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What If the NBA Was Like the NFL?

Posted by Neil Paine on January 28, 2010

In honor of the long 2-week layoff between the NFL's conference championship games and a little event I like to call the Super Bowl, I was thinking about what the NBA would be like if it was structured the same way as the NFL -- 16-game schedules, heavy divisional play with a set rotation of intraconference division matchups, 6 teams from each conference make the playoffs, etc. What if the 2009-10 season so far was structured that way? Who would win the NBA's Super Bowl?

Well, this is the part where I describe how I brought this wacky idea to life... First, I went to this terrific site to generate a schedule for our hypothetical NFLBA. As it turns out, the divisional setup of the 2010 NBA is basically identical to the NFL's setup from 1995 to 1998 (with differently-named divisions, of course), so it was easy to pick the 30-team schedule generator from that list and generate the 6 different possible combinations of schedules based on divisional alignment. Since the 2009 NFL schedule pitted the East divisions vs. the South ones, I decided to go with a schedule for our NBAFL that matched the Atlantic (the closest you can get to the East divisions) with the Southwest (the closest you can get to the South). That means we get this 17-week schedule (byes included):

WEEK 1 WEEK 2 WEEK 3 WEEK 4 WEEK 5 WEEK 6
LAL @ SAC ORL @ GSW LAL @ MIN LAL @ GSW PHO @ HOU OKC @ GSW
DEN @ POR PHO @ LAL GSW @ DEN HOU @ LAC GSW @ SAC LAL @ LAC
UTA @ PHO MIN @ DEN POR @ UTA OKC @ MIL UTA @ SAS SAC @ PHO
SAS @ MEM HOU @ NOH LAC @ OKC DEN @ CHI NJN @ MEM SAS @ POR
NOH @ OKC MEM @ DAL MEM @ HOU SAC @ UTA LAC @ DAL CLE @ MIN
DAL @ HOU SAS @ PHI NOH @ SAS TOR @ MEM NOH @ NYK IND @ DEN
TOR @ BOS NYK @ TOR NJN @ DAL POR @ NOH BOS @ DET DET @ UTA
CLE @ NJN BOS @ NJN NYK @ PHI CHA @ CLE MIL @ IND TOR @ PHI
DET @ NYK MIL @ DET MIL @ TOR IND @ DET ATL @ CHI NYK @ BOS
IND @ MIL UTA @ CLE CLE @ IND PHO @ MIA CHA @ LAL CHI @ MIL
MIN @ CHI CHI @ IND SAC @ ORL ORL @ ATL MIA @ TOR ORL @ NJN
PHI @ ORL LAC @ CHA MIA @ CHA DAL @ MIN ORL @ WAS WAS @ MIA
CHA @ WAS MIA @ SAC ATL @ PHO PHI @ CLE ATL @ CHA
ATL @ MIA WAS @ ATL DET @ WAS
GSW @ LAC OKC @ POR CHI @ BOS
WEEK 7 WEEK 8 WEEK 9 WEEK 10 WEEK 11 WEEK 12
MEM @ NOH DET @ CHI WAS @ LAL OKC @ DEN ORL @ PHO GSW @ MIA
SAC @ LAL MIN @ SAC GSW @ MEM MIN @ MEM UTA @ MIN LAC @ PHO
GSW @ ATL IND @ POR LAC @ SAC SAS @ DAL POR @ OKC MIN @ POR
PHO @ LAC DEN @ OKC NOH @ PHO NOH @ HOU DEN @ LAL OKC @ CLE
POR @ MIL MEM @ UTA OKC @ MIN PHI @ NYK NYK @ HOU HOU @ DEN
MIN @ OKC HOU @ SAS SAS @ NJN BOS @ ATL SAS @ NOH MIL @ UTA
DEN @ UTA DAL @ NOH HOU @ DAL NJN @ TOR DAL @ GSW NOH @ MEM
TOR @ SAS BOS @ TOR TOR @ NYK IND @ CLE MEM @ PHI LAL @ SAS
BOS @ HOU MIL @ CLE PHI @ BOS CHI @ POR NJN @ BOS PHI @ TOR
WAS @ PHI CHA @ ORL CLE @ DET LAL @ ORL DET @ IND NYK @ NJN
DAL @ NYK NYK @ MIA UTA @ IND SAC @ CHA CHA @ ATL CHI @ DET
NJN @ CHA ATL @ WAS MIL @ CHI MIA @ DET MIA @ LAC ATL @ ORL
MIA @ ORL PHI @ NJN POR @ DEN LAC @ WAS WAS @ MIL IND @ CHA
PHO @ GSW CLE @ CHI WAS @ SAC
DAL @ BOS
WEEK 13 WEEK 14 WEEK 15 WEEK 16 WEEK 17
CHA @ GSW LAC @ LAL CLE @ DEN OKC @ HOU MIN @ UTA
DEN @ MIN SAC @ GSW LAL @ ATL NJN @ CHI NJN @ NYK
MEM @ LAL DET @ OKC SAC @ LAC LAC @ GSW ATL @ LAC
PHO @ SAC UTA @ DEN GSW @ PHO LAL @ PHO SAS @ SAC
POR @ LAC NYK @ SAS MIN @ IND SAC @ NOH PHO @ POR
UTA @ OKC HOU @ NJN OKC @ UTA UTA @ POR CHI @ OKC
SAS @ HOU NOH @ TOR HOU @ MEM MIL @ MIN DAL @ MEM
NOH @ DAL PHI @ DAL DAL @ SAS MEM @ SAS HOU @ TOR
BOS @ NYK MEM @ BOS PHI @ NOH BOS @ PHI BOS @ NOH
NJN @ PHI IND @ CHI NYK @ MIL DET @ CLE DEN @ DET
TOR @ WAS MIL @ ORL TOR @ NJN TOR @ IND IND @ PHI
DET @ MIL CHA @ MIA POR @ DET ORL @ CHA CLE @ MIL
ORL @ IND CLE @ ATL CHI @ MIA ATL @ NYK ORL @ MIA
CHI @ CLE PHO @ WAS WAS @ ORL MIA @ WAS WAS @ CHA
MIA @ ATL POR @ MIN CHA @ BOS DEN @ DAL GSW @ LAL

