More than four million shots have been made in the entire history of the NBA. Which one of them was the biggest has always been a matter of debate. Now it’s also a matter of mathematics.
Anyone who goes searching for that one shot would be wise to start with the last game of the last season: Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors were one minute away from the greatest basketball season ever. The Cleveland Cavaliers were one minute away from the greatest basketball comeback ever. There was so much at stake that any made shot in that minute would have been extraordinarily consequential.
As it turned out, there was only one. And it was the clutchest NBA shot ever.
Only recently did it become possible to calculate how much each shot changes a team’s chances of winning a game. That statistic is called win probability added. As a result of this invention, it’s also possible to calculate how much each shot changes a team’s chances of winning the NBA title. This statistic is called championship probability added—and it was the metric The Wall Street Journal used to scrutinize the NBA’s most iconic baskets.
But when the numbers showed this particular shot was the biggest—that it had the highest championship probability added—basketball wonks had a peculiar reaction. They didn’t believe the math.
Instead they named other shots. What about Ray Allen’s? What about Michael Jordan’s? What about any of Robert Horry’s? What about the dozens of unforgettable Finals shots? But the biggest shot wasn’t one of those shots. In fact, there are NBA executives who admit they have already forgotten what happened.
What happened was that Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue called a timeout with 1 minute and 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Neither team had scored for 3 minutes and 26 seconds. For what seemed like an interminable amount of time, the Warriors and Cavaliers had played to a stalemate. The series was tied 3-3. The score was tied 89-89. The cumulative score of the series was tied 699-699.
The safe assumption when the Cavaliers broke their huddle was that LeBron James, who was busy reminding the planet that he was its best player, would be getting the ball. James had already dug Cleveland out of a 3-1 hole in the series, and it was less than a minute earlier that he saved his team’s season with the Game 7 play that everyone recalls, a chasedown block of a layup that would’ve given the Warriors the lead and whipped the Oracle Arena crowd into delirium.
But when the Cavaliers walked back on the court, it became clear the play had been called for someone else: Kyrie Irving. And only by accident did he attempt the NBA’s most audacious shot.
“I remember not breathing for a second,” said Cavs general manager David Griffin. “I thought: God, this is the most important possession of our lives.”
The idea behind giving the ball to Irving was that he could drive past Stephen Curry and get a good look close to the basket. The only problem was that Irving couldn’t shake Curry. He dribbled and dribbled and dribbled, but as the shot clock wound down, he was no closer to the basket than he had been 20 seconds earlier.
Irving had no choice but to launch a bomb off his back foot with Curry all over him. It was unlike any shot he made that entire season: Not once had Irving hit an unassisted 3-pointer after stalling for so long.
Nearly everyone inside the arena, including the other people in the actual game, watched the ball hang in the air. Kevin Love was the only Cleveland player who bothered crashing the basket for a rebound, but he was immediately boxed out. The rest of his exhausted teammates stayed behind the arc. There was no way the Cavs were getting the ball if Irving missed—which was highly likely.
Irving shoots worse the more he dribbles. He shoots worse the lower the shot clock gets. He shoots even worse the closer he’s guarded. In other words, if he were dreaming about a shot to win the NBA championship, this would not and should not have been that shot. (Irving declined to comment for this article through a Cavs spokesman. “Kyrie’s really focused on the present and future and not interested in rehashing the past,” the team spokesman said.)
Irving, however, had been imagining something like this exact shot. In the nights before the most anticipated game of his life, Irving barely slept. He tried relaxing by running through certain situations before they actually occurred. And one of the plays he visualized was sinking a 3-pointer in the last minute of a tied Game 7.
Irving’s shot was statistically worth more than any other shot, according to the Journal’s analysis, in large part because of a surprising lack of competition. The majority of the most iconic NBA shots haven’t been Game 7 highlights. Ray Allen’s last-second 3-pointer forced overtime in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Michael Jordan’s last shot with the Chicago Bulls iced Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Steve Kerr in 1997, John Paxson in 1993, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974—all Game 6 highlights.
Game 6 is obviously important. Game 7 is obviously more important. The difference in potential championship probability is staggering. A team that wins Game 6 after leading 3-2 already had an excellent chance of winning the title; a team that wins Game 6 after trailing 3-2 still has middling odds.
But the math changes in Game 7. That’s when the win probability is the championship probability.
