Today marked the reveal of ESPN.com's Western Conference Standings Forecast. According to these predictions, Dallas will finish 9th in the West with a record of 39-43.
Before we put on our collective outrage hats and storm the gates of the internet, let me explain a few things. For anyone who doesn't know, I also write for an ESPN affiliated blog (you can find out which one easily enough). A side perk of this is getting to participate in these sorts of forecasts. In the introduction to these rankings, they note that they "surveyed our ESPN Forecast Panel" and provide a link. Combine the fact that most people don't click the link and that the word 'panel' implies 5-6 people, it's easy to get annoyed with these rankings. If you do click the link, you notice that the 'panel' is actually about 150-200 people from various ESPN sites, all of them NBA related.
This isn't five people casually agreeing that the Mavericks are going to be subpar. Instead, this means as many as 200 people were sent out a survey, asking them to fill in the records for every team in the Western Conference. Then those records were averaged, and the result is the Forecast Rankings we see from the link above.
There's something to be said about the wisdom of crowds. In fact, James Surowiecki wrote an entire book about the phenomenon which you can check out here.
Let me give you an example. Every year, my office has a contest around Halloween to guess how many jelly beans are in a particular jar and the top three guessers get a prize. Some people guess too high, others guess way too low. If you put all these guesses together and average them out, the average guess is actually shockingly close to what the real number is. Obviously the number of people guessing matters, which means that three people guessing doesn't mean much, but if you have 300 people? It's going to be very close, and Surowiecki's book has the data to back this up.
Bringing it back to basketball, that is why these rankings can't be casually brushed aside. These are 200 people who consume basketball day and night. Instead of paying attention to the predicted Mavericks record of 39-43, focus on the 9th place finish. This is very interesting. We here at Mavs Moneyball generally feel that Dallas is being overlooked by the national media. What a 9th place finish tells me is that 200 people who love and follow basketball religiously actually think Dallas is going to be in the mix for these final few playoff spots. Looking over the rankings more closely, the difference between the predicted 7th place Nuggets and 11th place Pelicans is a mere 6 games. The difference between the 8th and 12th place team is four games.
It doesn't really get talked about in the game to game narrative, but think about how many games are actually the result of chance. Last year 11 out of 82 games played by Dallas resulted in an over time, where they went 3-8. Ignoring for the moment how insane it is to play 1/8th of your schedule into over time (that's nearly a full game extra), if the Mavericks went 7-4 in those games, they make the playoffs. A bounce here, a bounce there, and the world is different.
I think Dallas goes 43-39 and still fails to make the playoffs (the Lakers and Rockets each had 45 wins as 7 and 8 seeds last season). The win total needed to make the playoffs in the West is tough, to the point where I think 46-48 wins might be needed just to get the 8th seed.
I'd love to see the Mavericks make the playoffs, obviously, but it's very, very easy to read too much into what these sorts of things mean. I think it means that nationally, the Mavericks are thought of better than we realize. The difference between a few wins and losses is basically a coin flip.