Excellent. Now all we have to do is use each team's SRS score to create an expected winning % for each game, simulate the games, determine the playoff seedings, and sim through the postseason and the Super Bowl. Here's a totally random example season:

Sim #1
Atlantic Northwest
BOS 12-4 UTA 12-4
TOR 10-6 OKC 12-4
NYK 7-9 DEN 10-6
PHI 5-11 POR 9-7
NJN 1-15 MIN 1-15
Central Pacific
CLE 9-7 LAL 10-6
MIL 9-7 PHO 8-8
CHI 8-8 LAC 8-8
DET 6-10 SAC 5-11
IND 6-10 GSW 3-13
Southeast Southwest
ORL 13-3 SAS 12-4
MIA 12-4 DAL 12-4
ATL 8-8 MEM 11-5
CHA 7-9 NOH 5-11
WAS 5-11 HOU 4-12
Seeds Seeds
1. ORL 13-3 1. UTA 12-4
2. BOS 12-4 2. SAS 12-4
3. CLE 9-7 3. LAL 10-6
4. MIA 12-4 4. DAL 12-4
5. TOR 10-6 5. OKC 12-4
6. MIL 9-7 6. MEM 11-5
WILD CARD
MIL def CLE LAL def MEM
TOR def MIA OKC def DAL
DIVISIONAL
ORL def MIL OKC def UTA
TOR def BOS LAL def SAS
CONF CHAMP
TOR def ORL LAL def OKC
SUPER BOWL
LAL def TOR

Now, as is customary in posts like this, let's run through this fantasy situation 10,000 times and see who would have the best odds of winning the "Super Bowl" if the NBA had an NFL-style season structure:

