The Biggest Flaw in John Hollinger’s ESPN NBA Power Rankings

If you’re an average NBA fan you probably don’t have a clue who John Hollinger is. You probably haven’t ever seen his Power Rankings on either. Rest assured, you’re not missing much. It’s flawed at its core for one reason: it’s completely objective.

In everyday  conversations, most people would probably say that being completely objective is a good thing. But the reality is that a little bit of subjectivity is actually essential. In sports this is especially true.

There’s only one stat in sports where being completely objective works: wins (unless you’re talking about NCAA Division I Football, in which wins become subjective). The beauty of sports championships is that you can’t argue who the best team is once the season is over. Whoever won the title is best. Period. Even if that championship team hit a late hot streak and someone tries to say that “the best team didn’t win,” it doesn’t matter. A win is a win and a championship is a championship. There is no award for a team who was actually better than the team that won.

What Hollinger has done is created a ranking system in which the rank of a team isn’t affected at all by its wins. It’s not even factored into the equation. The only stat that he cares about is scoring margin. Whichever team outscores its opponents the most moves up the rankings. If a team only squeaks by in its wins they move down.

This is how he puts it. “One of my goals was to create a system that told us more about a team’s quality than the standings do. So instead of winning percentage, these rankings use points scored and points allowed, which are better indicators of a team’s quality than wins and losses.”

As I’ve blogged before, there is a problem with this system. It tricks up wins. The BCS has even dropped this stat from their ranking system, but Hollinger and ESPN are sticking with it. The reason there’s a big problem with using just this stat to determine the rank of a team, especially the way he has it set up, is that a team could go undefeated throughout the season and still be ranked last. Here’s why.

Hollinger’s formula is posted on ESPN’s site as this:

RATING = (((SOS-0.5)/0.037)*0.67) + (((SOSL10-0.5)/0.037)*0.33) + 100 + (0.67*(MARG+(((ROAD-HOME)*3.5)/(GAMES))) + (0.33*(MARGL10+(((ROAD10-HOME10)*3.5)/(10)))))

This probably makes no sense, so let me explain. There are two things he has done. First, he’s weighted home wins as meaning less than road wins. How he was done this is by setting it up to where if the home team wins by three points or less that win actually would negatively impact their rank. Second, he’s weighted the most recent 25% of the season’s games at 1/3 of the total value. This second part makes sense, but the home performance factor is still there, so in a sense the least valuable thing a team can do to move up in the Power Rankings is win at home.

The reason I’m pointing this out now is that the Mavericks are the best example of why this system is broken. As of this writing, the Dallas Mavericks are ranked 13th in his Power Rankings. That’s right, 12 other teams are considered to be better than the Mavs, who have rattled off ten consecutive wins (the tenth win hasn’t been factored in yet, though, since the rankings are updated each morning).

Here are the teams currently ranked above Dallas. 1) Cavs; 2) Magic; 3) Lakers; 4) Jazz; 5) Suns; 6) Nuggets; 7) Hawks; 8) Spurs; 9) Thunder; 10) Celtics; 11) Trail Blazers; and 12) Bucks. I don’t really have an issue with the top 4 being ahead of the Mavs, but the Bucks…really? Also, didn’t the Mavs just beat a lot of these teams in the past month? (They did).

I’m not going to make a case yet that the Mavs are true title contenders this year, but I do know that they’re not near the bottom half of the league in regards to how good they are. After all, they do have the fourth best record in the league.

But with Hollinger, wins don’t really matter that much.

What do you think about his rankings?

Basketball goal image by flickr user Baffle.