It’s not quite the NFL schedule release, but it’s still a big deal: The schedule for the coming NBA season was unveiled Wednesday evening.
The maintenance of athletes in a sport whose television rights continue to skyrocket is an extremely important matter. Fans, bloggers, beat writers — everyone who follows the NBA closely — wanted to see a schedule that made life easier for players, which in turn increases the odds that stars will play more games, giving fans and TV rights-holders more bang for the buck.
A smart schedule makes for better basketball… and better business, especially with ESPN/ABC rolling out a new Saturday night package in the winter and TNT giving up exclusivity on Thursday nights to allow for a more elastic schedule.
Did the NBA, on balance, do a good job with its schedule? The short answer is yes. The longer answer appears in some of the 10 notes below.
Here we go:
10 – THE LAKERS STILL GOT WAY TOO MUCH AIRTIME
The Los Angeles Lakers have been scheduled to make 19 appearances on national television this season, though that doesn’t mean they will make all 19 of their appearances. Flex scheduling will have something to say about that. Nevertheless, nine appearances on both ESPN and TNT plus one on ABC will give a bad team too much visibility… again. NBATV should be the place to catch Laker basketball throughout the season.
Here’s the detail which puts “Laker overload” into perspective: Only six teams are scheduled to make more national TV appearances (ABC/ESPN/TNT) this season. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors make 25 appearances each. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers make 24 each. The Chicago Bulls make 23, and the San Antonio Spurs make 21. Houston is tied with the Lakers in seventh place with 19 scheduled apperances on national television.
(Side note: At least the NBA substantially reduced the New York Knicks’ presence on national broadcasts, cutting the team’s appearance number from 16 down to 7.)
9 – DAY GAMES: SOME ODD IMBALANCES
The NBA is almost exclusively a night league, but day games crop up every now and then. What’s peculiar about this schedule (and this is not a commentary in relationship to past seasons, by the way — it’s only a commentary on the merits of this schedule itself) is the gulf in day games between the busiest and least active teams in the league.
With day games being contests that begin before 6 p.m. Eastern time (plenty of teams schedule 6 p.m. Eastern games on Sundays, so that’s not worth setting apart), the Los Angeles Clippers easily led the league in day games with 12. The Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, and Utah Jazz all have only two day games this season. (Cue jokes about the old-man Spurs needing their rest.)
Why is this peculiar? Consider all the back-to-backs teams have to play during a season. There are certainly plenty of instances on the schedule — this will be looked at in greater depth over the coming weeks — in which teams have scheduled games on Saturdays or Sundays in the evening or night hours, instead of scheduling a day game to better facilitate a back-to-back for at least one of the two teams involved. A lot of the day games on the schedule are indeed front ends of back-to-back stacks (usually a Sunday afternoon game followed by a Monday night contest), but more such opportunities to schedule in a manner friendly to NBA players were missed.
Again, we’ll have more on this in the coming days at Bloguin’s NBA hub, Crossover Chronicles.
8 – NBATV’S SCHEDULE STANDS OUT EARLY AND LATE
Obviously, NBATV isn’t first in line in terms of grabbing premium games, but some are going to fall through the cracks, and the league naturally wants the network to be enough of a destination that viewers will want to tune in.
The schedule is arranged as reasonably as possible, grabbing the attention of viewers at the start of the season to sustain interest in the product over the long haul, and then loaded with big games late in the season to remind viewers that NBATV will cover the playoffs as well.
NBATV gets Golden State-New Orleans on October 31 and Memphis-Golden State on November 2, right out of the chute. Then, on Nov. 10, comes the early-season showcase for the network, the game between Oklahoma City and Washington in the nation’s capital. With “Kevin Durant to the Wizards” talk serving as a natural storyline all the way up to Free Agency-Palooza in June of 2016, Thunder at Wizards (the game wouldn’t be nearly as much of an event in Oklahoma City) becomes a significant NBA event. NBATV will have it.
The other premium showcases for NBATV are found mostly late in the season. Clippers-Spurs occurs on March 15. More on that later in this piece. Spurs-Thunder occurs on March 26. More on that game later as well.
NBATV shows two Spurs-Warriors games this season, the second one being on April 10, the final Sunday of the regular season. The lead-ins to the playoffs will remind viewers that NBATV has a presence worth taking seriously.
7 – THE THREE-GAME LOTTERY: WHO WON AND LOST?
The NBA schedule — not this one, but the schedule in general — needs to be reformed in one specific way, as we discussed earlier this summer at Crossover Chronicles. Teams play only 16 of 82 games within their own division. This leaves 30 non-conference games (two against all 15 teams in the other conference, clean home-and-home splits), which leaves 36 games against teams in the other two divisions from one’s own conference. This means 18 games against each those two divisions.
