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NBA Nerds Are Right — Most Matchups On NBA TV Aren’t So Hot

On Monday night the most anticipated NBA game of the year was played between the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. Did you get a chance to watch it? No? You don’t have NBA TV, the peculiar channel that the NBA usually dumps its trash games onto? Damn shame, it was a lot of fun.

Why on earth the best game of the year was on a network available in less than half of households with a television in them is a pretty good question! The NBA has deals with ESPN (in 81 percent of homes with a TV, also where I work), TNT (about 82 percent coverage) and ABC (you probably have ABC). In fairness, the schedule of the year’s nationally televised games is released way before the season starts, and it’s possible that a game between two of the best teams in the league was missed by the other carriers or simply couldn’t be crammed into one of the marquee network nights. Nationally televised games also tend to err on the side of featuring teams from major media markets rather than legitimately good basketball — this is why a wretched Lakers team parading around the mummified Kobe Bryant had, at the beginning of the season, 19 national games, tied for seventh in the league.

Still, it got us wondering: NBA TV does suck, right? It’s not just in our head? It isn’t just a cheap joke about quarantining the Nets-Hawks playoff series in the farthest hinterlands on hand?

NETWORK AVG. COMBINED ELO OF MATCHUP
ABC 3160
TNT 3133
ESPN 3103
NBA TV 3038

Yeah, it’s not in our heads. Games on NBA TV are of a lower quality by Elo than those on other networks. And that’s with those other guys eating an unfair share of Kobe this year, and a commensurate number of awful Lakers games the past two years.

I pulled as many television schedules going back to the 2011-12 season1 as I could. I cleaned the data2 and linked it up to the data from our NBA Elo interactive. Combining the Elo scores of the teams gives us a broad look at the game quality. Higher numbers mean the average team quality is higher in the matchup.3 This means a matchup between a great team and a mediocre team could score about the same as two decent teams facing each other. I consider those both good outcomes, with two sucky teams playing as a bad outcome. The heuristic isn’t perfect, but bear with me.

The difference between a game on ABC and NBA TV is 122 points. For some perspective, that’s roughly the difference between watching your team play the 53-29 Clippers and watching it mud wrestle the 45-37 Grizzlies. But even more, it’s not totally clear that the NBA is good at figuring out which of its basketball games are ripe for a national audience!

Monday’s game between the Warriors (an 1809 Elo rating going in) and Spurs (1782) was, needless to say, an outlier.

The average team Elo in the whole set — comprising both nationally televised games and the League Pass refuse — for the period we’re looking at is 1511. So we can say a matchup between two totally average teams would have roughly the combined matchup Elo of 3022. The games on NBA TV were at a 3038, just barely better than what a dude who knows nothing about basketball would pick randomly.

I have seen a vision of hell, and it is a network where the only respite from watching Grizzlies-Pelicans ad infinitum is an occasional D-League game.

Footnotes

  1. I used the Wayback Machine to get the schedules from 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16. Because of incomplete coverage, it’s possible I missed a few televised games relevant to our set. However, I pulled about as many games as expected based on contracts going back, so the effect would be minor.

  2. Stop announcing things in PDFs, people. Also, that 2011 lockout has a habit of showing up and making me furious out of nowhere.

  3. Elo is especially useful here because one of its characteristics is using past performance to inform a team’s current strength; this is handy for the model, but for our purposes also doubles as a proxy for how long a team has been relevant and presumably in demand.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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