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Utah Jazz Deus Ex Machina: It’s better to be lucky than to be good

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The Basketball Gods must be crazy.

Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Utah Jazz were less than two seconds from returning back into their team’s identity crisis. With the Rockets taking a two point lead, the Utah Jazz looked to be staring down the barrel of their past 6 games of disappointment. They may have escaped Portland with a win thanks to an assist from the men in stripes, but down two against a Houston team playing its second game in as many nights, the odds were not in their favor. According to Second Spectrum, Bojan Bogdanovic had a 12.6% chance of his shot going in. As he fired off the prayer PJ Tucker said he “knew it was good.” It’s great to be good, but it’s better to be lucky.

If you were to explain the Utah Jazz’s last two wins there is more of the element of Deus Ex Machina than winning the game for 48 minutes. From a goaltend not being called to a bomb of a contested three going in, the Utah Jazz are playing with house money. In every facet of life, luck is a part of the equation. It’s easy to discount this element of the equation to success because it’s so random. In statistics the element of luck can aid or tear down success rates as the variance of a statistic can be a cruel mistress or divine intervention. It’s this element of luck that we sometimes place to being at the right place at the right time.

In the article The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized, Scott Barry Kaufman wrote in the Scientific American that the most educated or talented people are not always the most successful. They may have greater odds at capitalizing on good turns of good luck and overcoming bad spells of bad luck, but they are rarely the most successful. He cites an experiment by Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Raspisarda teamed up with the Italian economist Alessio Biondo to make “the first ever attempt to quantify the role of luck and talent in successful careers.”

The Italian researchers stuck a large number of hypothetical individuals (“agents”) with different degrees of “talent” into a square world and let their lives unfold over the course of their entire worklife. They defined talent as whatever set of personal characteristics allow a person to exploit lucky opportunities (I’ve argued elsewhere that this is a reasonable definition of talent). Talent can include traits such as intelligence, skill, motivation, determination, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, etc. The key is that more talented people are going to be more likely to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ out of a given opportunity (see here for support of this assumption).

All agents began the simulation with the same level of success (10 “units”). Every 6 months, individuals were exposed to a certain number of lucky events (in green) and a certain amount of unlucky events (in red). Whenever a person encountered an unlucky event, their success was reduced in half, and whenever a person encountered a lucky event, their success doubled proportional to their talent (to reflect the real-world interaction between talent and opportunity).

The results were fascinating. At the end of the experiment, the top 20 people in the study had 44% of the total success which isn’t surprising. But who was found at the top was. The most talented people in the study were rarely the most successful. They were in the top 20, but they rarely were taking the crown. The researchers would go on to say in their study, “even a great talent becomes useless against the fury of misfortune.”

It’s better to be lucky than to be good.

We can see this time and time again from a Michael Jordan push off to the game 7 winner by Kawhi Leonard in last year’s playoffs. The angle of a referee’s sightline determined the winner of the 1998 NBA Finals. The rigidity of a rim in Toronto determined the now champion of the 2018-2019 NBA Season. Small events outside of any player, team, referee, or NBA’s control will slide the gift of success to another.

We see it with injuries when we speak in “What could have been” terms about Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Brandon Roy, or Greg Oden. Someone’s genetics, their parents, who their great-great grandfather was, play in to what will decide the outcome of a game, season, or a career. It’s luck.

Last night after the game I said on Twitter that the Jazz have been saved two games in a row by grace. A few people were mad about that. It’s easy to point at how the referees also slighted Utah in Portland as well or cite how much Bojan Bogdanovic works at his shot in practice to even have slot machine’s chance of making it. Those are true. Bad luck, talent, and preparation are always going to affect us. But to ignore how damn lucky Utah has been in the final two seconds of each game is like ignoring kid version Joseph Gordon-Levitt waving his arms like an angel just seconds before every spectacular play in the Angels’ outfield.

Not everything is in 100% control of either team and that’s what makes sports so damn fun. The Utah Jazz’s last two final second miracles are exactly the type of thing they needed to get themselves out of a funk. They were in their own way during the losing streak, making terrible self-forced errors, and each loss seemed to build onto the pressure and stress of the next big moment. They became their worst enemy and were in danger of creating the self-speak of not being as good as what they’re capable of being. Sometimes people can work their way out of those situations by their own talent and abilities regardless of the luck thrown their way. Other times you need an act of God.

That’s where the term Deus Ex Machina comes from. Greek plays would put a hero through such enormous tragedies, hardships, and terrible luck that the protagonist—no matter what his skills, abilities, social stature, fame, and money—could never redeem themselves. Their bad luck had set the course, they were bound by fate. UNLESS, the gods intervened. So a god would be lowered from the heavens by the machine—hence, Deus Ex Machina—onto the stage and they would lift the protagonist from their fate. It was by the grace of the gods.

Twice now, the Jazz have been lifted up by the god from the machine to escape their impending doom. As they play two more difficult games before the NBA All-Star Break, let’s hope our heroes can take advantage of their past luck and not need the basketball gods to return back to the court to save them again. It’s now up to Utah to make their own machine and churn out some of their own luck moving forward.