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A 58-game NBA regular season makes a lot of sense

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: “It’s 50 years old or so, presenting an 82-game season, and there’s nothing magical about it.” (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

The NBA is considering reducing its 82-game season, ESPN reported Wednesday, in part because some of the game’s biggest stars routinely have sat out of games during the regular season to keep themselves fresh for the postseason. Any change to the schedule can’t be done overnight — it would require collectively bargained approval from the players’ union — but even raising the notion is an encouraging development.

The biggest question: How many games are enough?

In 2006, Tom Tango, an alias used by the senior database architect of stats for MLB Advanced Media, explained how True Score Theory, which assumes that any observed result is the sum of an underlying “true” skill and a random error component, can be used to decipher how many games you need to play in various sports leagues to witness the truly better team have the better record. I will spare you the mathematics involved (available here) but when you look at the NBA over the past five seasons we find it took roughly 15 games, or 18 percent of the league’s 82-game schedule, to learn as much about the true talent level of an NBA team as we do about a pro football team in 12 NFL games (75 percent of the 16-game schedule).

Think about that: It takes almost one quarter of the time to know which NBA team is better than another than it does in the NFL, yet the NBA plays a season that is more than five times as long. And this has been the case for years. In 2012, Neil Pane, writing for the now defunct Basketball Prospectus, found 12 NBA games were equivalent to 10 games in the NFL using data from 2005 to 2011, strengthening the case that the time for shortening the NBA is perhaps overdue.

A shortened season probably boosts the overall quality of the on-court product as well. Studies have shown offensive and defensive efficiencies improve with more rest and fewer back-to-back games, two areas that would improve if the NBA shortened its regular season.

Obviously 15 games is not enough for the NBA to thrive financially, yet a 58-game regular season, in which each of the league’s 30 teams play one game against every other team at home and on the road, is intriguing. Last season, among the top 10 teams with the best record at Game 58, just one, the Indiana Pacers, fell out of the top 10 by the last game of the regular season, making way for the Utah Jazz to crack the top 10 by year’s end. The top four teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets, all remained the same with just the Warriors and Raptors flipping the Nos. 2 and 3 spots.

“Sometimes it’s science, but sometimes it’s art,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters in April. “I think a fair point from fans could be if ultimately the science suggests that 82 games is too many games for these players, maybe you shouldn’t have an 82-game season. I accept that, and that’s something we’ll continue to look at.

“We and the players have a common interest in maximizing viewership and maximizing interest,” the commissioner continued. “The format we have in place now … I’m a traditionalist on one hand, but on the other hand it’s 50 years old or so presenting an 82-game season, and there’s nothing magical about it.”

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