Do we really need 82 games?

The NBA could be the perfect proving ground for a less-is-more theory

Updated: October 17, 2012, 3:58 PM ET
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
Kobe Bryant Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAt times, even Kobe Bryant must think an 82-game season is far too long.

Somewhere around the time it became known that after the labor stoppage the NBA was, in fact, going to have a 2011-12 season -- and that it would feature only 66 games per team instead of the usual 82 -- the thought dawned in various circles of fans and the media:

"Why do we always play 82 games, anyway?"

ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz asked that very question last October, eventually endorsing a 44-game slate instead, and J.A. Adande advocated shortening the schedule to 76 games.

The usual arguments were in play here: reducing the number of back-to-back contests and "schedule losses" (games teams essentially punt at the end of long trips) would significantly raise the quality of basketball being played.

A major byproduct of shortening the schedule would be pulling star-studded teams like the Lakers and Heat closer to the pack, creating a more exciting regular-season product in the process.

There's plenty of scientific evidence to back up those sentiments. In 2010, researcher Daniel Myers found that teams coming off at least one day of rest played more than two points better per 100 possessions than they did on the final leg of a back-to-back. Given that 49.7 percent of games last season featured at least one team playing its second game in two nights, more than any year since 1999 (when it happened in 54.1 percent of games), it's no coincidence that my timeline-adjustment research this summer found the average 2011-12 NBA team to be slightly worse than it was in 2010-11, despite the league's overall talent being on an upward trajectory since 2005.

While 66 games sounds like a vacation compared to 82, last year's compressed schedule packed an average of 8.1 games into each day of the regular season, which was actually more than the 7.3 per day the league played in 2010-11. And even the league's ordinary 82-game schedule sees at least one team facing a back-to-back in 40 percent of all games.

So how many games should the NBA play?

Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.