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5 schedule takeaways: In-Season Tournament adds new quirks

Take a look at 5 things to know about the 2023-24 schedule and the impact the In-Season Tournament will have on it.

With the complete 2023-24 season schedule release, NBA teams can now contextualize how the In-Season tournament slots in.

Three years ago, the NBA couldn’t issue an entire 2020-21 schedule, because it didn’t know how many games it would have to postpone because of the pandemic. This year, there are again games that haven’t been scheduled yet, but for a different reason.

Here are five things to know about the 2022-23 schedule, including how the In-Season Tournament creates a big TBD for Week 7 and also something that we haven’t seen in the last 45 years …

1. 80 games, and some new wrinkles

The schedule includes only 80 games for each team, leaving two to be scheduled (between Dec. 4-9) after the initial Group Play games of the In-Season Tournament. Because the quarterfinals and semifinals of the In-Season Tournament count as regular-season games, those last two games can’t be scheduled yet.

But here’s the thing: It’s possible that at least one of a team’s two remaining games could come against an opponent that it’s already scheduled to play four times, creating a quirk that we haven’t seen in the last 20 years.

Here’s what the 82-game schedule has been since 2004-05, when the Charlotte Bobcats became the 30th team in the league …

  • Four games each against the four teams in the same division.
  • Four games each against six other teams in the same conference.
  • Three games each against the remaining four teams in the same conference.
  • Two games each against the 15 teams in the other conference.

The two missing games are being taken from the second bucket above. So right now, teams have four games scheduled against eight teams: four in their division and four others in their conference. It’s certainly possible that if a team makes the quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament, its two additional games could be against teams that it is already scheduled to play four times.

It would be the first time in 20 years that two teams played five head-to-head games in the regular season. The last time was 2003-04, the last season of 29 teams, when the Nets and Heat played five times.

The league can’t control which eight teams advance out of group play to make the IST quarterfinals. But when scheduling the 22 remaining games between the 22 teams that don’t advance, it will do its best to avoid matchups where the two teams are already scheduled to play four times.

But because those 22 remaining games involve 11 teams in each conference and will be played on just two nights (Dec. 6 and 8), they’ll include two additional interconference games (East vs. West). That means four teams will have a third game against an opponent in the opposite conference. It will be the first time since the 1978-79 season (when there were only 22 teams) that any team played more than two regular-season games against an opposite-conference opponent.

2. Back-to-backs are up…

Teams will be averaging more back-to-back games this season than they did in 2022-23.

The In-Season Tournament quarterfinals, semifinals and fill-in games* will all take place in Week 7 (Dec. 4-10), which currently has zero games scheduled. There will be no back-to-backs that week, but because there’s an eight-day period (including Dec. 3, when no games are scheduled) where each team is playing only two games, the rest of the schedule is a little more condensed. As a result, teams are averaging more back-to-backs than they did last season.

* In addition to the 22 games between the 22 teams that don’t make the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals, there will need to be two games played between the four losing teams in the quarterfinals. The two East losers will play each other and the two West losers will play each other on Dec. 8, the same night as the second set of games between the 22 non-quarterfinalists.

Back-to-backs and rest-advantage games, last 10 seasons

Season B2B Per team Both B2B Rest Adv.
2014-15 580 19.3 94 392
2015-16 534 17.8 75 384
2016-17 491 16.4 71 349
2017-18 433 14.4 52 329
2018-19 398 13.3 50 298
2019-20* 371 12.4 39 293
2020-21** 457 15.2 67 323
2021-22 406 13.5 41 324
2022-23 398 13.3 54 290
2023-24 419 14.0 55 309

* Original schedule
** Once games were re-scheduled and played
Both B2B = Both teams playing the second game of a back-to-back
Rest Adv. = Rest-advantage games.
A rest-advantage game is one where one team played the day/night before, but the other (the team with the advantage) did not. Over the last three seasons, teams are 542-403 (0.574) in rest-advantage games, 339-216 (0.611) at home and 203-187 (0.521) on the road.

Two things are a little different about the number of back-to-backs this season. First, every team has 13, 14 or 15. That’s the smallest range in at least the last 28 years, with last season’s* scheduled range being 12-15. And while the average is up, the maximum has stayed the same.

There’s also a smaller range in rest-advantage differential. Last season there was a range from plus-6 (the Lakers and Raptors had six more rest-advantage games than rest-disadvantage games) to minus-6 (the Spurs had six fewer). This year, the range is plus-5 (four teams) to minus-5 (three teams). So the schedule is a little more fair across the board.

* The Wizards ended up playing 16 back-to-backs after some games were rescheduled mid-season.

3. But travel is down…

Lakers-Nuggets. Suns-Warriors. Kia NBA Tip-Off 2023 begins with a must-see doubleheader.

