Intuition vs. data in the Smackdown

Jeff Ma has already won this year's TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown, by virtue of the fact that he has an eight point lead on Kevin Pelton, with only seven points remaining at stake.

His victory was built on a new approach. In year's past he has done what most contestants do: Made picks based on intelligent parsing of season-long data, and other broad inputs. This approach generally succeeds -- the data knows more than most of us do. This year, however, Ma added a new wrinkle, which was going somewhat beyond the data, into the realm of intuition. As a result, he picked the Celtics, lukewarm performers in the regular-season this year, to win every series they have played in, which earned him the victory.

(He says he's picking them again in the Finals, too, by the way.)

On the Huffington Post, Ma explains his definition of intuition, and how it helped him win the Smackdown:

When the Celtics nearly swept the Miami Heat, I started to wonder if perhaps the season-long numbers didn't apply to the Celtics.

I started to look for kernels that perhaps this current version of the Celtics was better than the one that stumbled into the playoffs as the fourth seed. Certainly they were healthier than they had been during the entirety of the season. Their outstanding performance on the road anecdotally told the story of a veteran team that could bring it when they wanted to. In their nine losses to the teams seeded above them (Magic, Hawks, Cavs), they were ahead at halftime in six of those games. They either tired or failed to execute down the stretch but they were right there in many of those games. Finally, I wondered if the Celtics really cared if they were seeded third or fourth in the playoffs. Their goal was never to reach the conference finals. Their only goal was a championship and there was little difference in a third or fourth seed in accomplishing that goal.

Of course, none of this would qualify as "statistical proof" but it certainly gave me the confidence to employ this new "intuition" and in the second round I was the only "expert" to pick the Celtics over the Cavs (in six games) and in the next round, only Henry's mother and I picked the Celtics over the Magic (also in six games).

This success means very little about my prowess over the rest of the field. In fact it likely means that I'm less of a "statistical expert" than the others since I was willing to go against what most of the numbers were telling me. But perhaps that's the important lesson. Data and statistics are incredibly useful in predicting the future, yet in areas like sports where there the relevant data can be limited it is important to be flexible in your reasoning process. That flexibility is what helped me win the Smackdown this year.