October 01, 2010
For some hardcore H2H managers, the schedule remains one of the unspoiled final frontiers of fantasy basketball. Sites like Basketball Monster have leveled the playing field of player valuation to the point that math savants no longer have a significant advantage over the numerically challenged. Social media, and in particular Twitter, have erased the information gap between the masses and insiders, with weekend warriors now able to access the same breaking news stream as beat reporters. However, the NBA schedule remains largely neglected in terms of analysis and there are still significant opportunities to find an advantage. Let's explore some of the different ways to break down the schedule and look for different advantages to exploit.
The most familiar frame of reference for a schedule analysis is the H2H playoff schedule. For most managers, this is both the starting point and ending point for schedule analysis. While it is true that in the grand scheme of things the playoff weeks have a disproportionate impact relative to an average regular season matchup, there is generally too much weight given to H2H playoff schedules during the off-season. After all, you first have to qualify for the playoffs based upon your regular season record before you can take advantage of prime playoff schedules. Playoff schedule is more appropriate to consider during the middle of the season as you make final roster adjustments for the stretch run, and hopefully a championship run.
With that disclaimer fresh in your mind, here are the best and worst H2H playoff schedules in terms of total games played during Weeks 21-23, which is the default Yahoo! playoff schedule. Boston, Indiana, New Jersey, Phoenix, Sacramento and Washington all play 12 games, making it a six-way tie for the most number of games played during the traditional playoff weeks. In contrast, the worst playoff schedules belong to Detroit, the LA Lakers, Minnesota, New Orleans and Orlando, with nine games each. Factoring playoff schedules into draft decisions can be a recipe for failure, so proceed with caution. A good rule of thumb is that if you are about to result to flipping a coin for a roster decision during the draft, you can use playoff schedules as the tiebreaker.
12 games: BOS, IND, NJN, PHO, SAC, WAS
11 games: CHI, CLE, DAL, GSW, MIA, OKC, PHI, POR, SAS
10 games: ATL, CHA, DEN, HOU, LAC, MEM, MIL, NYK, TOR, UTH
9 games: DET, LAL, MIN, NOR, ORL
Early Season Schedule
The early season schedule is arguably the most neglected area of schedule analysis. The playoff schedule garners by far the most attention, despite the very real risk of never being able to take advantage of a favorable playoff schedule for failure to make the playoff cut. In contrast, the first third of the season sets the tentative standings for the rest of the season. Any advantage you can obtain in the early going will help exponentially down the stretch run. Often the difference between the playoffs and the loser's bracket can be a category or two. Every week counts, and every category conquered puts you one step closer to championship contention. Focusing on the early schedule allows you to maximize the number of games played, especially when considered in conjunction with end of season schedules and quality games as the season progresses.
For purposes of this analysis, early season schedule is the number of games played during the first nine weeks of the NBA season. With the regular season lasting approximately 25 weeks, nine weeks roughly equates to the first third of the season. During that time period, Atlanta and Miami have the best schedules, with 32 games or an average of 3.56 games per week. The Clippers, Timberwolves, Knicks, Thunder and Magic are all tied with 31 games (3.44 per week). On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sacramento weighs in with a meager 27 games, or an average of 3 games per week. Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Indiana, Milwaukee and Washington are tied for second with 28 games (3.11 per week). While a five game difference may not seem like much of a difference, it could be enough to swing a category or two in your favor early on in the season.
Best (games per week): ATL (3.56), MIA (3.56), LAC (3.44), MIN (3.44), NYK (3.44), OKC (3.44) ORL (3.44)
Worst (games per week): SAC (3.0), BOS (3.11), CHA (3.11), DAL (3.11), IND (3.11), MIL (3.11), WAS (3.11)
Late Season Schedule
When used in tandem with early season schedule analysis, late season schedule analysis can be a powerful tool in H2H leagues. In a perfect world, you take advantage of early season schedules as much as you can and then make roster and trade decisions during the middle of the season that maintain overall value while assembling players that have favorable late season schedules. Remember, any advantage you can find over your competitors is useful and increases your odds of making the playoffs. However, a pitfall with late season schedules (and playoff schedules as well) is to emphasize the schedule to the point where you sacrifice value in order to improve a schedule. Almost without exception, any strategy that causes you to sacrifice value is not recommended, even if you receive schedule upgrade in return.
