Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Gambling Odessey

  The NBA season ended Sunday with the Cleveland Cavaliers winning Game 7 of the NBA Finals to cap a comeback from a 3-1 hole against the Golden State Warriors team that set the regular season record at 73-9. This was Cleveland’s first major sports championship since 1964 and the basketball podcasts I listen to have changed their discussions from whether the Warriors are a dynasty to whether LeBron James is the greatest player of all time given his supreme performance in the final three games of the Finals. While James is the greatest player of his generation I rate him behind Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Julius Erving on the greatest player of all time lists. If you are wondering why Erving is on this list I can only assume that you never saw him when he played for the Virginia Squires and New York Nets of the ABA.

  Does the Warriors’ failure to win the championship invalidate their record breaking regular season and remove them from the conversation as the greatest team of all time? To my mind it does. How can a team that didn't win the championship be considered an all-time great team? The Warriors’ season will take the place of the 1996 Chicago Bulls when NBA discussion turns to great regular seasons much like the Patriots 2007 season that saw an 18-0 regular season end in a Super Bowl defeat has supplanted the 1972 Miami Dolphins undefeated season that DID end in a Super Bowl victory as the comparison of choice when an NFL team threatens to go undefeated. I’m not sure that the Warriors weren’t a better team than the Cavaliers but I am sure that after the first two games of the series (both Warrior wins) the Cavaliers outworked the Warriors. The Warriors made lazy passes, half-hearted efforts to get rebounds, and slacked off getting back on defense. In the last few minutes of the final game while Kevin Love was bodying up on Stephen Curry and LeBron James was racing back 50 feet on a full sprint to block a layup, Curry made a crazy behind the back pass out of bounds and then couldn’t stay with Kyrie Irving on a go ahead three. Warriors center Draymond Green gave a great effort in Game 7 but cost the team dearly by getting suspended for game 5 when he slapped LeBron James in the groin in the last seconds of a won game. It looked like the Warriors 3 point shooting would bail them out but they went cold for long stretches in the series and when their shots aren’t falling they look like an undisciplined mess of a team. Stephen Curry will have to learn like all the great players do that when points are at a premium the star players have to head to the rim, get contact, and get to the free throw line. It will be interesting to see how the Warriors respond now that they have changed in the media’s perception from a group of whiz kids to a group of groin punching whiny players.

After a strong start, my basketball picks went south and left me scrambling to get into the black money wise while my winning percentage stayed between 50 and 52 percent.

  I had previously written about the process of updating my 30 year old basketball prediction program to the 21st century. I completed my programming over the summer and as the season started I assembled the scores and point spreads daily into my database. I used a starter formula that led to promising early results but as the season went on the formula’s performance deteriorated and despite my best efforts I could not find a reliable formula that would work for the three seasons of data I had.

   After a handful of NBA predictions in this Broken Pawn Blog I moved my predictions to its own blog ( Since I has no reliable prediction formula, I just made the best picks I could and once my predictions were on its own blog I made predictions every day there were games on the schedule including making a pick for every single playoff game.

  My picks weren’t awful but they weren’t great either. All told my record was 168 wins, 158 losses, and 3 pushes which was enough to lose me $600 based on making a $100 bet on each game which means $110 per loss (the extra $10 being the 'vigorish' or betting cost. I has two bets of $200 that came through and I lost a $300 bet on the Warriors to win the Finals game 7 which would have pulled me to a $30 profit if Golden State had won and covered.

  My high point was a month into the season when I was up $960 on a 14-4 record. A month later I was down $480. A hot streak in January brought me to a plus $370 and a week later I had lost 5 straight and back in the red. My nadir was on April 18th when I was down $1260 but I rebounded to go 37-22 over the next month to get back to plus $20 on May 19th. After that I hit another down patch and spent the rest of the season in the minus column scrambling to get back to the plus side of the ledger.

  It would have been great to have won my last bet of the year to finish in the black but at least I put myself in a position to be on the plus side on the last game of the year. Making 153 blog posts from December 26th to June 19th every day was exhausting. It took a lot of self-control not to take my picks personally especially when I would lose because of a missed free throw or meaningless last second shot to let a team that I picked to lose by 10 points only lose by 9. Now that I’ve had a week to reflect on publishing NBA predictions for a full season I believe it is something I want to continue when the season starts up again in late October. I hit on 51.2% of my picks which is perilously close to blind luck and also just a 2.5% improvement away from the magical 52.4% break even mark.

  How can I get that 2.5% improvement? The easy solution would be to get my basketball prediction program working and I will be working on that possibly quixotic endeavor over the summer. But even if I can’t get a programmatic answer there are a few small changes I can make to improve my results. One change will be to not pick games every single day unless I see a game I want to pick. I was so fixated on providing content every day there were games on the schedule I would occasionally 'reach' for games. Another change will be to stop publishing my picks at 5am. Instead I will spend some time considering my picks and publish them in the afternoon or early evening. While I’m trying to fix my prediction program I will spend some time seeing what bets I was the most successful at. I like to pick favorites and I love to pick home favorites playing a teams that played the night before. I don’t know if I did better or worse with these bets compared to my overall bets. Finding out how good my instincts are has to be useful.

  The biggest change I have planned for next year has nothing to do with improving my results. I will pick an online betting service (as long as they are still legal in Iowa) and make bets with real money. I’m planning on betting $10 a game instead of a mythical $100 a game which would have given me a $60 loss for this year. I got a few donations from my NBA prediction blog – not $60 worth but if I am betting real money with real screen shots to prove it I would expect to get more donations even if it is from readers that profit from picking the opposite of my predictions. Making picks with play money gave entertainment value but afforded a certain lack of self discipline that led to me reaching for picks to break losing streaks and make a pick every day. Just like an overweight person doesn't suddenly lose weight by purchaseing smaller clothes I doubt think betting real money will suddenly give me more self-discipline in my betting but combined with the mindfulness of my other changes it is worth the gamble.