The NBA’s Subtle, Vital Scheduling Factor

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The discerning, invested NBA fan has no doubt consumed thousands of written or spoken words on schedules, fatigue and player rest over the past several months. It’s the hot-button issue in the league right now, with flames stoked by several recent stars resting prominent games plus widespread media attention. To some, it might even seem as if every possible stone on this subject has been turned up.

A quick news flash: Not even close.

That statement is true publicly, of course, but it’s also far truer within the NBA ranks than you might think. And while the majority of popular conversation rightly revolves around the more glaring issues like season length and player rest, the truest solutions to these issues might exist behind a curtain many don’t even factor into the conversation: Arena availability.

The casual fan likely doesn’t consider these things, but an NBA arena is far from just that. They are also home to dozens of outside events, from concerts to trade shows to circuses. These events help franchises stay profitable in a league that plays 41 home games in a 365-day calendar year.

Balancing them with basketball-related concerns, though, is a high-wire act. And it might play a pretty big role in the scheduling issues you’re so familiar with.

Some background first.

Adam Silver’s tenure as NBA commissioner has brought with it a newfound commitment to innovation and progress, and nowhere is this more evident than within the world of scheduling. What was much more of an analog system even just a few years ago has been digitized, both literally and figuratively.

For years until his retirement following the completion of the 2014-15 schedule, the NBA’s Matt Winick held the role of Senior Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations – basically, the scheduling czar.

In the old system, Winick and the league prioritized games within a tiered structure: National TV games came first, around which the outlines of many longer road trips could take shape. Non-conference schedules were addressed next, including extended trips dictated by arena events like the famous Spurs “Rodeo Road Trip.” Finally, games involving shorter travel and similar regions filled in the blanks for the final product.

One of the several imperfections in this system included the simple rigidity of it, as Evan Wasch, current Senior Vice President for Basketball Strategy and Analytics for the NBA, explained in an appearance at the 2016 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Even with numerous revisions, sticking with a single template badly constricted schedule-makers’ ability to play with other options – of which there are a virtually endless number. This is captured perfectly by Wasch’s statement that the number of possible schedule combinations exceeds the number of atoms in the universe by a wide margin.

Under this system, teams would initially submit 50 non-consecutive open dates available for games, per league sources. For 41 home games in a 170-day time period, that’s not a lot of flexibility. Even with advances in computing and analytics added in regularly to supplement things, a lot was still falling through the cracks of a primarily manual system.

Winick’s “the group is me” comment in a 2010 ESPN article was likely more hyperbole than fact, but his retirement certainly was accompanied by the implementation of a more inclusive system. The NBA increased scheduling representation among important departments like basketball operations, marketing and strategy. They also partnered with a data collection and mining company called KMPG to produce a powerful, flexible computerized scheduling tool.

Rather than working from a single, ever-changing template like under the old system, the new program is constantly scanning through billions of potential schedules. It implements “user constraints,” specific bits of programming that allow the algorithm to prioritize certain factors within the schedule. As a simple example, the program can account for the league’s requirement that no game tips off within 22 hours of a previous game played by either team, regardless of time zones.

The system also uses a system including “fresh,” “tired” and “even” designations within individual games. This helps balance major scheduling advantages for one team or another in a given game.

Instead of 50 raw dates, the new process is much more fluid. Teams still submit a list of dates to the league by late February or early March of the previous year, per sources, but now they’re split into three groups: Available dates, blackout dates and “pending” dates, plus three “preferred” dates where teams can list a highly desired home game (this is a holdout from the old system, with a few minor blackouts).

These pending dates are especially common for arenas that also hold an NHL team. They’re often open dates that could become closed if the NHL attempts to schedule a game in that market, though they can exist for other reasons as well.

Once this initial submission is made, open dates are locked. They require specific league permission to schedule over, and will often come with a “trade-off” where the team sacrifices another preference in exchange.

Per a league source, this typically leaves the NBA with an average of between 60 and 70 open dates per team. It’s up to 100 for smaller, non-NHL markets, and as few as 50 or so for larger areas or teams that share an arena with the NHL.

