Simulating the Finals

Dateline: 06/01/97

In science, there are simulations of the future and there are best predictions of the future. They are not necessarily the same. A simulation gives one possible version of reality, even if it is an unlikely version. A best prediction may have some flaws if you try to compare the details, but ultimately should provide the bottom line on who -- in the case of basketball -- is most likely to win.

MSNBC simulated the NBA Finals using software from Lance Haffner Games. I am unsure what the simulation is based upon, which always makes me distrust it. But its result for the Finals is reasonable: Bulls in six games. This is in contrast to its prior playoff simulation having the Utah Jazz beating the New York Knicks in the Finals, a page that MSNBC suspiciously seems to have taken off its site. As I mentioned above, however, this was a simulation, which is a possible version of reality, not necessarily a likely one. For some reason, their software simulated Patrick Ewing not getting a suspension and Michael Jordan playing 46 holes of golf before every game.

In order to demonstrate how basketball simulations can vary and what a best estimate of the Finals is like, I asked Bob Chaikin, a consultant for the Miami Heat and developer of the basketball simulation software B-Ball, to do both a simulation and an estimate of what might happen between the Bulls and the Jazz. Below are his results, followed by my explanation of his work.

Dean -

I ran some analyses for the finals using the B-BALL software. First, using substitution patterns based on the minutes already played by both the Bulls and Jazz players in their respective playoff games (13 for Chicago and 14 for Utah), I played 10,000 computer simulated games between the two teams, the Bulls winning 59% of them. The results are as follows:

Average score per game:  Bulls 99.0 - Jazz 95.3

Some average per game stats:

          MIN  PTS  REB  AST
longley    23    9    5
rodman     29    4   11
pippen     38   19    6
jordan     42   29    6    4
harper     27    7    3    3
b.williams 17    7    4
caffey     12    5
kukoc      22   11
buechler    8    2
kerr       17    5
r.brown     4    1
parish      1    0

          MIN  PTS  REB  AST
ostertag   23    7    7
malone     41   28   10    4
russell    38   11    5    2
hornacek   36   15    3    4
stockton   37   14    3   10
carr       16    6
foster     15    5
morris      8    0
anderson   15    5
eisley     11    4
keefe       2    0
howard      1    0

         CHI   UTA
fgm       38    35
fga       85    76
3pm        6     4
3pa       17    10
ftm       17    21
fta       23    27
oreb      16    10
dreb      29    29
treb      45    39
ast       25    24
pf        24    22
st         9    10
to        14    15
bs         4     5
pts     99.0  95.3

I then played the championship series manually. Needless to say it didn't last very long - just 5 games in favor of the Bulls. Here are the results.

Computer simulation of the upcoming 1996-97 Championship Series:

Game 1 - in CHI
         1   2   3   4
Jazz    20  15  22  18 -  75
Bulls   30  27  22  34 - 113

Chicago blitzed Utah in the series opener by a whopping 38 points as they held the Jazz to just 35% shooting. Michael went on a roll for 41 points as he connected on 15/27 shots, including 5/8 on 3pters. Scottie Pippen added 26 as he hit on 9/14 from the floor and didn't miss any of his 7 FTA. Dennis Rodman behaved himself all game and despite scoring just 2 points pulled in a game high 14 rebounds in addition to hounding Karl Malone non-stop, holding him to just 23 points on only 9/23 shooting. John Stockton was a non-factor as his line for the day read 4 pts, 7 asts, and 4 to's.

The Bulls marched out to a 22 point halftime lead at 57-35 and never looked back. They outrebounded the Jazz by 14, 54-40, and committed just 9 turnovers all day compared to 15 for Utah. Even with the big lead going into the last period the Bulls still weren't content and proceeded to blast the Jazz out of the 4th quarter by outscoring them 34-18. A key factor for the Bulls was their suffocating defense all game long and their coming up with 12 steals on the day.

The Jazz starters hit just 21/56 shots for just 38%, and their bench was even worse with only 8/26 for 31%. Utah off guard Jeff Hornacek was the only other Jazz player in double figures as he went for 18 points.

