This week was filled with non-stop talk about Michael Jordan versus LeBron James. The King became the first NBA player in history to score 30-plus and shoot 60-plus percent in six straight games as Jordan’s 50th birthday approached – and radio producers across the country embraced a topic that could fill hours of February show time.
MJ’s supporters held six fingers in the air (one for each NBA Title). The more creative ones could have turned five of those fingers into a fist, leaving one representing LJ’s single title (and yes, the more adamant could have pepper-punched that one finger with the fist).
Jordan played at 6-feet-6 and 220 pounds, James at 6-8, 270. By most accounts LeBron is faster and handles the ball better. The “measurables” are not even close. Even so, the consensus opinion is LeBron’s lucky to even be in the conversation!
Why? One obvious answer is nostalgia in the media. The 40-somethings who grew up wanting “to be like Mike” are now the radio hosts. (Readers old enough will recall Bob Costas waxing romantically about his boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle).
Our first takeaway for sports bettors is that talk radio’s “chattering class” has its own biases. In a 24-hour news cycle world you have to be careful not to let those biases distort your handicapping.
As for MJ’s six titles, one of the biggest daily challenges for a sports bettor is deciding which numbers matter. Over-emphasizing small streaks is an epidemic among a majority of sports bettors. The fact is, most trends bettors consider are nothing more than random variance.
So, are Jordan’s six wins over six teams in the title round any different than six straight “reds” on a roulette wheel? Not likely at 64/1, but certainly not immortal like MJ’s reputation.
Many will point to Jordan’s will-to-win and other such intangibles. “You can’t measure heart” they say (not surprisingly this is often said by people who are underdogs in the area of “measurables” themselves).
If you can’t measure heart, and the actual results are a small sample size that very well could be random, we are seemingly left with nothing tangible to build our belief systems upon.
So we grasp for consistency: “Cognitive dissonance” is the discomfort when holding conflicting ideas. People have a motivation to reduce internal conflict. A majority of NFL fans were pessimistic about Tim Tebow’s prospects in the pros. So, when Tebow led the Broncos to six straight regular season wins, internal conflicts were reduced by chalking it up to luck.
As for Luck, Andrew was a quarterback savior who a majority of NFL fans were widely optimistic about. In 2012, Luck’s QB rating was worse than all but six qualified throwers. In 2011, Tebow’s rating was also worse than all but exactly six qualified throwers.
Reality is too complicated to be replicated perfectly by math models. Deep down, we all know there are meaningful factors beyond the numbers. Those “know it in my gut” factors are often distorted by the media’s bias and our personal cognitive dissonance.
Even the valid data-based factors are fuzzy from all the high school math classes we didn’t pay attention to. Oh, and we have to lay $11 to win $10. The life of a sports bettor.
RJ Bell is the founder of Pregame.com - and co-host of FIRST PREVIEW, heard Sunday through Friday night at 11 pm on ESPN 1100/98.9 FM. Follow on twitter: @RJinVegas. NFL Vegas Rankings updated every Tuesday at Pregame.com. Contact RJ at [email protected]