Schedule: How the NBA’s Early Start to the Season Has Increased the Randomness of the First 10 Games

Adam Silver knew that the cacophony was too loud to ignore. The 82 game season. Injuries. Rest. Something had to give. Because the NBA is a billion dollar entertainment business, the last thing to give will be the number of games. Enough intelligent NBA folks have written about reducing the number of games. We needn’t go through it again right now, though it’s clear after the schedule tweak, the best answer is not a revised version of an 82-game schedule. Let’s offer this: When the games matter more, the best basketball players in the world will be slightly more prepared to play their best basketball. Four games in five nights was a joke. The old schedule badly needed adjusting. Fewer back-to-backs. All good. But what about the actual games?

This year, the league office expanded the length of time during which the 82 games are being played, starting the season on Tuesday, October 17, smack in the middle of what used to be the preseason. Roughly two weeks early. That means we have two weeks worth of results which make even less sense than the typical first two weeks of regular season sample size.

It means we’re getting NBA writers analyzing numbers which shouldn’t hold much weight. If we think of the 82 games in 10 eight-game chunks (plus 2), I’d value them something like this, in terms of how important each chunk might be, if given a percentage of 100. If all eight-game chunks were equal, we’d have 10% for each.

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Calendars. Months. Games. Breaking it down.

Games 1–8: 7%

Especially in light of the increased roster turnover, the late summer transactions, and the truncated preseason, the first eight games are a mess. Coaches are simply trying to execute on a basic level and have players gain familiarity and trust as they settle into new roles. This year, the instability is heightened by major injuries to star players. Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, Hassan Whiteside. Coaches have wizened up to the reality of the season’s length and player health. This means we have more roster fluctuation game-to-game. With a brand new roster in Boston, Brad Stevens has his team more prepared than most, while teams with weaker scouting and coaching development will struggle more during this time of year. Another important factor: the Warriors and Cavs have played until mid-June for three straight seasons. Shorter summers take their toll, mentally as much as physically. Downtime is needed. Starting the season an extra two weeks early, makes it even sloppier.

Games 9–16: 8%

Settling into roles. Rookies getting acquainted with the physicality of the league. Familiarity should be growing.

Games 17–24: 10%

The cut-off between games 16 and 17 might be arbitrary, but the point remains. By the end of Game 20, coaches would like to stop experimenting and know who they can lean on. Crunch-time lineups are more concrete, preseason injuries are healed, these games start to take on a new meaning. Only by this time, should readers start trusting team percentages and rankings, when it comes to analytics. Game 24 takes place around the beginning of December this year.

Games 25–32: 12%

Games 33–41: 11%

Christmas Day games. This signals the beginning of the season for the less hardcore, possibly casual, NBA fan. Because the Celtics will play the NBA’s annual “London game” in mid-January, their schedule is packed in November and December. December 25th match-up with last year’s rival Washington Wizards will be game #37 for the Celtics. Nearly half-way through. In previous seasons, this might have been game number 30. This is a significant change in that it means December games are all slightly more meaningful. If we think of the march toward 82 as a march uphill toward the playoffs (on a plateau, 2/3 of the way up a steep, snowy, alpine mountain…nature imagery!) then the incline gets steeper the higher we climb. As playoff seeding comes into focus, and as teams prepare for optimum health and momentum heading into April.

Games 42–49: 9% (slog, rookies hit wall)

Games 50–57: 11% (slog, but teams want to do well leading up to break)

All-Star Break

Games 58–65: 11%

Trade deadline comes right around the All-Star break. Though they probably shouldn’t games take on heightened importance when front offices are gauging the market for trades. Teams that go through losing streaks around this time make more trades. Anecdotal? Yes. True? I’d bet good money on it.

Games 66–74: 13%

Its counter-intuitive, but teams use the last 10 games of the season in different ways. High-seeded playoff teams that have a likely-fixed seed focus more on rest. Lottery bound teams are often in full-tank, rookie-experiment mode. Only the teams in the middle of the pack are in full-on, go get the playoff spot mode. This is less true during the post-All-Star Break stretch throughout late February and March.

Games 75–82: 8%

The slog comes to a close. Occasionally, we get very exciting playoff seed races. Other times, we get lots of sadness and the best players resting. No matter what Adam Silver does, coaches on team’s with title hopes will take it easy at the end of the regular season.

***

So when it comes to following the NBA, and you stumble across an article about the 5–2 Orlando Magic or the 3–4 Cleveland Cavs, it’s best to take what you read with a grain of very large Himalayan salt. Yes, each game counts as a win or a loss, but each game isn’t equally meaningful. The numbers don’t matter yet. Wait Until Thanksgiving at least.

I’m working on a win-value formula that hopes to measure the impact of a win. We’ll see if it makes any sense.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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