Yesterday the NBA released the Portland Trail Blazers schedule. As with every year, parts of it are prettier than others. Judging by the reaction in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, though, the league scheduling office might as well have taken all the hamsters and guinea pigs from Portland’s schoolchildren, barbequed them on a spit, and fed them to Lakers-cap wearing sharks.
Let’s take one of the milder examples as our question for the Mailbag today.
What’s with the schedule? We get a brutal start, huge mileage, it’s like the NBA wants us to lose. Why does this always happen?
I think the first thing we need to admit is that schedules are like referees. You’re never going to find one you think works for you. You’ll tend to notice the flaws in your schedule quicker than you will in anybody else’s. Anything that’s not the best for your team seems unfair. That accounts for probably 50% of the frustration right there.
But we also have to acknowledge something. The Blazers are the tip of the donkey’s tail when it comes to NBA scheduling...still a valid and necessary part, but if anybody’s going to catch crap, guess who it’s going to be?
Geography accounts for most of this. Since the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City, the Blazers were left on an island in the Pacific Northwest. They have to travel farther, more often, than any other franchise.
Sometimes the setup is ridiculous. The New Orleans Pelicans are in the Western Conference. Portland is 2500 miles away from New Orleans. Meanwhile Los Angeles lies a full 700 miles closer to N.O. The Blazers also have to travel 1000 miles to L.A. if they want to play the Clippers. The Lakers just head across the street.
The NBA can’t do anything about this. No matter how they shuffle the schedule, Portland will probably move around more than anybody else. The one method they have to alleviate this—stringing together multiple away games in proximity to each other—creates mammoth-length road trips that people will also complain about.
“Why are we playing seven in a row on the road?” Because it’d be worse to fly home in between the third and fourth game, as that’s an extra 4000 miles of travel for a day’s rest.
The Blazers also have the misfortune of being a small-to-mid market team with relatively little prestige right now. I have little intimate knowledge of how schedules are created. I talked to someone once who was in the process, but that was years ago. Common sense will serve to outline the basics, though.
The Lakers, Knicks, Nets, Warriors, and a couple other teams need to be sorted out first. People notice when these teams play. No LeBron on Christmas Day makes way more of a difference than no...well...whomever plays for Sacramento. Major market venues are also in high demand for non-NBA purposes. You have to get the Lakers and Clippers in on their dates. Paul McCartney and Adele are going to want the arena on the nights you’re not using it, and may indeed be pre-booked there. The Grand Grammas of the Quilting Bee—formidable and respect-worthy as they are—do not hold the same sway in Salt Lake City.
I’m guessing that booking Portland is relatively low on the scale of importance. There are safeguards. Nobody’s going on a 20-game trip, back-to-backs are limited, and you won’t play Tuesday in Boston, Wednesday in San Francisco. But scheduling 41 games in 30 team arenas over 8 months means some pretzel-twisting somewhere, figuring out how to get everybody’s interests and needs to align. The Blazers are going to be one of those flex franchises until, or unless, they become prominent enough to be a tentpole.
My understanding is, when you get down to the last few games, very little human choice is involved. There are, like, three places it could go and two won’t work without creating major issues. So the game falls where it falls in the now auto-sort process. So you get a road back-to-back against the second-best team in the conference in Week 1.
Admittedly, a back-to-back in Phoenix is way more brutal-looking than a back-to-back in San Antonio. The pretzel got dipped in vinegar for the first dozen or so games of Portland’s season. Even then, you can twist it both ways, though. Two games against a conference powerhouse within 36 hours might be balanced by the old saw, “It’s hard to win twice in a row against the same team.” It depends on how you look at it.
And this is part of the point. If the Blazers truly want to contend, they’re going to have to master their schedule rather than letting the schedule master them. No matter what order and frequency they come in, games are opportunities, not fate. Portland’s hill may be steeper than some, but it’s still runnable.
Scheduling issues aren’t going away. If the Blazers aren’t just going to give up, they have to overcome one way or another. If geographical disadvantage is built into the system, resiliency and preparation have to be too. The schedule might cost Portland a game or two every year, but it can’t make them non-elite and it ceases to matter as much once the playoffs hit. That’s the goal they should be driving towards.
Let the order of the 82 fall as it may. The last 16-28 weigh more, and the Blazers will be on equal footing then.
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