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Why Are There 82 Games in an NBA Season?

Why are there 82 games in an NBA season? Joel Brigham explains why the league settled on that number.

Joel Brigham

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The Players’ Tribune does this thing where they ask players “fair or foul” questions meant to be quick hits on how they feel about certain issues, and Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris recently intimated that he’d be in favor of shortening the regular season, though the nature of the feature didn’t really give him much of an opportunity to explain his reasoning.

LeBron James, in a 2014 interview with ESPN.com, did expound a little, however.

“It’s not the minutes, it’s the games,” James said. “The minutes doesn’t mean anything. We can play 50-minute games if we had to. It’s just the games. We all as players think it’s too many games. In our season, 82 games is a lot. But it’s not the minutes. Taking away minutes from the game is not going to shorten the game at all.”

James and Harris are by no means the only players to call for a shorter NBA season. Kobe Bryant, for example, told Sports Illustrated over the summer that he believes a shorter season would decrease injuries while also increasing the value of the remaining regular season games.

“You can’t [just] lose five-to-10 games,” Bryant told SI. “If you’re going to do it, you’ve almost got to go quality versus quantity. If you’re going to shorten the schedule, then you’ve got to shorten the schedule and look to enhance your TV numbers substantially… because now every regular-season game is worth a s—.”

Strong words from a player who stopped mincing them years ago, but it’s an important point for an issue that may never go away. Owners make an average of around $173 million in revenue per year, which equates to an average of $2.1 million per game over an 82-game season. Cutting the season down to, say, 70 games could cost owners over $25 million on average, and bigger market teams like New York, L.A. and Chicago inevitably would lose even more than that.

That certainly explains why owners would be reticent to drop the total number of games played, especially when each individual exhibition is more profitable now than it ever has been, but how did the NBA decide on an 82-game season in the first place?

***

When professional basketball first started to gain some momentum over the course of the first third of the 20th century, teams played a similar slate of games as what we see now for college basketball teams. However, just like today’s students have classes to attend, early professionals had day jobs to pay their bills, which meant basketball was a secondary activity rather than the all-encompassing athletic odyssey it is today.

Then, the National Basketball Association formed, with all 11 teams playing 60 games over the course of the season, though that number was shortened the following year with only seven teams playing 48 games each. As new franchises popped up, however, and as the game grew increasingly profitable, the NBA slowly added a few games here and there until they got to 80 in 1961-1962, then 81 in 1966-1967 and finally 82 the year after that.

Since then, there have been only two instances of the league playing fewer than 82 games, and both of those instances occurred as a result of lockouts and concurrent temporary work stoppages.

But why 82 games? Why land on such an arbitrary number as the foundation for the length of a major professional sports league? Apparently it had everything to do with how hard owners could push the athletes without injuring them.

According to Slate, playing right around 80 games over the course of a six-month season would offer the tightest balance between profitability and the health of employees. In other words, it was about money. It’s always about money.

It’s been almost 50 years since that decision was made, and the game is more intense than it ever has been, particularly with teenage athletes spending so much time participating in AAU and international competitions at ever-younger ages. Weight training is more intensive, as are offseason workouts. It’s a different game now, yet players still chug along at max speed for 82 games a year.

One can’t help but wonder if a new assessment of revenue versus injury risk would come out differently based on the intensity and rigor of today’s game.

***

What would it take to shorten the season, then, even slightly? As Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com explained in a 2014 article, it would require some sort of exploration into discovering a balance between the profitability of games and the scarcity of games, which has worked quite well for NCAA’s March Madness and, of course, the NFL.

“In Economics 101, students learn about the utility or indifference curve, and how to find the sweet spot on the graph where a product’s availability matches market demand,” explained Arnovitz. Finding that balance isn’t easy, especially for those larger television markets that have huge TV deals that center around quantity over quality.

Still, as Arnovitz suggests, reducing the number of games dramatically (he suggests 44 games) would make every game more valuable and the season in general more unpredictable. It’s the importance of every single game and the unpredictability of both NFL games and March Madness games that have earned those organizations some of the biggest broadcasting deals in pro sports. For the NBA to drop games from its schedule, they’d need to bring in even more money, which doesn’t seem likely since they only recently nailed down the largest television deal in league history.

In other words, the concept of dropping games from the schedule is fun to talk about, but the potential revenue-losing experimentation required to find the sweet spot between player rest and league profitability means change probably isn’t coming any time soon.

Whatever the reason, the league settled on 82 games almost five decades ago and it stuck. It’s going to take a lot more than a few player opinions to change it at this point.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics

With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.

Buddy Grizzard

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Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.

After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.

“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”

Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.

“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”

Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.

“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”

While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.

“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”

With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.

“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”

While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.

“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”

With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.

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