The NBA’s Brilliant 2020-21 Schedule Plan

Earlier this month, when the NBA announced a 72-game season to commence on December 22, I posed the question “when’s the season supposed to end? How are they supposed to avoid cramming in too many games in not enough time like they did when they started a 66-game season on December 25 back in the 2011-12 season?”

Well, the NBA seems to have learned its lesson from the mistakes made during and after the 2011 lockout, and they’ve taken a powerful first step toward making the 2020-21 season a success.

First off, the planned end of the season is May 16. “Sometime between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day” made the most sense when all we had was the start date and the number of games; and this is pretty close to outright splitting the difference, with the games starting 7 days after Mother’s Day and 15 before Memorial Day. If they’d moved that end date four days later, they’d be exactly in the center of that range.

Even better, the NBA has split the season into approximate halves, with the All-Star Game sandwiched in between March 5 and 10. They’re staying ahead of the college March Madness tournament without holding the All-Star Game too early in the season to where players can’t set the world on fire and rack up fan votes. Second- and third-year players making their first All-Star appearance often depend on generating early buzz in November in a typical season; they’ll be able to do this in January and get that boost to voting.

Splitting the season has another key consequence. As we’ve learned from baseball, COVID-19 doesn’t respect sports schedules. When the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals had major issues with the virus during Major League Baseball’s 60-game regular season in 2020, baseball had to scramble to make up a bunch of games in not a lot of time, and the Cardinals and Detroit Tigers ended up losing two games off their total schedule, playing just 58.

A COVID outbreak isn’t quite as likely to disrupt a fully planned-out season, but with the virus entering a strong “second wave” in the United States, the NBA has to be ready for even a worst-case scenario where a team’s entire roster falls ill with the disease. They don’t have a bubble this time. They’re facing the same challenges as every other sport.

Which is why not announcing the actual schedule for the second half of the season until the first half is nearly completed is such a brilliant move. The NBA can assess which games had to be canceled or postponed and slot them in as necessary in that second half of play.

This is such a brilliant and practical move that whoever came up with it deserves a raise. It’s a masterpiece.

And just for added fun, there’s another play-in tournament for the playoffs this year! It’s a two-round tournament where the 7 and 8 teams play with the winner punching their ticket and the loser getting to play the winner of a game between the 9-10 teams in each conference, winner take all.

So the 10 seed (the 25-47 Wizards in last year’s Eastern Conference, the 34-39 Suns in the West) still has a chance to make the playoffs.

That could lead to the worst regular-season record by a playoff entrant (especially if the East continues to be polarized at the top the way it’s been the past few years, with six clear playoff teams and the 7 and 8 seeds enjoying a significant advantage over the garbage pile below them) in decades, like when a 30-52 Bulls team made the playoffs in 1986, allowing Michael Jordan to score 63 points in a playoff game against the mighty Celtics.

Could we see one of 2020’s hotshot rookies in their second season in the league, just like MJ in ’85-86, blow up the record books against a 1 seed even as their own team is complete trash? Won’t that be fun!

As for the playoffs themselves, they’re scheduled from May 22 to July 22. This should allow for a return to normalcy in the form of an 82-game season in 2021-22 even if it has to be pushed back a couple of weeks to allow for a true, complete offseason.

But by the middle of October 2022, the pandemic should burn itself out either because a vaccine is developed or because of the simple fact of epidemiology that once enough people get a disease, it can’t spread wildly through the population because of built-up human immunity, the way the H1N1 flu of 1918 eventually became just another seasonal flu bug even before the broad adoption of flu shots.

The first step was getting the 2020-21 schedule right, and the NBA and the players’ union just hit this shot from the opposite baseline Jae Crowder-style.

It’s a chef’s kiss. Brilliant. Let the games begin.