As news items go, the annual summer release of the NBA schedule is not especially newsworthy. Unlike their NFL and Major League Baseball counterparts, NBA teams play a roughly equal slate of opponents every year. A given team plays every other team either four, three or two times, depending on whether they're in the same division, conference or neither. If the NBA schedule lacks the Platonic balance of the English Premier League, it's nonetheless highly structured and predictable. We already know, more or less, what games are going to occur. The schedule just tells us the sequence.
There's an administrative function to this, of course. Teams can't sell tickets to games until those games are assigned to occur on particular dates, so the schedule announcement facilitates some fairly essential revenue generation. There's also a discursive function: the schedule gives fans of the league something concrete to talk about. It serves as the prehistory of the season ahead. Yes, we were already aware the Los Angeles Lakers would visit the Boston Celtics this season, but now we can imagine that Finals rematch taking place on an exact date: February 10th!
If the marginal value of this information strikes you as meager, that's because it is. There's news you read about on the front page of the New York Times, and then there's the NBA schedule. The two categories do not overlap.
In any event, if we can agree that the word "important," in this case, does not mean what it usually means, here's what's important about the Lakers' 2010-11 schedule:
1. Opening Night
The season will begin at Staples Center on October 26th against the Houston Rockets. That makes sense. Everybody tunes in on opening night, so the league typically makes sure to give the Lakers a somewhat decent opponent. No need to remind casual fans that, say, the Toronto Raptors still exist. On the other hand, there's no point burning one of your truly sexy games on opening night, since everyone will watch regardless of whom you put on the screen. The serious ratings magnets get saved for....
This year Christmas falls on December 25th, so that's when you can look forward to seeing the Lakers face the new-look Miami Heat. The Heat, as everyone knows, rocked the NBA world this offseason by signing free agents Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard. The Lakers countered these moves by adding an ancient center of their own in Theo Ratliff. It's possible I haven't correctly identified the key storylines for this game.
Here's where the league schedule threatens imbalance. The burden of back-to-back sets isn't distributed evenly. The most unlucky teams will play about two in every seven games in a state of fatigue, having played the night before. The least unlucky will do so twice in every 11 games. Hey, guess who gets to play the fewest back-to-backs this year!
Did you guess the Lakers? I hope so, because that's pretty clearly who I'm writing about in this column. The purple and gold have been assigned only 15 back-to-backs, or five fewer than the league average. Clearly, this is David Stern tilting the playing field in the Lakers' favor, no?
Actually, no. The Lakers will indeed play fewer back-to-backs than any other team, but they'll also face the fewest opponents who themselves are on the tail end of back-to-backs. (Merely 10 of them, to be exact.) In other words, the Lakers will have the benefit of rest, but so will the teams they're facing. Playing field: un-tilted.
If you still think there's a league conspiracy to make life easy on the Lakers, please: take this tin foil hat. I'm told it silences the voices.
4. A Cavalcade of Scrubs
This past season, there was an odd lumpiness to the Lakers' schedule, in that 17 of the first 21 games were played at home. There's no such home-road weirdness this time around, but what we do see is a long run of mostly garbage teams to open the season. Twenty-seven of the Lakers' first 42 games are against squads that didn't make the playoffs last year. While a couple of those teams (e.g., the Rockets) are plausible playoff contenders this season, a couple of the teams that did make the playoffs last year (e.g., Phoenix and Cleveland) have become slightly to significantly worse.
It's conceivable that in mid-January, the Lakers will have a record of something like 37-5. We'd then be in store for all kinds of chatter about 72 wins, which will last until the more serious opponents start coming in waves and the team falls back to a more normal 60-win pace. That's the thing with the NBA schedule. Much as we might strain to imagine otherwise, it all evens out in the end.
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