Sports Nut

Searching for Meaning in the NBA

Which pro league has the most meaningful regular-season games? Which has the least?

Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Bobcats, who finish with the worst record in the NBA

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images.

With a loss on Thursday night, the Charlotte Bobcats will finish with the lowest winning percentage in NBA history. The Bobcats, who sit at 7-58, have somehow had to convince fans to hand over legal tender in exchange for watching 10 entirely meaningless games—the number of home contests Charlotte played after being eliminated from playoff contention. In the NBA, it’s not just the worst of the worst that bear the burden of selling seats for pointless basketball action. The sales staff in Chicago, where the Bulls will be the East’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs, also had to convince fans to purchase tickets for nine home games that took place after the team clinched a postseason berth. Miami Heat fans, too, have been treated to several worthless, soul-crushing games in which Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade gave way to the likes of Dexter Pittman and James Jones.

It seems odd that so many NBA games carry so little weight. But is pro basketball really unusual in this regard—do the other pro sports leagues have a higher percentage of meaningful regular season games?

Let’s define a “meaningful game” as a contest that’s played before a team clinches a playoff spot or is eliminated from playoff contention. And in the case of the NFL, let’s say that a game is still meaningful if a team has clinched a playoff bid but hasn’t yet secured a first-round bye.

Given that definition, here’s how the data looks for the past two seasons in the four major North American pro sports leagues. (“MLB 8” represents baseball during its previous system of eight playoff teams. “MLB 10” is what the data would’ve looked like if baseball had selected 10 playoff teams per season in 2010 and 2011, as it will in 2012 and going forward.)

In our limited data set, then, the NBA does indeed have the lowest percentage of meaningful games per season. The NHL, by contrast, has the most meaningful games. Considering that both leagues have 30 teams, 16 playoff spots, and (in non-lockout-shortened years) 82-game seasons, why is there such a big difference here?

First, hockey games are more of a crapshoot. In this year’s playoffs, two of the three NHL teams with the most regular-season wins—the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins—lost in the first round. The final member of that trio, the New York Rangers, will be out as well if they lose to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night. In the regular season, too, upsets are more common in the NHL than in the NBA, likely because hockey games are lower-scoring and because talent is distributed more evenly in the NHL. In a league with more parity, it’s less likely for teams to rack up huge numbers of wins or losses. Rather, everyone will be jumbled in the middle, left to fight for a playoff spot until the dying days of the season.

The NHL also increases its meaningful-games percentage by awarding a point in the standings to teams that lose in overtime. (An NHL team that wins in overtime gets two points.) Giving away a charity point in nearly a quarter of games, it turns out, makes it extremely difficult for teams to pull away and clinch playoff spots, or to fade away and be eliminated early in the season.

What of the NFL and Major League Baseball? Pro football, which has the lowest percentage of upsets of any of the four leagues, keeps things meaningful by forcing teams that have already clinched a playoff spot to continue competing for a first-round bye. In addition to giving more teams a chance to crack the postseason, the expansion of the baseball playoffs will create a similar NFL-style layered bracket that encourages teams to keep competing to win their divisions. (The two wild card teams in each league will be forced into a one-game, sudden-death playoff.) Though a shift from 92.1 to 93.9 percent meaningful games doesn’t sound like much, that’s an average of around three more significant contests per team in a 162-game season—games that previously would have been given over to backups and AAA scrubs. For season ticket holders, that’s not a result to dismiss lightly.

Differences in parity aside, it appears the ideal way to maximize meaningful regular season games is to build playoff systems with tiered incentives. The NHL and NBA might consider a system that gives the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference an automatic 1-0 lead in the first round of the playoffs. This would give franchises a huge incentive to finish with one of the top seeds—ensuring that the hockey and basketball seasons are more meaningful during their final weeks—while making it more difficult for mediocre teams to blaze through the playoffs, a disturbing recent trend in the NHL that undermines the purpose of having a long regular season.

Right now, ordering season tickets is like buying a six-pack of beer and knowing there’s a good chance the last two bottles will be empty—and good luck trying to sell those empty bottles on StubHub. Aside from granting the worst team in the NBA passage to the playoffs, there’s no way to make Charlotte Bobcats games meaningful. But it’s a problem that the Bulls, the Heat, and the NBA’s other top teams don’t have any incentive to play their stars down the stretch. Until the league finds a way to make its season more meaningful, a lot of good basketball tickets will go to waste.