How the NBA Schedule is Made

Building The NBA Schedule
Getting started in February, NBA schedule has usually been released in the first weeks of August. The NBA sets the league schedule to accomplish two goals: competitive balance, and reduction of costs. The final regular season schedule has to be efficient from a competitive standpoint with an indirect consideration of travel costs.

Factors that have an impact on setting NBA schedule can be summarized as follows:
Each team has to play:

  • 4 games against the other 4 division opponents (4×4=16 games)
  • 4 games* against 6 (out-of-division) conference opponents (4×6=24 games)
  • 3 games against the remaining 4 conference teams (3×4=12 games)
  • 2 games against teams in the opposing conference (2×15=30 games)

* A five-year rotation determines which out-of-division conference teams are played only 3 times.

Do The Math
Access to NBA league schedule in Excel. It includes all games with dates, game-time, opponent and rest day information.

All teams, about a month before the end of the preceding regular season, have to submit to the NBA office a list of:

  • At least 50 dates on which their home court will be available
  • 4 Mondays
  • 4 Thursdays (to help TNT plan its telecasts)

On which no games are played:

  • Christmas eve
  • The all-star game
  • NCAA championship game

The conflicts such as NHL games on the same court have to be resolved.

Games can be moved to satisfy the NBA’s TV partners (ABC, ESPN, and TNT). For that reason, game times can be tweaked.

Recent History of Building The NBA Schedule
In September 2014, Matt Winick, former Senior Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations, stepped down from his duties. He had been the architect of the NBA schedule for more than 20 seasons.

In his interview with ESPN, he unveiled how he responds to complaints about strength of schedule, how tight the back-to-back games are scheduled and other common questions on building the NBA schedule.

Matt Winick had a complicated system that assigned a point value, to each date or series of dates that the franchises made available. The point system rewarded a team for making several consecutive dates available instead of insisting on a particular date. Each time team must have at least 50 points. Generally, teams were playing 3.5 games in a week and 82 games took roughly 165-170 days through the end of the regular season.

Evan Wasch (Senior Vice President of Basketball Strategy & Analytics), who has taken over scheduling responsibilities after Matt Winick, has presented the most recent challenges and improvements in NBA scheduling at 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

For the last few seasons, Evan Walsh, Tom Carelli (Senior Vice President of Broadcasting) and their colleagues have dived deeper into arena availability of 29 different buildings so they could minimize the number of nights where a tired team will face a well-rested, fresh opponent. Starting from the 2017-18 season, an extra week is added, which extends the 1230-game schedule to 176 days. With doing so, fourth game in five nights are eliminated for the first time in NBA history.

NBA 2020-2021 72-Game Regular Season Format

Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the 82-game schedule was reduced 10 games.
Each team had to play:

  • 42 Intra-Conference Games
    • 3 games against the 14 opponents in the same conference (3×14=42 games).
    • The league randomly assigned either a team will play (two home games and one road game) or (one home game and two road games) with opponents in the same conference.
    • As conferences have 3 divisions; a division team will play 2 home games with one other division’s all teams, and 2 road games with the remaining division’s all teams.
  • 30 Inter-Conference Games
    • 2 games against the 15 opponents in the opposing conference (2×15=30 games).
    • Inter-conference games will feature one home game and one road game.
  • Play-in Tournament: Despite harsh criticism from star players, the NBA will allow teams to battle in the play-in games for the final two spots. This format was tried for the first time in the Bubble (2019/20).
    Once the regular season concludes, [#7 vs. #8] and [#9 vs. #10] teams will play a game in each conference. Where;
    • winner of the [#7 vs. #8] matchup gets the 7th seed in the playoffs.
    • loser of the [#7 vs. #8] matchup will play another game with the winner of [#9th vs. #10th] for the last 8th seed.
Making NBA Viewership Great Again
The current format of playoffs (western and eastern conference winners battle in the finals) has always been a debate come the playoffs time. Removing conferences would allow a good western team would still make the playoffs over the worse teams in the East. Non-finals playoff series between higher-quality teams would be much more competitive and generate more 7-games series which will lead the NBA to have better TV ratings and get more interaction over social media and digital platforms. Evan Wasch has explained why it won’t be feasible in terms of costs and traveling across time zones.

One major benefit in the long-term would be obvious: Higher ratings. This opinion was first publicly supported by Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics 2020 Conference. He said no conflict with NFL or MLB playoffs would increase viewership.

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