Here’s your goal: Winnow the entire NBA schedule down from 82 games for each team into a 66-game season that starts on Dec. 25. And don’t forget about the individual schedules of 30 teams spread across four time zones — and arenas that have already booked concerts and hockey games. Cross-eyed yet?
Matt Winick, NBA senior vice president and head schedule-maker, says that he did have a little head start on the new schedule, as he utilized about 40% of the original schedule’s dates in the lockout-shortened timetable. But everything else required rejiggering, taking into account each home arena’s already-set schedule of concerts, conventions and even NHL games. And that doesn’t even count issues with travel (the Portland to Miami flight isn’t popular, for example).
“I’ve done this for over 25 years and every schedule is the toughest one I ever make,” Winick says. “Sometimes you get caught up in one little issue and you forget the big issue. One little change can cause a number of changes down the road. It is how all the pieces in the puzzle fit. You have to stay the course.”
Winick says that in a normal year, teams submit a required number of dates the NBA schedulers can utilize, easily covering all the NBA’s needs. “There were various levels of availability still left,” he says. “Arena availability is the biggest factor.”
If a team had a heavy load of home games previously scheduled for before Christmas, finding open dates later in the schedule to plug those games back in was made even more challenging. “San Antonio is one that people forget about,” Winick says. “But they have a three-week run of the rodeo in early February. It is challenging normally, but normally we would be well into the season and the schedule wouldn’t be so out of balance.”
While San Antonio’s rodeo gave Winick fits, the Staples Center in Los Angeles made him want to cry. “L.A. is by far the trickiest in the season with two NBA teams (both the Clippers and Lakers play there), an NHL team and the most heavily booked building in the United States,” he says. Even still, every building tries to maximize its events creating “no easy situations.”
A simple placement of games into open dates wasn’t always the answer. Winick spent plenty of time talking to building owners too, staying up to date on their calendars and getting needed dates when he had to.
Near the end of the season’s run, the NBA was handed a gift by the NHL, often a shared tenant of a city’s arena. The NHL had potential playoff dates on hold, but the hockey league gave up some of those to allow the NBA’s season to extend further into April and utilize some of those otherwise unbooked dates. “I can’t think of a group more cooperative than the NHL in this process,” Winick says.
From a basketball standpoint, the goal was to keep a team’s average number of games per week under four. It stands at 3.94. And the NBA did this without an inordinate number of triples (three games in three consecutive nights), limiting it to no more than twice in the season for any team and a total of 42 triples throughout the schedule. In contrast, in 1999, when the NBA played just 50 games due to a lockout, there were 64 triples in the 50-game schedule.
Also in line with keeping players fresh, the NBA limited travel, creating a schedule with 48 conference games and 18 out-of-conference contests. “The interconference games required more travel and we could not give up the time in the schedule to play more interconfrence games,” Winick says. While NBA rules state a team can’t cross two time zones to play on consecutive nights, there were plenty of other trips that simply weren’t feasible, even if allowable.
With an always-moving target date for the start of the season, Wincik worked through countless iterations of a plan along the way, giving him incredible satisfaction that all 990 games simply made it onto a workable schedule. We bet Winick could use a good night’s sleep now that it’s over.