Designing Better Basketball

I love basketball. Played at its highest level, basketball produces some of the most astonishing displays of freakish athleticism achievable by human beings. The game has drama and tension, larger-than-life stars and villainous personalities. It’s a wonderful sport. Unfortunately, at times at least, watching basketball can be tremendously boring and tedious. No disrespect to Dr. James Naismith, but the game he created is organizationally flawed and generally an example of bad design thinking.

Taking a moment to offer some clarification, for the purposes of this post, “sport” refers to the physical activity of playing basketball; the dribbling, passing, shooting, and so on, while a “game” is the organized contest and its sundry structural rules.

There is an old and stale joke that goes, “You see the last five minutes of a basketball game, you’ve seen the whole thing.” The adage is exaggerated, there is a grain of truth inside that quip. The outcome of a basketball game is of course determined by the sum of the action over the entirety of the game, but for many fans, particularly the casual ones, the drama and excitement are mainly found in the final minutes.

The problem stems from the scoring, specifically, that there is so much of it. NBA teams scored an average of 98.1 points per game in the 2012-2013 season. For comparison, in 2012, the New England Patriots averaged 34.8 points per game, making them the highest scoring team in the NFL by a significant margin. It’s hardly fair to compare a single basket to a touchdown, but that is precisely the problem. Points are much harder to come by in a football game than in a basketball game, and scoring plays are celebrated as such, even when they occur early in a game. That’s not the case in basketball.

A basket in the first quarter of a game is worth the same number of points as a basket in the fourth quarter, but the latter often feels much more significant because of its timing. Economists and sabermetricians will be quick to point out that the actual value of the baskets is unchanged, but we're discussing basketball on a purely aesthetic level, so our concerns differ somewhat. The end of a basketball game is exciting because the dwindling game clock guarantees a scarcity of remaining baskets, and therefore gives each basket the illusion of elevated importance, creating tension and excitement among spectators.

Basketball is hardly the only sport with a surplus of scoring – tennis and volleyball distribute points on every play – but those sports are typically played in an altogether different format. Tennis and volleyball compensate for the sheer volume of scoring by adding a second tier of scoring – the set. Where points are guaranteed to be plentiful, sets are scarce. Winning a set is a major accomplishment, and players and fans recognize them accordingly. Sets are small games themselves, but they are decided much more rapidly than an entire match. The format creates tension, and heightens the perceived significance of individual points. It creates an artificial scarcity, and the corresponding mindset enhances the excitement of the sport.

Basketball could benefit from a similar structure. Like volleyball and tennis, basketball has a surplus of scoring. The NBA plays four 12-minute quarters, and the team with the most points at the end of the full 48 minutes wins. Last season, teams averaged 81.9 field goal attempts per game. That works out to just under two shots per minute of play, not including free throws. A 48-minute game is too long to maintain a scarcity mindset throughout, so why not play several, shorter games? I propose restructuring a traditional basketball game into a match of five mini-games, each one 10-minutes long. The first team to win three games wins the match. The timing would produce approximately the same volume of scoring as you would find in a normal game, yet at any given moment there would be a perceived scarcity.

Obviously, my proposal bastardizes Dr. Naismith’s original creation, but nearly all games have evolved over time, and mimicking the format of other successful games is a good track to follow. Beyond that, the NBA already applies the same thinking to its playoff system; each round is a best-of-seven contest between two teams. This is hardly a new idea; it’s just a better-designed one.