The 40-Minute NBA Game: Simple Proposal, Complex Consequences

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Dirk Nowitzki opposes Zach Lowe's proposal to shorten NBA games from 48 to 40 minutes. (Jim Mone/AP)
Former league MVP Dirk Nowitzki opposes Zach Lowe's proposal to shorten NBA games from 48 to 40 minutes. (Jim Mone/AP)

It can take three hours to watch 48 minutes of NBA action (and inaction). That disparity prompted Grantland’s Zach Lowe to write in a Tuesday column, “An NBA playoff game should not nudge up against Major League Baseball-level game times.”

Lowe’s solution: reduce playing time from 48 minutes to 40. He joined Bill Littlefield to discuss his proposal.

BL: Zach, aside from “increased watchability,” as you put it, why else cut games down to 40 minutes?

ZL: Increased watchability is never gonna be the answer, right, because money is always the answer. So, if you’re going to cut eight minutes off of a game, and you’re going to cut whatever commercial time comes with that, you’ve got to have a money argument somewhere. And the money argument that the NBA would consider whenever it raises this question seriously – and I think it will – is that if lopping eight minutes off of each game makes the games a little bit less predictable.

How do we make a sport that is a little bit too predictable, a little bit too top-heavy and imbalanced, a little bit less predictable?

Zach Lowe, Grantland staff writer

BL: Aside from making games less predictable, assuming that would be the case, how else would the change from 48 minutes to 40 minutes change play on the court? Superstars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant already average close to 40 minutes of playing time each night. Would they no longer need to take any rests on the bench?

ZL: I think that’s the most interesting sort of sub-question. I mean, if your goal is to make the league a little bit more competitive, this change has a potential anti-competitive effect of: what happens if LeBron plays the whole game?

BL: I can’t wait until the owners consider this proposition, and they say, “OK, this is good. Does this mean we can reduce salary levels of a factor of 8 over 40?

ZL: That would be a nice tradeoff because the owners, now they would look at this proposal and they’d be worried first and foremost about ad revenues and whether the national TV deal would be of less value because of commercial time.

So yeah, would they be able to cut salaries or would there be a reduction in roster spots because they only need eight or nine players instead of 13 or 14 or 15? And what happens to the salary structure of the league if you go that route? If you don’t need bench players, do they make the minimum? And then do you have to lift the ceiling that currently exists on star player salaries? You take a simple question and all of a sudden you’re going in 20 different directions.

BL: Well, I thought about that idea of reducing the size of the team, but you couldn’t really do that because you’d still presumably have practices and with a certain number of guys out with injuries you’d still have to be able to play five-on-five when you practiced.

ZL: You still would. So yeah, you’d need at least 12 or 13 guys just to scrimmage although I will say: there are some assistant coaches and video coordinators on those teams who would die to get out there for a five-on-five.

BL: And probably players who would enjoy whacking them in the head from time to time.

ZL: I’m sure they would – especially the geekier the guy, the more the NBA guys would enjoy having at them for 10 or 15 minutes.

BL: What are the chances that the change you’re proposing actually comes to pass?

ZL: Oh God, not good. I would say 10 to 15 percent, which is not super low. Adam Silver is the Deputy Commissioner of the NBA now. He’s going to take over for David Stern in February. He’s aware that both games are very long and that there may be an opportunity to get more eyeballs and more popularity by getting a little bit of the March Madness unpredictability into the NBA – even though it will never touch that level of unpredictability.

 BL: If the proposal doesn’t get accepted, what other steps could the league take to make games shorter­­ and, perhaps, less predictable?

ZL: Less predictable is a tougher nut to crack, I think, than shorter. Shorter, there’s like five or six things you could do, particularly to crunch time at the end of the game. For 20 years we’ve been making the joke about how you can tell your wife, “Oh, only a minute and a half left.” Now they know that means 45 minutes because of all the fouls and all the intentional fouls. So, there are a lot of little things you could do. The issue that I have is that you have to do seven or eight of those things, maybe, in concert to really make a dent at game length.

BL: I understand that one NBA superstar has already weighed in on your proposal. What does Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks think about it?

ZL: You know, Dirk – I don’t think he’s mind me saying this – he’s an old guy, and he’s had some injury problems. You know, when I approached him and a bunch of other guys with this – and he’s from Germany, obviously, where they play under this 40-minute rule. I thought Dirk was a sure thing to be pro shorter games, and he was like vehemently anti. He said 48 minutes, he loves to play, the longer the better. And his view was – there’s a move to sort of globalize the sport. You know, everyone should play by the same rules instead of the different sets of rules, and his view was: the NBA’s the best league in the world. People should play by our rules, not the other way around.

This segment aired on September 14, 2013.


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