Charles Babbage is one of the pioneers of modern-day computing. In the 1800s he came up with the idea for a computer when such a thing was a far-off pipe dream. And as often happens with explaining fancy new future technology, some of the questions he got were odd. One of my favorite quotes about this was:
On two occasions I have been asked, — “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
I think about this quote a lot when it comes to sports predictions. As fans of the Boxscore Geeks or Wages of Wins will know, I have slowly adopted Dave Berri’s distaste for preseason predictions, primarily as “proof” of anything. And one of the biggest issues I have is encapsulated in the Babbage quote above. You see, when it comes to preseason prognostications, one can put in the wrong inputs and get the “right” outputs.
For example, when we first started the Boxscore Geeks we took on the audacious task of projecting the entire NBA season. We included our projections for every player’s minutes and performance in the NBA and got a win estimate for every NBA team as a result. And here’s the thing, while that’s a fun exercise, it goes off the rails quickly. Let’s use the current NBA season as an example. Here’s a list of teams that had a significant change to their roster either via injury or player movement. The list is not all-inclusive.
- The Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward for the entire NBA season a mere one game into the season.
- The Chicago Bulls “stars” Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic got into a fight two days before the NBA season started. Mirotic missed two months with a broken jaw. Portis was out eight games with a suspension. Eventually, the Bulls traded Mirotic at the trade deadline.
- The Clevland Cavaliers did a complete overhaul of their roster at the trade deadline that saw Dwyane Wade, Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert leave and brought back George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. Additionally, Kevin Love is out six to eight weeks with a broken hand.
- The Denver Nuggets recently acquired thirty-million dollar a year man Paul Millsap went down in November and will be out until at least March!
- The Detroit Pistons had a blockbuster trade deadline trade for Blake Griffin.
- The Los Angeles Clippers traded away Blake Griffin at the trade deadline.
- The Los Angeles Lakers traded away Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson for Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas.
- The Memphis Grizzlies have lost Mike Conley for the season.
- The Milwaukee Bucks traded Greg Monroe for Eric Bledsoe a month into the season. Additionally, Malcolm Brogdon is out for six to eight weeks with a tendon injury. Jason Kidd was also fired midseason if you believe coaching matters.
- The New Orleans Pelicans have lost Demarcus Cousins for the season. They also acquired Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline.
- The New York Knicks have lost All-Star Kristaps Porzingis for the season with a knee injury.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost underrated guard Andre Roberson for the season.
- The Orlando Magic traded Elfrid Payton for a second-round pick at the trade deadline. Also, Aaron Gordon has almost missed twenty games with various injuries.
- The Philadelphia 76ers number one draft pick Markelle Fultz is out for the season (I believe.)
- The Phoenix Suns traded Eric Bledsoe for Greg Monroe. They have since waived Greg Monroe. They also acquired Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline.
- The Sacramento Kings traded away George Hill at the trade deadline.
- The San Antonio Spurs have been with Kawhi Leonard for most of the season, and his timetable to return is unknown.
- The Utah Jazz traded Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder and lost Thabo Sefolosha for the season.
- The Washington Wizards are without All-Star point guard John Wall for six to eight weeks for knee surgery.
I’ve left out unexpected changes in performance, surprising rookie performances, etc. Regardless, this season I count nineteen teams that due to either injury or trade had a significant difference to their roster from the start of the year. And that means whatever inputs any of us had for our projections to the NBA season are now entirely different from what’s going on now. Of course, many of us can be “right” in regards to the outcome at the end of the season. My example, for instance, is one could have predicted Boston would win over 55 games this season and credit Gordon Hayward. They are well on their way to that, but Hayward is not a direct factor.
If we’re honest with ourselves, the prediction we made to start the season was answering an entirely different question. And the critical part of this is that this season isn’t an outlier. Every NBA season there are severe injuries that impact teams. Teams are always allowed to trade and waive players. The NBA is huge in that one or two players can completely change how a team does. It doesn’t mean we should stop trying to predict what’s going to happen. We should just acknowledge that by the time the NBA season wraps up, what we thought to start the season has little to do with what the NBA looks like at the end.