NBA Rumor: NBA Schedule

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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.

With the NBA’s owners proposing to start next season around Christmas, should the players view it as an early holiday present? Or would they like to return the gift? “I don’t know what I think yet,” Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “We are in the throes of discussing it and in the throes of evaluating what it means in terms of the revenue-related issues that have been raised. Frankly, we’re also spending some time trying to get information on what this means in respect to player health.”

No decisions have been finalized on next season and talks with the National Basketball Players Association remain ongoing on many matters, including the financial parameters for the coming year. Those talks, especially on the money issue, would have to be concluded before any real decisions about next season are made. The NBPA has not made any final decisions on how it wants to see the league proceed, either. But this plan, starting in December and ending in June, would get the 2021-22 season — virus-permitting — back to normal, with 82-game slates starting in October.

This would mean a return close to the NBA’s normal schedule, significant financial ramifications to start early, a potential finish before the 2021 Summer Olympics, and allow a window for stars to play in the Olympics, sources said. The NBA wants to continue to incorporate the play-in tournament that was utilized in the Orlando restart to determine the eighth seed in the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs, according to sources. ESPN first reported that a Christmas start and playing fewer than 82 games would be discussed on Friday’s call.

The National Basketball Players Association would need to sign off on any plan to start the season on Dec. 22. Around the NBA, league governors and executives — as well as star players — have become aware of the league aiming toward a start around Christmas Day, which is quicker than expected following an Oct. 11. end to the season. An increasing amount of those people also have warmed to the possibility due to the fact that it is in the best interest of returning to the NBA’s typical schedule, generating revenue.

It hasn’t been decided whether the NBA can implement a full 82-game schedule, especially with an emphasis on getting some level of attendance in areas and upholding the recently-developed standards concerning player rest, cutting down on the back-to-backs and heavy travel. The focus for next season, primarily, is getting things finished in a reasonable amount of time for the draft, free agency and rest in the summer of 2021 for a traditional mid-October start.
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