Winners and Losers of the NBA's 2nd-Half Schedule
On Wednesday, just two weeks before the second half of the NBA season tips off, the league released the schedule for the final nine weeks of the 2020-21 campaign. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitability of missed games, the league originally created the schedule in two parts, giving itself wiggle room to adjust on the fly.
In the first half, several teams had entire weeks wiped out because of positive coronavirus tests or contact-tracing concerns. Some games that had been earmarked for the second half have already been made up on off days in the first half.
The second-half schedule is even more compressed than the first half, with some squads having to make up an uneven amount of contests because of postponements in the first half. In other words, some teams will have a tougher go of it than others.
Here are the winners and losers of the league's Wednesday announcement.
Winner: The Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis is not expected to return before the All-Star break, and there's no guarantee that he will be a full go when he returns. Achilles-related injuries are nothing to play around with, and the Lakers clearly care more about making sure he's healthy for the playoffs than they do about getting the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Luckily, their schedule after the break starts out pretty soft. Four of their first five games are at home, and their only road matchup in that stretch is in San Francisco against the Golden State Warriors (that comes after two days off).
Their first two games, against the Indiana Pacers and the Warriors, are their only matchups against above-.500 teams in the first week. Their next three come against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks, all teams they should be able to beat without Davis.
After that, the Lakers head on a two-game road trip before finishing out March with four more games at home, including against Eastern Conference lottery teams in the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even if Davis takes a little longer than expected to return, the Lakers should be able to keep pace just fine and set themselves up to enter the playoffs at full strength.
Losers: The Teams Facing a Schedule Crunch
Just about every team has had games impacted by the league's health and safety protocols, but a handful were hit particularly hard and are paying the price on the back end.
The Memphis Grizzlies' second-half schedule includes 40 games, a seven-game road trip and a whopping 11 back-to-backs.
The San Antonio Spurs also have 40 games to make up in the 68-day span to the start of the play-in tournament, including seven back-to-backs.
The Washington Wizards, who had the league's first high-profile shutdown, have 38 games and seven back-to-backs.
The NBA isn't going to allow a scenario like last year's truncated regular season, where even after the eight "seeding games" in the bubble, not every team had played the same amount of contests. This year, everyone should get to 72 one way or another, even if that means some teams will need to play brutal second-half schedules.
And that's before taking into account postponements in the second half. Hopefully, as the vaccine rollout increases across the country, this will become less of an issue by the playoffs. The first half of the season showed us that nothing is guaranteed, but these teams are already playing from behind because of the hits their schedules have already taken.
Winner: The Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are currently 17-15, which has them in eighth place in the Western Conference. They hold a one-game lead over the ninth-place Dallas Mavericks but only a three-game lead over the 11th-place New Orleans Pelicans.
With the NBA's new play-in format for the final two seeds in each conference, fringe playoff teams have a thin margin for error, and one bad week could lead to a team going from having home-court advantage in the play-in to being on the outside looking at draft prospects.
Fortunately for the Warriors, the schedule-makers were kind to them down the stretch. Their final six games are at home, and the opponents are favorable.
They start off with two straight games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who should be in full tank mode by then. Next up are the Utah Jazz, who will likely have the No. 1 seed locked up by then and may not be playing everybody; one tough game against the Phoenix Suns, who should also be battling for seeding position in the playoffs; and they close out with games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, the latter of which will be finishing out a wildly difficult and compressed schedule to make up for all of their postponements.
Assuming they stay healthy, the Warriors will have plenty of opportunities to put themselves in a good position heading into the play-in—and immediately become the low seed none of the higher-seeded teams want to face in the first round.
Loser: The New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are looking to make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. With a week to go before the All-Star break, they're right on the edge of the postseason picture.
The Knicks are currently in a three-way tie with the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets for seventh in the East. They're only a half-game behind the Boston Celtics for sixth, which would allow them to avoid the play-in tournament, but they're only a half-game ahead of the 10th-place Miami Heat.
Barring a major injury, this race could come down to the final week of the season, and the Knicks' schedule to close it out is brutal. They begin May with a six-game road trip that starts with a back-to-back in Houston and Memphis and ends with games against four playoff teams in the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers and Lakers.
They return home for their final two games of the season, which are against the Hornets and Celtics—two of the teams they're currently in a tight race with in the standings.
The Knicks' fate will be decided in those two weeks, and their path to the playoffs won't be easy. There may be razor-thin margins between avoiding the play-in tournament and missing out on the playoffs entirely.
The Knicks have been one of the season's surprise success stories so far, but they have a tough road ahead of them to keep the winning going and return to the playoffs.
Winner: The NBA's National TV Partners
Unsurprisingly, the two teams with the most nationally televised games in the second half of the season are the Lakers with 21 and the Nets with 20, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The schedule-makers must have built in a slightly longer recovery time for Davis (see above), because the Lakers have only one ESPN game in the first two weeks and no TNT game until March 23. By then, Davis will hopefully be back.
Brooklyn, meanwhile, starts off the second half with a home game against the Celtics on TNT and plays the Knicks four days later on ESPN.
The Nets' season has been full of stops and starts since they traded for James Harden. Kevin Durant has already missed 14 games because of various stints in the health and safety protocol and minor injuries. But they've been thrilling to watch when Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving are all healthy, and fans will have plenty of opportunities to see them on national TV in the second half of the season.
Elsewhere on the national TV schedule, there are three Bucks-Sixers matchups that will be crucial in the race for the top seed in the East, and stars like Damian Lillard, Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic will get plenty of exposure. Even the Charlotte Hornets, who are often forgotten but now feature a star in the making in LaMelo Ball, will be on TNT against Brooklyn on April 1.
Loser: Fans Turned off by Load Management
The compressed second-half schedule is heavy on back-to-backs and road trips, which will leave players with almost no time to recover. Injuries are likely inevitable, which is unfortunate.
The only way for playoff teams to avoid that is to sit their star players in some of the tougher stretches of the schedule to make sure they're healthy for the playoffs.
This is an unavoidable truth of the schedule, just as it was in the 2011-12 lockout season, which also crammed a lot of games into a short amount of time and featured an uptick in injuries. In the nine seasons since then, teams have become far more forward-thinking when it comes to player rest, and it won't be a surprise if teams rest their best players more than usual.
As much as this makes sense from a health standpoint, it's a bummer for fans. This is already a strange and conflicting season to follow given the realities of the pandemic, inconsistent policies in different cities on allowing fans in arenas and uncertainty about when things will return to normal.
Add in the higher-than-usual likelihood that a marquee matchup won't feature, say, Stephen Curry or Giannis Antetokounmpo, and there could be a lot of let-down games in the second half of the season.