Team Conf Div AvgW AvgL MaxW MinW 11+ W 9-10 W 7-8 W 4-6 W 0-3 W 16-0 0-16 1st-Div 2nd-Div 3rd-Div 4th-Div 5th-Div
BOS E A 11.3 4.7 16 4 6964 2530 472 34 0 31 0 8374 1286 278 62 0
TOR E A 8.7 7.3 15 2 1611 3918 3337 1116 18 0 0 1102 5319 2421 1154 4
NYK E A 7.4 8.6 14 1 420 2316 4181 2972 111 0 0 319 1943 4238 3487 13
PHI E A 7.2 8.8 14 1 287 1938 4196 3417 162 0 0 205 1452 3061 5261 21
NJN E A 1.3 14.7 7 0 0 0 1 345 9654 0 2501 0 0 2 36 9962
CLE E C 11.8 4.2 16 5 7884 1871 236 9 0 49 0 9196 689 98 16 1
MIL E C 8.1 7.9 15 1 981 3270 3870 1824 55 0 0 578 5674 2374 1000 374
CHI E C 7.2 8.8 13 1 289 1933 4189 3438 151 0 0 175 2461 4354 2119 891
DET E C 5.6 10.4 13 0 36 563 2492 5687 1222 0 4 29 720 1818 3987 3446
IND E C 5.3 10.7 12 0 16 364 2152 5984 1484 0 6 22 456 1356 2878 5288
ORL E S 10.5 5.5 16 3 5153 3561 1153 131 2 6 0 3900 3638 1676 699 87
ATL E S 10.4 5.6 16 3 4836 3566 1381 215 2 9 0 4599 2958 1596 731 116
MIA E S 8.7 7.3 15 2 1693 3603 3454 1229 21 0 0 792 1632 2815 4006 755
CHA E S 8.5 7.5 15 2 1276 3766 3646 1299 13 0 0 692 1667 3575 3329 737
WAS E S 5.4 10.6 13 0 30 427 2262 5875 1406 0 13 17 105 338 1235 8305
DEN W N 10.1 5.9 16 3 4251 4009 1529 210 1 1 0 3808 2694 2066 1429 3
UTA W N 10.1 5.9 16 3 4187 4031 1546 235 1 4 0 3078 2912 2361 1645 4
POR W N 9.5 6.5 15 2 3037 4125 2339 493 6 0 0 1684 2411 2818 3080 7
OKC W N 9.5 6.5 15 3 2894 4239 2397 467 3 0 0 1430 1983 2754 3824 9
MIN W N 2.3 13.7 9 0 0 1 29 1740 8230 0 876 0 0 1 22 9977
LAL W P 11.3 4.7 16 4 6984 2524 470 22 0 33 0 8564 1242 164 23 7
PHO W P 8.7 7.3 15 0 1708 3697 3337 1230 28 0 1 1194 6135 1783 677 211
SAC W P 6.2 9.8 14 0 90 940 3346 5045 579 0 1 93 983 2927 3547 2450
LAC W P 6.2 9.8 13 0 115 942 3246 5096 601 0 4 115 1142 3603 3131 2009
GSW W P 5.4 10.6 12 0 37 433 2181 5894 1455 0 9 34 498 1523 2622 5323
SAS W S 10.4 5.6 15 3 4792 3694 1327 184 3 0 0 5287 2706 1264 573 170
DAL W S 10.0 6.0 16 3 4036 3969 1727 266 2 2 0 3307 3824 1825 800 244
HOU W S 8.3 7.7 15 2 1184 3322 3721 1725 48 0 0 769 1754 3329 2779 1369
MEM W S 8.1 7.9 15 2 865 3225 4102 1771 37 0 0 525 1387 2709 3738 1641
NOH W S 6.4 9.6 14 0 162 1126 3396 4753 563 0 1 112 329 873 2110 6576
Team Conf Div Playoffs #1Seed CCWin CCLoss SBWin SBLoss
BOS E A 9499 2304 2388 2282 1214 1174
TOR E A 4885 145 180 375 70 110
NYK E A 1778 25 31 102 11 20
PHI E A 1279 15 9 50 4 5
NJN E A 0 0 0 0 0 0
CLE E C 9804 4767 3640 2444 1963 1677
MIL E C 3344 71 98 225 36 62
CHI E C 1436 13 27 78 3 24
DET E C 289 2 1 11 0 1
IND E C 174 2 0 1 0 0
ORL E S 8744 979 1334 1706 628 706
ATL E S 8584 1386 1865 1794 987 878
MIA E S 4934 162 198 476 79 119
CHA E S 4996 127 229 444 84 145
WAS E S 254 2 0 12 0 0
DEN W N 7693 1395 1450 1453 702 748
UTA W N 7520 1154 1279 1289 649 630
POR W N 5798 539 530 775 225 305
OKC W N 5417 376 482 685 190 292
MIN W N 0 0 0 0 0 0
LAL W P 9413 4038 3482 2161 1940 1542
PHO W P 3527 184 232 405 81 151
SAC W P 328 4 4 19 3 1
LAC W P 378 5 9 19 2 7
GSW W P 145 2 0 7 0 0
SAS W S 7766 1281 1416 1588 664 752
DAL W S 7085 818 865 1126 366 499
HOU W S 2468 105 141 254 57 84
MEM W S 1977 84 89 178 37 52
NOH W S 485 15 21 41 5 16

The poor Nets -- even with the NFL's trademark short-season randomness, they never made the playoffs and only mustered 7 wins in a season once:

Sim #1403
Atlantic Northwest
BOS 14-2 OKC 12-4
PHI 8-8 DEN 9-7
NJN 7-9 POR 9-7
TOR 6-10 UTA 8-8
NYK 5-11 MIN 3-13
Central Pacific
CLE 13-3 LAL 11-5
MIL 8-8 PHO 9-7
CHI 8-8 LAC 8-8
DET 4-12 SAC 4-12
IND 4-12 GSW 3-13
Southeast Southwest
ORL 13-3 DAL 11-5
CHA 10-6 SAS 10-6
MIA 9-7 HOU 9-7
ATL 8-8 MEM 8-8
WAS 3-13 NOH 6-10
Seeds Seeds
1. BOS 14-2 1. OKC 12-4
2. CLE 13-3 2. LAL 11-5
3. ORL 13-3 3. DAL 11-5
4. CHA 10-6 4. SAS 10-6
5. MIA 9-7 5. DEN 9-7
6. ATL 8-8 6. POR 9-7
WILD CARD
ATL def ORL POR def DAL
CHA def MIA SAS def DEN
DIVISIONAL
BOS def ATL OKC def POR
CHA def CLE SAS def LAL
CONF CHAMP
BOS def CHA OKC def SAS
SUPER BOWL
BOS def OKC

