Cohen: The GPA System Works Every Time

By Josh Cohen
June 4, 2012

ORLANDO -- It’s a system I have created and it seems to prove effective every year.

It may seem like common sense, on one hand, but in no other professional sports league can you apply a GPA method to closely predict the results of a season.

The GPA system is a simple mathematical formula to assess who are championship contenders in the NBA and who aren’t. It seems to work precisely every year.

You see, in contrast to the other primary pro sports leagues in America (NFL, MLB, NHL) where the playoffs become a crapshoot and any team who qualifies for the postseason has a chance to win the title, the NBA is far more meticulous.

Just consider these facts if you aren’t convinced that statement is accurate:

The New York Giants were 9-7 this year, barely snuck into the playoffs and still won the Super Bowl. The previous season, the Green Bay Packers were the final team to secure a playoff spot with a 10-6 record and found a way to cruise to the title.

The St. Louis Cardinals had to win on the final day of the regular season to lock up a playoff spot last season before eliminating the alleged “unconquerable” team in Philadelphia and marching on to a World Series title.

The Los Angeles Kings entered the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and yet they are ahead 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals.

In the NBA since the league adopted a 16-team playoff tournament in 1984, only once has a team with a seed lower than No. 3 won the championship. And that will remain valid unless the Boston Celtics capture the title this year.

So you may ask, why is this Josh?

Well, in the NBA every player has a grade attached to him. This evaluation essentially ranks players and separates statuses.

Here are the grading criteria:
    A (4.0) – Perennial All-Stars, likely future Hall of Famers and players who have the propensity to single-handedly lead teams to championships. Teams generally need at least one “A” player to win the title.

    A- (3.5) – Occasional All-Stars and among the best in the league, but not quite good enough to all alone lead teams to championships. If an “A-“ player does not team up with an “A” player, he probably is playing for a substandard team.

    B (3.0) – Solid pros, valuable role players. “B” players are certainly not talented enough to be All-Stars, but are generally skilled enough to makes differences if they are teamed with “A” players.

    C (2.0) – The average Joe Schmo of the NBA. Most “C” players are reserves that play about 15 minutes a night and generally are not expected to do anything outstanding.

Here is a directory that lists the top players in the NBA (“A” and “A-“ players). The grades are based on performance at this stage of a player’s career (ex. Tim Duncan was an “A” player four years ago, but now is more of an “A-“ talent)

A (4.0)

Boston: Rajon Rondo
Chicago: Derrick Rose
Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki
Miami: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade
L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul
L.A. Lakers: Kobe Bryant
Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook
Orlando: Dwight Howard
San Antonio: Tony Parker

A- (3.5)

(Players who are teammates of at least one “A” player)
Boston: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce
Miami: Chris Bosh
L.A. Clippers: Blake Griffin
L.A. Lakers: Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Oklahoma City: James Harden
San Antonio: Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan

(Players who do not have an “A” player presently on their teams)
Atlanta: Joe Johnson
Brooklyn: Deron Williams
Cleveland: Kyrie Irving
Denver: Ty Lawson
Indiana: Danny Granger, David West
Memphis: Rudy Gay
Milwaukee: Monta Ellis
Minnesota: Kevin Love
New York: Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire
Philadelphia: Andre Iguodala
Phoenix: Steve Nash
Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge
Utah: Al Jefferson

After calculating GPAs among all the teams listed, guess who have the best GPA averages:

Yes, Miami, OKC, San Antonio and Boston – the four remaining teams in the playoffs. The Heat and Thunder both have two “A” players, while the Spurs and C’s each have one. But San Antonio and Boston do have two “A-“ talents, while Miami and Oklahoma City each have one.

Also note that every team that advanced to the playoffs has at least one “A-“ player on its roster.

Some would argue this uncomplicated system is just too unadorned and doesn’t value team chemistry, coaching or experience.

But if you look throughout NBA history, the GPA method almost always correctly determines who the best teams in the league are.

Here is a dose of evidence. The table below lists every NBA champion since 1980 and registers the players that indisputably deserved to be classified as “A” players the year they won the title (in most cases, the players were among the top five in the NBA that season).

1980 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1981 Boston Celtics Larry Bird
1982 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1983 Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone and Julius Erving
1984 Boston Celtics Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
1985 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1986 Boston Celtics Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
1987 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson
1988 L.A. Lakers Magic Johnson
1989 Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas
1990 Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas
1991 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1992 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1993 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1994 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon
1995 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon (maybe Clyde Drexler)
1996 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1997 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1998 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
1999 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan and David Robinson
2000 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
2001 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
2002 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
2003 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan
2004 Detroit Pistons None
2005 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan
2006 Miami Heat Dwyane Wade (maybe Shaquille O'Neal)
2007 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan
2008 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett
2009 L.A. Lakers Kobe Bryant
2010 L.A. Lakers Kobe Bryant
2011 Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki

The only counterargument lies with the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who thrived off balance and reliability. Though, some may quarrel that Chauncey Billups, who earned Finals MVP honors that year, deserved consideration to be measured as an “A” player that season.

This formula is what makes the NBA so engaging because every year we see the best players playing on the biggest stages. In other sports often of the time, the best “individual” talents are stuck at home watching far more inferior competition challenge for championships.

How much do you agree with the GPA system and does it give you a more clear understanding of team rankings?

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