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Tom's 10: The NBA Schedule Release
What Finders need to know about the 2023-24 NBA Schedule.
Thursday was a national NBA holiday – Schedule Release Day!
Speaking for myself, I’m not circling the calendar for big games as much as I’m looking for tea leaves. Curating the NBA schedule requires a high-wire act that balances big business, sports science and travel logistics. If you look hard enough, you’ll find some fascinating little wrinkles that hint at some much larger truths about the league.
Let’s go Tom’s 10 on this.
I’ll list 10 of my favorite findings on the NBA schedule, just like I did last Friday on Dwyane Wade’s Hall of Fame career.
Without further ado …
The NBA is betting on the Warriors and Lakers to be box-office hits again
Every year around this time, the league office places their bets on who’s going to be good and who’s not going to be good for the upcoming season. To be more precise, they’re picking who they think will draw eyeballs and who won’t. Fans like to see winners, but some teams are more compelling than others.
So which teams did the NBA prioritize? The tell is the league’s national TV game allotment. The league’s broadcasting powerbrokers put their heads together and figure out how to divy up the 100-plus national TV slots among the ESPN, TNT and ABC channels. The NBA is a business, so the goal is to make the most money. Advertisers want eyeballs and advertisers pay big dollars for those eyeballs.
Here’s the breakdown of national TV games (excluding NBA TV) by team:
Plenty of stuff to unpack here but the main thing is that the league knows how to butter its bread. For the past decade, LeBron and Steph have carried the NBA’s airwaves and this season is no different.
Not only does this mean that the Warriors (29 appearances) and Lakers (28) frequent the league’s biggest stage, it means they’ll also receive the best referees for their games (I’ll explain in a later post at The Finder). Despite losing to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns (25) outpace the champs (22) on national TV games, thanks to the acquisition of Bradley Beal. Again, the NBA isn’t just picking the best teams, they’re picking the best teams to draw the largest audience.
Spurs, Kings up. Clips, Nets down.
Comparing the schedule release data from last season to this season, there’s a pretty big shakeup out West. Sacramento, who surged to the No. 2 seed in the West last season, got 10 additional games on the national TV schedule. That’s the same total as the Spurs, who, as mentioned, won the Wemby sweepstakes. The Thunder, with Chet Holmgren joining a surprisingly fun/good/young core, also saw a big jump in the national spotlight (from 1 to 8).
The league office is less excited about the Clippers (-10), Nets (-8) and Bulls (-8) after the big markets each underachieved last season. The Clippers still have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George along with Russell Westbrook. But after four seasons of blah appearances (or lack thereof), maybe the league is experiencing some Clippers Fatigue.
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Also of note: the NBA is selling a bit of Sixers stock (-5) even though the team boasts the reigning MVP in Joel Embiid. Is the selloff more about the Sixers’ continued disappointment in the playoffs or James Harden’s “Daryl Morey is a liar” statement? In all likelihood, the answer is “yes.”
The NBA thinks Damian Lillard will get his wish
The league didn’t appreciate the way that Damian Lillard’s agent Aaron Goodwin handled the trade request out of Portland and sent out a leaguewide memo to teams last month warning them about publicly or privately commenting on such matters.
Even so, they put Lillard’s Blazers on the national TV stage only once, tied for the fewest total along with seven other teams: Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, Indiana, Orlando, Toronto and Washington. That’s down from the Blazers’ total of three last season, indicating that the league foresees the team will be less compelling for the national audience. Translation: the NBA believes Dame Time’s up in Portland.
But here’s how the NBA really showed their hand. Portland’s lone national TV game is against none other than the Miami Heat, Lillard’s preferred destination. If Lillard is traded to the Miami Heat in the coming months, the game will be the first time Lillard returns home to Portland. The NBA seemed to hedge their bet by elevating that game to the national audience on February 27, which just so happens to fall right after the trade deadline. Better safe than sorry, I guess?
That’s a bold statement considering that the talks between Miami and Portland reportedly appear to be dead, if they were ever alive. By keeping Portland off national airwaves until they play Miami in Rip City, the NBA is calling their shot
The NBA Cup has finally arrived.
It caught my eye that the NBA coordinated with its broadcast partner ESPN to launch a big rollout for its in-season tournament like it was college basketball Selection Sunday or something. The ad special is one of the reasons why I think ESPN will continue to have substantial broadcast rights in the new TV deal; I can’t imagine a marketing show like that would draw an audience on a streamer like Amazon Prime or Apple TV+.
