Bill James’s “safe lead” formula

Recently, I discussed blowouts and how to handle them from your perspective. Roy Nickerson, a coach in Billerica Travel Basketball, Massachusetts, says he uses a statistical model by Bill James, who is more usually associated with baseball analytics.

While Nickerson says the model was developed for college games, he says it can be used for lower levels. “He [James] states that only one time in the history of college basketball has a team come back from a lead that this [formula] determined as safe,” Nickerson reports.

Bill James’s “safe lead” formula

Here is the formula:

  1. Take the number of points you are ahead
  2. Subtract three
  3. Add a half-point if the leading team has the ball and subtract a half-point if the trailing team has the ball (numbers less than zero become zero)
  4. Square the number
  5. If the result is greater than the number of seconds left in the game, then the lead is safe.

For example, you are leading by 25 with seven minutes remaining and you have the ball. Subtract three to get to 22, then add a half-point for 22 1/2. Square it to get 506.25. There are 420 seconds remaining, so, your lead is safe. It’s nice to have a statistical model help determine an abstract concept of, “is our lead safe?”