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Schedule analysis: 1st half of 2020-21 season

NBA teams will grind through shorter, condensed 72-game schedules thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

The 2020-21 schedule will feature more back-to-back and home-and-home series.

Interconference games are the same as they usually are. Teams will play two games — one home and one on the road — against the 15 opponents in the other conference. But intraconference games have been reduced, with teams playing three games against each of their 14 conference opponents.

Given the uncertainty of playing and traveling outside a controlled environment, only 52% (558) of this season’s 1,080 games have been announced, with the remainder to come at a later date. Those 558 games will take us to an All-Star break (with no All-Star Game) that begins on March 5.

Every team has 37 or 38 games in the first half of the schedule, with both the number of home games and the number of road games ranging from 17-20. That’s slightly more balanced than you might see from a normal schedule (a few teams had a five-game differential through their first 41 games last season).

Unfortunately, the league’s run of five straight years of reducing the number of back-to-backs is likely over. Last season’s schedule (which wasn’t completed in full) had teams averaging 12.4 back-to-backs, down from 19.3 in 2014-15. In the first half of the schedule this season, teams will average 7.0 back-to-backs. Related to that, there are 32 stretches of five games in seven nights, compared to 19 in the entirety of last season’s unfinished schedule.

Let’s play two

We’ve seen home-and-home series before, where two teams play consecutive games in each other’s arena. And we have four of those (the Minnesota Timberwolves play two) in the first half schedule.

Two straight games in the same arena is something new. But with a need to reduce travel and simplify logistics, 57 same-arena, two-game series have been built into the first half schedule. Some of them are back-to-backs (two games in two nights) and some include a day off in between.

The Miami Heat lead the league with seven two-game series, four at home and three on the road. The first is a playoff rematch with the Milwaukee Bucks, who will be at AmericanAirlines Arena for a back-to-back on Dec. 29 and 30. The Heat have more marquee two-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets (all on the road in January).

The Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic are next with six two-game series apiece. Three teams — the Denver Nuggets, the New Orleans Pelicans and the New York Knicks — have just one (on the road for all three teams).

The first two-game series will be Saturday-Sunday back-to-backs on the first weekend of the season, with the Magic playing in Washington and the Phoenix Suns spending the weekend in Sacramento.

Hello, Tampa

With pandemic restrictions in Canada preventing the Toronto Raptors from playing their home games at home, they’ve relocated to Tampa, Fla. and will play their first-half home games at Amalie Arena. The Raptors are one of the five teams with three more road games (20) than home games (17) in the first half of the schedule. They play 10 of their first 14 games on the road, but then have their longest Tampa homestand of the first half, six games from Jan. 19-29. It includes two-game series against New Orleans and Dallas.

The temporary move gives the league three teams in Florida and puts the Raps within a 90-minute drive of Orlando. But the first-half schedule doesn’t really take that proximity into account, as only one team is playing in both Orlando and Tampa on the same road trip. That team is the Sacramento Kings, who will have a “Florida Triangle” excursion built into a six-game, nine-day trip through the Southeast. After playing a back-to-back in Memphis on Jan. 24 and 25, the Kings will play in Orlando on Jan. 27, in Tampa on Jan. 29, and in Miami on Jan. 30. They’ll then finish the trip in New Orleans on Feb. 1.

For comparison, six teams are playing consecutive road games at New York and Brooklyn, while eight are playing consecutive road games against the Clippers and Lakers in L.A.

Testing Zion

Zion Williamson is a must-see talent and, after playing just 24 games and having his minutes limited last season, he’s healthy and ready to be unleashed.

Williamson was the rare rookie who made his team better. So there’s reason to believe that, though the Pelicans traded Jrue Holiday, they can compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference if he stays healthy and more than doubles his minutes total (668) from last season. The Pelicans replaced Holiday with Eric Bledsoe, replaced Derrick Favors with Steven Adams, and made a coaching change (hiring Stan Van Gundy) that should help a defense that looked awful in some critical games last season.

