The NBA has an unbalanced schedule, and it will continue to have one as long as the league is determined to play 82 games, include 30 teams and use an antiquated divisional format. Given competition for arena dates, logistical realities (some teams, especially in the Northwest Division, always have to travel more over a season), national TV requirements and the rule that teams must play each division rival four times, it is impossible to build a perfectly balanced NBA schedule.
And so every season, when the schedule is released, we see instant reaction from fans — almost literally instant in this age — about this team or that team being “screwed,” and how the league has it out for the Nuggets or favors the Lakers. The league, in reality, has it out for no one, and the schedule is much less imbalanced than most people think. The league’s schedule-maker, Matt Winick, is a brilliant guy with all sorts of resources at his disposal and a million different variables he has to take into account.
Most conspiracy theorists don’t consider all those variables, from hockey to flight paths, and most don’t consider every facet of the schedule itself. What I find most common in tweets and e-mails is the tendency to zero in on one detail as prima facie evidence that the league has saddled Team X (always the fan’s favorite team, somehow) with a schedule disadvantage. The most common piece of data cited is usually the team’s number of back-to-back games, or perhaps a very tough stretch with which a team must open the season.
And discrepancies in those areas exist. The Nuggets open with 17 of their first 23 games on the road, and a bunch of teams — nine to be exact — will play a league-high 22 back-to-backs, compared to just 13 for the Magic, 15 for the Thunder and 16 each for the Lakers and Heat.
But you can’t stop there. The next logical place to look is opponent rest data, and there you’ll find the league’s first and easiest way to balance things. The Nuggets, of course, are going to make up those home games later in the season, and they will play 12 games in which they will have one day of rest and their opponent will be on the second half of a back-to-back — the second-highest number of such games in the league, per the work of well-known analyst Ed Kupfer.
And Denver should win a fair share of those 12 games; long-term studies have shown that teams on the second end of a back-to-back have a collective winning percentage of .430.
But there is even mystery here. Is it better to face a really good team on the second end of a back-to-back, or a really bad one? The latter game is an almost certain win, but the former — against the top team — provides a better than usual chance to snag a win that would otherwise be unlikely. Then again: If you lose that game against the good team, you’ve “wasted” one of those favorable rest nights on your schedule.
And take the Nuggets again: Is it better to have a road-heavy stretch early, when teams are finding themselves, or later in the season, when opponents might be injured, tired or barren because of some “we give up” deadline moves?
Some of these questions have no solid answers. The least sexy answer in sports pontificating is, “I don’t know,” but sometimes you don’t know. And when it comes to something with as many moving parts as the NBA schedule, we all know less than we think.
But can you know some things, if you care to look. Opponent rest data, cataloged here at NBA Stuffer, shows a pretty strong overlap between the number of back-to-backs a team plays and the number of times it plays an opponent on a back-to-back. The Lakers only play 16 of those suckers, but the back end in all 16 is on the road — highly unusual — and on the flip side, they only get a league-low 12 games all season against opponents on the second end of a back-to-back.
There are little cookies all over the place. Boston has 22 back-to-backs, tied for most in the league, and a middling 17 games against teams on the second end — a disadvantage. But they play just one four-games-in-five-nights stretch all season and play a league-high eight games (tied with Golden State) on three or more days of rest. How valuable is that extra third day of rest? I have no clue, and some of the smartest NBA analysts I know with teams across the league admit they don’t, either. Is it better to have that third day of rest on a road trip? After a road trip? Against a good team or a bad one?
Clinging to the 82-game system also gives the league a chance for small make-ups here and there based on which opponents in its own conference a team plays three times instead of four. (Teams play each club from the opposite conference twice, each divisional opponent four times, six other conference teams four times and the remaining four teams just three times each). The disadvantaged Nuggets, with that rough start and a bad overall rest differential, get the three-game break against the Clippers and Grizzlies — two of the five best teams in their conference.
Go through all 30 teams, and you’ll find some small give-backs like these.
This is not to say the schedule is perfectly balanced. It isn’t, and can’t be. It is to say three things:
• It’s more balanced than it appears after a cursory analysis;
• There are variables with impacts good and bad that we simply don’t understand;
• Whatever imbalances might exist in the end rank way down the list of things that determine a team’s fate. Talent and coaching top that list, followed by injuries, the timing of injuries across the league, chemistry, trades, the strength of a team’s conference and lots of other things. “Schedule effects in the NBA aren’t a big deal,” one league insider told me. “They get swamped by injury and team quality.” Every single person I talked to about this issue over the last couple of days essentially echoed this sentiment, though I know a few people around the league who would disagree.
One such imbalance that need not exist: divisional play and the scheduling quirks that result. When the Southwest Division was a beast two seasons ago, with Houston finishing last at 43-39, all five teams had to play their other four divisional mates four times each. A team in that division with a decent national TV presence — such as Dallas — is likely also going to have play four games against the out-of-division Lakers and at least one other elite out-of-division team, cutting their chances of getting the minimum three games against a top opponent. A team in a poor division gets four games against a few patsies, and with a tad of scheduling luck with the three-gamers, could gain a slight edge this way.
The Atlantic Division’s glamour teams — New York, Boston and Brooklyn — will be examples of this phenomenon in 2012-13. The Raptors and Nets are going to be much better, removing the division’s doormats, and the league/networks want all three of these clubs to face as many glamour teams as many times as possible. Boston, for instance, gets the minimum three games against Indiana, Charlotte, Washington and Orlando. Do you think there was any way the league was going to limit Boston-Miami to three games?
As I’ve written before, there is really little practical need for divisions. They screw up tie-breaking rules in ridiculous ways, and they bring this weird scheduling balance issue with them. The league could create an 86-game schedule in which each team plays every conference opponent four times and every opposite conference opponent twice. I’m generally opposed to increasing the number of overall games, but it’s hard to cut and maintain perfect scheduling balance–both in terms of opponents and game locations.
An alternative might be having each team play every other team twice, home and away, for a 58-game schedule. That would call into question the need for conferences at all, which is why other proponents of a shorter schedule, including Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com, have suggested systems in which teams play those from the opposite conference just once each. That would create some imbalances, but I’m not sure they’d be any more meaningful (which is to say, not that all that meaningful) than the ones that exist now.
One purpose divisions do serve is to minimize travel, but they only serve that purpose for some teams — especially those in the Central Division. Evening out the schedule and cutting the number of games would increase travel for some teams, but could also equalize travel around the league and minimize the long-term impact of constant travel by including more rest.
Just some food for thought as we enter the NBA dog days.