The other thing about back-to-backs is that there are more where the team is playing both games in the same city, playing both at home (big increase), or consecutive games in the dual-market cities of New York or Los Angeles. Those account for 35% of all back-to-backs in 2023-24, up from 26% last season.

Same-city back-to-backs, last two seasons

Season B2B Both home Road – 1 city Total %B2B
2022-23 398 82 22 104 26%
2023-24 419 136 11 147 35%

The Phoenix Suns have 14 back-to-backs, and eight of those 14 are two home games. The Portland Trail Blazers also have eight of their 14 back-to-backs in the same city, seven at home and one where they’re playing two straight games in Memphis. The San Antonio Spurs are the third team with more than half of their back-to-backs (7/13) coming in the same city (six in San Antonio, one in Portland).

There are six additional back-to-backs with minimal travel, where a team is playing at Golden State and Sacramento (four) or at Chicago and Milwaukee (two).

Teams aren’t just staying put for back-to-backs. Last season, there was a big jump in instances where a road team played two straight games against the Nets and Knicks (nine) or the Clippers and Lakers (24), with that latter number including all 15 Eastern Conference teams staying in L.A. for two straight games.

The number of stays in New York (eight) or L.A. (21) is down a bit this season, but still high. And that New York number includes times where the Hawks (Feb. 29 – March 5) and Bucks (Dec. 23-27) are playing three straight games in the boroughs. This year, the Bulls are the only East team that isn’t staying in L.A. for two straight road games.

So while we still have an 82-game schedule (and 83 games for the two teams that make the IST final), the league continues to reduce the amount of travel between games.

4. Bucks have another easy start

The Bucks and Hornets have 2 of the 5 easiest schedules for the first 6 weeks of the 2023-24 season.

The Lakers bucked the early-season-success trend last season, reaching the conference finals after losing 12 of their first 20 games. But the first 20 games are usually a good indicator of just how good teams are. Over the last 20 full (82-game) seasons, 83% of teams that have won at least 11 of their first 20 games have gone on to make the playoffs. Only 13% of teams that won fewer than nine of their first 20 games eventually made the playoffs.

Because Week 7 games have yet to be scheduled, we can’t completely evaluate every team’s first 20 games this season. Through Week 6, four teams will have played 21 games, while one (the Rockets) will have only played 17.

But we can just look at those first six weeks to see which teams will have the best (and worst) opportunities to get off to a strong start.

Here are the five easiest schedules for the first six weeks of the season, taking cumulative opponent winning percentage (using FanDuel over-unders for 2023-24), location and rest into account…

1. Hornets: .466, 10 home, 8 road, 2 rest-advantage, 1 rest-disadvantage

2. Pacers: .488, 11 home, 7 road, 3 rest-advantage, 1 rest-disadvantage

3. Bucks: .461, 10 home, 10 road, 1 rest-advantage, 2 rest-disadvantage

4. Magic: .472, 10 home, 1 neutral*, 9 road, 3 rest-advantage, 4 rest-disadvantage

5. Hornets: .489, 10 home, 10 road, 3 rest-advantage, 2 rest-disadvantage

* The Magic will play the Hawks in Mexico City on Nov. 9.

This is the second straight year where the Bucks (only 12-8 after 20 games last season) had a seemingly easy start to their season.

5. Tough starts out West

The Jazz have 1 of the 5 toughest schedules in the first 6 weeks of the 2023-24 season.

The Eastern Conference has had a winning record vs. the West in each of the last two regular seasons and has two of the top three ’23-24 over-unders, according to FanDuel. But the West has 11 of the top 17.

Because the first six weeks of the season are heavy in intra-conference games*, West teams have the seven toughest early schedules via the same projection as above.

Here are the five toughest schedules for the first six weeks of the season, taking cumulative opponent winning percentage (using FanDuel over-unders for 2023-24), location and rest into account…

1. Rockets: .538, 9 home, 8 road, 0 rest-advantage, 2 rest-disadvantage

2. Spurs: .538, 10 home, 9 road, 1 rest-advantage, 3 rest-disadvantage

3. Blazers: .519, 7 home, 12 road, 2 rest-advantage, 3 rest-disadvantage

4. Jazz: .523, 10 home, 10 road, 2 rest-advantage, 3 rest-disadvantage

5. Warriors: .521, 10 home, 10 road, 3 rest-advantage, 2 rest-disadvantage

The Spurs, Blazers and Jazz were Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in this evaluation last year, but Portland (9-3) and Utah (10-3) both got off to strong starts.

* 76% of games in the first six weeks are either East-East or West-West. After Week 7 (28 of 30), only 58% of the remaining 909 games will be intra-conference games.

More notes for all 30 teams coming Wednesday …

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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