytics. Sports organizations and executives might be interested in learning more about our research projects and how we can help teams optimize their chances of winning.

After analyzing the championship games or series of the N.F.L., N.B.A., Major League Baseball and N.H.L., and the major finals in golf and tennis, we identified 50 championships characteristics in our book, “Who Will Win the Big Game? A Psychological and Mathematical Method.” Based on similar research, we focused on several championship characteristics that might help predict the winner of the N.H.L. and N.B.A. Finals.

In this article, we focus on dynamics such as leadership, defense, and consistency. These factors are particularly interesting to this year’s finals – and apply to every major sport we have studied.


Leadership, both behind the bench, and on the playing field, have proven to be statistically significant in their relationship to winning championships. Our research has shown that there are certain coaches who have the ability to motivate their teams to greatness. There are more coaches such as the Lakers’ Phil Jackson, and superior records in finals appearance, than a random mathematical model would predict. Phil Jackson is 10-2 in N.B.A. Finals as a coach. Other examples include Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Chuck Knoll, Bobby Bowden, Scotty Bowman, and Al Arbour – all are coaches with well-above.500 records in finals appearances.

Leadership on the court is also key. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better offensive star, measured by points per game has gone 14-6 (70.0%) in N.B.A. Championships. This factor favors the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, with his 27.0 points per game average during the season.

Similarly, hockey teams with better offensive leadership have gone 19-11 (63.3%) in Stanley Cup Finals over the past 30 years, as measured by points scored. This factor favors the Black Hawks, and Patrick Kane (88 points) over the Flyers and Mike Richards (62 points).


In just about every sport we have studied, defense does truly win championships. Our research has shown this to be true in the Super Bowl as well as the World Series. This maxim proves to be true in the Stanley Cup Finals and N.B.A. Championships as well. Over the past 30 years, the hockey team with the better goalie save percentage has gone 18-11 (62.2%). Over recent years, since the high-scoring period of the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s, hockey defense has been an even stronger dynamic. Teams with the better save percentage have gone:

• 3-0 over the last 4 years (teams had the same save percentage one year),

• 6-1 over the last 8 years,

• and 13-4 over the last 18 years.

This factor favors the Philadelphia Flyers with their.907 save percentage versus the Chicago Black Hawks and their.903 save percentage.

Defense also helps basketball teams win championships. We note that on average, defensive factors are more highly-correlated to winning championships than offensive factors. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better defense, as measured by points against per game, has gone 13-7 (65.0%) in N.B.A. Championships. This factor favors the Celtics (95.6 points against per game) this season. The Lakers gave up 97.0 points per game during the regular season.

Consistency Factors

Another key to winning is consistency. It is interesting that this type of “consistency factor” is typically related to “less exciting heroics” than most sports fans would expect. For example, in baseball, our research shows that batting average is more correlated to winning World Series than home runs.

Similarly, in N.B.A. Finals, field goal percentage is more important than three-point shooting percentage. Over the past 20 years, the team with the better field goal percentage has gone 12-7 (63.2%) in professional basketball championship series. This factor favors the Celtics this year, with their 48.3% FG % versus the Lakers’ 45.7%.

Championship Factors and 2010 Finals

So who will win the Stanley Cup Finals? The #2 seed Black Hawks are heavy favorites over the #7 seeded Flyers (about 2.5-1 favorites), but the Flyers certainly have the leadership on the bench and between the goalposts to make a series of it.

The N.B.A. Finals present an interesting dilemma. The leadership factors point to the Lakers (coaching and star leadership), but the other factors (defense and consistency) favor the Celtics.

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