Similar to the early season schedule analysis, the late season schedule is based upon a nine-week data set in order to represent about a third of the season. In this case, we are concerned with the last nine weeks of the season, meaning that playoff schedules are a wholly-contained subset of the late season schedule. However, the late season schedule includes the five weeks leading up to the playoffs, which is arguably the most critical stretch of the season as an entire season's worth of effort hangs in the balance for all but the best and worst teams. Sacramento now has the best schedule with 31 games for an average of 3.44 games per week, with Chicago, Phoenix and Indiana tied for second with 30 games (3.33 games per week). This season's worst finish belongs solely to the Orlando Magic with 25 games over the last nine weeks for an average of 2.78 games per week. Memphis and New Orleans clock in with 26 apiece (2.89 average). Notice that both Orlando and Sacramento have terrible early season schedules and great late season schedules.
Best (games per week): SAC (3.44), CHI (3.33), PHO (3.33), IND (3.33)
Worst (games per week): ORL (2.78), MEM (2.89), NOR (2.89)
The final area of schedule analysis revolves around the concept of quality games. Despite being considered last in this discussion, the quality games analysis is probably the most powerful in terms of seeking to optimize games played. The reason lies in one of the basic truths in fantasy basketball: not all games are created equally. Due to the nuances of the NBA schedule, and more importantly television ratings, certain days are stacked with games (generally Fridays) and other days are relatively light (generally Thursdays). On the stacked days, it is common to have to rest a player or two that is technically active because all of your active roster spots are already full. These games are simply wasted games. Maximizing the number of games your team plays on off days can have the effect of increasing the number of games scored for your team in a given week, without actually increasing the total number of games your team played. This is accomplished by decreasing the number of wasted games as a result of the NBA's scheduling system. Think of it simply as akin to a gain in efficiency.
A quality game is actually a relative term, and the number is somewhat arbitrary. For purposes of this primer, a quality game is a game that occurs on a day when ten teams or less have games (i.e. five games or less on any given day). However depending upon league settings and the desired scarcity of quality games, quality games could just as easily be defined as eight or 12 teams playing (or any other number for that matter). Ten teams represents a third of the NBA, which is a convenient frame of reference for the quality games analysis. Over the course of the 2010-11 NBA season, the following teams have the highest number of quality games: Chicago (18), Miami (17), Portland (17), Boston (16), Dallas (16), Denver (15) and LA Lakers (15). Now compare the preceding list with the list of teams with a low number of quality games: Toronto (3), Detroit (3), Philadelphia (5), Minnesota (5), Memphis (5), Cleveland (5) and Charlotte (5).
The reality of quality games is that they occur on the days when there are nationally televised games on TNT, ESPN or ABC because the networks pay for a captive basketball audience. This means that the teams most likely to broadcast nationally are the ones most likely to have a high number of quality games. A couple of defining characteristics for teams likely to have a high number of quality games are the presence of at least one superstar and a winning record last season (or at the very least the expectation of a major improvement in win-loss record from last season). Teams with few quality games are generally bad teams in terms of wins and losses with little or no superstar power located in small markets.
Best: CHI (18), MIA (17), POR (17), BOS (16), DAL (16), DEN (15), LAL (15)
Worst: TOR (3), DET (3), PHI (5), MIN (5), MEM (5), CLE (5), CHA (5)
Schedule analysis is just another tool in the fantasy manager's toolbox. It shouldn't be over-emphasized, but shouldn't be completely neglected either. Like most things in life, it is best used in moderation. Each of the four methods of schedule analysis laid out above provides a different angle from which to search for an advantage. There are powerful individually, but deadly when used in conjunction with each other (think Voltron). For example, applying the quality games analysis to the H2H playoffs (if you are lucky/skilled enough to make it that far), not only maximizes total games played in one of the most critical points of the season while also minimizing the number of wasted games from overloading on game-heavy nights.