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On the skews of the NBA’s new scheduling formula

Nov 28, 2011, 4:45 PM EDT

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We still have yet to see the NBA’s official schedule (or have approval of the tentative collective bargaining framework from the NBA’s players and owners, but who’s letting that stop them from moving on?) for the coming season, but thanks to a release from NBA.com, we have a basic idea of how the distribution of games should look for every team. Matt Moore dug into the particulars over the weekend, including the unusual back-to-back-to-backs we’ll see in the coming season and the revenue loss of the unfortunate teams who won’t get a visit from the Lakers or Heat.

But if we read between the lines of the scheduling notes, a bit of an imbalance begins to take shape. Teams are currently scheduled for 48 in-conference and 18 inter-conference games — an arrangement that on the surface, should greatly favor those in the East. This is nothing new; under normal circumstances, NBA teams have more games against conference opponents than non-conference ones, so one side or the other inevitably gets the short end of the stick.

Yet by reducing the total number of games, each of those specific matchups matters more than usual. Decreasing the sample size of a season from 82 games to 66 increases the chance of a fluke regular season result, but it also gives every game additional value. A single victory will be worth more this season than in one of standard length, for the simple reason that there are fewer total games to go around.

So the fact that Western Conference teams will play nearly three-fourths of their games against in-conference opponents seems rather noteworthy. The West was by far the deeper of the two conferences last season, with 11 teams winning 39 games or more to the East’s seven. That glut of contention and competence will have to battle it out on a tight schedule with a big impact, which could lead to a bit of an insane scramble for the West’s lower playoff seeds.

Additionally, divisional schedules will matter more than ever this year, as each NBA team will play the full four-game slate against only six different opponents — four of which are presumably divisional foes. The rest of the matchups will be three, two, or one-game affairs, meaning that those situated in the most competitive divisions are saddled with more games against difficult opponents. Again, that in itself is nothing new, but the fewer total number of games coupled with the new breakdown of the various season series’ makes such variables even more important than usual.

That could spell bad news for the Houston Rockets, a team forever stuck on the playoff fringe. For all of their efforts last season — the Rockets won 43 games, just three short of the eighth seed — Houston still managed to rank dead last in the very competitive Southwest division. Part of the reason for that: a 5-11 record against the four other teams in the Southwest, which filled a chunk of the Rockets’ schedule with dropped games against tough competition. In theory, Houston seems likely to have as tough of a road as anyone next season, as they’ll face that same competitive group of divisional opponents (Dallas, San Antonio, Memphis, New Orleans) in a greater percentage of their overall games. As a team likely to fall again on the playoff cusp, the margin for error is already painfully small; the Rockets will somehow have to make the most of their more difficult schedule, lest they end another year in the lottery.

These factors alone won’t decide the fate of the Rockets or any other team, but the length of the season has slightly magnified the importance of the schedule’s typical quirks.

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