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.

Why Does David Stern Think Defense is Boring?

Real sports fans appreciate excellent defense.  Nonetheless, commissioners of professional sports leagues seem to think that fans are bored by defense.  David Stern of the NBA typifies this mindset.  The NBA All-Star Weekend is a showcase for its stars and it’s all about offense.  I understand that the All-Star game is an exhibition not a competition, but whatever they played last night in Orlando looked nothing like professional basketball.

David Stern, who became Commissioner in 1984, has used the All-Star weekend to market the NBA.  A big change was the introduction of the slam dunk contest in 1984.  The dunk contest used to feature basketball’s biggest stars making shots that could conceivably occur in game situations.  The contest no longer attracts stars and now features dunks over props such as cars and motorcycles.

All-Stars in the exhibition game play as much defense as the props in the slam dunk contest, but that wasn’t always the case.  Before 1984 the average score in an All-Star game was about 20 points or just 9 percent higher than in an average regular season game.  Since 1984 the total point differential between the All-Star game and the regular season has steadily increased by 1.6 points per year.  Over the past 6 years the average All-Star score was 83 points higher (42 percent) than in the regular season.  Last night’s game produced 111 more points (58 percent) than we have seen this season.

The dunk contest and the All-Star game have become caricatures of the sport of basketball.  I wish the NBA would give basketball fans more credit and recognize that we appreciate all aspects of the game – including defense.

Linsanity: Why the NBA Eastern Conference needs Jeremy Lin

Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks point guard and Harvard economics graduate, has become an overnight sensation.  He has averaged almost 27 points and 8 assists per game over the past five Knicks games(all wins), including 38 against Kobe and the Lakers last Friday night.  It may sound strange but the Eastern Conference, home of LeBron James and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, needs Lin, who Magic Johnson compared to Steve Nash and John Stockton.

Magic Johnson and Steve Nash are arguably the NBA’s two best point guards in the past 35 years and they played in the West.  Outstanding point guards raise their team’s offensive efficiency by creating better shot opportunities and increasing shooting percentages.   Magic’s Lakers led the NBA in effective shooting percentage six times in the 1980s and never ranked lower than third in the league.  Nash’s Suns led the NBA in shooting for six straight seasons from 2005 to 2010 until Tony Parker’s Spurs led the league in 2011 (four of the top five teams last year were from the West).

Over the past 32 years the average Western Conference team generated 0.8 more assists per game, made 1/2 of one percent more of their shots, had 1.3 more possessions and scored 2.4 more points per game than their Eastern Conference rivals.  (All of these differences are statistically significant with probability values less than .00001).  The Western Conference has been the home of more efficient offenses, as the result of better point guard play, since the introduction of the three point basket.

The Nets will probably lose Deron Williams, their star point guard, if they do not attract Dwight Howard to Brooklyn.  Another outstanding Eastern Conference point guard, Rajon Rondo, has been the subject of trade rumors since the lockout ended.  The East/West imbalance in point guard play will be exacerbated if Williams or Rondo moves to a team in the West.   But if Jeremy Lin continues on the pace he established in the past five games, the East will begin to narrow an offensive efficiency gap that has lasted for years.

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