       FGM  FGA  3PM  3PA  FTM  FTA
JAZZ    29   82    2   11   15   20
BULLS   39   84    8   21   27   32

       ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  PF  ST  TO  BS  PTS
JAZZ    13   27   40   22  27   8  15   4   75
BULLS   16   38   54   29  20  12   9   5  113

Game 2 - in CHI
         1   2   3   4
Jazz    20  27  28  29 - 104
Bulls   32  21  24  28 - 105

At the end of the first quarter it looked like it might be another big blowout for the Bulls as they sprinted out to a 12 point lead. But after that they were outscored in every quarter for the remainder of the game as the Jazz kept inching closer and closer, tying the game several times in the second half but never able to take the lead in this close dogfight. A driving layup by Toni Kukoc with just seven seconds left in the game put the Bulls up by four, and consequently a last second three pointer by Bryon Russell had no effect on the outcome of the game.

This game saw 35 fouls called on Chicago as Luc Longley, Scottie Pippen, and even His Airness, Michael Jordan, all fouled out (Pippen and Jordan in the last two minutes of the game). Utah attempted 46 free throws in the game to just 20 for Chicago. The Bulls were once again led by Jordan with 33 points, and Toni Kukoc came off the bench to contribute 20 points, including several key baskets in the 4th quarter. Only one other Bull was in double figures - Scottie Pippen with 14 points.

League MVP Karl Malone was the show for the Jazz as he bumped and shoved his way to a team high 32 points and grabbed a team and game best 13 rebounds. The Jazz reversed their poor shooting of Game 1 to connect on 53% of their attempts, but it just wasn't enough as they were once again outrebounded and turned the ball over more than their opponents. A major key in their loss was their shooting of just 67% from the free throw stripe (31/46). No other Jazz player managed as many as 20 points in the game.

       FGM  FGA  3PM  3PA  FTM  FTA
JAZZ    35   66    3    9   31   46
BULLS   43   87    6   14   13   20

       ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  PF  ST  TO  BS  PTS
JAZZ     9   25   34   24  21  10  17   8  104
BULLS   16   26   42   28  35  11  13   4  105

Game 3 - in UTA
         1   2   3   4
Bulls   25  24  12  29 -  90
Jazz    22  27  27  21 -  97

Game 3 saw the Jazz reduce the Bulls lead in the series to 2 games to 1 as they pounded out a 97-90 triumph. Karl Malone canned 29 points in the contest and fouled Dennis Rodman out of the game, while John Stockton, despite being held scoreless (he took only four shots all game), dished out 12 assists. Jeff Hornacek added 18 points and Bryon Russell 14 while center Greg Ostertag had a game high 12 boards. Shandon Anderson managed 15 points in just 16 minutes of floor time.

The Jazz blew the game open in the 3rd quarter as they held the Bulls to just 12 points in the period to jump out to a 15 point lead entering the final frame, and held on by hitting every one of their 14 free throws in the last quarter. The Bulls two stars, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, were superb as His Airness canned a game high 33 points while Pippen tossed in 20 points to go with 8 assists, but Chicago, as a team, shot a dismal 3/21 from the three point circle in the game. Toni Kukoc got minutes after Rodman's departure but could score just 6 points on horrible 2/12 shooting.

       FGM  FGA  3PM  3PA  FTM  FTA
BULLS   37   81    3   21   13   19
JAZZ    31   66    5   13   30   34

       ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  PF  ST  TO  BS  PTS
BULLS   11   25   36   25  27  12  13   2   90
JAZZ     6   33   39   22  17   9  19   7   97

Game 4 - in UTA
         1   2   3   4
Bulls   31  21  32  26 - 110
Jazz    21  24  23  28 -  96

Everyone was waiting for Michael to light it up, especially after Utah had narrowed the series margin to just one game in Game 3, and he certainly didn't disappoint the millions watching the series on TV. But what the fans actually saw was a slugfest between the game's two best players, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Malone may have been this year's MVP, but Jordan left little doubt in the fans' eyes as to who was the best player in the game - at both ends of the floor.

Jordan went for 42 points and drove to the hoop non-stop like he hadn't done since his early days in the league. After a few monster dunks, the Jazz decided it was best just to foul him and His Airness responded by connecting on 16/17 free throws. Karl Malone was just as unstoppable as he kept pace with Jordan all game long by firing in 38 points, but the Jazz, down by 16 going into the final period, could never get that lead down to single digits. Malone hauled down a Jazz best 11 rebounds, but Jordan not only matched that but also held Jazz sharpshooter Jeff Hornacek, who has averaged just under 18 pts/g in the first three games, to just 10 points on 5/16 shooting.