The concept that championship probability could be computed from win probability was a breakthrough in the 2000s from a baseball researcher named Sky Andrecheck. It wasn’t long before others seized on his work and objectively ranked the clutchest Major League Baseball plays—the plays that most improved a team’s chances of winning the World Series. It also wasn’t long before Andrecheck was hired by a baseball team. He’s now the senior director of baseball research and development for the Cleveland Indians. They play across the street from the Cavaliers’ arena.
But win probability in basketball is more of a curiosity than a competitive advantage. That’s why fans, not NBA front offices, have been responsible for its innovation—and why the estimates can still be crude. For this analysis, after consulting with professional and amateur quants, the Journal averaged two win-probability calculators, giving special weight to a formula by Mike Beuoy, an actuary who runs a statistical website called Inpredictable.
The model approximates the odds of winning any NBA game given the time, point differential, team strength and which team has possession. The only problem is that NBA play-by-play is still primitive compared with MLB’s. For the older games without publicly available data, the Journal attempted to identify the most critical shots, then contextualized those plays through grainy YouTube clips and digitized Newspaper archives.
The analysis showed that Irving’s shot wasn’t especially notable by win probability alone. But championship probability is where it stood apart.
To get championship probability from win probability is simple arithmetic: win probability multiplied by championship value. Dave Studeman, the former manager of the Hardball Times, an analytical baseball website, assigned a rough value to every game in the MLB playoffs, which the Journal applied to the NBA postseason. Game 7 in the conference finals, Game 5 in a tied Finals and Game 6 in the Finals are worth 50% of a title—and Game 7 is worth 100%.
There haven’t been many Game 7s, though, and many of those Game 7s haven’t been close. The 2016 Finals were the exception.
Cleveland’s win probability when Lue called timeout was a coin flip: 50.2%. It inched upward with every dribble and spiked when Irving shot. Cleveland’s likelihood of winning the game—and the NBA title—was suddenly 82.3%. That change in championship probability was, according to the Journal’s analysis, the largest swing the league has ever seen.
But its statistical significance only became clear in hindsight. Warriors and Cavaliers executives were too busy being human to work out the odds in real time. To them, at that moment, Irving’s shot was critical merely because it broke a streak of 12 missed shots when both teams were desperate for a basket. Even the television call was somewhat understated for such a huge shot.
“Because it wasn’t a game-winner,” said Mike Breen, the play-by-play announcer on ABC’s broadcast. “I mean, it was a game-winner. But there was still so much time, and so much could’ve happened. There could’ve been two or three more big shots in that game. As an announcer, you have to leave yourself somewhere to go.”
It seemed like Breen would need the space. The Cavaliers were up three points with 53 seconds left, but there had never been a basketball team more likely to make a game-tying 3-pointer than the one that was already dribbling up the court.
The Warriors won a record 73 games in the regular season because of the way they exploited the 3-point line to their advantage. Golden State’s fans aren’t Cleveland fatalists. They were still more confident than despondent. There was no reason to believe that now was the time their otherworldly Warriors wouldn’t be able to make a 3-pointer.
Which is why Griffin had an urgent thought as soon as Irving’s shot went in: “Somebody find Steph right now.”
With their season on the line, the Warriors did put the ball in the hands of Curry, the best shooter on earth. Curry danced around the 3-point line, and Love tried to defend him, a predicament that usually results in the bigger player being embarrassed. But in this case, by some NBA miracle, Love shadowed Curry’s every step. His contested 3-pointer clanged off the rim, and the Cavs snagged the rebound. Their championship probability climbed.
It dawned on the 20,000 people inside the arena—and the 30 million people watching on television—that the unthinkable was occurring. Cleveland was actually going to win.
Irving’s shot stole Cleveland its first sports championship in more than a half-century and transformed the image of an entire city. It also reshaped the future of the NBA itself. It has seemed almost inevitable since last season that the Cavaliers and Warriors will meet in the Finals again this season. Golden State’s roster was revamped so the Warriors could sign a consolation prize named Kevin Durant. Cleveland is brimming with the confidence that a championship brings. And the teams play on Christmas—in what’s expected to be the most viewed game of the NBA’s regular season—for the first time since that night.
The last possession of the last game of the 2016 season became irrelevant when James rattled in a free throw and bumped Cleveland’s lead to four points. It didn’t matter that Golden State missed two more threes. The game was over. The probability had become a certainty. What it had required to beat the record-setting Warriors was nothing short of the biggest NBA shot of all time.
Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]
Source : WSJ