If you're anything like me, you've grown pretty weary of scenarios on the NBA schedule like the one we had on April 3rd, where the San Antonio Spurs, on a back-to-back and playing their fifth game in seven nights (a FIGASENI, to the uninitiated), had to visit their Western Conference rivals, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a nationally-televised game where the Thunder had not just the home crowd cheering them on but also, more importantly, the benefit of three days of rest.
It was a rather important late-season game, with home court advantage possibly on the line, but most pundits speculated that Spurs coach wouldn't even bother playing veteran stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, because rest and injury prevention this late in the campaign was more important than a two-game swing in the standings. If you recall, Popovich famously sent his "Big Three" home to Texas one day early during the 2013 season rather than playing them in a FOGAFINI (fourth game in five nights) at Miami in another nationally-televised game, robbing the audience of, as it turned out, a Finals preview. Then-Commissioner David Stern fined Pop $250,000 for the stunt, because Pop committed the gross sin of not making up injuries for his players.
This time around Pop surprised people by actually playing Parker and Duncan (albeit in limited minutes), though he did sit Ginobili. The Spurs played at a level considerably less than their best, and Popovich, who never makes excuses for losing, told reporters a couple of days later that the schedule didn't exactly give the Spurs a level playing field.
What, if anything, can be done about this? Can the league find a way to avoid sabotaging its own spotlight games?
This kind of thing needs to stop and I'm hopeful that new commissioner Adam Silver will be more open-minded in that regard. To be clear, I don't really care for the television aspect of it. I think you really have to be a part of the tin-foil hat community (and I very well might be) to think that ESPN and TNT dislike the Spurs to such a degree that they influence the league's schedule-maker to engineer match-ups that would paint the Spurs in a negative light. "Let's schedule them to play four games in five nights and make sure that fourth one is at Miami on a Thursday!" seems a bit too out there for even me to believe.
I think the national TV games get chosen after the nuts and bolts of the schedule are already established. The networks don't really care about team X being on a long road trip and the tail-end of a FOGAFINI or a FIGASENI. They just see "Ooh, Spurs at Thunder, that sounds cool, let's nab that one."
What I would like Silver and his minions to do is to eliminate the possibility of a FOGAFINI or a FIGASENI involving one marquee club having to be against another, rested, one in the interest of competitive balance. I really don't think it's that complicated. The NFL weights their schedule based on the quality of the teams from the previous season, so why can't the NBA?
In football, 14 of 16 games are determined years in advance. The remaining two depend on how a team performs in the previous season. For example, it was already set in stone that the Dallas Cowboys would play the NFC West and the AFC South next season, in addition to their six division games in the NFC East. That's 14 games. However, their NFC North and NFC South opponents for the upcoming season were dependent on their order of finish in 2013. Dallas finished second in the division, so next year they'll play the New Orleans Saints in the South and the Chicago Bears in the North. If they won the division, they'd have played the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers. If they finished last they'd have played the Minnesota Vikings and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The NBA could do a version of this, even in a 82-game schedule where everyone plays everyone.
Here is my two-pronged idea: First, adjust next year's schedule so that last place teams in each of the six divisions get home games against first place teams playing their FOGAFINIs and FIGASENIs. Since the elite teams are at their most vulnerable once fatigue sets in, make that final game against a bad team so that bad team, at home, has the best chance of pulling the upset.
Conversely, make sure that when the first place teams host a team that's on a FOGAFINI or a FIGASENI, that the team they get is a last-place squad. They were going to pound those guys anyway, so it might as well be a true scheduled loss, just to get 'em out of the way.
Repeat the process for the second-place teams in the six divisions versus the fourth-place teams, where the second-place teams host the fourth-place squads and the fourth-place ones host the second-place ones.
Have the mediocre third-place teams play other third-place teams in those scenarios.
Since there are six divisions, all in different geographical regions, it would enable the schedule-makers to plot a way to make those match-ups happen since there wouldn't be any unreasonable travel chicanery needed to engineer, for example the Lakers (the last-place team in the Pacific) hosting the Spurs (the winner of the Southwest). If the Spurs are on a West Coast swing, just make the Lakers their FOGAFINI. Boom, done.
Meanwhile, the casual fans come out as the real winners because the networks will still want to feature just the appealing match-ups, and under my formula way more of those match-ups would be competitive, with neither team having a rest/fatigue advantage/disadvantage.
The second way I'd weigh the schedule to favor bad teams and punish good ones is even simpler. The way the 82-game NBA schedule works is that each team plays four games against their division opponents (4 x 4 = 16), two games against each team in the opposite conference (2 x 15 = 30) and that leaves 36 games against the 10 clubs in a team's own conference who are in the two other divisions. 36 isn't evenly divisible by 10, obviously, so what teams do is play three teams in each of the two other divisions four times each (6 x 4 = 24) and two teams in each of the other divisions three times each (4 x 3 = 12). 24 + 12 = 36 and that's your schedule.
What needs to happen is to give the best teams the fewest possible number of games against the worst teams and vice versa. For example, the Miami Heat, the winners of the Southeast Division, should only get to play three games each against the fourth and fifth place teams of the Central and Atlantic Divisions, which would be the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks. They should have to play four times each against the other ten Eastern squads.
Here's the basic formula I came up with to figure out which teams in the other two divisions in a conference any team should play just three times, depending on their own division standings:
1st place: 4th and 5th place teams of other divisions.
2nd place: 3rd and 5th place teams of other divisions.
3rd place: 2nd and 4th place teams of other divisions.
4th place: 1st and 3rd place teams of other divisions.
5th place: 1st and 2nd place teams of other divisions.
Just a couple of simple tweaks next season and we can ensure that the Lakers only play the Spurs, Thunder, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers three times each next season while the Celtics only get the Heat and Pacers thrice apiece. Also, L.A. and Boston will get a few home games against those top teams when they're the most fatigued.
I can't think of one good reason why anyone would be against this. I mean, it's about time the Lakers and Celtics caught a break in this league, right?