A big chunk of the special was devoted to explaining the various complexities of the play-in tournament. The games won’t happen all at the same time and not all of them will count toward regular-season standings. Only some of the games will be in Vegas and it won’t have any implications for the actual playoffs. The NBA only scheduled 80 games this season so it could tack on extra games for teams that didn’t make it out of the group stage. If your head’s spinning, don’t worry, it’s a lot even for someone whose job is to know this stuff.
That said, I’m rooting for it to be a success, and think it eventually will find footing with the American audience. The schedule is way too long,and players have been signaling for several seasons that playing in every game just isn’t worth it. Fans are taking their lead; this past regular season ranked among the least-watched regular seasons in the past 30 years, per Sports Media Watch analysis.
If owners balk at slicing games from the schedule in order to make each more meaningful in the standings, then the in-season tournament is a worthy attempt to stir up some juice. I think there’s a chance that the tournament is buried underneath the weight of the NFL behemoth in November and December, but hey, don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress!
I share my fellow Substacker Marc Stein’s skepticism that it will be a hit right away (Stein’s more succinct reaction to the NBA Cup: “I hate it.”). The play-in tournament, which was met with a large swath of doubters, turned out to be a rousing overnight success. Unlike the play-in, I think the NBA Cup is going to be a years-long experiment. I’m a fan.
But … the NBA’s in-season tournament added about 1,500 miles of travel per team
When I covered player health for ESPN and aired team complaints about the NBA’s grueling schedule, I’d hear an earful from the league about how the schedule is simply a math problem. Paraphrasing here, but there’s only so much you can do to reduce travel when you have 30 teams playing 82 games in a certain span.
Here’s what I wrote in 2016:
No sport spends more time at 30,000 feet than the NBA. Consider that the Warriors will travel an NBA-high 54,000 miles this season, per an NBAsavant.com analysis, twice as many as the NFL's top travel team (the 49ers, who jetted 28,000 miles in 2015, according to Pro Football Reference). Baseball obviously has it worse with its 162-game schedule, right? Wrong: The average NBA team logged 44,214 miles last season; in MLB it was 29,374, according to BaseballSavant.com. Even NHL teams travel less than NBA teams do, averaging about 40,000 miles of flight per season.
And they were right for the most part. The league has cracked down on both schedule density and travel. Since that magazine story was published, the league has snipped the average mileage for an NBA squad from 44,214 miles to 42,619 miles this season (pro-rated for 82 games since the league has only scheduled 80 games). That’s about a four percent drop. Again: a math problem.
Last year, the league noted in a press release that the average mileage last season stood at a record-low 41,000 miles, which means the average team this season is adding about 1,500 miles of travel to their schedule. Back-to-backs are up slightly as well compared to last season. That’s what happens when you shoehorn an in-season tournament into an 82-game schedule. It should be mentioned that the team average for back-to-backs requiring travel has been reduced to a record-low 9.0. I’m hoping that number dials down to zero but that’s a story for another day.
Wemby isn’t getting the Zion treatment
When Zion Williamson entered his rookie season with the New Orleans Pelicans, the NBA gave 20 national TV games to the Duke sensation.
By comparison, Victor Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs received only 11 this season – about half Zion’s total.
It’s a little startling that the NBA has chosen to showcase Wembanyama as much as the Sacramento Kings considering how aggressive they’ve been in getting in the Wemby business even before draft night. This is the same league that acquired the rights to stream his French league games in the NBA app.
Reading the tea leaves, I’m guessing that the NBA doesn’t want to put all its eggs in a basket stitched by Gregg Popovich, the guy who popularized the load-management strategy. The Spurs are surely going to be careful with Wemby coming off a demanding French league schedule, which had him playing pro games right up until Summer League. The other piece of this is the Spurs roster. Sheesh. If Wemby doesn’t play, the NBA risks putting a team headlined by Cam Payne on ESPN’s air.
Zion became a household name at Duke, which cultivated a readymade audience at the next level. Wemby is still an international novelty of sorts. Still, I expected Wembanyama to get closer to 20 national appearances.
The NBA doesn’t want to gamble on KD’s health anymore
Man, how cool was it when Golden State fans got on their feet and cheered Kevin Durant in his first game back since leaving in 2019? Heartwarming moment, right?