The result is this: In those two 18-game divisions, Team X must play three opponents four times (12 games), and two opponents three times (6 games, creating 18). Team X plays four games against six non-division conference opponents (24 games), three games against four of them (12 games, creating the 36 non-division conference games which round out the schedule).
Overall, every NBA team plays four games against 10 of its 15 conference opponents (40), three against the other four (12, to create the 52-game conference schedule which, added to the 30 non-conference games, creates the full 82-game slate).
We’ll give you all the “three-game” teams and totals at Crossover Chronicles, but here are some highlights:
LeBron James and the Cavs play three games against these four teams: Atlanta, Boston, Miami, and Toronto. That’s a decent deal for Cleveland — the Central Division is the toughest division in the East, so the Cavs were never going to be able to avoid in-division teams. Among the teams outside the Central, Toronto is the best in the Atlantic Division, so playing the Raptors only three times should benefit Cleveland. Miami could become the best team in the Southeast Division, so playing the Heat only three times should be welcomed by the Cavs as well.
A loser in the three-game lottery? Try the Cavs’ rival in the Central Division, the Chicago Bulls.
You want to play weak teams four times instead of three, but the Bulls play Boston, Brooklyn and Orlando only thrice. Washington is the one good team the Bulls get to play only three times this season.
6 – NATIONAL TV DISTRIBUTION: ESPN-TNT SPLITS
The distribution of national television slots offered some fascinating under-the-radar notes. Here are a few of them:
* Atlanta makes six ESPN appearances in the 2015-2016 season, only two on TNT.
* Dallas makes six ESPN appearances, one on TNT.
* Indiana makes seven ESPN appearances, none on TNT.
* New York makes four TNT appearances, three on ESPN, none on ABC.
* Miami makes 8 of its 11 national TV appearances on ESPN.
* New Orleans and Anthony Davis get an opening-night TNT slot and a Christmas Day ESPN slot, among 13 national TV appearances this season… but none on Sunday afternoons in the back stretch of the season, after the NFL ends.
5 – THE NBA VERSUS THE NFL, PART ONE: EARLY-JANUARY WEEKENDS
If you don’t care about the NFL and only love the NBA — or vice-versa — this won’t matter to you, but for the many who do care, you’ll need to take notes:
On Sunday, January 10 — Wild Card Sunday in the NFL — the Pelicans and Clippers play at 3:30 Eastern in Los Angeles, smack-dab in the middle of football. This is a reminder that L.A. truly doesn’t have an NFL team. Anthony Davis versus DeAndre Jordan? The NFL will swamp that contest in terms of visibility.
Also on Sunday, January 10 at 3:30 Eastern, the Minnesota Timberwolves scheduled a home game against the Dallas Mavericks.
A) Guess the T-Wolves don’t think much of the Vikings making the wild card round.
B) If the Cowboys are playing on Wild Card Sunday, forget about the Mavs’ local ratings that day. You’ll need a microscope to see them.
If the Arizona Cardinals make the divisional playoffs, the Phoenix Suns’ game at Minnesota on Sunday, January 17 (3:30 Eastern) will also be watched by friends and family members only in the Valley of the Sun.
The flip side of all this: The NBA scheduled smartly on Saturday, January 2. This is the day when the College Football Playoff should have scheduled its semifinal bowls (as opposed to New Year’s Eve). Why? The NFL isn’t playing any games on this day — it’s the last regular-season weekend, and the league puts all games on Sunday in week 17.
Saturday, Jan. 2 has some lower-tier bowl games, but that’s it. The NBA pounced on this opportunity by putting the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs on NBATV. A lot of people will watch that game. A number of other teams scheduled day games on Saturday and should get good walk-up crowds in the middle of winter.
It’s fascinating to see the way competing sports leagues coexist, and the next item shows that the NBA is smart in going about its business:
4 – THE NBA VERSUS THE NFL, PART TWO: HANDLING THE “4 IN 5 NIGHTS ISSUE” IN TERMS OF PRODUCT QUALITY
More will be said a little later on the NBA’s handling of “4 games in 5 nights” situations, but one specific point to note is that if you’re going to run teams ragged — which means either a diminished product or stars resting (or both) — you might as well do so:
A) earlier in the season, when teams haven’t accumulated as many miles;
B) when fewer people are watching.
There are 27 “4 games in 5 nights” instances on this NBA schedule. Of those 27 instances, 18 occur before the NFL season is over. In the back end of the schedule, when more people begin to watch the NBA with intensity and consistency, the NBA has reduced the number of “4 in 5s.” That’s smart.