The worst team by SRS to win the NBA Super Bowl was Sacramento, whose -3.48 SRS ranked 24th in the league through Tuesday's games. Here's the best of the 3 Kings Super Bowl-winning seasons:

Sim #6360
Atlantic Northwest
NYK 12-4 POR 12-4
BOS 11-5 UTA 11-5
PHI 7-9 DEN 10-6
TOR 5-11 OKC 7-9
NJN 2-14 MIN 4-12
Central Pacific
CLE 12-4 SAC 12-4
MIL 7-9 LAL 9-7
CHI 7-9 PHO 9-7
DET 7-9 GSW 7-9
IND 4-12 LAC 6-10
Southeast Southwest
MIA 10-6 SAS 10-6
ORL 8-8 HOU 9-7
WAS 8-8 DAL 7-9
ATL 7-9 MEM 7-9
CHA 7-9 NOH 6-10
Seeds Seeds
1. CLE 12-4 1. POR 12-4
2. NYK 12-4 2. SAC 12-4
3. MIA 10-6 3. SAS 10-6
4. BOS 11-5 4. UTA 11-5
5. ORL 8-8 5. DEN 10-6
6. WAS 8-8 6. LAL 9-7
WILD CARD
MIA def WAS LAL def SAS
ORL def BOS UTA def DEN
DIVISIONAL
CLE def ORL POR def LAL
MIA def NYK SAC def UTA
CONF CHAMP
MIA def CLE SAC def POR
SUPER BOWL
SAC def MIA

Since I used the SRS ratings through Tuesday's games to generate these simulations, we also know that the Lakers were morally the "best team" in the league in the eyes of the program. This means we can compare their rate of winning the "Super Bowl" to the rate we found when we simulated the 2010 NBA back before the season started (another case where we knew which team was morally the league's best). In that post, the best team in the NBA walked away with the title 48% of the time; in this simulation, the Lakers only won a championship 19.4% of the time. That difference is pretty remarkable, though not surprising, since the NBA is known as the sport where the best teams win most often, and the NFL is known for its "any given Sunday" policy of establishing parity. Still, if these simulations do a decent job of modeling reality (and I think they do), it means the best pro basketball team is approximately 2 and a half times more likely to win its league championship than the best pro football team.

So what do you guys think? Should the NBA inject more randomness into its formula by shortening the season and playoff series? Or are you comforted by the fact that the "right team" wins an NBA title more often than in any other sport?

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8 Responses to “What If the NBA Was Like the NFL?”

  1. RobertAugustdeMeijer Says:

    This is alot of fun, thanks for the delightful post.
    I myself prefer the NBA's structure, but I imagine that American football is too physical for best-of-seven series.
    If the basketball players could take it, I would even support a double-elimination playoff structure (getting knocked out of the playoffs puts you in a mirror playoff where you can compete a second time for a finals spot). I just like competitions to mean something.

  2. P Middy Says:

    One thing's for sure, starters would play about 46 minutes a game each. Without the grind of 82 games, there's a lot less need to save anything. And a huge advantage would go to teams who kept their core players in tact and made as few moves as possible in the off season. When you've only got 16 games, being ready to go from game 1 makes a huge difference. There's no warm up time.

  3. Brank_Manderbeak Says:

    Very interesting take Neil, good work. That said, I'm glad I don't live in this awful dystopia that you've just created.

  4. Eric Says:

    What I think this is missing is that the minutes would more resemble a playoff game, where starters play dramatically more minutes. Teams like Atlanta (6 players over 1000 minutes, would gain wins at the expense of teams like the Spurs who depend on their depth as much as their starters.

    What would the numbers look like if you trimmed your bench down to 1 or 2 players?

  5. Jason J Says:

    One major difference is that you'd take out some of the randomness of injury. NFL players get hurt constantly. It's much more of a rarity among NBA players. Player careers don't tend to tank as quickly either... I think that level of parity, logically, would be less likely.

  6. mrparker Says:

    I've always wanted to see a second season where the same number of teams make the playoffs but instead of playoff series there was a round robin format. The reward for best record would be playing all the second season games at home. 2nd place would have to play all but one at home and last place would have to play all their games on the road. After the completion of that 15 game round robin, the top 2 teams would make the championship 7 game series with the top second season team getting the home field.

    I think ratings would be better for that, there would be more revenue generated, most likely the two best teams would most likely always play for the championship.

  7. Andrew Says:

    I would love a single table, home and away round robin NBA.

  8. Gareth Says:

    Someone better quickly sign up Tractor Traylor to slot in at Nose Tackle.