Dennis Rodman didn't take a single shot all game but did pull down a game high 13 rebounds, 8 at the offensive end of the floor, and played great interior defense in the second half. Scottie Pippen dropped in just 16 points, but pilfered 5 steals and Toni Kukoc canned 20 points, 12 in the Bulls decisive 3rd quarter run. The Bulls attempted 13 more free throws than the Jazz did and outrebounded them by 8 boards. John Stockton had his best game of the series statistically with 21 points and 10 assists, but by the middle of the 4th quarter it looked like the Bulls were just coasting.

       FGM  FGA  3PM  3PA  FTM  FTA
BULLS   37   85    7   20   29   37
JAZZ    38   78    2    6   18   24

       ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  PF  ST  TO  BS  PTS
BULLS   18   29   47   22  22  11  12   6  110
JAZZ    10   29   39   26  26  11  13   6   96

Game 5 - in UTA
         1   2   3   4
Bulls   33  24  28  18 - 103
Jazz    25  20  28  20 -  93

Trailing 3 games to 1, Utah made a valiant run to stave off the Bulls, but Chicago went on to capture their 5th world championship in just seven seasons, the best run the league had seen since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s. There was no denying Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

His Airness once again thwarted any hopes of anyone other than the Bulls claiming the league crown as he ripped Utah for 40 points on 12/21 shooting (4/10 3pters) and 12/15 free throws. Although he had just 14 points at halftime, Jordan scored over half of the Bulls second half points (26 in all) to clinch the title for Chicago. The Bulls maintained a double digit lead for most of the second half as four other Bulls managed double figures, but no one with more than 15 other than Jordan.

Karl Malone was the scoring star for the Jazz as he finished with 30 points, and guards John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek contributed 18 and 15 points respectively. But it wasn't enough to offset the stellar performance by the league's scoring champion. Although Chicago shot just 43% from the floor for the game, they canned 86% of their free throws compared to just 65% from the charity stripe for the Utah Jazz.

For the series Jordan averaged an amazing 37.8 pts/g and easily captured the Championship MVP trophy. For the Jazz Karl Malone averaged 30.4 pts/g in the five games.

       FGM  FGA  3PM  3PA  FTM  FTA
BULLS   33   76    6   20   31   36
JAZZ    37   78    6   12   13   20

       ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  PF  ST  TO  BS  PTS
BULLS   13   32   45   27  20   7  11   9  103
JAZZ     8   32   40   26  29   8  14   5   93
Bob Chaikin,

My Purpose in Presenting This

One of the main reasons for presenting this information is entertainment. It's always amazing to me that we can take raw numbers that an inanimate computer can simulate and create a story out of it. Sure, Bob didn't add anything about golf or Marv Albert or Jud Buechler, as my overly active imagination would have, but he tells a good and believable story. In fact, that is one of the principal benefits of simulation -- the one possible version of reality, with all its fun details.

The other reason for doing this is as an evaluation of his simulation technique. The principles behind his method are quite simple, but not simplistic. We have statistics determining how often a player makes a shot if he tries and the relative number of assists to turnovers, but how often does a player try to shoot or try to pass? Bob has looked at this and accounts for it in his work. I will let him explain:

A player can basically do one of four things with the ball - shoot, pass, get fouled, and/or turn it over. Divide the total of those by a player's minutes and you get what I call a player's "possession factor". No magic here. Determining passes is based on my research (I watched over 1000 games from 1989-1992) when I charted things like passes and possessions for every player in every game that I watched - things that I had never known to be kept track of before (believe me - I got very tired of taping games and playing with the remote stopping and starting games to count these things).

His method does not really simulate every pass or every dribble, but it accounts for them in some bulk way. It has worked well enough to earn him consulting positions with the New Jersey Nets and the Miami Heat.

As opposed to the entertaining simulation, it is his 10,000 game simulation which gives us a better idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two teams. The 59% winning percentage for the Bulls is almost exactly what I estimate for neutral court games. He also simulates both team shooting relatively worse in the Finals than normal. If I were sitting on the sideline of the Jazz, I would certainly ask him why that is simulated and how we could figure out how to use this to beat the Bulls....

My Own Contribution

Using a much simpler technique than Bob's computer program, I see the most likely outcome being the Bulls winning in seven games, followed by the Bulls winning in six games:

Overall Four Games Five Games Six Games Seven Games
1. Chicago 76% 3% 5% 28% 41%
1. Utah 24% 1% 2% 6% 6%