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Does a shortened season mean a bunch of bad ball?

Posted Oct 14 2011 2:37PM

Already gone are the first 100 games of the 2010-11 NBA season. And because there are still a lot of issues for the league and players to resolve before we can have a new collective bargaining agreement, free agency and training camps, there's a chance that more games will be chopped off the schedule.

Whatever happens, we're dealing with a shortened season (if there is a season at all). We know that means lost revenue for both the owners and the players. But what does it mean on the court? To figure that out, we can look back at the 1998-99 season, when a lockout resulted in each team playing just 50 games.

Lowest scoring seasons since 1954-55
(Shot clock era)
Season G Points Pts/G
1998-99 725 132,792 183.2
2003-04 1,189 222,097 186.8
1954-55 288 54,579 189.5
2000-01 1,189 225,459 189.6
2002-03 1,189 226,102 190.2

Most people that watched the '98-99 season will tell you this: The basketball was ugly. And most people would be right.

Players were out of shape. Training camps were shortened (with each team playing just two preseason games). And 50 games were squeezed into just three months. As a result, '98-99 was the lowest-scoring season since the league adopted the 24-second shot clock in 1954.

Low scoring can be a product of either a slow pace or inefficient offense. The ugliness of '98-99 was a product of both. It was both the slowest paced and least efficient season of the last 20 years.

And this wasn't just a downward trend between the years of the shorter 3-point line and when the rules were changed to eliminate hand-checking on the perimeter. This was a clear dropoff from the previous season, with the league recovering (especially in regard to pace) the following year.

League pace,efficiency, 96-97 to 00-01
Season Pace OffRtg Pts/G
1996-97* 92.7 103.7 193.8
1997-98 93.0 102.0 191.1
1998-99** 91.6 99.2 183.2
1999-00 95.7 101.2 194.9
2000-01 93.8 100.2 189.6
* Third and final season of shorter 3-point line
** Lockout-shortened season
Pace = Possessions per team per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

Efficiency reached another nadir in the 2003-04 season, when the league scored just 100.0 points per 100 possessions. Then it took a big jump the following season and continued to trend up until '09-10. Last season, the league scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions.

Pace, meanwhile, hasn't been anywhere near as slow as it was in the lockout-shortened season. The '03-04 season was a low point for pace too, but was still more than a possession (per team per 48 minutes) faster than in '98-99. Last season, teams averaged 94.5 possessions per 48 minutes.

So the good news is that, even if there's a dropoff equivalent to the one suffered after the last lockout (about eight points per game), the basketball won't be nearly as ugly as it was in '98-99, because the league is starting from a better -- both faster and more efficient -- place.

Last season, the league scored 199.1 points per game, which is eight more than it scored in '97-98, the season before the last lockout. If we assume a drop of about eight points per game like there was in '98-99, the 2011-12 season would be just the seventh- or eighth-lowest scoring season since 1954. That's bad, but not completely unbearable.

Why was the offense so bad in the last shortened season?

There are four main factors that determine scoring efficiency: shooting, offensive rebounding, turnovers and free throws. And in '98-99, it was mostly the shooting that suffered.

Offensive numbers, 97-98 to 99-00
Season EFG% OREB% TORatio FTARatio 3P% 2P%
1997-98 47.8% 31.4% 16.5 28.0 34.6% 47.0%
1998-99 46.6% 30.2% 16.6 28.0 33.9% 45.7%
1999-00 47.8% 28.9% 16.1 26.3 35.3% 46.8%
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
OREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
TORatio = Turnovers per 100 possessions
FTARatio = Free throw attempts per 100 possessions

The 46.6 percent mark in effective field goal percentage was easily the lowest mark since the 3-point shot was adopted in 1979. Next closest was 47.1 percent in '03-04. And the numbers show that shooting dropped off more from inside the arc than from beyond it.

The drop in offensive rebounding percentage was just part of a 25-year trend that has seen the league go from grabbing 33.4 percent of offensive boards in '86-87 to grabbing just 26.4 percent last season.

Turnovers increased slightly, but were actually higher (16.8 per 100 possessions) in '96-97. And free throw frequency didn't seem to be affected at all.

Were the '99 playoffs ugly too?

In 1999, both pace and efficiency went down in the postseason. And like the regular season, at 175.2 points per game, it was the lowest-scoring postseason since the shot clock was put into play.

But interestingly, the '99 playoffs, with teams averaging 89.0 possessions per 48 minutes and just 98.0 points scored per 100 possessions, were neither the slowest nor the least efficient playoffs of the last 20 years. The '98 playoffs (88.3 possessions per 48 minutes) were slower and the '04 playoffs (96.2 points per 100 possessions) were less efficient. Downright nasty, actually.

Last season, the league averaged 102.9 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, with only one team (New York) below that 96.2 mark.

Are 50 games enough to determine the best 16 teams?

At this point, we have no idea how many games each team will play this season. But if we were to get another 50-game season, we can be sure that almost all of the right teams will still be making the playoffs.

If you counted just the first 50 games of each team's schedule over the last five years, 73 of the 80 playoff teams would have been the same as the ones that actually qualified. Last year, the only team that fell out of playoff position in the final 32 games was the Utah Jazz, who lost Jerry Sloan after Game 54 and then made a major trade.

Interestingly, three of the seven comeback teams went on to pull off a first-round upset.

Playoff changes between Games 50, 82
Last five seasons
Season Out In G Gained Playoff W
2010-11 Utah *Memphis 10 7
2009-10 Toronto Milwaukee 10 3
2008-09 Milwaukee Chicago 8 3
2007-08 New Jersey Philadelphia 7 2
2007-08 **Golden State **Houston 7 2
2006-07 Indiana New Jersey 9 6
2006-07 L.A. Clippers Golden State 4 5

* Memphis and Portland were both 26-24 after 50 games last year, but Portland would have been considered the No. 8 seed with a better conference record. Utah was three games ahead.
** Golden State and Houston were both 30-20 after 50 games in 2007-08, but the Warriors had won two of the three head-to-head matchups.
G Gained = Games gained in standings over last 32 games
Playoff W = Playoff wins

Does a shortened season increase the likelihood of playoff upsets?

In a shortened season, each game has added importance, but teams are still susceptible to injuries, early-morning arrivals on the road, and tough back-to-backs (or back-to-back-to-backs). For those '98-99 Knicks, injuries to Patrick Ewing (12 games missed) and Latrell Sprewell (13 games missed) affected a greater percentage of games than they would have in a normal year.

So playoff seeding is a little more random in a shortened season. Overall, there were five upsets (series lost by the team with home-court advantage) in the 1999 playoffs, with the Knicks pulling off three of them. In the 12 years since then, the league has seen an average of 3.6 playoff upsets per postseason. But there were five in 2006-07 and five again last year.

And of course, the team that the Knicks lost to in the 1999 Finals was the No. 1 overall seed. The San Antonio Spurs went 37-13 in the regular season and lost just twice in the postseason.

That was a great team no matter how many games were played.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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