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NBA releases schedule for the second half of the season

The NBA today released its game schedule and broadcast schedules for TNT, ESPN, ABC, NBA TV and ESPN Radio for the Second Half of the 2020-21 regular season, which will begin Wednesday, March 10 and conclude Sunday, May 16. The Second Half of the regular season will be followed by the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament (May 18-21) and the 2021 NBA Playoffs, which will tip off Saturday, May 22. The Play-In Tournament will determine the teams that will fill the seventh and eighth playoff seeds in each conference. The teams with the seventh-highest through the tenth-highest winning percentages in each conference will qualify for the Play-In Tournament.

The game schedules across TNT and ESPN for the final week of the regular season (May 10-16) will be determined at a later date in order to provide the most compelling matchups to a national audience leading into the NBA Play-In Tournament and the NBA Playoffs. In the final week of the regular season, TNT will present doubleheaders Tuesday, May 11 and Thursday, May 13, and ESPN will televise doubleheaders Wednesday, May 12 and Friday, May 14. ESPN will also air a game Sunday, May 16 on the final day of the regular season. TNT will tip off its coverage of the Second Half of the season Thursday, March 11 with a doubleheader as the Brooklyn Nets host the Boston Celtics (7:30 p.m. ET) and the Golden State Warriors visit the LA Clippers (10 p.m. ET). ESPN will begin its Second Half coverage Sunday, March 14 when the New Orleans Pelicans host the Clippers (9 p.m. ET). On Monday, March 15, ESPN’s first doubleheader in the Second Half will feature the New York Knicks visiting the Nets (8 p.m. ET) and the Lakers taking on the Warriors in San Francisco (10:30 p.m. ET).

In an effort to combat the piling up of games due to postponements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA on Wednesday said it will adjust the existing schedule to avoid having to fill in too many games during the second half of the season. To do so, the NBA will do two things: reschedule games that have already been postponed, where possible, between now and the league’s scheduled midseason break in early March; and reschedule games to the second half of the season — which has yet to be announced — in order to squeeze in more games where possible in the first half.

Washington’s second-half schedule might not be as jam-packed as first thought, after the NBA said Wednesday it was rescheduling some Wizards games after a half-dozen of their contests were postponed in recent weeks for virus-related reasons. Portland will now visit Washington on Tuesday, a game that was originally set for the second half. Washington will play at Charlotte on Feb. 7, a game that was rescheduled from Jan. 20. And that means the Blazers, who were scheduled to visit the Hornets that day, will now go to Charlotte in the second half of the schedule.

In the not so distant past, fallible humans came up with the schedule for our sports leagues. It was a painstaking, manual process. In the NFL, the late Val Pinchbeck would slowly piece together the entire football slate on a giant pegboard. Other leagues had too many games to fit on a pegboard, but they employed similarly artisanal methods of mapping the future. Matt Winick was the NBA’s Val Pinchbeck, the man who slowly, personally constructed the 1,230 game schedule within a tornado of yellow legal pads. He did it for three decades, and in his latter years on the job, used the trappings of modernity as a means to shift blame. As Winick told Howard Beck in a 2015 Bleacher Report story: “I tell the teams, ‘Hey, that’s the way the computer did it. But it was never the computer. I was the computer.”

Efficiency is sought as you hit the big time. TV partners are paying out expensive contracts, like that $2.66 billion the NBA gets annually from ESPN and TNT. Nothing can be left to chance, so everything can’t be left to one man. As one NFL executive once told the Los Angeles Times, “In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this, the computer sophistication has grown exponentially. So now we have not only the ability but the mandate to take all these considerations in parallel.” The same article says of the recent changes, “There has been a significant paradigm shift since those days when the schedule was built, and then games were distributed to the networks. Now, TV is a consideration from the start, and there are several marquee games that are essentials around which the schedule is constructed.”

Indeed, the power of national television in the NBA ecosystem is such that the league has rushed back for an opening night in December despite having just ended its season in mid October — an extreme maneuver even if justified. The NBA set a sports record for shortest ever offseason against the protestations of LeBron James because a) Sacrificing Christmas Day games can’t happen and b) They never want to repeat the experience of losing playoff viewership to the NFL ever again.

The NBA’s fancy proprietary software, called “Game Scheduling System” or “the computer” more colloquially, drew up the lion’s share of this national TV schedule. In 2015, GSS officially took over for Matt Winick. These days, Head of NBA Basketball Strategy & Analytics Evan Wasch is the man with authority over the machine. Wasch, who’s increasingly gained a reputation as the league’s big ideas guy, is of a new generation. He’s a data driven former Sloan Conference presenter who helped introduce the All-Star Game Elam Ending.

The schedule incorporates steps to reduce travel, including the use of a “series” model. In some instances where a team is scheduled to play twice in one market, those games have been scheduled to be played consecutively. Each team will play an average of four “series” in the First Half – two at home and two on the road. Additional steps include more instances of teams playing consecutive road games against teams that are geographically close, and roughly 50% fewer instances of teams making single-game road trips.

The N.B.A.’s goal is to complete the 2020-21 season before the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled from July 23 to Aug. 8 in 2021. That would allow the league to avoid direct competition with the Olympics and set up the 2021-22 season to return to the N.B.A.’s usual October-through-June pattern. The plan is strongly preferred by the league’s primary media partners, Disney and Turner, following a summer and fall of dismal N.B.A. ratings in a crowded sports landscape, according to a person briefed on the matter who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Optimism still exists that an agreement can be reached on the pre-Christmas start, but it has been tempered in recent days, sources said. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and union leadership have been talking directly with players about starting the season so quickly after a mid-October finish to the Finals in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, and so far have expressed a preference for a mid-January start to the season. The NBA believes there is somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion in revenue losses next season and beyond by failing to start the season in December, sources said.

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