The NBA and its union have agreed upon a 72-game season to begin on December 22, ensuring not only that the league fulfills its obligations to the networks under its television contracts but also that statistically speaking, the texture of overall stat totals will look a lot like 2020 and provide about 85 percent of the stats of a true 82-game season.
This is important for, say, LeBron James‘ pursuit of NBA history—72 games puts him in range to accomplish the “career triple-double” of 10,000 rebounds and assists to go with his roughly 34,000 and counting career points—and it also allows LeBron to potentially pass Karl Malone for second on the all-time scoring list, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar firmly in his sights once order is restored in 2021-22 and LeBron has 82 games a season again.
It also provides a large enough sample of games that we’re unlikely to see any true shocks in the playoff picture; when the league stopped on March 11, the restart bubble provided eight “seeding games” that essentially gave the Portland Trail Blazers enough time to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8 seed, something that was entirely within the realm of the plausible in March.
Meanwhile, the East had been decided by the All-Star break; Washington was only in the bubble because they were technically, barest-of-chances not quite mathematically eliminated from getting within four games of the playoffs for a play-in game, something that backfired so horribly on them that the official 2019-20 standings have Charlotte—a team that wasn’t even invited to the bubble—as the ninth-place finisher.
The point here is that 72 games is a plenty representative sample. Back in the old days, between 1953 and 1959, NBA seasons were 72 games long, and stats from back then are perfectly cromulent NBA stat lines for a full season, especially in these days of load management; players play as many minutes due to rotations and load management in 82 games now as they did then.
The more important question is how in the world does the NBA intend to play 72 games when they don’t start the season until two months later than usual?
On December 22, 2019, the Hornets had already played 33 games. The Boston Celtics had only played 27. But in each case, there were between 49 and 55 games remaining in the season.
On December 25, 2011, the truncated 2011-12 season tipped off with a slate of Christmas Day games to bring an end to the 2011 lockout. Between then and April 26, teams played 66 games, and the broad consensus is that the schedule was way too tightly packed.
Indeed, cramming 66 games into four calendar months was partially blamed for Derrick Rose‘s torn ACL on the eve of the 2012 playoffs, a playoff season that saw the top-seeded Chicago Bulls bounced in the first round by the 8 seed Philadelphia 76ers.
Expecting this 72-game season to end even by Mother’s Day (May 10, 2021) is to invite a similar disaster, as even with 17 extra calendar days in the season (three days earlier start, 14 days later finish), there will still be a bunch of back-to-backs and four-in-fives to cram that much basketball into that little time.
In 2018-19, the season started on October 16 and ran through April 10. That’s five months, 25 days.
The first team to play its tenth game (and therefore have 72 left) was Golden State on Nov. 2. Detroit played its tenth game six days later, on Nov. 8.
That means that the shortest possible “72-game season” based on the parameters of a normal 82-game season is five months and two days.
Five months and two days from Dec. 22 is May 24, two weeks after Mother’s Day and the day before Memorial Day.
Normally, Memorial Day is around the time the conference finals are peaking. Indeed, May 25, 2019 was the day the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors played Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Raptors winning to advance to their eventual championship. Five days earlier, the Warriors had finished off the Portland Trail Blazers to complete their sweep of the Western Conference Finals.
So if the NBA wants to run its season all the way out to the end of May, they’ll be so far behind that the NBA Finals may not conclude until the end of July.
Now granted, that could lead to a shortened offseason and a late-October start to the 2021-22 season, where 82 games could be played in a reasonable amount of time. Any year that features a major international competition in which NBA players participate—like the potential restart of the postponed Tokyo Olympics, which may not include NBA players if their own season is still ongoing—has a naturally shortened offseason for those players.
That’s not the NBA’s problem now, however. USA Basketball—and potentially quite a few overseas national teams—might just have to learn to live without NBA players in the next Olympics, creating one of the strangest tournaments in the past 30 years.
But it does leave open the question of just how late the NBA can end a 72-game season without either risking a Derrick Rose-like injury that gets blamed on a too-tightly-packed schedule with too many games or else risking a season that goes on so long that it messes with the timing of an 82-game season after these extraordinary circumstances have passed.
It will be interesting to see when the NBA chooses to end the 2020-21 season. 2012 tells us that Mother’s Day is on the table. 2019 tells us it’ll be closer to Memorial Day.
But only the NBA and the union will decide for sure, and we’ll find out when they do.