3 – THE NBA VERSUS COLLEGE BASKETBALL, NON-SATURDAY EDITION
The wars on Twitter between college and NBA basketball fans never really subside, and this upcoming basketball season will probably intensify the clashes between the two sets of fans.
Staying away (for now) from the new NBA on ABC Saturday night package, here are some notes about games and situations during other days of the week:
* On Sunday, March 13, ABC has the Cavs and LeBron versus the Clippers and Chris Paul at 3:30 Eastern.
March 13. Sunday.
Oh, right — that’s Selection Sunday.
With around 3:15 left in the fourth quarter, the brackets for the 2016 NCAA Tournament will be revealed.
ABC really should have knocked this game back just half an hour to 3 Eastern. Nobody would have gotten hurt. That’s going to be a nasty collision at the intersection known at 6 Eastern on March 13. It didn’t have to happen.
Also, tying up a loose end above, you might have wondered why NBATV was able to snag Clippers-Spurs on Tuesday, March 15. The answer? Turner will be busy with the First Four from Dayton, Ohio, and ESPN will have the NIT.
Now, to Saturdays in the feud between college and NBA hoops fans… ruh-roh…
2 – THE NBA VERSUS COLLEGE BASKETBALL: SATURDAY SLUGFESTS
The NBA on ABC Saturday night package is declaring war on college basketball and its fans — there’s just no other way to say it.
Saturday, March 5, is the final night of power-conference regular-season play (often marked by a Duke-North Carolina rematch). That night also opens up the run of championship games in smaller conference tournaments.
ABC will have Rockets-Bulls that night.
It gets better in terms of NBA matchups, but worse for viewers who have to choose between the pro game and the college game.
On Saturday, March 12, ABC unfurls Thunder-Spurs in prime time… during the ACC tournament championship game, moved to a Saturday night slot last season after years of residing on Sunday afternoon. (The move is a wise one for the ACC, since it gives member teams an added day of rest before the NCAA tournament. Duke won the NCAAs last year, and Notre Dame had its best NCAA showing since the Digger Phelps era in the late 1970s.)
Then, on Saturday, March 19, ABC plunks down Warriors-Spurs, the signature matchup in the Western Conference. The round of 32 in the NCAA tournament will be taking place at that time.
As an added note, you saw a note above about NBATV having Spurs-Thunder on Saturday, March 26. It’s not an ABC broadcast, but nevertheless, a high-profile NBA game will air opposite the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
Kentucky-Villanova or Virginia-Kansas in a regional final on March 26? Spurs-Thunder on NBATV might compete against that college basketball game.
Seriously, television programmers? You’re going to force basketball and sports fans to watch one marquee event at the expense of the other? Not good, not fair, not right, not kosher, not worth applauding.
1 – BACK-TO-BACKS, 4-IN-5s, AND THE ART OF NBA PLAYER MAINTENANCE: THE NBA SUCCEEDS
The NBA can — and very probably will — continue to find ways to improve future schedules. This one’s not perfect, but it’s a big step (not just a small one) in the right direction.
The simple facts: Back-to-backs were reduced slightly, from just over 19 games per team to just under 18. Within this reduction, though, comes another advancement: “Long-distance” back-to-backs, covering at least one if not more time zones, were trimmed in number from 111 to 84. You will see more “smart backs,” shorthand for intelligently devised back-to-backs in places such as Los Angeles (Lakers and Clippers at Staples Center) and the “Texas Triangle” (San Antonio, Dallas, Houston).
One example: On Saturday, Nov. 14, the Detroit Pistons play an afternoon game at the Clippers, followed by a Sunday night game on Nov. 15 against the Lakers. If you’re going to put players through a back-to-back, that’s exactly how it should happen: early tip time for the front end of the back-to-back, late tip time for the back end.
The biggest advancement made by the NBA in this schedule, though, was the substantial reduction in “4-in-5s,” the practice of stringing four games together in five nights. The league managed to reduce the number of “4-in-5s” from 70 in the 2014-2015 campaign to 27 in 2015-2016. What’s unfortunate is that some teams have two “4-in-5s” while others have none. That sort of imbalance needs to be addressed in future schedules. Yet, progress was delivered, and keep in mind that these 27 “4-in-5s” are in part the product of the league’s adoption of a week-long All-Star break. That was and is a hugely player-friendly move, one that genuinely helped save Chris Bosh’s life.
The NBA schedule and its adjustments might not save players’ lives every year, but smarter scheduling — as was exhibited for this upcoming season — is a lot more likely to prolong careers and give both fans and broadcasters more value for their investments of time and money.