The 2020-21 regular season presented some opportunities for the NBA to rethink its schedule. The ongoing pandemic would theoretically make the league look into reducing travel for its teams, and thus increasing the number of games played within the same conference, and especially within the same division.
For the Clippers, that would have been a particularly exciting outcome, as they could have played more games against the Lakers, Warriors, and Suns, three teams that are trying to contend this season. That could bring new life to rivalries across the league while working towards the overall goal of health and safety for the teams.
The format of the 2020-21 season, explained: pic.twitter.com/8mLiyQFj8d— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) November 18, 2020
Instead, the NBA chose to de-emphasize the importance of divisions even further in its schedule release, opting instead to have each team play every other team in its conference three times, regardless of whether they are in the same division. Instead of getting more Pacific Division goodness, we’ll get even less. That makes a total of 42 games against the other 14 conference opponents. The league will randomly decide which team gets two home games in each of those series.
In a 72-game schedule, that leaves 30 games remaining, and that logically means that each team will play every non-conference team twice, once at home and once on the road. We haven’t yet seen the schedule of games — in fact, the second half of the schedule won’t even be released until closer to the All-Star Break, which marks the halfway point of this season — but as of now, it doesn’t appear that much has been done to limit travel.
In a way, this new format is advantageous to the Clippers because it increases the proportion of games that are played against lesser opponents (i.e. the bulk of the Eastern Conference) while reducing the number of games played against other teams in the Pacific Division, which should be the best in the NBA this year. However, continuing to play 15 Eastern Conference road dates is unfortunate from a travel perspective, especially for a team that is as far west as possible.
One other note in the NBA’s news release is that the play-in tournament has been approved for the no. 7 through no. 10 seeds to compete for the final two playoff spots. The seventh and eighth seeds each have two chances to win one game to secure their postseason berth, while the ninth and tenth seeds have to win two games in a row to leapfrog their way into the playoffs. There is no standings trigger mentioned in the format, so a no. 7 seed could theoretically be six games ahead of no. 8 and still have to enter this tournament; in my opinion, that’s a pretty lousy hand to be dealt, but we’ll see how it works out.
All in all, it feels strange to be this turned off by a run-of-the-mill schedule announcement, but this is a missed opportunity for the NBA. The league could have done something creative this year, but instead chose the path of least change possible in its scheduling while also creating a tournament that could inject real chaos in the playoff standings. Those are weird outcomes to achieve simultaneously, but the NBA managed it.