The NBA postseason will conclude in about a month, at which point we’ll finally be free to talk about sports stories that do not involve the Golden State Warriors.
Or will we?
If the Warriors end up fulfilling their Manifest Destiny by winning a second straight league championship, they will become the standard bearer for all sports arguments over the greatest team of all time. Unfortunately for everyone suffering from Warriors Fatigue, a certain baseball club from Chicago’s north side may not give that argument time to gather any rhetorical dust.
Plainly put: Do the Cubs – who have bulldozed through the rest of Major League Baseball en route to a 27-9 start – stand a reasonable chance of having a better season than the Warriors? If we’re basing the answer purely on regular season winning percentage, this will be a very short article. In order to replicate the Warriors’ .890 clip, a baseball team would have to win 144 games – 28 more than the all-time record (held by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Seattle Mariners). To accomplish that absurd feat, the Cubs could only lose 9 games the entire rest of the season. In other words: no chance.
However, using winning percentage to compare teams across sports is unfair for two reasons. First, the MLB season is basically twice as long as the NBA’s, which statistically makes sustaining a high level of success less likely. If the Warriors had to play a 162-game season, we’d expect them to win far fewer than 89% of their games due to injuries, changes in opponents’ strategies, and general regression to the mean. Put another way: just five months ago, the Carolina Panthers became the sixth NFL team in history to go 15-1 in the regular season, which translates to a .938 winning percentage. Even had the Panthers won the Super Bowl, no one would argue for their superiority over a hypothetical 2016 NBA Champion Warriors.
Second, there are inherent differences between the sports of baseball and basketball (independent of season length) that affect the distribution of wins in a given season. The presence of one dominant player can have a drastic impact on a basketball team’s performance (see the Cavs with and without LeBron), while the effect is much more minimal in baseball. As a result, basketball teams are much more likely to gravitate toward the extremes of the wins spectrum: the NBA’s variance coefficient (standard deviation divided by the average) of wins over the past 20 seasons is 0.33, compared to MLB’s 0.14.
The upshot of this is not to discount the Warriors’ incredible accomplishment, but rather to put it in perspective for a cross-sport comparison. The Cubs don’t have to win 145 games to be considered better than their basketball counterparts; but how many is enough?
To answer that question with a more reliable statistic than winning percentage, I propose standardized wins: the number of standard deviations a team is above the league average. For example, the Warriors won 32 more games than the league average of 41 in a season where the standard deviation of wins was 13.88. Dividing 13.88 into 32 gets us 2.30, meaning that the Dubs’ win total was 2.3 standard deviations above average.
That’s really, really impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. How dominant were the Warriors on a given night? For that, we’ll turn to standardized point differential. Applying the same formula as above, we find that Golden State outscored opponents by 2.11 standard deviations above the league average. Since we care about both winning games and winning them impressively, I’ll take the average of these two metrics to arrive at a Dominance Index of 2.21 for Steph & Co.
What will it take for the Cubs to be that good? For starters, they can just keep doing what they’re doing right now. Through Sunday, their Dominance Index is 2.49, fueled by an absurd 3.02 run differential (2.84 standard deviations above average). Considering that the 1939 Yankees hold the full-season record for run differential at 2.67 – and only five other teams have ever topped the 2-run-per-game differential mark – there’s virtually no chance of the Cubs sustaining that pace for the remaining three quarters of the season.
Let’s say the Cubs finish with a run differential of 1.90 – matching the best mark of the past 20 years – and 110 wins, six back of the all-time record. Those are gaudy numbers, but well within the realm of possibility for a team that has dominated every facet of the game thus far. Given the recent trend in baseball toward parity, the Cubs would be near locks to finish with a higher Dominance Index than the Warriors. Even if the league’s standard deviation of wins and run differential rise to levels not seen since the early 2000s, the North Siders would still finish with a Dominance Index of 2.38, well ahead of Golden State’s 2.21.
Of course, this argument is moot if the Cubs don’t finish off what would be a historic regular season with a dogpile on the mound in late October or early November. It’s a feat that’s been awfully difficult for recent baseball juggernauts to achieve: Of the 25 best teams since 1996 (according to Dominance Index), just two went on to win the World Series. The aforementioned record-setting 2001 Mariners couldn’t even make it to the Fall Classic, much less win it.
Regardless of postseason performance, most people will refuse to put a Cubs team that didn’t break the 116-win barrier in the same sentence as a Warriors team that eclipsed the famed ’96 Bulls. This inevitable failure in judgment will be due to a discounting of how difficult it is to be a truly dominant baseball team in today’s era. Only two teams have even reached 100 wins this decade – and neither even won a playoff series. The last time anyone outscored opponents by a run and a half per game (still 0.4 below where we projected the Cubs to finish) was 2001 and neither of the two teams to do it that year made the World Series.
Lastly, from a storyline, “hot take” perspective, it’s hard for any team to match the excitement and flair that Curry, Thompson, Green, and the rest of the Warriors are bringing to the table this year. However, the only team that might come close would be the Cubs: owners of (arguably) the most famous fans, stadium, and title drought in all of American sports. The scenes of a Wrigley Field madhouse celebration and a city reveling in the exorcism of a 108-year curse may be enough to approach Curry in terms of cultural relevancy. Does anyone on the Cubs have a really cute kid?
Martin Kleinbard is a fan of the Yankees, Nets, Islanders, and Raiders. He looks forward to telling his grandkids about the last time the Raiders had a winning record. Martin is also co-founder of The Bandwagn, a newsletter/website that allows non-sports diehards the chance to join the sports conversation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.