Close Games in NBA History, What Happened?

10 Jan

After I explored blowouts in NBA history I quickly jumped into the opposite spectrum – close games.
Because if we exclude obvious factors like style and quality for fans who watch games and don’t cheer for any of the team involved close games are the most exciting possible outcome, right? At least that’s my opinion so with that premise I started digging into the same data-set as used in a previous post to search for games which ended with point differential equal to 3 or less and the results were surprising if not shocking…

Close Games in NBA History

Close Games in NBA History

I really could use your help here… because I have no idea what the hell happened in the last 4 seasons… we are at the all-time low number of close games!! Whaaaat?!?!

I’m not an advocate to get back to good old days with scores around 80 for each team but for me it is the most puzzling graph I’ve made on this blog.

I think two biggest changes can be attributed to two biggest changes in the rules of the game.
Because of 24-second shot clock it’s not possible to just keep the ball at the end of close game until time runs out and 3-point line added a new way to catch up… but also a new way to get away even more for better teams.

How do expansions fit into this picture?
In 1995-96 there was a standard season but then percentage suddenly dropped and got back two years later.
Between 1988 and 1990 four teams were added and there was also drop a year after and it got back two years later to previous levels. In 1976-77 was an immediate drop… but only temporary.
Between 1966 and 1971 NBA added eight teams and there was a change in both ways.

So it seems to me that expansion created only a temporary effect because of sudden increase of jobs to fill but with some influx of talent it got back to normal level. Am I right here?

Anyway, thanks for your eventual help to solve this puzzle…
Just for fun here are some curiosities for percentage of games ended with point differential equal 3 or less on a team level in the last 3 decades [I assumed continuity of franchises and mentioned when team had a smaller sample size]…

[2000-11] 984 games % [1990-99] 788 games % [1980-89] 820 games %
Boston Celtics 19,21 Toronto Raptors [1996] 18,92 Atlanta Hawks 20,73
Denver Nuggets 17,68 Indiana Pacers 18,91 Chicago Bulls 20,37
Oklahoma City Thunder 17,68 Washington Wizards 17,13 New York Knicks 20,12
Houston Rockets 17,38 Minnesota Timberwolves 16,88 Sacramento Kings 19,76
Memphis Grizzlies 17,17 Cleveland Cavaliers 16,62 Seattle SuperSonics 19,76
Philadelphia 76ers 17,07 Los Angeles Lakers 16,62 Golden State Warriors 19,63
New York Knicks 16,97 Sacramento Kings 16,37 Detroit Pistons 19,27
Charlotte Bobcats [2005] 16,90 Milwaukee Bucks 16,24 Houston Rockets 19,27
Toronto Raptors 16,77 Dallas Mavericks 16,12 Philadelphia 76ers 19,27
Milwaukee Bucks 16,67 Orlando Magic 15,99 Washington Bullets 18,90
Washington Wizards 16,57 Seattle SuperSonics 15,99 Indiana Pacers 18,78
Los Angeles Lakers 16,26 Charlotte Hornets 15,86 Dallas Mavericks [81] 18,43
Miami Heat 16,26 New Jersey Nets 15,86 Cleveland Cavaliers 18,41
San Antonio Spurs 16,26 Los Angeles Clippers 15,61 Los Angeles Lakers 17,80
Dallas Mavericks 16,06 Miami Heat 15,61 New Jersey Nets 17,80
Indiana Pacers 15,96 Chicago Bulls 15,48 Denver Nuggets 17,44
New Orleans Hornets 15,85 Atlanta Hawks 15,36 Milwaukee Bucks 17,20
Atlanta Hawks 15,75 Philadelphia 76ers 15,23 Portland Trail Blazers 17,07
New Jersey Nets 15,75 New York Knicks 15,10 San Antonio Spurs 17,07
Sacramento Kings 15,75 Denver Nuggets 14,85 Utah Jazz 16,46
Minnesota Timberwolves 15,55 Detroit Pistons 14,85 Boston Celtics 15,98
Orlando Magic 15,14 Portland Trail Blazers 14,72 Charlotte Hornets [89] 15,85
Detroit Pistons 15,04 San Antonio Spurs 14,72 Los Angeles Clippers 15,73
Cleveland Cavaliers 14,84 Houston Rockets 14,47 Phoenix Suns 15,24
Portland Trail Blazers 14,74 Phoenix Suns 14,47 Miami Heat [89] 14,63
Chicago Bulls 14,53 Boston Celtics 14,21 Average 18,04
Golden State Warriors 14,02 Golden State Warriors 14,21
Los Angeles Clippers 14,02 Utah Jazz 13,96
Utah Jazz 13,41 Vancouver Grizzlies [96] 11,15
Phoenix Suns 13,31 Average 15,57
Average 15,95

Obviously any team low on this list didn’t have to be boring or anything, it could end up there just by being a consistent contender like Jazz in the 90s. But there are also perennial losers mixed in.
On the other hand we have a lot of teams which… were close to average in terms of quality. Well, if your team has a point differential around zero it should be expected to have many close games…

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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


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