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The Wisdom of Crowds

By Daniel Strickland on May 15, 2006.

Last year I read an interesting book by James Surowiecki, “The Wisdom of Crowds.” In it, he offers an accessible, entertaining “introduction to applied behavioral economics and game theory”:

If four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally.

“Wise crowds” need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are “smarter” than if a single expert had been in charge.

It’s a given that I’m a biased observer of the San Antonio Spurs and the outcome of tonight’s game 4, but I seriously doubt that the Spurs will lose. These Spurs are accustomed to winning, having finished with a franchise best 63 wins, and the second best record in the league, just a game behind the Pistons. If they were to lose tonight, it would be their third in a row. When have these Spurs lost 3 games in a row? This season? Does the preseason count? No? Then not at all.

So I thought I’d seek out the wisdom of the crowds, and see whom they think will win tonight.

Many oddsmakers have Dallas by 2 points, but that doesn’t mean they think the Mavs will win. In fact, a 2 point spread is no vote of confidence in the Mavs winning on their home court. Bookmakers hope that a 2 point spread, or now for some a 1-1/2 point spread, will persuade bettors to take a chance on the Spurs, or the Mavericks winning by more than this margin. In other words, they expect gamblers to bet on the Mavericks to win, as long as the spread isn’t too big, ’cause, hey, they may not win, and it’s probably going to be another close game. Is there wisdom in this crowd? I don’t think so. Gambling is business, not prognostication.

What about the press? Much is being made about these two datapoints:

  • Since Tim Duncan arrived and led the Spurs to three championships, the Spurs haven’t been able to come back when trailing a series after three games. (To this I say, well, there is always a first time for everything, isn’t there?)
  • In NBA history, the team that has won Game 3 in a seven-game series has advanced 75.5 percent of the time. (I say, tell that to the Phoenix Suns, who came back from 3-1 to beat the Lakers in 7 games just two weeks ago.)

What do smart Spurs fans think? What do smart NBA fans think? To find out, I looked at the data in’s “Drive to the Finals” game. It’s an interesting fantasy league that scores for points, rebounds and assists (PRA) and allows you to pick a player just once, so the strategy now is to pick players from teams who you believe will NOT advance. Today’s expert pick is Tony Parker.

Dallas is up 2-1, so the Spurs could have just two games remaining. We think they’re too good to go down in five, but even if they have three games left, they have three solid players to choose from:

Player PRA R.S. PRA Playoffs PRA vs. DET
Tim Duncan 32.8 35.5 35.6
Manu Ginobili 22.2 23.3 20.7
Tony Parker 28.0 28.1 27.0

After that, there’s a serious dropoff.

We’re going to save Duncan for sure, so let’s take a closer look at Ginobili and Parker. Ginobili has had PRAs of eight (once) and 16 (twice) in these playoffs, so he’s a bit of a risk. Parker’s lowest output has been 19 and if you’re going to go with a Spur over a Cav tonight, you might as well go with the safer pick.

So, it comes down to choosing Ilgauskas, who could be a bust (he’s had two PRA outputs of 11 in the playoffs so far), or going with Parker, which could really hurt you down the line if the Spurs come back in this series.

We’re taking Parker. Live for today and believe in the Mavs.

And if the Spurs win, then hopefully Tony will put up big numbers and make the pick worth it.

So much for the expert — what does the leaderboard in the game think? It’s hard to tell. I don’t know who they picked today, but I can tell you that among the top 10 fantasy managers, three have chosen more Mavs than Spurs, and the opposite is true for three others. The remaining four managers have picked an equal number of players from each team. The most popular selections among the 10 leading managers are Nowitzki (9 out of 10), and Duncan (8 out of 10). As for Spurs fans, they seem to be equally divided.

What does this all mean? Not much, expect that tonight’s game should be close, and the series outcome is anyone’s guess. We here at SpursDynasty already know the outcome, but don’t want to spoil it for our readers.

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