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On the NBA: are there too many games in the schedule?

Now would seem like a good time to discuss the NBA schedule. Stars across the league are sitting on benches due to injury. Derrick Rose is done for the year, Al Horford is out, and even the unstoppable LeBron James had to miss a game. Looking at the Houston Rockets, Patrick Beverley is the latest player to contract the broken hand flu that seems to be going around, Ömer Aşık apparently can’t keep his knee from filling with fluid, and Greg Smith re-injured his knee. A nasty stretch of games, including two back to back sets of games in five days, has ground the Rockets to a nub, and ended the whole trial with a game against a mighty Thunder team. Every team goes through these patches, and every team struggles. But is this even necessary?

People have been talking about shortening the season for years, and there are many reasons to do so. There are, of course, many reasons to leave well enough alone, income primary among them. The season doesn’t need to be shortened. In fact, it should be lengthened. Not to add more games, but to remove sixteen games for each team, and to add more days off. No more back to backs. No more broken hands. Only basketball that matters.

During the fateful 2011-2012 lockout season, the NBA reduced the number of games each team played from 82 to 66. Initial speculation was that this might be divided into two games against each other team in the league (58 games) and an additional two games against each team in one’s division (8 more games). This would make divisions important, ensure an even number of home and away games against each team, and keep cross conference game ratio even across all teams. It was a great idea as long as divisions exist, and it was honestly surprising that it wasn’t what the NBA went with. Instead, many teams faced off against other teams only once, meaning that some teams never visited certain cities.

The NBA also crammed this entire schedule, only 16 games shorter per team, into a time frame only two thirds the length of normal. This meant brutal back-to-back-to-back outings and two playoff games in two days for some teams. All of this was exactly what the NBA didn’t need. In fact, it needed the opposite. The season actually needs to be longer to accommodate this hypothetical 66-game season, and here’s why.

The schedule is currently about 190 days long and houses 82 games. That’s a game every 2.3 days, something which seems like it shouldn’t result in any back to back situations. Unfortunately, life is never so simple. Outside impediments like San Antonio’s rodeo and various musical events around the country result in certain days that NBA teams are effectively locked out of their houses. In that case, they have to go on the road and visit someone else. Juggling all these necessities is what causes these hairy schedule situations at different times. If we removed one game from each back to back set for each team, the average team would lose 18.5 games. in this thought experiment, this moves the ratio of games and days to one game every 3 days. If we accept that one game every three days on average is the gold standard at which all back to back situations can be avoided (which is an admittedly simplistic claim, but let’s roll with it for now), this means that a 66 game season needs to take place over 198 days, a little over a week longer than the current season. That is, all things considered, an easy thing to manage. three or four days tacked onto the start of the season, three or four days tacked on to the end, and everything is the same.

Or is it? Over this season, players would play in about 20% fewer games. Fewer games means fewer chances for injury to strike, and fewer injuries overall. Longer gaps between games don’t just offer more rest, but allow injuries to affect fewer games. More rest means starters can play slightly more per game, meaning that the level of competition increases. Fewer minutes total means that players degrade less and last longer. Longer careers mean that more good players stay in the league longer, and a few lesser players don’t have to replace them. Again, that increases the level of competition.

People say that the import of each game is increased, and that’s probably true. With 20% fewer games, each victory is presumably worth 20% more, whatever that means. Just as importantly, with back to backs gone, the slogging nature of the NBA season tapers off. Players don’t become as brutally tired, mental states are less taxed, and teams can afford to care more. Additionally, more days off means more practices, which means a greater impact of coaching and more opportunities to implement systems and discipline. It’s hard to see that having a negative impact on player quality, and would most likely be a positive.

So what’s so bad about this plan? Other than having slightly fewer games to watch a week, where’s the downside? One downside is that divisions occupy a larger percent of the team’s schedule, meaning that teams in the Southwest Division are likely to be better than their record indicates, and teams in the Atlantic Division would be worse. Oh, and there’s also the real reason: money.

There are millions of reasons why teams and the NBA want as many games as possible, and they come in forty inch varieties at department stores. Television and broadcast deals are a huge portion of the NBA’s income, and losing 20% of their games would be troubling for them at the least. Advertising and TV contracts aren’t going anywhere soon, and as long as they stay, those 82 games are likely to stay, too. But in a perfect world, the Rockets could be playing fresh and healthy right now. In the world where play comes before profit, Westbrook and Beverley just faced off again. Would the outcome be the same? Who knows, but we should think about trying it one of these days.

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