Correlation, Causation, and LeBron

The Miami Heat beat the Indiana Pacers 90 – 79 on May 30 [1] and @ESPNStatsInfo tweeted the following bit of information.





Why does this interest me? If you recall, the book Moneyball came out in 2003 and several nerds like myself were starting to get interested in the quantitative analysis of sport. And, in particular, it reminds me of a conversation I had with Joe Banner back in 2006 [2] about a statistician’s role in a pro football organization. First, let me say that Joe comes across as a fucking smart dude — he’s not some meathead football player who happened to stay in the game based on inertia. Anyway, he said something along the lines of the following:

“It’s well known that 75 – 80% (#s made up, but it was high) of winning football  teams (in all games played) have a 100 yard rusher. Some coaches will do everything in their power to get their RB going in the first quarter by pounding the running game. I think that’s stupid. Why?”

The obvious response is because the coaches (e.g., Andy Reid) were confusing correlation [3] or, more generally, some association with causation. They teams were not winning because they had a 100+ yard rusher! The likely had a 100 yard rusher because they were winning in the second half and were trying to run clock, or maybe the fact that their running game was working opened things up for the offense, or any number of things. Who the hell knows?! My point here is that you should not confuse association with causation.

So back to LeBron and the Heat. In the first four games of the Heat vs Pacers series, Lebron averaged 73 touches and the Heat won two and lost two. He then gets 86 touches in game five and they win. Obviously, Spoelstra should make it a point to get LeBron 20+ touches in the first quarter of game 6, right? Right? RIGHT?! No! If the Heat are playing well, LeBron is likely to get a lot of touches and vice versa. However, trying to force touches outside of the normal flow of a good Heat game would be (I claim) idiotic. Winning and LeBron’s touches of the basketball are likely to evolve as an organic process and forcing the issue won’t help [4].

Here are a few takeaways from this post:

  1. Don’t confuse association and causation. This happens a lot in the big data world — correlations reign supreme.
  2. I’m pretty sure that the Eagles still regret their decision to pass on my services.
  3. If you are a pro sports team in the Denver area, please send me an email. If your team name is the “Nuggets”, I would likely work for one bag of popcorn per game.



[1] – Yeah, I know that I should’ve written this a while back, but I only get around to this stuff when I’m flying. And right now I’m flying to Cincinnati [5].

[2] – Let me brag for a second. I interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles back in the summer of 2006 and one of my meetings was with Joe Banner, then the Executive Vice President of the Eagles, now CEO with the Cleveland Browns. They decided not to hire me and instead went with a graduate student at UPenn — and haven’t won shit since. I like to think it’s because they didn’t hire me. Fuck ’em.

[3] – Correlation necessarily implies linearity in the association.

[4] – See Monsanto. And this dog <insert pic> from the protest in Denver.

[5] – Mmmmmmmm, Skyline Chili!



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2 responses to “Correlation, Causation, and LeBron

  1. this is f awesome!!!!! Eric Linden 916-705-8914


  2. I cannot believe how f crazy u are. Swearing and all.

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