But New Orleans will be tested in the first half of the season. The Pelicans have the league’s toughest first-half schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season (.542). It’s also the toughest when we take opponents’ point differential (per 100 possessions) from last season and adjust for location and rest.

The Pelicans have a league-high 20 first-half games against the 13 teams that had winning records last season. Two of those 20 games are against the Oklahoma City Thunder (expected to fall off), but four of their other 17 first-half games are against the Phoenix Suns (three) and Portland Trail Blazers (one), two teams that should be better after having losing records last season.

Their first-half schedule includes a 13-day, seven-game trip (Jan. 11-23) that includes games against the Mavs, Clippers and Lakers, along with a two-game series in Utah (the Pelicans’ only two-game series of the first-half schedule).

Rest advantage = Didn’t play the day before. Opponent is playing the second game of a back-to-back.
Rest disadvantage = Playing the second game of a back-to-back. Opponent didn’t play the day before.

Eastern Conference breakdown

Team G H R E W B2B OB2B RA RDA 5/7 2H 2R OppPCT
Atlanta 37 17 20 23 14 7 4 3 6 0 0 3 0.506
Boston 38 19 19 26 12 7 5 4 6 1 2 3 0.499
Brooklyn 37 19 18 20 17 7 7 5 5 1 2 1 0.495
Charlotte 38 20 18 19 19 9 6 3 6 2 1 3 0.489
Chicago 37 18 19 17 20 8 6 5 7 2 1 2 0.511
Cleveland 38 19 19 22 16 9 11 7 5 2 2 2 0.499
Detroit 37 17 20 21 16 9 6 4 7 2 2 3 0.525
Indiana 38 19 19 21 17 8 10 9 7 2 2 1 0.478
Miami 37 18 19 22 15 5 12 10 3 1 4 3 0.523
Milwaukee 37 20 17 20 17 6 10 7 3 0 2 2 0.491
New York 37 18 19 22 15 9 6 6 9 0 0 1 0.481
Orlando 37 20 17 23 14 6 10 7 3 0 4 2 0.476
Philadelphia 37 19 18 24 13 6 5 3 4 2 3 2 0.499
Toronto 37 17 20 24 13 5 4 3 4 1 3 2 0.502
Washington 37 18 19 22 15 7 5 3 5 2 3 1 0.509

H, R = Home, Road
E, W = vs. East, vs. West
B2B = Back-to-backs
OB2B = Games vs. an opponent playing the second game of a back-to-back
RA, RDA = Rest-advantage, Rest-disadvantage games
OppPCT = Cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season
5/7 = Stretches of five games in seven days
2H, 2R = Two-game series, at home and on the road (doesn’t include home-and-home series)

