New season's schedule an overall fairer slate for all involved
Longest road trip? Easiest (and toughest) schedule? We dig in on that and more
The 2017-18 NBA schedule was released on Monday and you’ve had the time to check out the opening week national TV slate and the Christmas Day features, as well as the other must-watch debuts, returns and rivalry matchups.
Here are some notes that require a little more digging in…
Evening things out
The big story out of the schedule release was the reduction of back-to-backs and the absence of stretches of four games in five nights, as the league tries to reduce the strain on its players and healthy DNPs.
The changes, which come with an earlier start to the season, not only make for an easier schedule, but a fairer one. With fewer back-to-backs, there is also less variance in the number of back-to-backs that teams have.
Last season, the average was 16.3 back-to-backs per team, but only 14 of the 30 teams had 16 (four teams) or 17 (10 teams). Teams had as few as 14 back-to-backs and as many as 19. This season, the average is 14.4 and 23 of the 30 teams have either 14 (14 teams) or 15 (nine teams). No team has fewer than 13 and no team has more than 16.
There’s also a little less variance in the number of games teams play vs. opponents that are playing the second game of a back-to-back, which is important too.
Over the last five seasons, a team that didn’t play the day before has won 59 percent of the time when it played a team that was on the second game of a back-to-back. Only five teams had a losing record in that situation (with a rest advantage) last season.
This season, the number of games where one team is playing the second game of a back-to-back and other is not has only been reduced from 349 to 327. More work in that regard was done last season, when the number was reduced from 384 in 2015-16.
The Milwaukee Bucks, one of the three teams with a losing record (3-5) when they had a rest advantage last season, will have the biggest positive discrepancy between games with a rest advantage (13) and games with a disadvantage (9). If playoff positioning is on the line after 79 games, the Bucks are in good shape, because their last three games of the season are rest-advantage games against New York, Orlando and Philadelphia.
On the other side of the spectrum are the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls, who each have a negative discrepancy of five games. The Hawks play only five games with a rest advantage and 10 where they’re on the second game of a back-to-back against a rested opponent. The Bulls play seven of the former and 12 of the latter.
Still, there’s less variance in the rest-advantage discrepancy of the 30 teams. The range is 4 (Bucks) to -5 (Hawks and Bulls), with 19 of the 30 teams having a discrepancy within two in either direction. Last season, the range was 6 (Miami) to -7 (Brooklyn), with only 14 teams having a discrepancy within two in either direction.
Put it all together and the schedule is more fair and even in regard the advantages and disadvantages that back-to-backs bring.
The toughest starts
The quarter mark of the season, when every team has played about 20 or 21 games, is when we can really evaluate where they stand. On average, 13.5 of the 16 teams that eventually make the playoffs are already in playoff position when the season is 25 percent complete. (Last year it was 13, five in the East and all eight in the West.)
Of course, the first quarter of the schedule isn’t exactly balanced. Some teams have tougher starts than others.
If the Philadelphia 76ers are going to make a run at the playoffs with their influx of talent (and hopefully, better health for Joel Embiid), they’ll have to endure a rough start to the schedule. Ten of their first 14 games are on the road and 16 of their first 21 are against teams that finished at .500 or better last season.
Two of those games are against Atlanta and Indiana, two teams that had winning records last season and took big steps backwards this summer. Still, five of the Sixers’ first seven games are against teams — Washington, Boston, Toronto and Houston (x2) — that were top-four seeds last year. And then they have four games against Utah and Golden State in their next nine.
The Sixers’ longest homestand of the season, six games from Nov. 20-29, features visits from the Warriors, Jazz, Blazers, Cavs and Wizards. Then they go to Boston before the schedule starts to ease up a bit.
The toughest early schedule in the West belongs to the Dallas Mavericks, who play five of their 15 back-to-backs in their first 17 games and play 22 of their first 30 games against teams that finished with winning records last season. That first two months of the season includes all four of their games against the Spurs, two against the Warriors, two against the Thunder, both of their games against Boston, and one each against Cleveland and Houston.
The easiest starts
The Utah Jazz have, statistically, the easiest start to the season, though they do play four back-to-backs in the first five weeks. Only four of their first 19 games are against teams that had winning records last season and two of those four are at home.
In the first eight weeks, the Jazz have just one road trip of more than two games. It’s a trip through the East against the Knicks, Nets, Magic and Sixers.
The Jazz could really struggle to score this season, but only three of their first 18 games are against teams that ranked in the top 10 defensively last season, giving their offense a chance to get off to a decent start.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have the easiest start in the East. Their first game outside the Eastern or Central time zones will be their Christmas game in Oakland (last season it was Jan. 8). Their first 11 games include seven at home and six against the Magic, Bulls, Nets, Knicks, Pacers and Hawks. Extending out a little bit, 17 of the Cavs’ first 30 games are at home and only four of those 30 are against teams that had top-10 offenses last season.
Though the schedule is a little easier overall, some teams still have some long road trips. In fact, 13 of them have at least one trip of six games or more. The Denver Nuggets have two, including the longest unbroken road trip of the season, a seven-game, 14-day journey in March.
The New York Knicks also have a seven-game trip, one that lasts 12 days in January. The Knicks will play 21 of their first 33 games at Madison Square Garden, and then 24 of their next 33 on the road.
The LA Clippers will go 22 days in February without a home game, finishing their pre-break schedule with a four-game trip through the East and beginning their post-break schedule with three more road games. The San Antonio Spurs‘ rodeo trip is also split by the All-Star break, but it only six total games this season (it has usually been eight or nine).
The centrally-located Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any trips longer than three games. But Minnesota still plays eight of its first 13 games on the road and has two mid-season stretches where they play seven of nine away from the Target Center. The Thunder, meanwhile, will be on the road for most of January and February, with no homestands of more than three days between Jan. 1 and March 3.
That Christmas game against the Cavs is in the middle of a seven-game homestand for the Golden State Warriors. In fact, the champs won’t play outside the state of California between Dec. 8 (when they finish a six-game trip in Detroit) and Jan. 3 (when they begin a three-game trip in Dallas).
The Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic also have seven-game homestands. The Rockets’ goes from Dec. 11-22, before they visit Oklahoma City on Christmas. The Magic have seven straight home games from March 14-30, though the first game of that homestand is the second game of a back-to-back, with a game in San Antonio the night before.
There are six teams that don’t have a homestand longer than four games. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of those six, though they have a stretch in January where they play nine of 11 games at home, with only single-game trips to Denver and New Orleans.
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