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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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Total comments: 6
  • Drew in Abilene says 9 months ago

    I'd be for something like the English Premier League does. In addition to the main competition, they have a tournament that doesn't affect the season standings. I imagine a season where each team plays every other team twice, as a way to ensure that teams are on equal footing as far as competition. That'd be 58 games for each team, along with a tournament that would add lots of extra intrigue. Some teams that got eliminated early could use extra rest to try for more wins against teams tired from the tourney. But some teams would probably be willing to be a little more tired for regular season games for the chance to win both trophies.

  • rocketrick says 9 months ago

    I'd be very, very surprised if the NBA chose to shorten the season anytime soon. The TV contracts are simply way too valuable and obviously are a huge reason the salary cap is set close to $60 million per team. A shorter season would mean a smaller salary cap and might actually require NBA teams to have even more minimum contract players on the roster. Would that be detrimental to the quality of the NBA? I think so.

  • Sir Thursday says 9 months ago

    I think spreading out the schedule seems like a good move if shortening it is off the table. Provided they don't go overboard, anyway. I'm wary of ending up in a situation like European football where there is barely any off-season at all. Players need an off-season to recover - there is no way they can do what they do without breaks and not end up worn out and broken down. Getting players more rest during the regular season is all well and good, provided it doesn't detract from the recovery they get over the summer.


  • thejohnnygold says 9 months ago

    This is why I dislike nearly every trade scenario that involves us sending out the majority of our youth and depth. Once that trade happens it's over...all we can do is hold our breath and hope nothing goes wrong.

    We've all seen how well the young guys have played this season. T-Jones has done well playing alongside the starters...as a 5th wheel. Casspi, D-Mo, G. Smith, Beverley, etc. are nice pieces, but each is lacking in certain ways. The point is this: if we trade them for a single guy and then need to fill out the roster again what kind of players are we going to get? Players with even bigger holes and flaws than these.

    This has two side effects. One, our starters have to play more because there is no one to back them up. Two, they will most likely get hurt due to fatigue and higher probabilities from playing more. Once the dust settles, we are the Brooklyn Nets :(

  • Bigtkirk says 9 months ago

    The length of the NBA season is obsolescent, but hard to change because the finances of the league are based upon it. I think Popovich has the right idea in combatting the schedule, which is to develop a deep bench that can reduce the minutes of the best players to reduce the risk of injury and fatigue prior to the playoffs.

  • Dan G says 9 months ago

    One thing I have never understood about the schedule is why I never see a team play back to back home games in back to back days, or atleast the Rockets don't. We'd have a 5 game homestand like in Jan. 16-24 but we have atleast one day off in between each game. Then right after the homestand we play two back to backs in a row and have to travel after each game. Sure we get alot of rest and practice during the homestand but the four games in six days are going to be brutal (opponents are Mem., Mem., SA. and Dal.).

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