Eastern Conference notes

  • The Hawks‘ first nine games are against teams that had losing records last season. But Games 4 and 5 are a two-game series in Brooklyn. Starting Feb. 1, they play 13 of 16 against teams that had winning records last season.
  • The Celtics will start the season shorthanded (without Kemba Walker) and have an early five-games-in-seven-days stretch. It starts Dec. 29 with the second game of a two-game series in Indiana and concludes with a Detroit-Tampa road back-to-back. The Cs have the most East-heavy first-half schedule, with 26 of their 38 games within the conference, though eight of their 12 against the West are on the road.
  • The Nets will have the opportunity to get off to a strong start. Their first 17 games includes a six-game homestand and have a cumulative opponent winning percentage (from last season) of .459. Games 18-37 are tougher in regard to the opponents (.526) and include a stretch where they’re playing 10 of 13 on the road.
  • From Jan. 9 to Feb. 20, the Hornets will play 22 of 23 games at home (17) or in Florida (five). The other one is in Memphis. When that stretch is done, they conclude their first-half schedule with a six-game trip through the Western Conference.
  • The Bulls‘ game against Indiana the day after Christmas is the start of an eight-games-in-12-days stretch (four teams have them) that includes three back-to-backs and games on both coasts. And when that stretch is done, they finish their trip with games against the Lakers and Clippers. They’re the only East team with more first-half games against the West (20) than they have against the East (17).
  • The Cavs are one of 10 teams (seven in the East, three in the West) with two stretches (Jan. 6-12 and Jan. 31 – Feb. 6) of five games in seven nights. And all three of their games against the Bucks are included in those two.
  • The Pistons have the East’s toughest first-half schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season (.525), and also when you take home-road and rest advantage into account. Their first four games are against teams that were below .500 last season and they have a February stretch of six straight against that bottom 17. But in between, they play 18 of 26 against the 13 teams that had winning records, with four of the other eight against the Suns (twice), Warriors and Nets. That month and a half also includes one of the league’s four eight-games-in-12-days stretches (Jan. 22 – Feb. 2).
  • The Pacers are tied (with the Clippers and Grizzlies) for the most first-half games vs. the 17 teams that had losing records last season (24), playing 10 of their first 13 against that group. They also have a league-high 16 games vs. teams that ranked in the bottom 10 offensively last season.
  • The Heat are tied for both the fewest first-half back-to-backs (five) and the most first-half games vs. opponents playing second game of back-to-back (12). They have the league’s biggest differential between their number of rest-advantage games (10) and rest-disadvantage games (three). But they do have the most first-half games vs. teams that ranked in the top 10 defensively last season (16).
  • The Bucks have the longest homestand of the first half schedule, eight games over 15 days (Feb. 16 – Mar. 2). It begins with two-game series against Toronto and ends with visits from the Clippers and Nuggets.
  • The Knicks have a league-high nine rest-disadvantage games (the second game of all nine of their back-to-backs) in the first half of the season.
  • The Magic have the league’s easiest first-half schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season (.476). It’s also easiest in regard to point differential per 100 possessions, adjusted for home-away and rest. From Feb. 5-25, they’ll play 11 straight games against teams that had losing records last season, though that includes five games against the Warriors (twice), Suns, Blazers and Nets.
  • The Sixers have one of the four eight-games-in-12-days stretches in the first half schedule, but it’s not as travel-heavy as that of the Bulls. It runs from Jan. 6-17, includes one-game trips to Brooklyn and Atlanta, and concludes with a two-game trip through Memphis and Oklahoma City.
  • The Raptors are tied for the fewest back-to-backs (five) in the first-half, but have more rest-disadvantage games (four) than rest-advantage games (three).
  • The Wizards have an early five-games-in-seven-nights stretch (Dec. 26 – Jan. 1), but the first four games are at home and are two-game series against the Magic and Bulls. Their other five-in-seven stretch (Feb. 22-28) includes road games against the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets and Celtics.

Western Conference breakdown

Team G H R East West B2B OB2B RA RDA 5 in 7 2H 2R OppPCT
Dallas 37 19 18 16 21 6 4 3 5 2 2 1 0.502
Denver 37 17 20 15 22 6 6 5 5 0 0 1 0.505
Golden State 37 18 19 18 19 7 9 6 4 0 3 2 0.502
Houston 37 18 19 16 21 5 7 6 4 1 2 2 0.492
LA Clippers 38 18 20 17 21 6 6 5 5 1 2 2 0.479
L.A. Lakers 37 19 18 12 25 5 6 4 3 1 1 3 0.480
Memphis 37 20 17 15 22 6 10 6 2 0 3 3 0.497
Minnesota 37 18 19 17 20 8 6 3 5 1 2 2 0.493
New Orleans 37 20 17 14 23 6 7 6 5 0 0 1 0.542
Oklahoma City 37 18 19 14 23 7 5 2 4 1 2 2 0.530
Phoenix 37 20 17 15 22 9 8 4 5 1 1 2 0.500
Portland 37 19 18 15 22 7 10 7 4 2 1 1 0.483
Sacramento 38 20 18 18 20 9 12 9 6 2 1 2 0.526
San Antonio 37 19 18 11 26 7 3 1 5 1 4 1 0.487
Utah 37 17 20 20 17 7 3 3 7 1 2 1 0.500

