Monday, March 14, 2011

Please, No More Pro Hoops Around The Equinox

The last month of the NBA season is no fun for anyone. The worst teams are actively tanking. The best teams are resting their starters, as the marginal change in expected wins from playing the starters 40 MPG instead of 30 MPG is unlikely to affect playoff seeding. It is only the mediocre teams churning around the 7th and 8th playoff spots (this season, the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets) that actually give a darn.

The revenue boost from at least two home playoff games can be substantial for an owner. If you can fill a 20,000 seat arena at an average price of $30 per ticket, that is $600,000 per game and over $1 million if, at worst, your team gets quickly swept in four games by a real power. If your team gets lucky and defies expectations to win a playoff series (let us think of 2005's Jerome James-led Seattle Supersonics, or 2001's Raptors), that represents even more home games at higher per-seat prices. So there is good reason for the Bucks and Rockets to fight all the way to the end for the final playoff seed. [On the other hand, a better path to financial prudence would simply be not to sign the Jerome Jameses of the league to multi-million-dollar contracts.]

For the rest of us, the waning winter and "madness" of the college playoff are enough to distract us from the meaningless final weeks. I might propose that the final month of the NBA season simply be cancelled, giving playoff teams a break between mid-March and mid-April. Nearly six months of regular-season games is just too much, especially for players. Posit, further, that ticket prices could be raised for the remaining ~65 regular season games so that team revenues come out even. Some might argue that with a five-month season, the fifth month, mid-February through mid-March, would then become the doggy days wherein nobody tries. But, if you'll permit me some math for a moment, the standard deviation of the sample mean (in other words, if the team's win-loss record after playing N games is a measure of how truly good it is, how prone is the measure to error?) is inversely proportional to the square root of N. The first derivative of that function is negative, but inversely proportional to N^(3/2). Back in plain English, the "marginal reliability" effect of playing more games decreases the more games you play. The 66th through 82nd games are less meaningful than the 49th through 65th, say, games would be. As we have seen during the past few weeks, as the Bulls, Celtics, and Heat jockeyed for playoff seeding, we still don't yet know who the "best" regular season team is. But by April 1st we surely will.

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