… Except it hasn’t happened!
KD hasn’t played in front of Bay Area fans since tearing his Achilles against the Toronto Raptors in Game 5. He missed the entire 2019-20 season rehabbing from the injury. There were no fans in the Chase Center for his 2020-21 return due to COVID rules. Injuries have knocked out Durant in his last three outings there.
The league isn’t wasting any time this season. Not only is Durant slated to play at Chase Center for the season-opener on October 24, the NBA has selected Suns-Lakers for the Suns’ second game just two days later in Los Angeles. If Durant and LeBron can stay healthy this preseason, it would be the first LeBron-KD matchup since the 2018 NBA Finals. With aging superstars in a load management era, the NBA has learned not to leave it to chance.
The Clippers continue to travel more than the Lakers
Per Positive Residual, the Clippers will be traveling the most this season, clocking in at 50,670 miles in estimated distance. That’s far and away the highest mileage in the season, with Brooklyn racking up an estimated 47,066 miles.
Why are the Clippers getting a raw deal this season? Well, it’s not just this season. In theory, they shouldn’t have demonstrably more travel than the Los Angeles Lakers, who share the building at Crypto.com Arena. But the Clippers have traveled more miles than the Lakers in each of the last five seasons, for a total excess mileage of about 13,000 miles — or, about 2,600 per season.
What’s up with that? My guy Brian Windhorst shared a fascinating theory on his ESPN podcast: “I think it's been slightly worse the last two years in terms of the way the Clippers’ usage of Crypto.com has been allocated. I think it's been slightly worse because they're on their way out. And so any 50/50 ball is going in the other direction (to the Lakers).”
The Clippers are expected to move out of Crypto and into the Intuit Dome possibly as early as 2024-25. NBA insiders will surely be watching the mileage then.
I’m told by the Google machine that planet earth has a circumference of 24,901 miles WHICH MEANS the Clippers have traveled an extra “halfway around the world” compared to the Lakers over the last five regular seasons.
The Lakers would zing back by saying the Clippers don’t travel much in the playoffs.
Midwest teams win the travel department
One of my favorite little geographic wrinkles in the schedule-release every year: midwest teams don’t spend much time in the air. Looking at the snazzy graphics at Positive Residual, four of the six bottom teams in schedule mileage: Chicago (37,689), Milwaukee (36,310), Detroit (35,633) and Indiana (33,736). Cleveland usually finds itself on this list, but it checks in just about average this season (40,316).
For the visual learners, here’s the Pacers viz from Positive Residual folks:
It helps to be in the center of things. Geometry!
Brooklyn wins schedule release day
Schedule release videos are now a thing. After the Tennessee Titans’ schedule-release video went viral this summer, just about every NBA team took part in making a hit digital short (as far as The Finder can tell, the Lakers, Kings, Raptors and Spurs must have skipped that marketing meeting).
The creativity was great. Some went the comedy route. Some went pure nostalgia. Some went straight hype video.
But who won the crown?
I looked at Twitter views and there’s one clear winner: the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets did their own version of the Titans video, but doing it on Coney Island instead of downtown Nashville. The Nets ran away from the competition with 2.6 million views, nearly double the second-place Chicago Bulls’ more nostalgic video. Though I appreciate the Atlanta Hawks doing a basketball twist on the Titans classic.
As a self-proclaimed foodie (go listen to my Top Chef podcast Pack Your Knives with Kevin Arnovitz!), I gotta say my favorite video belonged to the Golden State Warriors, which saw Gary Payton II eating signature dishes from varying NBA cities on the schedule and guessing which team it belonged to. In impressive fashion, GP2 correctly answered five of the six dishes that Warriors’ Chef Bert prepared (I won’t spoil any of them for you, go watch and play along yourself). I especially liked the soundtrack to the video that offered viewers a subtle hint. I want to see the extended cut with all 30 teams.
By the way, I didn’t know rolling glass bottles down the stairs was a thing, but holy hell was it addictive to watch. Research at The Finder shows that this is a TikTok sensation? Newsflash: I’m not on TikTok. Also, I mentioned earlier that the NFL might drown out the NBA’s in-season tournament. Well, in related news, the Titans schedule-release video did 10 times the numbers of the NBA’s best. The NFL is king, y’all.
What jumped out to you in the NBA schedule releases?