Western Conference notes

  • The Mavs‘ first six weeks are a pretty tough stretch. Thirteen of their first 20 games are on the road, 12 of their first 22 are against teams that had winning records last season (none against the Thunder), and another three (including their season opener on Wednesday) are against the Suns. Things should get easier after that, when they visit Atlanta and then have a seven-game homestand (Feb. 4-17).
  • The Nuggets have the same number of rest-advantage games and rest-disadvantage games (five each). But four of those five rest-advantage games come in their last six games of the first-half schedule (Feb. 23 – Mar. 4).
  • The Warriors seemingly have a tough start to the season, playing in Brooklyn on opening night and in Milwaukee on Christmas. But the last two games of their trip are rest-advantage games in Chicago and Detroit. And then they’re in San Francisco for one of the six longest homestands of the first-half schedule, seven games over the first 12 days of January. It includes a couple of marquee two-game series vs. the Blazers and the Clippers.
  • The Rockets will have 14 of 19 on the road over a five-week stretch from Jan. 14 – Feb. 17. That stretch includes both of their games against Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards and concludes with their one game in Philadelphia.
  • The Clippers have the West’s easiest first-half schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season (.479). They’re tied (with Indiana and Memphis) for the most first-half games against the 17 teams that had losing records last season (24).
  • The Lakers open the season with a four-game homestand, but then play 14 of 18 on the road, with two-game series in San Antonio, Memphis and Houston, along with one of the league’s five seven-game trips (through the East) of the first-half schedule. That trip begins in Milwaukee, but the Lakers have the fewest first-half games vs. teams that ranked in the top 10 defensively last season (10).
  • The Grizzlies have a league-low 13 first-half games vs. the 13 teams that had winning records last season. The also have just two rest-disadvantage games, fewest in the league.
  • The Suns have a seven-game homestand from Feb. 5-16 and, wildly, all seven games are against the Eastern Conference. With a visit from the Hornets later in February, they’re playing eight of their 15 home games against the East (for the whole season) in the span of 20 days.
  • The Blazers have the West’s easiest first-half schedule in regard to opponents’ point differential (per 100 possessions) from last season, adjusting for location and rest. They also have the fewest first-half games against teams that ranked in the top 10 offensively last season (eight). But they’re the only West team with a stretch of eight games in 12 days (Feb. 6-17). It starts in New York, takes them back to Portland for a three-game, four-day homestand, and ultimately concludes in New Orleans.
  • The Kings are tied for most back-to-backs (nine) and the most games against opponents playing the second game of a back-to-back (12). They have nine rest-advantage games and six rest-disadvantage games. But if you were to create a “modified top 15,” taking the 13 teams that had winning records last season, subtracting OKC and adding Brooklyn, Phoenix and Portland, the Kings would have the most first-half games (24) against that group. The only other team with more than 20 would be Oklahoma City (22).
  • The Spurs are tied (with the Jazz) for the fewest first-half games (three) vs. opponents playing the second game of a back-to-back, and two of those three are the second games of series against the Wolves and Warriors. They’re the only team with only one rest-advantage game. They also have the most West-heavy first-half schedule, with 26 of their 37 games within the conference. They won’t play in an Eastern Conference arena until Game 27 (Feb. 12), when they begin a seven-game trip in Atlanta.
  • The Jazz are also tied with the Spurs for the biggest rest advantage discrepancy. Utah has three rest-advantage games and seven rest-disadvantage games. They’re the only West team with more first-half games against the East (20) than they have against the West (17 on 42). So their second-half schedule will be West-heavy.

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

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