For many Toronto Raptors fans, the 2018-19 season felt like the year to get a Christmas game and break a 17-year long stretch without one.
The team has played precisely once on the highly touted occasion in NBA circles, back in 2001, and lost 102-94 to the New York Knickerbockers. Yes, those very same Knicks who will host the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas day this season despite the fact they will likely be playing for ping-pong balls and possibly missing franchise centrepiece Kristaps Porzingis.
Howard Beck, host of The Full 48 podcast asked Evan Wasch, Senior Vice President and Head of Basketball Strategy and Analytics, and Tom Carelli, Senior Vice-President Broadcast Schedule Management for the NBA — two of the main men in charge of the NBA schedule — about that seemingly puzzling decision and more a few days ago.
“The Knicks have played more games on Christmas than any other team,” Carelli said when asked about why the Knicks are playing on Christmas day ahead of the Raptors. “They’ve hosted, I think, more games than any other team on Christmas. In order to get five games in, we’ve got to have a team in an Eastern time zone, these are all factors.
“There’s a certain tradition of playing at The Garden (Madison Square Garden) on Christmas that we think has value. I think, this particular year, you have Milwaukee coming in, with Giannis (Antetokounmpo), who, now that LeBron (James) is no longer in the Eastern Conference, Giannis is the leading (all-star) vote-getter, has played some spectacular performances in The Garden in the past, so, we think we’re putting another great team on in that matchup.”
So, there you have it ladies and gentlemen, the Knicks, or Madison Square Garden, rather, just have too much clout to be overthrown for poor performances or management.
Another interesting point worth noting here is the value of being among the leading vote-getters for the all-star game. Antetokounmpo established himself as a household name last season — an achievement all the more admirable considering the difficulty in saying and spelling said name — and seems to have single-handedly earned the Bucks a spot.
While being completely honest and upfront about the power New York holds in this regard, the two scheduling executives were also quick to point out the improvement in the Raptors’ national TV scheduling from five games a season ago to 15 across the ESPN and Turner networks this season.
“There’s a notion of earning your way into these windows,” Wasch said. “On the backs of finishing with the best record in the East and acquiring Kawhi Leonard, we thought that a significant increase in their profile was warranted.”
“Both of their games against San Antonio are on, both of their games against Golden State are on, both of their games against Houston are on, and all four games against the (Boston) Celtics are on. So, they are a featured team,” Carelli added.
Certainly, there’s plenty of reason for the Raptors to not feel hard done by when considering the grand scheme of things, and even more so when gaining a better perspective of just how difficult a task schedulers have in making sure they appease as many stakeholders as possible.
One of the most revealing aspects of the podcast was when the pair described their process, one that begins in January and ends in August.
They start with requesting information about every date an arena will be used over the course of the season’s 168 days. Next comes starting to organize the 1,230 games while keeping in mind the 11 buildings that also cater to the NHL, the three-week rodeo in San Antonio, the Grammy awards in Los Angeles, the fact that two-thirds of the teams host Disney on Ice, Cirque du Soleil events, conference basketball tournaments before the countless concerts held across all the arenas.
Even something like ensuring the Warriors don’t play on the same day as the Oakland Raiders is kept in mind since the two share the same parking lot. Incredible, really.
They then take into consideration free agency moves and trades, before manually sorting out approximately 15-20 per cent of the schedule. What’s known to some as the “super computer” generates the most optimal outcome for what’s left.
There are scheduling goals, too, entirely centred around maximizing player rest and the quality of games. The average number of back-to-backs was 19 just four seasons ago, and is down to 13.3 for 2018-19. The range is another aspect they have improved. While some teams had as few as 16 back-to-back sets four years ago, others had as many as 22 — which created a bit of unfairness. Now, no team has less than 12 or more than 15.
If that isn’t enough, there’s even a fresh/tired/even metric they use to assess the concept of rest advantage — not just how many back-to-backs a team plays, but the number of times a team plays an opponent who’s on a back-to-back. Wasch and Carelli revealed that this once had a variance as much as plus-or-minus-nine, but that has been pretty much been cut in half as well.
Be sure to listen to this episode in its entirety here.