The Costs of Labor Unrest and the NBA’s Compressed Schedule

The NBA has twice attempted to fit more games into a compressed time period in a strike-shortened season so that fewer regular season games (and less revenue) would be missed.  This year the NBA squeezed 66 games into a regular-season schedule between Christmas and the last week of April.  The lack of rest days led to greater player fatigue, less efficient scoring and possibly more injuries.  The season-ending injury to reigning MVP Derrick Rose over the weekend has raised questions about the wisdom of a compressed schedule.  NBA coaches tried to mitigate the impact of the compressed schedule by resting their star players more this season.  The best NBA players sat out 5% more of regular-season games than in 2010-2011 and 11% more than a decade ago.  The league’s labor strife led to lower quality play, less participation by NBA superstars, and may have increased the risk of injuries.  Next time there is a strike or lockout the NBA and its Players’ Association should be honest with their fans, and either reach an agreement sooner, or compress the schedule far less than they have in the past.

In an earlier post I illustrated that shooting percentages in the NBA are lower in strike-shortened seasons.  Effective shooting percentages in the NBA have been fairly stable since the three point shot was introduced in the 1979-1980 season.  Ignoring strike-impacted seasons more than 75% of the year-to-year changes in shooting percentage have been between -0.6% and +0.6%.  In contrast, shooting percentages declined by 1.1%, on average, during the two strike-shortened seasons in the past 14 seasons.

The next chart shows that the number of minutes played by the 50 top scoring NBA players has been trending down for more than a decade.  A decade ago the top 50 scorers played the equivalent of just less than 61 complete games (48 minutes in length) over the course of a season.  By 2010-2011 the number of minutes played fell to the equivalent of 56.7 full-time games (a decline of about 6.5%).  In the just completed strike-shortened season, the number of minutes played fell by 5% in just one year.  After extrapolating minutes played to the usual regular-season schedule, this means that this season top players were on pace to play the equivalent of 53.8 complete games over an 82 game schedule.

Top scoring players have been sitting out more minutes and more games in recent years compared to a decade ago.  This may be because benches are deeper or that coaches are resting their players more for the playoffs than they did just 10 years ago.  Even after accounting for the declining trend in minutes played by NBA stars, the strike reduced the participation of top players by 5% (the equivalent of three 48 minute games).  Whether one looks at minutes played by stars or shooting percentages there is little question that the quality of play in the NBA in 2011-2012 was diminished by the lockout.

The NBA and its Players’ Association could have mitigated the deterioration in the quality of their product by reaching an agreement a week or two before their 11th hour deal last December, or by scheduling fewer games and a few more off-days in their already-shortened season.  Strikes and lockouts are costly because of the revenue foregone by management and the union.  NBA management and players tried to shift some of these costs to fans by providing lower quality entertainment in a compressed schedule instead of playing fewer games and charging fans less.

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