That may sound like a lot of dates, but things get tight in a hurry when you consider all the variables at play. There are cross-country flight patterns, opponent rest schedules and numerous other factors to consider. Those busy markets with only about 50 available dates act as the lowest common denominator, and only so much of that can be made up by utilizing more open markets optimally.

Tinkering with any little detail could have untold ramifications – not just for one team, but for many at once. Moving a single game back a single day could set off a chain of events that makes 10 additional tweaks necessary for a half-dozen other squads. A league source put it perfectly while comparing the issue to the NBA’s other hot topic lately: “It’s like refereeing – you’ll never totally appreciate the job [until you do it].”

Still, the new emphasis has had a real effect. Teams played an average of 19.3 back-to-backs in the 2014-15 season, a number that’s down to 16.3 this season. Dreaded 4-in-5 stretches sat at 70 for that same 2014-15 campaign; there are just 20 this season, and decreases in preseason play to add days to the NBA calendar next season have the league confident these stretches can be eliminated altogether.

Is it enough, though? Some in the league may not think so, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who believes the teams still retain too much control.

“In the past, there were [more] events that generated more revenue for an arena than an NBA game,” Cuban told Basketball Insiders. “Those events are fewer and further apart.”

Cuban is right, in a broad sense. As Wasch noted in his Sloan appearance, smart developments in sales and marketing have allowed teams to maximize revenue from NBA games, even on traditionally less popular nights. Exactly how right Cuban is, though, could vary heavily between teams – a team source involved in scheduling in a different market estimated that around 50 percent of the non-NBA events in his franchise’s arena draw at least comparable revenue to an NBA game. The math will be different for every team.

There could be a middle ground here, one where increasing league scheduling power to a certain extent could still allow a large enough majority of owners to stay in the black.

In theory, the league could make sweeping changes without any initial owner approval. These rules are outlined in the league’s Operations Manual each season, and the league can unilaterally make these sorts of changes if they wish, per a source. They could theoretically require that all 170-plus days of the NBA season remain wide open for NBA games, and can only be filled in after.

Theory is nice, but this wouldn’t last long in practice. The 30 NBA owners also comprise its Board of Governors, and a defiant move like that from the NBA would almost certainly prompt a meeting of this group, during which a new bylaw could be created to overrule the league and allow NBA teams to schedule outside events. In truth, final say here is with the owners. “It’s the team’s option, rather than the league’s,” Cuban told Basketball Insiders.

Whether they could find success with a more compromised tweak is another question, and one that’s tough to answer without gauging each ownership group individually. Cuban’s comments indicate he’d surely be in favor of tighter team restrictions that still allow some level of outside event planning, but would many of his peers? It’s difficult to say, especially among a group of people that isn’t exactly known for letting potential profits slip through their fingers.

At the same time, maybe hard-liners in that ownership group would be taking too shortsighted an approach.

Player rest is such a huge issue currently in no small part due to major profit decreases the league sees when stars sit out marquee games to rest, and these themes can percolate down to less obvious areas as well. A hypothetical reality where the league could virtually eliminate 4-in-5s and drastically reduce back-to-backs would have a huge effect on player health; doing so without sacrificing a single contest in the 82-game schedule or compromising big national TV games could bring big profits for everyone. These profits might even outweigh any potential losses due to altered scheduling for outside events.

Make no mistake: Every bit of this is part of the league’s thinking process, along with dozens of other things none of us have thought of. Even calling them “the league” sounds ominous, but this isn’t a bunch of grumpy old men scoffing at the suggestion that they could improve – there’s a constant search for innovation under Silver, alongside a willingness to admit past errors. It doesn’t go unnoticed, either.

“We’ve been impressed with the league’s use of technology and commitment to transparency in the scheduling process,” Steve Starks, President of the Utah Jazz, told Basketball Insiders.

In this modern NBA, there’s more hope for these kinds of solutions than ever. There was a cooperative mindset on display when the league and the NBA Players Association avoided another lockout through smart collective bargaining, and this goodwill should continue to some degree or another. For the first time in what feels like forever, different sides of these arguments seem capable of rising above petty concerns and making real concessions for the good of both parties.

The league’s scheduling issues aren’t going anywhere, but know that there’s more going on in the efforts to stabilize them than you might have considered.