A Summer of Black Swans?

Economists occasionally study a set of rare and unpredictable outcomes that significantly impact the world. A discovery like penicillin or the macroeconomic carnage of an earthquake cannot be predicted, and yet, they influence the world far more than any political agenda or organized campaign. They call these flukes of chance black swans in honor of the highly unusual birth of that animal (and no, Natalie Portman does not make any appearances below this paragraph, so I will understand if you stop reading here).

This NBA postseason was supposed to follow a script, and its later scenes very well may. But after several unexpectedly close games and a few upsets, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the 2011 championship will belong to a hardwood black swan.

This is not an overreaction to a couple of unlikely Game 1s in Los Angeles and San Antonio. This is the realization that for all of the talents that were taken to new cities and big markets pounding their freshly relevant chests, relatively little separates the 16 remaining teams.

Consider this hypothetical game. Let's say before the playoffs I offered you $1,000 for every playoff team you guaranteed would not win the title, but with the penalty that if one of your guarantees was wrong, you would owe me $100,000,000. In essence, I'm asking how many unlikely outcomes you are willing to write off as impossible for a small gain under the threat of losing everything for being wrong. The game is especially interesting when you recognize that one of the 16 options will definitely ruin you; call it NBA roulette.

Mathematically, you probably should stay silent. 100,000:1 is a lot of risk to accept for an event that, although unlikely, is more probable than .001%. But let's live a little.

In the East, we probably would not have lost sleep over Indiana or Philadelphia defying the odds. Both teams seem to have benefitted from the simple fact that the NBA playoffs require eight teams per conference. But beyond them, is anyone else worth writing off? Clearly, Miami and Chicago are contenders, and while Boston, New York, and Orlando are flawed, it does not take Stephen King to envision a plot that leads to a championship for any of them. What about Atlanta? Nothing the Hawks have done reminds me of the 1998 Bulls, but there is enough talent on the roster to win into June. I would not put them on my list, but it's your $100,000,000 we are playing with.

The West is even more open. I probably would have written off Memphis (and still would), but none of the other seven teams seem completely incapable of winning four series. Maybe I am risk-aversely creative when I see Chris Paul holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but it could happen.

This might be the point where you scoff and say, "Sure, anything could happen," and I would readily agree. The beauty of studying and discussing probability is that there is always another universe where things turned out differently. When we speak in terms of "most likelies," it includes the implied hedge that we recognize other outcomes, rare as some may be. But too often, sports fans and media see outcomes as pre-ordained because they do not consider the range of probability. We write narratives to pretend as though the answer was always out there if we knew where to look. But in reality, the outcomes are always in doubt. Even the heaviest favorite has to show up and take care of business, odds be damned.

Very likely, an expected team like Miami or Chicago will emerge as the NBA's champion in June. As memory of the season fades, we will attribute too much of it to the Summer of 2010, Tim Duncan getting enough rest, or the Lakers "knowing what it takes" to win. But even if we have a chalk-champion, remember that it did not have to be that way. The black swans are always out there; we just forget about them until they shock the world.

Corrie Trouw is the founder of Pigskinology.com.

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